At the end of the 2014 college football season, Ohio State faced off against Oregon in the first final of the CFP. A young running back named Ezekiel Elliott ran for 246 yards and four touchdowns that night. Elliott carried Ohio State to a dominant 42-20 victory over Heisman winning quarterback Marcus Mariota and the Ducks.
After the 2015 college football season, Elliott declared for the 2016 NFL Draft. He was taken fourth overall by the Dallas Cowboys who were looking to find a better replacement for DeMarco Murray than Darren McFadden. The Cowboys also selected Dak Prescott in the 2016 draft and inaugurated a new era for their team.
Since entering the league, Elliott has been one of the best running backs in football. He’s consistently in the conversation for being in the top five at his position, if not the top three. Even though Elliott has been so dominant, he still has room for improvement and still has to overcome competition for the title of being the league’s best back.
If the Cowboys running back wants to keep seeing his star rise, he should target these three numbers in 2019.
3. 600 receiving yards
The best dual-threat running backs are able to post more than 600 receiving yards. So far, Elliott has averaged about 400 receiving yards per season and posted a personal best of 567 in 2018.
In fairness, Todd Gurley missed the 600-yard mark last season as well, but that was because he only played in 14 games. In 2017, when Gurley was the Offensive Player of the Year and led the league in yards from scrimmage, he racked up 788 receiving yards. Le’Veon Bell didn’t play last season, but he crossed the 600 mark in 2014, 2016, and 2017. He was considered the best dual-threat option by many people going into last season because he was able to replicate his output multiple times.
Rookie sensation Saquon Barkley posted 721 receiving yards last season, which is why he led the league in yards from scrimmage. Elliott came in second place. I know David Johnson only has one great year on his resume, but he was terrific in 2016. That year, he recorded 879 receiving yards to go along with 1,239 rushing yards. Even without putting up ridiculous rushing numbers, Johnson led the league in yards from scrimmage and vaulted into the conversation surrounding the top running backs.
No one will question that Elliott is a great runner, but he still has to prove he can be an elite receiving back as well.
2. 260 carries
It’s hard to believe that Elliott is only three years into his career when you look at the number of carries he’s recorded. The Cowboys running back led the NFL in carries both as a rookie and in this past season. A suspension in 2017 prevented Elliott from leading the league that year as well. However, he still led all running backs in carries per game with 24.2.
We’ve seen promising young backs burn out in the past because of poor load management. There are some exceptions, like Adrian Peterson. We all know that Peterson is special though. Even when he’s compared to the all-time greats, Peterson stands out. In reality, most players aren’t built to carry the ball over 300 times a season multiple times. Frank Gore, who has shown incredible longevity, only recorded more than 300 carries in one of his 14 seasons. That was back in 2006 when he was 23 years old and entering his first year as a full-time starter.
Even if Elliott plays in all 16 games in 2019, which he has yet to do in his first three seasons, he will still average 16 carries per game. The Cowboys will get their offensive production, Elliott will get his yards, and the running back will be able to extend his career.
1. 10 rushing touchdowns
When Elliott entered the league back in 2016, he ripped defenses apart and finished with 15 rushing touchdowns as a rookie. Since then, he has 13 rushing touchdowns over the past two seasons.
Six running backs finished with ten or more rushing touchdowns this past season. Elliott only recorded six, which tied him for the 20th most in the NFL. It’s worth noting though that Prescott also finished the year with six rushing touchdowns. Isaiah Crowell and Latavius Murray, who were only part-time starters in 2018, also tied with Elliott.
The Cowboys scored 339 points last season, which ranked 22nd in the NFL. The offense needs to put up better numbers, and it all starts with Elliott and the running game.