Rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott has come into the NFL with the highest of expectations. He was selected fourth overall in a league that has continued to shy away from running backs early in the draft. Elliott has joined a Dallas Cowboys roster that boasts the best run-blocking offensive line in the league.
Running backs are expected to hit the ground… well… running. The learning curve for RBs is considered lower than any other position in football. For a guy drafted as highly a Elliott was, any needed learning is mitigated by the perception of overwhelming talent.
To top things off, Elliott isn't joining the typically bad teams who have early picks in the draft. These Cowboys are much closer to the 2014 NFC East Champions who went 12-4, having plummeted last year because of injuries to Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, and other key players. Assuming their health doesn't betray us again this year, Elliott will be a shiny, new tool in a fully functional and even league-leading offensive attack.
Knowing and believing all those things, what is a reasonable expectation for Ezekiel Elliott's rookie season?
Some have said 2,000 yards. That would not only break the Cowboys single-season record but it would be the seventh-best rushing season in NFL history. I'm not saying that can't happen but putting it out there as any kind of expectation is fraught with peril. Injuries aside, we still haven't seen this kid perform at this level. Elliott could be the next great one but he has to at least have one or two carries in the NFL before I can comfortably project it.
The best rookie RB season in history came in 1983 with Erick Dickerson. He ran for 1,808 yards and 18 touchdowns in 16 games. He also chipped in 51 catches for 404 receiving yards and two more scores. Monster season by any level, but incredible for a rookie. The next best season by a rookie didn't come all that close.
What's more, this was over 30 years ago! Running backs were a much bigger part of the game then, evident by the 390 carries that Dickerson had during that season. It is far more rare to see a modern back get that many touches, although that's exactly what happened with DeMarco Murray in 2014 (392 carries, 57 catches).
Still, Murray was a fourth-year veteran at that time. He was playing for his next contract, whereas Ezekiel Elliott is just getting started. Can a modern era rookie possibly have the same production as a guy in the early 80s?
The modern standard for running backs is Minnesota's Adrian Peterson. His rookie season (2007) was a great one; 1,341 yards and 12 touchdowns. He only started nine games and played in 14, which did hamper his numbers a bit. Perhaps the best single stat from that year was his 5.6 yards-per-carry, about as good as you can ask for from a guy with that many touches.
Ezekiel Elliott would be a godsend if he can just replicate that production level from Peterson. The 5.6 YPC would take all kinds of pressure off of Tony Romo, leaving third-downs manageable and at times avoiding them completely. The Cowboys would get back to the time-of-possession dominance that helped to protect their defense and pushed them to the success of the 2014 season.
We have to remember that Dallas has not yet committed to or shown evidence of how they will distribute the workload at running back. Darren McFadden, Alfred Morris, and Lance Dunbar could all chip in on Elliott's production. Dallas may try to keep the production levels high for Ezekiel Elliott by keeping him fresh, avoiding the wear and tear that caused DeMarco Murray's play to trail off late in 2014.
Again, none of this is to try to dissuade you from having high hopes. I think the sky is absolutely the limit when it comes to Ezekiel Elliott joining the offensive line. If there was ever a situation tailor-made for a running back to excel and even break barriers, it's this one in Dallas.
There are lots of reasons for excitement among Cowboys fans in 2016. Zeke Elliott's arrival isn't just another; it may be number one.