The allure of the 'Zeke Effect' in this year's NFL draft

One by one, they took the plunge. D’Onta Foreman, a Texas kid who quietly ran for 2,028 yards in one season, was one of the first to declare for the NFL draft. Dalvin Cook went a month later, on New Year’s Eve, shortly after he ran all over Michigan in the Orange Bowl. “I’m going to be taking my talents to the 2017 draft,” he said in a video live on Instagram.

By January, 17 running backs, including one who finished 2016 tied for 174th in rushing, had decided to leave school early and enter the draft. They are a part of a class of running backs that is considered one of the strongest in recent memory, deep from top to bottom.

History is not in their favor. Running backs, in a pass-happy NFL, have long been devalued. Only three have been drafted in the first round in the past four years. Before the 2016 season, the most recent team to take a giant leap and select a running back in the top five of the draft was Cleveland in 2012. Trent Richardson was explosive and powerful and dubbed a can’t-miss pick, and he hasn’t played a down since the 2014 season.

Foreman pondered the fleeting nature of the running back, and he knows the grim statistics. On Sundays last fall, Foreman would turn on the TV, and there was his hope, wearing a helmet with a star. He watched rookie Ezekiel Elliott break tackles, block mountains and help lead the Dallas Cowboys to the playoffs.

“It was big,” Foreman said. “I was really proud of Elliott and the things he was able to accomplish. It helped the running backs a lot. For him to come in as a rookie and put up those type of numbers, that was big for everybody.”

Foreman wasn’t the only one watching. Cook, LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and Tennessee’s Alvin Kamara were among the backs who mentioned during the NFL scouting combine that Elliott had helped their cause.

“It helped us completely,” Fournette said. “It showed he was not just a running back. He can help in the passing game. He can run. He can block. I think he led a great way for these running backs coming out now.”

Call it the Zeke Effect. Dallas, coming off a 4-12 season, picked Elliott No. 4 overall in the 2016 draft. The rookie ran for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns, and the Cowboys went from the cellar to the best record in the NFC. It helps, of course, that Elliott ran behind the best offensive line in the NFL. But running back is the most instant-gratification position in the draft, and the Cowboys saw the yield of their risk immediately.

Because teams in the NFL are occasionally known to copy one another, it is almost certain that at least one, hoping to replicate the Cowboys’ magic in 2016, will abandon convention and pick a running back very early on the first night of the draft, April 27 in Philadelphia. Teams will have plenty of choices. Fournette and McCaffrey are projected top-10 picks, Cook is also expected to go in the first round, and there could be more. The class has NFL size, speed and versatility. But has Elliott given everyone a false sense of hope? Or will 2017 mark the return of the running back?

“As men, we’ve got a lot of pride,” said one NFL decision-maker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We love to poke our chests out when we’re right. So for them to come out and say [they’ll draft a running back high] because of the Zeke factor, for anybody in the league to come out and say that, they probably won’t. They’ll lean more toward the deeper class.”

Here’s why teams don’t spend high draft picks on running backs: They’re often treated like car parts. Teams use them for a few years, they break down, and then teams replace them. The position has the shortest life span in the NFL, lasting on average less than three years, according to NFLPA research. Sixty percent of the running backs drafted in the first round from 2009 to 2014 are no longer in the NFL.

Elliott was the only back taken in the first round last year, and he led the NFL in rushing. The second-best rusher in 2016 was also a rookie, and he didn’t cost nearly as much money. The Chicago Bears took Jordan Howard on the last day of the draft, in the fifth round, and he ran for 1,313 yards and six touchdowns on 252 carries.