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Ezekiel Elliott under intense pressure; can Rex Ryan salvage D?

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Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:

» Chris Johnson says the RB position is coming back -- and I don't disagree.

» Can Rex Ryan still field a ferocious D in Buffalo? League execs weigh in.

» Darius Slay claims he's an elite corner. The numbers say ...

But first, a look at one rookie facing extreme pressure in 2016 -- whether he realizes it or not ...

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One of the easiest jobs in America???

I'll never hate on a player for expressing an honest opinion, but with that kind of commentary in his first training camp, Dallas Cowboys rookie Ezekiel Elliott might not understand the pressure that is about to be heaped on his shoulders as the feature back of "America's Team."

Whether it's naiveté or youthful exuberance, the No. 4 overall pick is underestimating his importance to the Cowboys' championship aspiration as the designated workhorse in the backfield. Elliott is not only expected to add major juice to a ground game that ranked a respectable ninth in 2015, but he is supposed to be an integral part of the team's return to the 2014 blueprint that led to 12 wins and an NFC East crown.

Few experts expected that 2014 team to contend for a playoff berth, but those Cowboys leaned on DeMarco Murray and his electric running skills to surprisingly run roughshod through the NFL defenses. Murray led the league in rushing by nearly 500 yards and tied for the league lead in rushing TDs with 13. Most impressively, he racked up 12 100-yard rushing games (hitting the century mark in the first eight games of the season) and allowed the team to use a "keepaway" ball-control strategy that protected an overmatched defense from overexposure. Considering the Cowboys' current defensive woes -- with the scourge of suspensions -- playing keepaway once again should be a top priority for Jason Garrett and his offensive coaching staff.

But before I can even discuss why the Cowboys' offense will be their best defense, I think we should look at how Elliott's presence could impact the rest of the unit. Tony Romo, in particular, will benefit from a more balanced offensive approach built around a powerful running game. A dominant ground attack commands eight-man fronts from opponents, leaving one-on-one coverage on the outside. This makes it easy for the quarterback to play pitch-and-catch with wide receivers on early downs, when defenses are loaded up to stop the run. It's no coincidence Romo led the NFL in completion percentage (69.9), yards per attempt (8.5) and passer rating (113.2) in 2014, with Murray absolutely killing it as the Cowboys' feature runner. On a related note, Dez Bryant led the NFL that season in TD receptions (16) and averaged 15.0 yards per catch on the strength of 22 receptions of 20-plus yards and five of 40-plus yards. That's strong production from a WR1 playing on a run-first team with a game plan that's built around the premise of handing it to the workhorse 20 to 25 times.

This is why Elliott has more pressure on him than any other rookie in the league.

The Ohio State product is not only expected to help the Cowboys return to their winning ways, but his performance will directly impact the play of the team's other stars. If he is a legitimate playmaker with the ball in his hands, Elliott will attract the kind of defensive attention that Murray commanded a couple seasons ago.

Looking at Dallas' offensive line, there isn't any reason why Elliott shouldn't step in and put up monster numbers as a rookie. I attended Cowboys camp in Oxnard, California, last week, and this dominant unit really stands out in person. The universally lauded O-line features five massive athletes with nimble feet and nasty attitudes. They collectively move bodies off the ball and make it easy for runners to spot creases between the tackles.

Think about this: In 2015, Cowboys RB Darren McFadden finished fourth in the NFL in rushing despite only starting 10 games and being an aging back on the downside of his career. I mean, I love DMC, but he had posted one 1,000-yard season in his previous seven NFL campaigns, and few believed he had enough juice left to make a significant contribution to the Cowboys' offense. Sure, he deserves credit for finding the holes and flashing enough quickness to get through the creases, but a younger, more dynamic Elliott can turn moderate gains into big plays. In fact, I will go out on a limb and say that the rookie is talented enough to surpass Murray's production, based on his superior athleticism and speed. The Cowboys' offensive line will consistently get Elliott to the second level and his explosiveness should routinely create home runs for the offense. If Murray was able to get 15 runs of 20-plus yards and three of 40-plus yards in 2014, who knows how many big runs Elliott can deliver?

