Why Ezekiel Elliott is poised to be the best rookie running back in NFL history
Eric Dickerson laughed off the notion.
Ezekiel Elliott said it didn’t matter to him.
But no matter what either man said earlier this year, the facts cannot be ignored: Elliott could well overtake Dickerson’s rookie rushing record of 1,808 yards this season.
Following a dominant, if not statistically bountiful, performance Sunday against the Browns — Elliott rushed for 92 yards on 18 carries, scoring two touchdowns — the Cowboys rookie running back now sits at 891 yards on the season, putting him just shy of the pace necessary to beat Dickerson’s rookie record.
Elliott needs to average 115 yards per game for the rest of the season to match Dickerson, but seeing as he’s coming off a four-game stretch in which he averaged 142 yards per game, finding that form again doesn’t seem outlandish.
You have to imagine that Dickerson wants to have this quote back:
“He told me through his agent that he was going to break my record,” Dickerson said in early September. “I just laughed and said, 'Good luck.' Many have said that; all have failed.”
But you could make the argument that Elliott is already well on his way to surpassing Dickerson.
If Elliott does break Dickerson’s record, he’ll likely do it in a far more efficient manner — even if Elliott doesn’t hit 1,808, he could end the season as the greatest rookie running back of all time.
The running back position has changed drastically since Dickerson’s instantaneous prime — you can count the number of workhorse backs in the NFL these days on one hand, and the proliferation of the passing game has only diminished the workload for running backs further.
If Elliott is considered a workhorse back, we might need to spend some time working on a new definition, at least from a historical context.
Dickerson carried the ball more than 24 times per game his rookie year — he had to. He was the Rams’ best and perhaps only source of reliable offense, as quarterback Vince Ferragamo threw 23 interceptions (to 22 touchdown passes) that year. Dickerson’s yards made up one-third of the Rams’ total offensive output — Elliott’s rushes make up slightly more than a quarter of Dallas’ so far this season.
Dickerson averaged 4.6 yards per rush that season — an excellent number but one that hardly jumps off the page (Washington’s Matt Jones has averaged 4.6 yards per rush this season). This year, Elliott is gaining 5.0 yards every time he carries the ball, one of the best marks in the league and absolutely the best mark of any back with more than 125 carries this season.
To this point in the season — the halfway mark — Elliott is carrying the ball fewer than 20 times per game. You could argue that his effectiveness might be diminished by an additional workload — though there’s not much, if anything, to back up that claim — but if he were to have received five more carries a game to this point at his current 5 yards-per-rush clip, he’d have 1,000 yards on the season and would be on pace to double number by the end of the 2016 season.
Yes, if Elliott were getting the full Adrian Peterson, Dickerson treatment — 25-plus carries a game — it’s likely that he’d be in contention to rush for 2,000 yards this season — something only seven running backs, one being Dickerson, have ever done before.
Alas, the members of the 2,000-yard club averaged 361 carries in their 2K seasons, and Elliott is on pace for 318 rushes. The workload isn’t there for tailback immortality or breaking Dickerson’s single-season rushing record, should he maintain his current per-rush clip.
But shouldn’t Elliott’s effectiveness with the ball in his hands be a more important measure? Shouldn’t efficiency trump wholesale quantity in 2016?
If you believe so, then you should also believe that Elliott is on pace to post the best full-season rookie campaign for a running back in NFL history. He’s already close to joining an elite class of standout rookie performers — Earl Campbell (4.8 yards per carry, 302 rushes in 1978), Edgerrin James (4.2 yards per carry, 369 rushes in 1999), Barry Sanders (5.3 yards per carry, 280 rushes in 1989), Peterson (5.6 yards per carry, 238 rushes in 2007), and Dickerson.
There’s a long way to go yet, but we well could be seeing No. 21 make history in 2016.