MOBILE, Ala. – As the process of another offseason begins, it's interesting to think back one year – specifically in the case of Ezekiel Elliott.
At this time in 2017, the young running back was the toast of the NFL, celebrating an All-Pro rookie season at the Pro Bowl. One week later, he'd help Dak Prescott accept the award for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, as the duo was one of the biggest stories in the NFL.
Flash forward, and there are some similarities. Even after a shortened season, Elliott had one of the most productive seasons in the NFL, although it wasn't enough to help the Cowboys play deep into January.
Heading into Year 3, though, the tone feels a bit different after what can only be classified as a tumultuous year – dominated by Elliott's controversial six-game suspension by the NFL, not to mention the contentious legal battle that followed it.
"There's so many great things about Zeke, and yet there's so many things that, if he'll improve and do better — and I think he's the first to say it — then, believe it or not he can be even a better football player. A better representative of our organization," said Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones from the Senior Bowl on Tuesday.
It'd be hard to ask a lot more of Elliott in between the lines of a football field. Through two seasons in the NFL, he has compiled 2,614 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns, averaging 4.6 yards per carry along the way. In 26 career appearances, he has cracked the 100-yard barrier 13 times – and that's keeping in mind that he missed six games in 2017 due to the suspension.
"He's obviously got the chance to be special, if he improves -- which as I said we all have to improve," Jones said. "We all have to look in the mirror if we're not getting it done. And right now we're not playing football, so we need to get better."
There's no way around it: a lot of the improvement the Cowboys will want to see from Elliott is the off-field variety. Dallas went 3-3 in games without its star running back, and the offense never seemed to recover from his absence – even in the final two games he played.
Even discounting the contentious and disputed nature of his suspension, which saw the NFL ban him for six weeks over disputed allegations, there have been other off-field behaviors that give cause for concern.
Asked if he trusted that Elliott had learned from the past year, Jones left the answer to his running back.
"I can only say you hope so. Zeke needs to answer that question," he said. "Obviously, right up through the start of last season, there were things that were popping up. We haven't seen that as of late and hopefully that's a good indicator that he understands."
Only time will tell if that holds true. After all, last year's Pro Bowl feels like quite a distant memory as the Cowboys gear up for 2018. But there's no denying the talent that Ezekiel Elliott possesses, not to mention his importance to the Cowboys – so long as they can count on him.
"I know Zeke wants to be great — I'm convinced of that, that he wants to be great," Jones said. "He's also got to understand that, to be great, you can't have these things that we call distractions and things of that nature. Things that take away, not only from him, but from our team."