I think it's certainly reasonable to expect the rookie to hit the 1,500-yard mark, but it's also plausible to believe Elliott will take dead aim at Eric Dickerson's single-season rookie record (1,808 yards in 1983) if he is healthy and available for 16 games. Now, I'm obviously not saying Elliott already has established himself as a Hall of Fame-caliber talent on the level of Dickerson -- he'll have to prove that over the next decade or so -- but I believe the rookie could be in the perfect situation to immediately post gaudy numbers. Given Dallas' overpowering offensive line, franchise quarterback and marquee pass catchers, Elliott is stepping into arguably the most balanced offense in the NFL. He just needs to do his part and the ridiculous numbers will come.

Speaking of numbers, the Cowboys' title hopes could hinge on the production of the running game. In each of the Dallas' five Super Bowl-winning seasons, the team has fielded a top-five rushing attack. Considering the Cowboys' solid ground production with an aging McFadden spearheading the running game in 2015, Dallas should push to be the league's top rushing offense with the ultra-explosive Elliott anchoring the unit.

As a running back taken in the top five, Elliott is not only expected to be a franchise player, but he should be a transcendent star who ranks as one of the best two or three players at his position early in his career. Considering how the NFL has seemingly devalued the running back position based on the recent performances of top picks -- only one of the prior six running backs selected in the top five has earned Pro Bowl honors (Ronnie Brown) -- the pressure is squarely on Elliott's shoulders to live up to the hype.

THE REBUTTAL: Chris Johnson on the running back position in 2016.

Arizona Cardinals RB Chris Johnson entered the NFL at a time when running backs were still viewed as marquee guys on offense. Teams constructed their game plans around a workhorse runner pounding the rock between the tackles. As one of the few members of the 2,000-Yard Club, Johnson certainly knows what it's like to be a franchise player in an offense built around his talents. Considering how the league has drastically changed to a pass-happy approach that caters to quarterbacks, I thought I'd catch up with CJ2K to get his view on the plight of the running back in today's NFL. Here are the highlights of our conversation:

How do you feel about how the RB role has changed in recent years?

Chris Johnson: "It's kind of different now. When I came out, there were five backs who went in the first round. They are kind of trying to devalue the position, but if you look at all of the winning teams and the teams that are going deep in the playoffs, they have a running back who they can put it on their shoulders. You know, it crazy how it's changed, but it's coming back around. As long as you have a running back who can run the ball and catch the ball out of the backfield, you can still lean heavily on your running back."

What is a "workhorse" running back?

CJ: "It's guy that can do everything. He's a guy that you can put him in the game and lean on him. There are going to be some weeks where the passing game can open up the running game, but there are more weeks where the running game is going to ease the burden of the passing game and make the quarterback more comfortable by taking some of the burden off his shoulders."

What advice would you give to your teammate David Johnson -- or any young running back who's trying to make their mark in the league today?

CJ: "[Johnson] has the talent and knows what to do. He just needs to stay healthy. A lot of young running backs are used to high school and college, where you just practice and go home. I did it when I was a young player, but I learned how to take care of my body. Also, they can't fumble the ball. That hurts a lot of young running backs. They must learn how to take care of the ball."

MY TAKE

The league has definitely shifted to the air, but I honestly believe running backs are as valuable as ever and the good teams realize the importance of the ground game. While quarterbacks continue to rack up 4,000-yard seasons by tossing the ball all over the yard, it's no coincidence that the teams that traditionally do damage in the playoffs have the ability to punch their opponents in the mouth with a physical running game. With more teams accepting the fact that their "franchise" quarterbacks are unable to win games against elite defenses throwing the ball 35 to 40 times a game, the appreciation of the marquee running back or a dependable "back by committee" approach is increasing in war rooms around the league. Johnson certainly sensed that in our conversation, and I'm fully on board with the notion of the running back returning to prominence in the NFL.

ASK THE LEAGUE: Can Rex Ryan still cobble together a stout D in Buffalo?

After struggling during Rex Ryan's first season in Buffalo, the Bills' defense was expected to return to the ranks of the elite in 2016 with a talented nucleus and a host of promising young players. But a number of injuries (Reggie Ragland, Shaq Lawson and IK Enemkpali) and the four-game suspension of 2014 All-Pro DT Marcell Dareus -- as well as the potential suspension of Manny Lawson -- have put a damper on the optimism emanating from Orchard Park earlier in the year. With all of this adversity swirling, I thought I'd reach out to a few NFL executives to get their take on the Bills' chances of building a dominant defense. Here's what I asked:

Can Rex Ryan overcome numerous setbacks and make the Bills' defense a top-10 unit?

