Over the course of the past few decades, the NFL has seen a transfer from a rushing-oriented league to a league that focuses on passing. There is good reason for it too, with seasons like Tom Brady’s in 2007 and those of Drew Brees in 2011 and Peyton Manning in 2013. Records dropped like flies with all three of those players dominating the stat sheet as well as the NFL playoffs.
During this time the strategy for drafting players quickly shifted from taking a running back in round 1 to taking a quarterback first even, if they are a round 3 talent because supply and demand are always a constant in the NFL.
After drafts in 2013 and 2014, where no running backs went in the first round and quarterbacks were consistently mentioned in the top 5 picks, 2015 was due to be a turnaround year. Two running backs went in the first round of the 2015 draft (Todd Gurley 10th; Melvin Gordon 15th) and after a stellar rookie performance by Todd Gurley there was reason for hope, but at the same time Melvin Gordon gave reason for doubt as he failed to reach the end zone during his entire rookie season.
The 2016 draft had one great player who was slated to be a round one pick, Ezekiel Elliott. However, despite Gurley’s fantastic rookie year there was little hype around “Zeke” going into the draft. Sure, he was slated as a top 10 pick but that was nothing compared to the hype around quarterbacks Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, who would be taken 1st and 2nd respectively after two teams traded many future draft picks for those two men (Rams for Goff; Eagles for Wentz).
Ultimately Elliott would go fourth overall to the Dallas Cowboys, who were deemed as a perfect fit with their successful offensive line. Elliot would go on to have one of the greatest rushing seasons in recent memory, especially for a rookie. That was accompanied by great seasons from fellow young backs David Johnson and Le’veon Bell. All three could have been argued MVP candidates and two of them are in the thick of the race to Super Bowl LI in Houston.
Many teams will look at Elliott’s success and determine that maybe a good running back is more important than previously thought, and even if they retire by age 30 like Marshawn Lynch (great NFL player who retired in the middle of his prime), they can still make a huge impact while in the lineup (Lynch won Super Bowl XLVIII with the Seattle Seahawks).
In the 2017 draft, teams will likely be looking for running backs early with a very talented class coming out. There are also likely going to be less quarterbacks taken during round one due to the lackluster class coming out paired with the mediocre performance of 2016 first overall pick Jared Goff and the success of 2016 fourth round pick Dak Prescott.
There could be as many as four running backs taken in the first round of 2017, or maybe even more. Names like LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey should all be taken in the first round, if not early in the second. Teams will hope to take one of these players during round one and hope he provides the same spark that Elliott did to a Cowboys team that had pieces on the roster but still finished 4-12 in 2015.
Since the “pass first” offense is becoming increasingly relied upon, many teams will likely look the way of the running back to help bail out their quarterbacks. Ahead of Elliott’s strong rookie season, fellow rookie quarterback Dak Prescott had 3667 yards passing and a 23 to 4 TD:INT ratio. Teams will see those stats and realize that maybe if they take a quarterback as the final piece to the puzzle as opposed to the first, they may not need to expect much out of him in order for him to succeed.
Over the past 15 years the NFL has been trending further and further towards a pass first offense. However this year Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys have reinvented the “rush first” offense in the NFL by controlling the clock and picking up consistent yardage. If Dallas wins Super Bowl LI this year, look for the rush first offense to become the new standard among teams in the NFL.