Baltimore Ravens beat writer Jeff Zrebiec reports on running backs at the NFL combine, LSU's Leonard Fournette and Florida State's Dalvin Cook. (Baltimore Sun video)
INDIANAPOLIS — Jason Garrett was a teammate of Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith for seven seasons. Later, as the Cowboys' head coach, Garrett watched DeMarco Murray run for 1,845 yards and score 13 touchdowns in 2014.
When it came down to the Cowboys making the fourth overall pick in last year's draft, they ignored all of the talk about the devaluation of running backs and picked Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott.
"We value running backs. The runner matters, and that's something we've believed in for a long time," Garrett said Wednesday at the NFL scouting combine. "I understand the arguments about shelf life and about maybe you can find some running backs later in the draft, but if you have an opportunity to get a great football player who is a running back, he can have a big impact on your football team."
Elliott rushed for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2016 and helped drive the Cowboys to a 13-3 record and an NFC East title. His rookie success provided a strong rebuttal to the theory that it's unwise to use early-to-mid first-round picks on running backs.
Where the Ravens stand on the topic might factor into what they do with the 16th overall pick in April's draft. Coach John Harbaugh has said he wants to add a complementary, speed back to join Terrance West (Northwestern High, Towson University) and 2016 fourth-round pick Kenneth Dixon. Given the way some teams feel about taking running backs early, it's possible one of the draft's top two backs, Louisiana State's Leonard Fournette or Florida State's Dalvin Cook, will be available when the Ravens are on the clock.
The Ravens have selected a running back in the first round just once in franchise history, and Jamal Lewis, the fifth overall selection in 2000, certainly didn't disappoint. They've selected a ball carrier in each of the last four rounds.
Asked Wednesday where he stands on first-round running backs, Harbaugh said: "They've done pretty well. Ezekiel Elliott is a pretty good example of that. He's an example of a guy we were very interested in when we were picking so high last year. I think any great player, any playmaker, is worth a first-round pick."
After the Cleveland Browns used the third overall pick in the 2012 draft on Alabama's Trent Richardson, a decision they'd regret, no running backs were selected in the first round in either 2013 or 2014. However, the success of Elliott — and to lesser degrees the rookie season of Todd Gurley (picked No. 10 by the Rams in 2015) and the second year from Melvin Gordon (No. 22 in 2015 by the Chargers), could help Fournette and Cook's status.
"It helped us completely," said Fournette, who rushed for 3,830 yards and 40 touchdowns in three seasons at LSU. "It showed that he's 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 up right now."
Elliott's success "goes to show you that if a running back gets put in the right system, put in the right place, he can do a great amount of things for a team," said Cook, who billed himself as the top running back in the draft. "I feel like if I get put in the right system, I can do the same things that Zeke did."
Fournette is the power back, a bruiser who weighed 240 pounds Thursday (he says some of that was extra water weight) and predicted he'll run the 40-yard dash in the 4.4s during combine testing Friday. Cook is the explosive, all-purpose threat with 5,399 total yards and 48 touchdowns over three college seasons. Behind them is an extremely deep running back class that has been one of the talks of the combine.
"To be honest with you, I can't remember a year where the draft class at running back is this deep," said Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman, offering an opinion that's been backed by other executives this week.
Therein lies the dilemma for teams picking early in the first round: Use an early pick on a potentially transcendent back, such as Fournette or Cook, or just wait until later in the draft to land another talented one?
Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, whose team went to the Super Bowl this past season relying heavily on 2014 fourth-round back Devonta Freeman and 2015 third-round back Tevin Coleman, clearly prefers the latter.
"I'm a firm believer that you can get running backs throughout the draft. You don't have to go as high as the first or second round. You can go in the mid-round and you can also get [college free agents] out there if they fit within your system and you utilized them properly and make sure that you rotate them properly," Dimitroff said Wednesday. "In this league, you can actually acquire the third running back, and that guy can move up through your ranks and become your first running back. I love seeing that. I think that's a great way of utilizing talent and being mindful of where you are spending your resources. Not only our money but your resources, for sure."
On a conference call in January, ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper pointed out that only one of the league's 12 playoff teams this season – the Cowboys – started a running back taken in the first round. He cited the immediate impact that mid-round 2016 picks Jordan Howard, Dixon, Paul Perkins and Devontae Booker made in 2016. Howard, a fifth-round pick by the Chicago Bears out of Indiana, rushed for 1,313 yards (second in the NFL behind only Elliott) and six touchdowns, and made the Pro Bowl.
"There's great depth at running back pretty much every year," Kiper said. "You can find these guys."
The Arizona Cardinals drafted David Johnson in the third round in 2015. This past year he led the NFL with 2,118 all-purpose yards to go along with 20 touchdowns.
"If we knew what David Johnson is, we'd probably take him with the first pick," Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said Wednesday. "… But when it comes to backs, people talk about backs being devalued. I don't see that being the case. I see peaks and valleys of special guys to come out, and if you think a guy is going to be special, you take him in the top 10 if that's the player he is."
The Cowboys certainly don't regret their decision last April, and knowing the NFL can be a copycat league, Garrett acknowledged that Elliott's success could enter the thought process of teams pondering whether to take a first-round running back this April.
"Great runners make a big difference," Garrett said. "They make the offensive line better. They make the quarterback better. They make the receivers better because everybody is hunkered down to stop the run, if you have a great one. It certainly makes the defense and kicking game better because having a great runner can help you control the game."
The Ravens have made it clear that they're looking to add a home run hitter to their backfield. They should have plenty of backs to choose from come April's draft.
Leonard Fournette, LSU: The battering ram, who weighed in at 240 pounds at the combine, can run past or over defenders. If he's available at No. 16 — and it would be surprising if he was — the Ravens would have a hard time passing him up.
Dalvin Cook, Florida State: He's a big-play threat and a human highlight reel. However, there are off-the-field concerns about the former Florida State star who proclaimed himself the best back in the draft.
Alvin Kamara, Tennessee: His status is on the rise, to the point where he could get some late first-round consideration. He does most things well, and is especially dangerous out of the backfield.
Christian McCaffrey, Stanford: Is he a running back or slot wide receiver? That isn't exactly clear, but the Ravens won't discriminate in trying to add playmakers this offseason.
D'Onta Foreman, Texas: At 6-foot-1 and 248 pounds, Foreman is a bruiser. There are questions about his durability and ball security, but it's hard to argue with 2,028 rushing yards last year.