AFC vice president of football operations: "Rex Ryan is a mastermind on defense, so nothing they accomplish statistically would surprise me. They are dealing with a lot of setbacks in losing valuable players that they were counting on -- that's major talent not being utilized. Not to mention the fact that they don't have an established edge rusher opposite Jerry Hughes. Losing Mario Williams [to Miami], Enemkpali and [Shaq] Lawson for this stretch with the shoulder is going to be tough to overcome. I still like their strong cornerback play with [Ronald] Darby and [Stephon] Gilmore, which will help the front seven create pressure. The loss of key players will be tough for them to have a top-10 defense, but they will still be a stingy group due to the variations/exotics they employ to confuse offenses. I think they will be in the top half of the league, but just outside of the top 10."

AFC assistant general manager: "Oh, yeah! He's that good. Rex will take what he has and make it work. They have corners who can run and he will find a way to get pressure on the quarterback. They won't be as good as they could be with the full squad, but they will still be pretty good."

AFC pro personnel director: "He may be able to put something together with smoke and mirrors, but to lose major pieces along the front seven is tough to overcome. They are solid in the back end, but losing Mario to Miami, Shaq isn't ready, no Ragland and now Dareus -- that's a lot to fight through."

AFC pro scout: "Looking at the roster, I don't see enough playmakers along the front seven to be the impactful, high-pressure unit that he normally has. The secondary has guys that can change the game, but they will have to hold up for the first half of the season until their front seven gets healthy or develops an identity."

Second AFC pro personnel director: "That's what Rex does, but he's dealing with a lot. The one thing they definitely have is a legit secondary. Last year, they put a lot of weight on Mario and he ended up quitting on them. Top 10 is a lot. Maybe not top 10, but they will finish in the top half of the league."

MY TAKE

There's certainly a healthy amount of respect league-wide for Rex's defensive wizardry. To a man, everyone I spoke with raved about Ryan's ability to "scheme it up" -- I heard widespread assurance that the coach would make the Bills' defense dangerous with his blitzes and simulated pressures. I also found it interesting how much respect the Bills' secondary commands around the NFL. Scouts really love the Aaron Williams, Darby and Gilmore trio in the back end. I heard glowing reviews about the unit's collective ability to hit, run and cover. Considering how little attention this defensive backfield receives, I was surprised to hear the effusive praise, but this speaks volumes about the talent the team has assembled and the coaching staff's ability to foster it.

Overall, I believe the Bills can overcome their losses to form a dominant defense in 2016. In seven years as an NFL head coach, Ryan has fielded just two units that failed to rank in the top 10 in total defense: the 2013 Jets (who finished 11th) and 2015 Bills (19th). Looking at the Bills' depth chart, they are obviously weaker along the front line without Dareus, but the healthy return of Kyle Williams should help them fill the void the first month of the season. While I don't know which pass rusher will emerge opposite Hughes, I've seen Ryan distribute his sack opportunities among second-level defenders (linebackers and defensive backs) in the past by using a variety of blitzes and zone dogs that destroy pass protections. With the Bills' secondary capable of holding coverage for extended periods, the big-time pressure and small windows should give opponents fits.

Remember, Ryan transformed the Jets into "Gang Green" behind the dominant secondary that always featured a strong combination at corner (Darrelle Revis and Lito Sheppard or Antonio Cromartie) and few playmakers on the interior (Shaun Ellis and Kris Jenkins) without a marquee pass rusher on the edge. In Buffalo, he has a similar situation in the secondary, and Dareus eventually will rejoin forces with Williams on the inside. If Ryan can get everyone to buy into the high-risk/high-reward scheme, the Bills' defense will flourish.

NEXT-GEN STATS: Is Darius Slay an elite cornerback?

Prior to receiving a lucrative contract extension from the Detroit Lions last month, Darius Slay asked to be paid like a "top guy" and ranked himself among the top seven corners in the game.

Was I shocked that a young cornerback without Pro Bowl/All-Pro credentials touted himself as a premier player? Not at all. Every NFL cornerback steps onto the field cloaked in confidence and swagger.

