Are Eagles really interested in Ezekiel Elliott?
BOCA RATON, Fla. - Could the Eagles draft Ezekiel Elliott with the eighth pick overall in April's draft? Howie Roseman wants the rest of the NFL to think so, or so it would seem. The Eagles vice president of football operations never mentioned the Ohio State product by name on Monday, but it was clear he was referencing Elliott when asked about the value of selecting a running back early in the draft.
BOCA RATON, Fla. - Could the Eagles draft Ezekiel Elliott with the eighth pick overall in April's draft?
Howie Roseman wants the rest of the NFL to think so, or so it would seem. The Eagles vice president of football operations never mentioned the Ohio State product by name on Monday, but it was clear he was referencing Elliott when asked about the value of selecting a running back early in the draft.
"There's this narrative that you can get running backs in the fifth, sixth, seventh round and undrafted free agency," Roseman said at the league meetings. "But when you look back at the last 10 years of guys that are really in the top 10 in rushing, those guys are high picks.
"And so, when you find a special talent at that position, that guy who can run the ball, who can pass protect, who can catch the ball out of the backfield, that's a unique weapon."
There's only one prospect who possesses all three of those skills at an elite level, according to most NFL evaluators, and that's Elliott. So if the Eagles were to consider the 6-foot, 225-pound tailback that early in the draft, it's not as if it would be a reach. But it would be uncharacteristic.
The Eagles haven't drafted a running back in the first round since 1986 (Keith Byars), long before Andy Reid became coach, and long before Roseman started to influence the team's drafts. The earliest they took one during the Reid era was in 2009 with LeSean McCoy (21st pick in the second round).
It should be noted that Roseman didn't technically say anything about the first round. There just aren't as many running backs being chosen that early anymore. In the last five drafts, only five have gone in the first round. In the previous five, there were 17 running backs taken within the first 32 picks.
But if "high picks" is to be interpreted as the first three rounds - Roseman was right about 1,000-yard rushers over the last decade. Of the 68 running backs to eclipse the benchmark, 50 were drafted in the first three rounds. The other 18 were chosen in rounds 4-7 or were undrafted.
There were some notable names in the latter category - Arian Foster and Fred Jackson stood out - but no one who could be labeled a transcendent running back. The franchise-caliber talents came in the first round (e.g. Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch), the second (McCoy, Matt Forte) or the third (Jamal Charles, Frank Gore).
The Eagles have done very well at evaluating the position over the years - aside from last offseason when Chip Kelly signed free agent DeMarco Murray - and they've found some contributors in the late rounds (Dion Lewis, Bryce Brown) or undrafted (Chris Polk). But their best decisions have come earlier in the draft with McCoy and Brian Westbrook (third round).
"There's a difference between a special player and a role player at that position," Roseman said. "Those guys [Lewis, Brown, Polk] are good players, but when you're talking about the guys who are 1,500-yard rushers, the guys people are game-planning [for], those are hard to get later in the draft."
Do the Eagles need a 1,500-yard rusher? They still have Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles on the roster. Mathews was one of the league's top rushers in yards per carry before he suffered a concussion in November. But he wasn't the same when he retuned. A nagging groin strain, which eventually required offseason surgery, only perpetuated the notion that he is injury prone.
Roseman didn't dispute that Mathews was on the market this offseason, but when Murray was shipped to the Titans for a better fourth-round pick (and the unloading of his albatross contract) the Eagles didn't have the luxury to part with another tailback.
"When we looked at that position going into the offseason, we said that if we had the chance to get value for one of those guys [we would trade them], because we felt like we had three kind of front-line guys and then some young players we wanted to develop," Roseman said. "We did that with DeMarco. So as we sit here now, [Matthews is] an important part of our team."
As we sit here now.
That's not exactly a ringing endorsement. Roseman, of course, had little or nothing to do with Mathews' acquisition last offseason. He traded for Sproles two years ago, and the diminutive running back still has value as a punt returner, but he turns 33 in June.
There are still options in free agency. And as time passes, the price tags for established running backs like Foster, Chris Johnson, and Reggie Bush will drop. But the Eagles aren't likely to be in the near- or over-30 market. Alfred Morris (27), Ronnie Hillman (24) or even Polk (26) could make more sense for depth purposes.
Kenjon Barner, Kevin Monangai and Ross Scheuerman are the "young players" Roseman referred to, but how much can be expected of late-round or undrafted running backs?
There's also the question of what new coach Doug Pederson thinks of the Eagles' running backs, and, specifically, the importance of the position. Reid, his mentor, increasingly got away from the ground game during his tenure in Philadelphia.
The Chiefs, with Reid and Pederson running the offense, weren't as pass happy with Charles as the primary ballcarrier, though. The most effective offenses run schemes based on their talent, and Elliott, if many scouts are proved right, could be too good to pass up.
Or he could be one of the many first-round mistakes at running back (see: Trent Richardson) over the last decade-plus.
Or, for Eagles purposes, he could be a smokescreen Roseman is using to deflect other teams from his ideal early first-round target.