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