February 15, 2017
Last offseason, before the Eagles traded up from the 13th-overall pick to the eighth spot, and then from eight to two, there was a spirited debate as to whether or not the Philadelphia Eagles should select Ohio State star running back Ezekiel Elliott, who is now with the Dallas Cowboys.
A similar debate is beginning to emerge this offseason about Florida State running back Dalvin Cook, who has become a popular choice for the Eagles in mock drafts. Here, we'll take a pro vs. con look at Cook, as well as the differing philosophies of drafting running backs early.
• Dallas hit big with a running back at fourth overall in 2016: Those who advocate for drafting a running back in the first round can point to the success of Elliott in his rookie season, as he led all NFL rushers with 1,631 yards in 2016. Elliott was as complete a back as there's been in recent memory coming out of college. He runs with speed, power, and elusiveness, in addition to being a very good receiver out of the backfield and a trustworthy blocker in pass protection. He has outstanding traits, and very little (if anything) in the way of holes in his game. He was as big a reason for the Cowboys' success last season as anyone.
• Help for Carson Wentz: When we think of getting help for Wentz this offseason, that is typically attributed adding competent receivers to the Eagles' offseason. However, there is also a strong argument to be made that a strong rushing attack would help take some pressure off the second-year quarterback.
• Dalvin Cook is really good: In the 2015 NFL Draft, the Seminoles lost QB Jameis Winston, RB Karlos Williams, C Cameron Erving, OG Tre' Jackson, OT Bobby Hart, WR Rashad Greene, and TE Nick O'Leary. Cook was the focus of opposing defenses, and he still ran for a ridiculous 7.4 yards per carry.
In 2016, Cook continued to pile up big numbers:
He also had 34 catches for 488 yards (a lofty 14.8 YPC for a running back) and 1 TD in 2016.
Cook is a near-complete back, who has speed and some power, as well as the ability to make plays in the passing game out of the backfield. Perhaps his best strength is his combination of vision and lateral quickness to find (and hit) open holes, which is on display in the highlight reel below:
So many of those above runs just look so effortless.
• The lifespan of an NFL running back is short: Last year, when we wrote about the potential for the Eagles to draft Elliott, we noted that only five of the NFL's projected starters at running back were 30 years of age or older. Additionally, at the time, the average age of the running backs above was 25.5 years old. By comparison, the average starting age of NFL quarterbacks at the time was 29.4.
Here were the projected starting running backs with birthdays before 1987 last year. Please note that the ages listed were as of last March:
There's a very good chance that five of those players won't be with their team in 2017:
Cook will turn 22 in August. Even if he is a good player in the NFL, the odds say that his productiveness will cap out at around eight years. Some might say, "Eight years of quality running back play? Sign me up." While I wouldn't necessarily put up a huge fight disagreeing, it should certainly be noted that most other positions in the NFL have much longer shelf lives.
• Running backs drafted highly can be busts, just like any other position: Again, like we mentioned last year, there's a notion that drafting certain positions highly will more often produce a bust than a star player. That's true, and it's kind of the nature of the NFL Draft in general. Running back is no different. Here is a list of all the running backs taken within the first 20 picks since 1995:
There is a whole lot more buyers' remorse in that list above than there were teams who were happy with their selections. In other words, no player is ever a sure thing, and that includes Dalvin Cook.
• Cook is not Elliott: As noted above, it was very difficult poking holes in Elliott's game coming out of OSU. With Cook, there are three significant concerns:
• The 2017 running back class is stacked: Speaking at the Senior Bowl, Eagles Vice President of Player Personnel (and the guy who will be setting the Birds' draft board) Joe Douglas was asked what positional groups were strong in the 2017 NFL Draft.
"I think this is a deep draft at tight end, running back, corner, and wide receiver," he said.
The notion that this is a stacked class at running back is a very common one. For example, NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah ranked five in his top 40 overall prospects:
But this class isn't just talented at the top of the draft. It's also very deep. CBS Sports, for example, currently has 15 running backs with at least fourth-round grades.
At the Senior Bowl, when posed with the question of the value of running backs and the appropriate place to the draft them, Douglas played both sides of the fence.
“If you get a great running back it changes things,” he said. “You saw that with Dallas this year. I think you can get not only get running backs, you can get great players at every level of the draft.”
As noted above, Elliott led the league in rushing in 2016. You know who was second with 1313 rushing yards? That would be the Bears' Jordan Howard, who Chicago drafted in the fifth round while Douglas served as their Director of College Scouting during the 2016 NFL Draft.
In fact, here is a list of running backs drafted by the Ravens and Bears while Douglas was employed with each team. Bolded players made at least one Pro Bowl:
|2007||Ravens||Le'Ron McClain (FB)||4||137|
|2013||Ravens||Kyle Juszczyk (FB)||4||130|
As you can see above, you have to go all the way back to 2000 to find a first-round draft pick, when doing such a thing was much more common. In those days, Douglas was a low man on the totem pole, with unenviable responsibilities such as being "the Turk," or the guy who tells players to grab their playbooks and go see the head coach to have their dreams shattered:
What you'll also see in the graph above is that over the last 10 years, teams that employed Douglas drafted five running backs that made at least one Pro Bowl, none of whom were drafted in the first round. While Douglas was not the GM during those drafts and his level of involvement in the war room is unclear, he has seen plenty of later-round running backs have success.
In my view, while Cook is an outstanding talent, the Eagles are probably best served drafting another position in the first round, where oh by the way, they'll still get a great prospect, and then counting on Douglas to find a gem in later rounds.
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