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Ezekiel Elliott’s tenure as top running back has an NFC East challenger

Ezekiel Elliott’s reign as the top RB in the NFC East has been conquered by Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants, according to a poll of NFL execs.
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS
Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) scores a touchdown during an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Roger Steinman)

Each offseason, the lists always seem to pile up. They are usually a compilation of “scouts” or “executives” ranking players and positions anonymously, and they frequently arrive during the down period between the NFL Draft and before training camp is set to open.

These polls are usually a fun excuse to talk – see, argue – about football before the actual games get played and it serves as a way to rile up fan bases. One of the best in the business at firing up debates remains ESPN, who provided a list of the top 10 RBs in the league on their morning show “Get Up.”

Dallas Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott came in at number three on the list of best running backs in the NFL.

There’s nothing wrong with being in the top three on any list, it represents elite status, but it’s difficult to fathom why New York Giants RB Saquon Barkley is ranked ahead of Elliott. It’s understandable to see Carolina Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey ahead of Elliott, especially after the season he had in 2019. 

However, seeing Barkley – an unmistakably outstanding RB – ahead of Elliott is still questionable. This isn’t to deny that there might be a few stray evaluators to rank Barkley higher than Elliott, but to see it as a consensus feels like either a misguided criteria was asked or, perhaps, a poll with a basis in prognostication rather than current reality.

Over the past two seasons – the two that Barkley has been in the league – Elliott has out-rushed Barkley in both years. Elliott’s 2,781 total rushing yards also dwarfs Barkley’s 2,310 over those two years and the Cowboys runner has one more rushing score than his rival (18-17). 

The touchdown total for Elliott would be higher if it weren’t for quarterback Dak Prescott being one of the best rushing QBs in the league in the red zone. Prescott’s nine rushing scores in the last two seasons are among the best for quarterbacks around the league and reduces Elliott’s opportunities. Eli Manning has just one rushing touchdown since Barkley entered his backfield, by contrast.

Part of Elliott’s rushing superiority has to do with his ability to stay healthy, he hasn’t missed a game due to injury in the last two seasons, while Barkley missed three games in 2019 with an ankle injury. 

Barkley does lead Elliott in receiving yards over their last two years, 143 catches for 1,159 yards and six touchdowns to Elliott’s 131 receptions, 987 yards and five scores. However, that is due to Barkley being one of the main threats in New York’s passing game, whereas the Cowboys have WRs Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup to take away the need to throw to Elliott. 

Only Odell Beckham has surpassed 1,000 yards as a receiver for the Giants with Barkley as a teammate, while the Cowboys have had three 1,000 yard seasons in the last two years. Cooper accounts for two of those seasons and Gallups breakout year in 2019 accounts for the other.

Elliott is also considered to be a much better pass protector than Barkley, which is part of the equation while evaluating the position.

In fairness to Barkley, Elliott has had the better offensive line, but Elliott’s toughness shines through in rushing yards after contact.

Despite a newfound resurgence of the passing game in Dallas, Ezekiel Elliott is one of the top two running backs in the NFL and while being third on any list is hardly a slight, having Barkley over Elliott doesn’t make sense. Nevertheless, it’s best to take these lists with a grain of salt as they’re perhaps designed to give fans something to debate as a downtime summer ritual. 

However, Elliott is currently a better RB than Barkley, that much is clear.

Is Ezekiel Elliott still the beast in the East by your estimation? Share your thoughts with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.

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