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Chicago Bears Draftwatch: 2016 running back prospect Ezekiel Elliott and a look at the 2015 rookie class

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Draftwatch looks at one of the best college running backs in the country, Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott. As always I’ll check in on this year’s rookie phenoms and those players who have yet to shine in the pro ranks.

Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

"Great minds think alike", or so the saying goes.  Sometimes they even do it at roughly the same time.  This is one of those times.  On Monday night just after 9 p.m. Matt Miller, one of the most respected and followed draft analysts in the business, dropped this tweet:

2 minutes earlier and about 2000 miles to the west, I was saving the finishing touches on a 1900+ word article based on, you guessed it - exactly the same premise.  As I don’t live on Twitter, I didn’t see that tweet until Tuesday after I got home from work, when I checked the comments section for Lester’s excellent weekly 10 Thoughts on the NFL column (props to WCG user C-Razzle for posting it there).  As a writer in this situation, two things happen to you, almost simultaneously.  Half of your brain screams "Oh sweet!  I had exactly the same idea as somebody I really respect." and the other half of your brain screams just as loudly "Oh crap!  Everybody is going to think I stole his stuff."  It has happened to me before and hopefully it will happen again (as a writer, it usually means you are on the right track).  You just have to deal with it up front and keep grinding.  With that out of the way, on with the show.

Being a running back for the Chicago Bears is to hold a hallowed place in the National Football League.  While the Monsters of the Midway persona with its legendary roster of linebackers will always be first in the minds of fans, Bears RBs are close second in that race.  The history of halfback success stories in the Windy City is truly remarkable.  While names like Grange, Sayers and Payton occupy their spots in the Pro Football Hall of Fame there is another very strong tier of backs right behind them. This group is led by the likes of Neal Anderson, Rick Casares, Thomas Jones and the current occupant of the starting RB spot on the Bears depth chart: Matt Forte.

Nobody should be in a hurry to rush Matt Forte out of town. Frankly, he is an all-time great.  Based on his production, consistency, versatility and overall impact he is almost criminally under-appreciated.  Maybe it’s because people in Chicago still want backs that run over defenders rather than around them, but that shouldn’t matter.  Forte is player of the first order and his numbers show that beyond a shadow of a doubt.  He is the 2nd all-time leading rusher in franchise history, 3rd in rushing touchdowns, and his rushing average is 1/10th of a yard per carry behind Walter Payton.  Let that soak in for a minute, and then tell me you think Matt gets enough acclaim for the results he puts up week in and week out.  He is also the 2nd leading receiver among all players in Bears history and may well pass Walter Payton this season for the top spot (Forte would need only 3 receptions per game for the rest of this season to pass Payton as the all-time Bears leader in receptions).

Given that Forte is such a stud why would the Bears look to replace him?  "Reality" is the answer.  Matt will be a 30 year-old running back after this season and a free agent.  Teams do not typically pay big money for runners over 30 who have as much mileage on them as Forte does.  While I would love for Chicago to craft a team-friendly deal to allow Forte to finish his career as a Bear; there is no assurance that will happen, so the team needs a contingency plan.

Jeremy Langford was drafted in the 4th round this year and has shown some short yardage burst (scoring 2 TD’s) in limited opportunities.  He is currently second on the depth chart (due to an injury to Jacquizz Rodgers) and definitely appears to have some development potential.  Rodgers, while a good blocker and decent pass catcher, averaged less than 3 yards a carry before getting injured.  He is definitely not a player that you want to trot out as the starter week in and week out.  The only RB on the active roster below Forte and Langford is Ka’Deem Carey.  Carey was drafted in the 4th round of the 2014 draft after a prolific college career at Arizona.  That production has not translated to the pro game.  He has 2-year career totals of 158 yards rushing and 57 yards receiving and has never scored a TD.   The new regime does not seem to have a role for him as he has not logged a single statistic this year and has only appeared on special teams in 2 games.  Betting on him to be the next great Bears RB is beyond a longshot.

