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Ezekiel Elliott and a Brief History of Young Running Back Dominance

Lets just get this out of the way – Ezekiel Elliott is phenomenal.

Widely viewed as the top running back prospect for the 2016 Draft, Elliott put together a season for the ages last year. The point of this article isnt to figure out whether or not he’s any good, but rather to examine the magnitude of his excellence and compare him to other players on a similar career path.

Age 19 Amazing

My running back database goes back to the 1999 college season, which means that there are 16 years worth of prospects that can be used for comparison. The following are the 16 best seasons achieved by a 19 year old in a BCS/Power5 conference, using a combination of Z-scores for rushing yards per game and age.

RBSeasonSchoolDraft PickAgeRush Yards/GAge-Adj Rush Score
Adrian Peterson2004Oklahoma719.8148.12.46
Dion Lewis2009Pitt14919.3138.42.27
Ray Rice2006Rutgers5519.9138.02.19
James Conner2014Pitt19.7135.82.16
Anthony Davis2001Wisconsin24319.6133.32.10
Samaje Perine2014Oklahoma19.3131.82.10
Steven Jackson2002Oregon St2419.4130.02.03
Jahvid Best2008Cal3019.9131.72.03
Ryan Williams2009Virginia Tech3819.7127.31.94
Ezekiel Elliott2014Ohio St19.4125.21.91
Tyrell Sutton2005Northwestern27019.0122.81.90
Chris Wells2007Ohio State3119.4123.81.88
Marshawn Lynch2005Cal1219.7124.61.87
TJ Duckett2000Michigan St1819.9123.01.81
Terry Caulley2003Connecticut27019.5121.41.81
Nick Chubb2014Georgia19.0119.01.80

A few things that strike me about this table:

1) Elliott posted the tenth-best age 19 season since 1999.

2) The average draft position of this cohort is pick 95.6. Because there are a few outliers that drag down the average, the median, which is 34.5, might also be informative.

3) Despite the recent devaluation of the RB position, the future is bright with four studs currently terrorizing the college game – Elliott, James Conner (2016 eligible), Samaje Perine (2017 eligible) and uber-devy prospect Nick Chubb (2017 eligible).

4) Of the 12 players who have reached the NFL, four are among the best in recent memory to play the position – Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice, Steven Jackson and Marshawn Lynch. The two biggest whiffs (Dion Lewis and Terry Caulley) were both under 195 pounds, so it might not be helpful to point and laugh at them.

A More Appropriate Cohort

Because that last list was just young excellence, and not necessarily guys who are similar prospects, I want to get a little more specific now. The following graph and table contains all runners since 2000 who were:

  • Drafted in the first three rounds
  • Weigh at least 210 pounds
  • Were 20 years old in their final college season

I’m pretty sure if Elliott fell out of bed tomorrow, shattered his leg and then punched an EMT en route to the hospital, he would still get drafted in the first three rounds. In a sense, this season doesnt really matter, but I digress.

Note that the trendline from this graph is borrowed from the Visualizing the Careers of 2015 NFL Draft Running Backs article and represents what the top NFL career AV rushers since 2000 were doing while in college in terms of rush yards per game.


RBDraft PickPeak FF RankSeasonAgeRu Yd/GAge Adj Rush Score
Steven Jackson243200219.41302.03
Ryan Williams38108200919.7127.31.94
Ezekiel Elliott40201419.4125.21.91
Chris Wells3117200719.4123.81.88
Marshawn Lynch123200519.7124.61.87
T.J. Duckett1821200019.91231.81
Darren McFadden45200619.3117.61.73
Todd Gurley10201319.498.91.25
Jonathan Stewart1311200619.875.50.61
Le'Veon Bell482201119.967.70.41
Mikel LeShoure5721200919.866.70.39
Musa Smith7754200119.660.90.26
Rashard Mendenhall236200619.553.30.08

Look at the peak FF rank and notice that for this type of player, we can identify the upside really early. Outside of Ryan Williams, who suffered a brutal knee injury in his rookie year, and Musa Smith, every one of Elliott’s comparables posted at least one top-21 fantasy season and more than half posted an RB1 season.

While Elliott’s comparables are not bulletproof, they are highly encouraging. And, although there are countless variables that will determine what kind of pro career he has, I’m absolutely fascinated by the notion that watching Ezekiel Elliott play this fall is akin to seeing a young Marshawn Lynch or Steven Jackson grow up before our eyes.

Jon Moore is a contributor at RotoViz and a cohost of Rotoviz Radio – A Fantasy Football Podcast.  Continue this conversation with him on TwitterGoogle+ or Facebook.

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