Projecting Cowboys Ezekiel Elliott’s rookie season

May 25, 2016; Irving, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) runs with the ball during organized team activities at Dallas Cowboys Headquarters. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
May 25, 2016; Irving, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) runs with the ball during organized team activities at Dallas Cowboys Headquarters. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports /

With so much hype and pressure to perform out of the gate, what is a realistic expectation for Dallas Cowboys rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott?

All aboard the hype train…

Ever since April 28, 2016, when Commissioner Roger Goodell informed the world that the Dallas Cowboys were selecting Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick, people have been claiming their seats.

It all makes sense.

Elliott was dynamic, to say the least, in college posting back to back seasons of 1,800+ yards and a total of 41 touchdowns.

He led his team to a ridiculous 26-2 record, a National Championship and a MVP award after putting 246 yards and 4 touchdowns on Oregon en route to the title.

You would be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t believe that this success will carry on into the NFL.  Beyond that, you probably could not have chosen a team better suited to aid in that success than the Dallas Cowboys.

Elliott gets to come in, run behind the most dominant offensive line in the NFL, with a top-level quarterback in Tony Romo handing him the ball and threats all over the perimeter and middle of field in receiver Dez Bryant and tight end Jason Witten.

This is a very atypical situation for a rookie to land in… for reasons both obvious and obtuse.

For all the positives that Elliott lands in, he also has a Texas-sized target squarely on his back.  It’s the ultimate ying and yang.  He is supposed to perform but more than that, he has to perform.

If Elliott doesn’t have some sort of astronomical season to start off his career, the pressure to perform will continue to mount .  The expectations will turn into constant dialogue about how the Cowboys should have drafted this guy or that guy.  Every critic’s favorite “b” word will somehow find itself attached to “Zeke the Freak.”

But what exactly will suffice as a successful season?  What realistic output can we expect from a rookie?  What will satisfy our expectation level and constitute said astronomical statistical production?

Let’s take a look at some of the best running backs in the game today and examine their rookie seasons for an idea of what to expect.

Going back to the 2012 NFL Draft, here is what the best rookie performances have consisted of over the last five years.

Alfred Morris – Redskins –  335 rushes, 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns
Doug Martin – Buccaneers – 314 rushes, 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns

Eddie Lacy – Packers – 284 rushes, 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns
Le’Veon Bell – Steelers – 244 rushes, 866 yards and 8 touchdowns

Jeremy Hill – Bengals – 222 yards, 1,124 yards and 9 touchdowns

Todd Gurley – Rams 229 rushes, 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns

Starting with how many times Elliott might actually tote the rock, the other six guys on this list averaged 17 carries a game in their rookie season.

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Given that Elliott comes into a backfield with another guy on this list (Morris) as well as last year’s leading rusher Darren McFadden in the mix, I think it’s safe to assume Zeke will get somewhere in the neighborhood of 15-20 carries a game.

Let’s assume that the Cowboys continue on their five-year average of running the ball approximately 400 times.  If Zeke gets 250 carries (or 16 per game) and the other 150 are chopped between Morris and McFadden, that would seem appropriate.

As far as his yards are concerned, the average production from the six listed above totaled almost 1,080 yards exactly.

Only Bell did not eclipse 1,000 yards rushing but he did add another 45 catches for 400 yards as a rookie.  While Elliott will also add to the passing game, I would be shocked if he equalled either of those receiving numbers.

I’d also be shocked if he didn’t at least equal the rushing numbers.

Over the last three years, the lead back for the Dallas Cowboys has easy crushed the 1,000 yard barrier each season.  DeMarco Murray went from 1,121 yards in 2013 to an astonishing 1,845 yards in 2014.  Last year, McFadden put up 1,089 yards.

Both Murray and McFadden were limited in their “normal” years as Murray rushed 217 times in 2013 while McFadden had 239 carries last year.

Now factor in that Elliott is a better pure back than either of those guys.  He’ll also get more attempts as we deduced earlier and he should the same weaponry around him as Murray did in 2014, it’s easy to see how a Cowboys fan could start to salivate.

To go along with his 250 carries, I think a fair projection would be somewhere between 1,175 and 1,250 yards with another 20-25 catches for a number in the high 200’s receiving.

Lastly, we have the touchdowns.  The six others averaged just over 10 touchdowns per game.  Murray averaged eleven in his last two years with the Cowboys while McFadden only hit pay dirt three times.

It’s fair to assume that Morris will get some goal line vulture attempts which will reduce Elliott’s total.  Touchdowns are also fairly arbitrary to estimate given that the Cowboys almost certainly will continue to explore the back shoulder fades from Romo to Bryant.

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While Elliott could break double-digits, I am going to give him just eight scores in his rookie year, much like Bell had in 2013 as there are other mouths to feed on this offense.

So, Cowboys fans, if Elliott’s final numbers are 250 carries for 1,190 yards and 8 touchdowns, how geeked for Zeke would you be?