But playing like an "elite" corner requires a defender to deliver a series of dominant performances against first-class competition. That's what the great ones have done in our league since Deion Sanders really gave rise to the "shutdown corner" term in the mid-1990s, and the tradition has been carried on by the likes of Darrelle Revis, Patrick Peterson and Richard Sherman in recent years. Not to mention Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr., Josh Norman and Marcus Peters, all top-tier cover men of late.

That's why I couldn't wait to dig into the numbers and tape to see if Slay's play backs up his bodacious claims. To be considered an elite corner in this league, a defender needs to have the core traits (speed, athleticism, ball skills and instincts) and the tools in the toolbox (backpedal, turns and transitions, bump-and-run technique, bail technique) to match up with the dynamic WR1s currently dominating the sport.

When I studied Slay at Mississippi State, I believed the 6-foot, 192-pounder possessed several of the core traits to develop into a top CB1 as a pro. He was long (32 1/4-inch arms), rangy (4.36 40-yard dash) and explosive (35.5-inch vertical jump) with quick feet and swivel hips. Slay wasn't a polished technician coming out of college, but he displayed the raw athleticism and burst that most NFL coaches covet in a top corner.

Since joining the Lions as a second-round pick in 2013, Slay has grown into the team's CB1 role, playing at a high level over the past two seasons. He has the fifth-most passes defensed since 2014 (tied with Josh Norman with 30), flashing a more refined game. Slay is one of the few corners capable of employing nearly every technique on the perimeter in man or zone coverage. He can play nose-to-nose with receivers in bump-and-run coverage or step back and blanket shifty pass catchers using a shadow technique from distance. Most impressively, Slay can line up on either side or in the slot to match up with the opponent's WR1. That might not seem like a big deal on the surface, but few cornerbacks have the skills, instincts and intelligence to align anywhere on the field and execute at a high level. Playing on both sides of the field requires mastery of different footwork and turns/transitions -- that's much more difficult than some realize. In addition, the move into the slot requires outstanding instincts, awareness and agility due to the hybrid role of the position within the box. Slot corners must be able to make plays against the run while also handling the two-way releases from shifty receivers positioned on the inside.

Slay's versatility as a CB1 puts him in the conversation as one of the rising stars at the position. Elite cornerbacks are expected to travel with WR1s, and he showed the football world that he is capable of handling the responsibility during the last couple months of 2015, when he shadowed guys like Jeremy Maclin and Amari Cooper to great effect. He thrived as the Lions' CB1 after Rashean Mathis' midseason injury and flashed enough that I even included him as one of my top-10 corners on a recent NFL NOW video.

Despite those successes, Slay must pick up his raw production to slip past the velvet rope and get into the Elite Cornerback Club. Studying the numbers from 2015, I was surprised to find out that Slay ranked 58th in passer rating allowed with a 90.1. By comparison, Patrick Peterson and Darrelle Revis posted 45.6 and 47.2 marks, respectively. Now, I don't expect him to match the production of those two superstars, but Slay has to at least mirror the performances of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (53.1), Marcus Peters (55.5), Jason Verrett (58.9), Josh Norman (60.9) and a host of others before he can boast about being an elite or "top-seven" corner.

In addition, Slay must bring down his completion-rate and yards-per-target marks. Last season, opponents completed 63.2 percent of the passes thrown in his direction and averaged a whopping 9.4 yards per target. Revis had the lowest completion percentage allowed (42.2), while Peterson paced the league with a miniscule average of 5.5 yards per target.

To be fair, the 25-year-old Slay is still growing into his role as the Lions' CB1 and should get better with more experience. In fact, the numbers suggest that he might be on track to make a rapid ascension up the charts as he gets more opportunities to travel -- particularly when playing in the slot. In 2015, he only allowed a 54.5 percent completion rate in the slot. Although it's a very small sample size -- Slay only spent 56 snaps in the slot -- it speaks volumes about his ability to cover on the inside.

But make no mistake about this: If Slay really wants to earn elite status in the NFL, he has to come up with more takeaways. The difference makers at the position snag picks or punch the ball out, and he hasn't delivered great results in either area. Slay has just four career interceptions and zero forced fumbles in 45 games. The Lions need him to become a better thief to tip more games in their favor (turnover margin is the biggest deciding factor in NFL games). If he comes up with more game-changing plays and plays a bigger role in the Lions' success, Slay might be able to talk his way into one of the NFL's most exclusive clubs and earn a seat in the VIP section.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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