Chicago’s running back cupboard looks pretty bare if Forte leaves this offseason as expected.  The Bears will need help from the draft to rebuild their running back room.  Luckily for them there will be a solid supply of exciting runners eligible in the 2016.

Ezekiel Elliott, Running Back, Ohio State

Elliott is a junior and an established leader of the offensive backfield of the powerhouse Buckeyes team.  On an absolutely loaded squad with 10-12 players that are drawing attention from scouts for the upcoming draft, he still manages to stand out.  He has ripped off 13 straight 100+ yard rushing games in a row dating back to last season.  This year alone he has run for 1130 total yards in only 8 weeks, scored 13 touchdowns and averaged a gaudy 6.8 yards per carry.  He also catches the ball very well, having totaled 23 receptions for 160 additional yards in 2015.

"Zeke" definitely shows all the traits a team needs in a starting running back:

  • Good vision and enough patience to let blocks develop in front of him
  • Excellent balance
  • Nice short area lateral movement that allows him to make the first defender miss
  • Eye-opening acceleration to hit the hole once it opens
  • Decent long speed to stretch small gains into bigger ones
  • Very good power and lean, keeps fighting and usually falls forward

Ezekiel is a powerfully-built and compact runner at 6 feet tall and 225 pounds.  He uses that power very effectively as a runner but even more impressively as a blocker.  Pass blocking is one of the biggest hang-ups for young RBs entering the NFL.  Most top-flight college runners have not done enough to develop this critical facet of their game.  NFL teams need to protect their QB at all costs and when rookie running backs miss their blocks, QB’s get crushed.  So until backs are able to master this precious and difficult skill they rarely see regular playing time.   Luckily Elliott is way ahead of his classmates as a pass protector.  Respected coaches who have seen plenty of good (and bad) examples of pass-blocking RB’s already rave about Elliott’s proficiency in this area:

While NFL teams can certainly find effective runners in the lower rounds of the draft sometimes you need to spend a lot to get a lot.  When you are looking to replace a player who has produced as much offensive impact as Matt Forte has, it might just be one of those times.  Barring any setbacks, Ezekiel Elliott will certainly be drafted very early on.  Should the Bears drop a top pick on a tailback when they have so many other needs?  Time will tell, but if Forte does indeed leave town and Elliott is still on the board when the Bears are on the clock, they should at least consider it.

Making Their Mark (2015 draftees who are thriving in the pro game)

Jordan Hicks (LB, Eagles) - I hinted at this entry in last week’s comments section.  I liked Hicks a little coming out of Texas last year, but not a lot.  He is a gifted athlete but did not regularly put that together on the field.  Chip Kelley’s staff has managed to focus his mental game to maximize his physical skills.  Having a very savvy vet like DeMeco Ryans alongside of him has certainly sped his development, but Hicks is playing impact football in his first year as a pro.  43 tackles, 2 passes defended, 1 interception, 1 sack and a forced fumble are great numbers for a late 3rd round selection.

Maxx Williams (TE, Ravens) - Williams is proof that playing well overall does not always mean you have gaudy statistics.  Dig in a little deeper and you will see that Maxx has been a solid addition to a Ravens team that has struggled in the early going.  Although he’s caught the ball well in limited targets (12 catches for 109 yards) he has definitely made an impact in the Baltimore running game.  His season grade for run blocking is 4th highest in the league for TE’s.

Failure to Launch (slow starters on the NFL stage)

Bernardrick McKinney (LB, Texans) - I like McKinney as a player and he is very talented, but Houston is a mess this year in all phases and he is caught up in it.  If you take away his 7-tackle effort versus the Colts (not exactly a dynamo in their own right this year) McKinney has only logged 13 tackles in the other 6 games with no sacks, INT’s or passes defended,  Not what you would expect out of player that many people had a 1st round grade on.

Reel-to-Real (tips for watching game film on your favorite players)

When you are able to, try to watch players who play the same position in the same film session.  This will allow you an apples-to-apples comparison of players with similar physical characteristics and roles.  If you jump around from QB's to DT's to WR's and back again, you'll lose some ability to objectively compare similar athletes doing the same job.