The Dallas Cowboys used the fourth selection in the 2016 NFL Draft to acquire the services of running back Ezekiel Elliott.
The 21-year-old was a star in the college game for the Ohio State Buckeyes, guiding the club to a national championship in the 2014-15 season.
Elliott rushed for 246 yards in the title contest and four touchdowns to catch the attention of scouts across the NFL. He continued to shine in the following season, propelling himself up draft boards to ensure that he was one of the top five prospects available.
Jason Garrett’s men snatched him up following their 4-12 campaign to replace DeMarco Murray in their backfield. Elliott was electric from the moment he hit the field and helped the club back into the playoffs, running behind their stout offensive line.
As a result of his strong performances throughout the term, he is backed by TopBet sportsbook at +1800 to win the MVP award in his rookie season.
We’ll now break down where the running back has shined this season and what could potentially hold him back from winning the crown.
The Cowboys were rocked by an injury sustained by quarterback Tony Romo, which would rule him out for at least the opening 10 weeks of the campaign. Much was expected of the 21-year-old to thrive as Murray had done behind one of the strongest offensive lines in the league, but he now had to carry the fortunes of the team alongside fellow rookie Dak Prescott.
Dallas stuttered out of the blocks against the New York Giants in their opener as the back notched just 51 yards off 20 carries. The match ended in defeat as wide receiver Terrance Williams failed to get out of bounds late in the game, allowing their rivals to wind down the clock at AT& T Stadium.
The Washington Redskins also managed to stifle Elliott in his second outing as he recorded 81 yards out of the backfield, although he did find the endzone for the second time in the campaign. The Cowboys recorded a late comeback to secure the victory, easing the pressure on the rookies for the challenges ahead.
Zeke made his first impact in the NFL in his side’s clash against the Chicago Bears. The 21-year-old went off as he reeled off several chunk plays to rack up his first 100-yard outing to orchestrate a 14-point win for the club.
Elliott was even better in his next contest against the San Francisco 49ers as he churned up the yards on the ground, securing another 100-yard performance at an average of six yards a carry. He was the driving force in a comfortable victory for Dallas to get the club’s offense into a rhythm to take forward.
The 21-year-old displayed his immense talent with number of explosive plays against the Cincinnati Bengals, including a 60-yard rush for a touchdown. He rushed at an average of nearly nine yards a carry as he notched 134 yards on the ground and a further 37 through the air, easing the pressure on Prescott.
Elliott had his breakout performance on the big stage against the Green Bay Packers with the eyes of the NFL world watching. His ability to weave his way through the line of scrimmage put the Packers to the sword, limiting Aaron Rodgers’ time on the field. The back’s 157 yards broke Green Bay’s will and allowed the Cowboys to ease to a comfortable win.
Rookies usually hit the wall after their first bye week, but Elliott remained consistent in and around the 100-yard mark, despite becoming the focal point of attack for opposing defenses.
He put forward a fine performance on the road with Prescott pulling the strings against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The lead changed hands several times in the fourth quarter, but both men held their nerve to secure the victory – in a game that signalled Prescott’s rise above a fit-again Romo.
Zeke continued to thrive not only in racking up the rushing yards, but also as a threat in the redzone as he plowed through the line to notch a further two scores against the Redskins. The Giants were able to best Dallas once again, inflicting the club’s second defeat of the term, despite another 100-yard game from Elliott.
He drove Garrett’s men to the number one seed in the NFC with a fine second-half display against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The 21-year-old averaged 6.9 yards per carry on the ground, resulting in a 159-yard and one touchdown display, while he ended his regular season on a high note with two scores against the Detroit Lions to guide Dallas to their 13th win of the term.
Elliott was rested for the final game of the season ahead of the playoffs. He displayed no signs of rust or nerves in the divisional round against the Packers. However, a fine performance from the back was not enough to stop his side crashing out of the post-season at the hands of Rodgers and Green Bay, ending their quest for the Super Bowl.
It takes something special for running backs to win the MVP award in the modern-day NFL. Adrian Peterson was the last man to succeed in the 2012 campaign on the back of a 2,000 yard season. Zeke notched 1,635 in his rookie term – which led the league – although the performances of Matt Ryan, Tom Brady and Rodgers may overshadow his achievements.
It’s also hard to differentiate on Elliott’s feats this season based on the talent of his offensive line. They were able to create huge gaps for the 21-year-old this season, including his late score against the Steelers when a chasm appeared in the middle of the defense. As a result, it may not be enough to convince voters to side with the running back.
He enjoyed an outstanding season which will go down in league history for accomplishments performed by a rookie. There should be at least one MVP award in his future should he continue on his current trajectory.