Ezekiel Elliott was exceptional as a rookie. Now the question is whether he was the exception.
When the Cowboys drafted Elliott fourth last year, it was a snub of modern football rationale — running backs, the theory goes, are fungible and fragile.
Another team will make a similar move in the draft next week. LSU’s Leonard Fournette, the best rusher in one of the strongest running-back classes in a decade, could go in the top five.
That alone won’t stem a league-wide trend. Elliott, after all, was the only starting running back on a 2016 playoff team drafted in the first round.
There were twice as many undrafted free agents — the Lions’ Zach Zenner and the Seahawks’ Thomas Rawls — than first-round picks starting at running back in the playoffs. And yet, six starting running backs from the 12 playoff teams ranked in the top 10 in regular-season rushing.
“There’s going to be a lot of conversation about running backs benefitting from the Ezekiel Elliott effect and his impact on the Dallas Cowboys,” NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks said. “I believe this running-back class would have been regarded as one of the best classes in some time just based on their talent alone, regardless of what Ezekiel Elliott was able to do for the Cowboys.”
The Bears, luckily, don’t have to enter that debate.
With rookie Jordan Howard coming off his own Pro Bowl season — and having drafted running backs in each of the last three years — the Bears don’t figure to be in the market for another. If they do add one, be it late in the draft or, more likely, in free agency, it will be someone to complement what they have.
In that context, I’Tavius Mathers — or someone like him — makes sense.
After transferring from Ole Miss to play his senior season in his hometown of Murfreesboro, Tenn., the Middle Tennessee running back ran for 1,561 yards and had 633 receiving yards. At 5-11, 203 pounds, he became only the seventh player in FBS history to eclipse 1,500 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards in the same year.
Yet, he didn’t receive an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine.
“It’s really crazy to me because I’m putting up the same numbers that some of the top guys in the combine for running backs are, for the season,” he said Monday. “And I still didn’t get an invite.”
He used that as motivation to train for his pro day last month, in which he ran an impressive 4.41-second 40-yard dash.
“I feel like every running back in this draft class has something different, and you have to find something to separate us,” said Mathers, who could be drafted late or made a priority free agent. “That said, I felt I separated myself, being able to catch the ball out of the backfield. Catching 50 balls, you really don’t hear about that from a running back.”
It’s one thing Howard, a fifth-round pick, hasn’t accomplished. Last year, he did almost everything else.
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Position spotlight: Running back
Rating Bears’ need: Low.
Under contract: Jordan Howard, Jeremy Langford, Ka’Deem Carey, Benny Cunningham, Bralon Addison, David Cobb.
You should know: After not drafting a running back from 2009 to ’13, the Bears have picked one in three consecutive drafts, but none with high picks.
After taking Carey and Langford in the fourth round in back-to-back years, they hit pay dirt with Howard. The fifth-round pick made the Pro Bowl as a rookie last year, and he impressed coach John Fox by holding up throughout a grueling season.
Fox said Howard was “unique” in his ability to avoid hitting the rookie wall last year.
Best of the best: LSU’s Leonard Fournette figures to be a top-10 pick. Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey’s receiving will appeal to teams turned off by his slighter frame. Florida State’s Dalvin Cook and Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon rank highly, too. Mixon isn’t on some draft boards after he punched a woman in the face.
The quote: “He’s not going to go to an offensive line as good as Ezekiel Elliott’s, but I think he has a chance to be a big-time player.” — NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah, on Fournette