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Phillips: Can't Devalue, Or Deny, Zeke's Potential Impact On This Team

IRVING, Texas – Please, let's discuss the rationale behind the Cowboys' fourth overall draft selection last Thursday night.

The argument isn't whether the running back position has been devalued across the NFL to some extent in recent years. It has.

The argument is whether Ezekiel Elliott should be considered an elite exception. He should.

That's why Zeke is the highest draft choice made by the franchise since Russell Maryland went first overall 25 years ago. In the Cowboys' mind, he can make the biggest impact – offensively, and by proxy, defensively – than any other prospect in consideration at No. 4.

Now, you can question whether the Cowboys, coming off a 4-12 season, could afford to draft an exceptional talent like Jaylon Smith in the second round knowing his knee injury might very well sideline him for the 2016 season.

In the first round, you can certainly argue the roster has bigger needs than running back, given that it already has two veterans with over 130 starts and 10,000 career rushing yards between them. (Defensive end, defensive tackle, cornerback depth come to mind.)

But in many ways, the key to the Cowboys' 12-win season two years ago – coupled with a healthy Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, of course – was the tough-minded identity they developed through their second-ranked running game. It wasn't just an offensive theme – it permeated throughout the roster, to the defense and special teams.

Win or lose, the 2014 Dallas Cowboys would be the more physical football team.

The 2015 running game had flashes last year. Problem was, the rotation endured too much instability. Lance Dunbar got hurt in the fourth game. Joseph Randle got cut a month later. Injuries to Romo and Bryant didn't help matters.

Darren McFadden did an admirable job as the featured back for the final 11 games. Alfred Morris was signed to ensure the position wouldn't deal with the same depth problems as 2015.

But the organization felt it couldn't pass on a player with Elliott's complete skill set, and a certain toughness about him, who can immediately impact both sides of the ball – perhaps making him more NFL-ready than an elite cornerback or defensive line prospect.

"A player like this allows you to play a certain style," head coach Jason Garrett said. "We just felt like we added a really good football player to our team that's going to allow us to play the way we want to play."

The league does seem to view the running back position through a different prism these days. In the last five years, only six backs have been drafted in the first round. Elliott was the only representative this year.

Some of it is a shift toward more pass-driven offense, partially through quarterback- and receiver-friendly rule changes. Some of it is a shift toward running back committees due to cumulative wear-and-tear at the position.

Here's how NFL Network's Mike Mayock described the landscape back in February on his Scouting Combine conference call:

*"I think it's a solid running back class like usual. We've devalued this position. Ezekiel Elliott will go in the first round. After that I don't think anybody will.

"In today's NFL, let's face it, it's a pass-first league. That position has been devalued. I can't tell you how many coaches and GMs have said, 'We don't even worry about running backs. We can get one of those guys in the fourth or fifth round.' That's where it's gone with the running back position."*

It's a broad sweeping statement, for sure, but there's some truth in it. Teams aren't drafting running backs as early or paying veteran backs as many long-term, big-guaranteed-money deals. There's well-documented research that suggests backs generally decline as they approach 30.

Elliott's different for a couple reasons.

He's 20 years old, 7-8 years younger than his above-mentioned counterparts. The Cowboys believe a running back's best years are arguably his first five – the length of Elliott's future rookie contract.

They also see Elliott as a superior talent with a much more comprehensive ceiling than the part-time, change-of-pace backs typically found in the later rounds. They have an excellent coach, Gary Brown, who will work to maximize his talent.

"We think he is somewhat unique for a back coming out of college in this day and age," Garrett said.

Meaning, an every-down back who can take pressure off Romo, take pressure off Bryant and Jason Witten and others; a patient, physical runner who can keep his own defense fresh and keep churning out yards and protecting leads in the second half.[embeddedad0]

Despite constant changes in personnel, the Cowboys still had a solid season running the ball in 2015. It could've been better, particularly in short yardage. The offense converted 49 percent of downs between third-and-1 and third-and 3, including 42.1 percent on third-and-1. Their opponents converted 59.7 percent of those downs, including 65.4 percent on third-and-1.

There's also this to consider: the running back position sure isn't devalued in December and January, when the weather gets colder and windier and the conditions in most stadiums aren't as friendly to the downfield passing game. Younger legs could benefit this offense if the Cowboys are fortunate enough to stay in the division race and return to the postseason.

Factor in all those elements, and the Cowboys had plenty of incentive to draft this particular running back as early as they did.

One more thing...

Maybe it's the Rico Gathers pick fresh in my mind, or maybe it's my reputation as a basketball geek, but I view elite running backs a little like elite NBA centers. There aren't many guys like Shaq and Duncan these days – the Golden State Warriors' roster embodies the league's shift toward versatile 6-foot-5 to 6-foot-8 guys who can play and defend three or four positions – but a 7-footer with legit back-to-the-basket skills still can be a devastating force. You don't skip him in the draft because the position's impact is "devalued." It may be old-school, but it still can be effective.

When a great running back prospect comes along, a player who can control the pace of the game and affect your team in so many different ways, you don't dismiss him.

That's why Ezekiel Elliott is a Dallas Cowboy.

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