After being selected No. 4 overall by the Dallas Cowboys in the 2016 NFL Draft, the expectations for Ezekiel Elliott were sky-high from day one. And why wouldn’t they be? Not only did Elliott run over the entire country during his collegiate career, but the Cowboys also happened to have arguably the best offensive line in the league. DeMarco Murray had been named the league’s offensive MVP after rushing for 1,845 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2014 and Darren McFadden’s corpse rushed for 1,089 yards in 2015 -- the fourth-most in the league.
What on earth would a three-down workhorse back like Elliott be able to accomplish in Dallas? The public didn’t take it easy on the expectations. A consensus first-round pick in fantasy drafts who was the preseason Vegas favorite for the rookie of the year, Elliott welcomed the hype, as he said himself that he was aiming for Eric Dickerson’s rookie rushing record.
Elliott wouldn’t quite reach Dickerson’s mark (Elliott’s 1,631 rushing yards were the third-most ever by a rookie), but his season was anything but a disappointment. Let’s take a look back at Elliott’s quick journey to NFL stardom.
Elliott’s first game was coincidentally his worst game of the season. He converted his 20 carries into just 51 yards and routinely was stuffed for little or no gain. Though the Cowboys would lose their season-opener, Elliott did provide a glimpse of what he was capable of achieving by scoring his first career touchdown:
There was no doubting Elliott’s ability to make plays at the second-level of the defense, but the big chunk plays that had become a staple during his time in Columbus were nowhere to be found. He didn’t fare much better during the Cowboys’ Week 2 victory over the Redskins, as his 83 rushing yards a touchdown were overshadowed by his two fumbles and average of just 3.95 yards per carry.
After being benched for the first time in his life following his second fumble of the Washington game, Elliott finally broke out against the Bears. He ripped off a 21-yard rush on the first play of the game and never looked back. Elliott’s 140 yards was more than he had totaled during the first two games of the season and he was finally making the types of plays that fans had grown accustomed to seeing on a weekly basis.
After gashing the 49ers for nearly 160 total yards and a touchdown, Elliott turned his attention to the visiting Bengals. Elliott’s back-to-back big games, combined with the Cowboys three-game win streak, put a target on the back of America’s team. Bengals’ cornerback Adam Jones was unimpressed with Elliott’s recent play, as Jones noted that his daughter could run behind the Cowboys’ offensive line.
With the inevitable questions arising regarding how much credit was due to Elliott and how much was due to the offensive line, Elliott took it upon himself to showcase some of the skill that made him such a special young back:
Upon hitting the hole, Elliott reached a max speed of 21.5 MPH on his way to splitting the Bengals safeties and securing another victory for the Cowboys. He would gain 171 total yards and two touchdowns on just 18 touches on the day, though the media’s attention was already focused on the team’s looming matchup in Week 6 against the Packers.
Through four games, the Packers run defense was playing historically well. How good is historically well? By allowing an average of just 1.99 yards per rush, the Packers run defense had posted the best four-game start to a season since the 1970 merger.
As it turned out, the historically-good run defense was no match for the Cowboys’ historically-good rookie running back. Sure, Elliott’s 157 rushing yards on 28 carries were impressive, but the way he gained the yards was what was truly special:
Overall, Elliott gained an average of 3.6 yards after contact per rush on the day and forced five missed tackles, per Pro Football Focus. How exactly do you stop a running back that is equally adept at springing past your safeties as he is at running over your linebackers? Through six games, the NFL didn’t have an answer.
After gaining 148 total yards and extending the Cowboys’ win streak to six against the Eagles on Monday Night Football, Elliott returned to the state of Ohio to take on the Cleveland Browns. His two touchdowns on the day were more than enough during a dominant 35-10 victory and he made sure to pay tribute to the fans that used to pour love upon his shoulders every Saturday in Columbus:
With the Cowboys sitting at 7-1, they faced their toughest challenge yet on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Elliott proved to be the best player on the field that day, as he took a screen 83 yards for a touchdown in addition to his 114 rushing yards and two touchdowns. He saved his best highlight for last, as he broke through the Steelers’ exhausted front-seven to officially ice one of the most entertaining games of the season:
The league’s mid-season MVP front-runner turned his attention to the Ravens’ elite run defense next, where he gained 127 total yards. Elliott’s ability to grind out tough yards proved to be the difference maker against a Ravens defense that finished the season ranked fifth in DVOA against the run.
Elliott’s next game against the Redskins ended up being Fox’s most-watched regular season game ever. His 120 total yards and two touchdowns helped lead the Cowboys to their 10th-straight victory. After turning in another 100-plus total yard performance against the Vikings on Color-rush Thursday, Zeke and the Cowboys saw their 11-game win streak end at the hands of the New York Giants.
The bad times didn’t last long for Elliott and company, as they got right back on track with back-to-back victories over the Buccaneers and Lions. Elliott rushed for 239 yards and three touchdowns on just 35 carries during the two aforementioned victories, but the real story would be his impromptu leap into the Salvation Army bucket following his touchdown against the Buccaneers:
While his leap earned the Cowboys a 15-yard penalty, it also helped lead to over $850,000 in donations to the Salvation Army by the following Tuesday. Just about everything was going right for Elliott and the Cowboys and their excellent play had earned them the No. 1 seed in the NFC and a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Unfortunately for Elliott and the Cowboys, their season would end after just one playoff game. Despite rallying back from a 21-3 deficit, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers won a wild game 31-28. Elliott was once again incredible, as he racked up 125 rushing yards on just 22 carries. His most memorable moment was spinning former NFC Defensive Player of the Year Clay Matthews into oblivion:
With 1,994 total yards and 16 touchdowns during 15 regular season games, Elliott demonstrated that he’s already capable of being listed among the NFL’s elite offensive playmakers. With the ability to run past, over and even above any oncoming defender, the future looks bright for the former Buckeye star. Let’s hope that this was just the beginning of a special career for the always-electric Ezekiel Elliott.