The 4th, 5th, and 7th picks in 2016 NFL draft were Ezekiel Elliot, Jalen Ramsey, and DeForest Buckner. Only one of those players is a household name, and that’s Elliot. But if I were to rank those players in terms of impact, it’d be
I know it sounds ridiculous to say that the Dallas Cowboys made a mistake in taking the league’s leading rusher as a rookie, but hear me out: the Cowboys would be better off had they taken either Ramsey or Buckner in the 2016 Draft.
We have to start off by mentioning just how good Dallas’ offensive line is. I’m not saying Elliot isn’t great, I’m just saying that running backs are often just a product of their offensive lines, and Dallas has arguably the best one in the NFL.
In 2015 (the season before Elliot was drafted) a washed Darren McFadden had 239 carries for 1,089 yards. Theoretically, if McFadden were to have had as many carries as Elliot had in 2016 (322), he would’ve run for 1,467 yards. For reference, Elliot ran for just over 1,600 yards in his rookie campaign. Dallas would’ve been fine had that waited until the later rounds to take a running back.
Now, it’d be ridiculous to say that Dallas made a mistake simply because their offensive line is good. Only if better talent were on the board would Dallas’ pick have been a mistake, and better talent was certainly on the board. We’ll start with Jalen Ramsey, the shutdown corner out of Florida State taken at 5 by Jacksonville.
By all accounts, Ramsey has the been the best cornerback in the NFL this season. In yards per cover snap, Ramsey leads all players by allowing his assignments just 0.3 yards per route in coverage. Patrick Peterson comes in second with 0.41 yards per cover snap. My favorite Ramsey stat from this season, however, is that when quarterbacks throw in his direction, they have a 9.5 passer rating according to Pro Football Focus. 9 point 5. The league average for passer rating is 96.7, and just heaving the ball into the stands is enough for a 39.6 rating.
It’d be much more beneficial for Dallas to have a guy who, in an NFC Championship Game scenario, can neutralize a Julio Jones or a Jordy Nelson, as opposed to a guy who can run through holes. That’s because cornerbacks play a much bigger role in championship runs than running backs.
The next best option that Dallas had at the #4 pick was DeForest Buckner. According to Pro Football Focus’ interior defender ratings–which take into account snaps, hits, hurries, stops, pressures, and pass rushing efficiency–Buckner has been the best interior defender in the league with a 93.2 rating, just edging out Gerald McCoy, Aaron Donald, and JJ Watt. Pretty good company. For reference, only two interior defenders had a PFF score of 90+ in 2016, Aaron Donald and Calais Campbell.
Again, who would you rather have: a guy who can disrupt an entire offense at any given moment or a guy who can run through holes? The answer is obvious.
I’m not saying that Elliot isn’t a great running back. What I am saying is that
1.) Running backs are oftentimes a product of their offensive line
2.) Dallas has arguably the best line in the league and would likely still have a 1,300+ yard rusher if they hadn’t taken Elliot
3.) Cornerbacks and interior defenders are FAR more important than running backs.
Dallas’ front office and fans alike have been strutting their stuff this past season because of the Elliot pick. They think that they hit a home run when they took the risk to take a running back with the 4th pick. They’re sorely mistaken, however. They had the bases loaded with no outs, and hit into a triple play with Mike Trout on deck, and Bryce Harper in the hole.