BEREA, Ohio – Ezekiel Elliott is a good running back and a poor loser.
Some might consider those characteristics two good reasons to draft him at No. 8 overall for the Browns, a franchise that too often has settled for the futon in the AFC North’s basement.
The Ohio State standout wants to make a difference and he wants the ball — maybe not in that particular order. He wasn’t shy about voicing his displeasure last November with the Buckeyes’ play-calling after getting just 10 carries for 33 yards and a touchdown in a 17-14 loss to Michigan State. The setback ended Ohio State’s bid for back-to-back national titles and snapped his streak of 15 straight 100-plus yard rushing games.
Coach Urban Meyer wishes Elliott would have handled his post-game news conference better, but agreed he didn’t get enough touches in a big game.
“Zeke has always been an emotional competitor,” Meyer said two days after the loss. “Obviously we do not condone that or encourage it.”
Elliott’s attitude, if channeled properly, coupled with his skillset could make him a nice fit for the Browns. He’s not only the best back in the draft, but also the most complete. The 5-foot-11, 225-pounder can catch the ball and is a willing and able blocker.
Beyond his physical attributes, Elliot has a great GPS system, which did not come standard on the Trent Richardson model. His vision allows him to find holes and avoid tacklers. He isn’t the fastest running back in the draft, but his instincts serve him well.
You can make an argument that No. 8 is too high for a position that’s being devalued in the NFL. But coach Hue Jackson prefers a strong running game – yes, Mike Pettine made similar claims – and the combination of Elliott and Duke Johnson would be as good if not better than the Jeremy Hill-Gio Bernard tandem that Jackson featured in Cincinnati.
You must be able to run the ball in the thick-neck AFC North and the Browns would have that ability.
Elliott’s presence also would afford Robert Griffin III a sporting chance as he looks to resurrect his career behind a rebuilding offensive line that lost Pro Bowl center Alex Mack and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz.
After waiting his turn behind Carlos Hyde, Elliott produced a pair of 1,800-yard seasons and was sensational with three consecutive 200-plus yard performances against Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon en route to a 2014 national title.
He’s also just 20, which means there’s room for physical and emotional growth. Elliott needs to mature and that doesn’t always come with age as the Browns discovered with brooding Ben Tate.
He must know his post-game outburst following the Spartans’ loss won’t fly with Jackson. In the post-Johnny Manziel era, the Browns cannot be coddling young talent. It’s a good sign Elliott is being mentored by childhood hero and Hall-of-Fame running back Marshall Faulk.
Elliott is a playmaker and the Browns need more of them. If they stay at No. 8, that pick seems too high to select quarterbacks Paxton Lynch and Connor Cook or receivers Laquon Treadwell or Corey Coleman.
The Browns could take Notre Dame tackle Ronnie Stanley and perhaps deal Joe Thomas for a future first-round pick. They also could trade back into the teens and grab Ohio State linebacker Darron Lee. But after dealing the No. 2 overall pick to the Eagles, the Browns need to get at least one impact player in the first round, particularly on offense. They also should select a passer somewhere in the early rounds.
I’m not an Ohio State fan, but using the first two picks on Elliott and receiver Michael Thomas at No. 32 would be a decent return.
The decision to trade out of the No. 2 spot opens up the quarterback-needy Browns to years of second guessing if Carson Wentz becomes a star. But if Jackson liked Cal’s Jared Goff, the presumptive first pick, and was lukewarm on the North Dakota State product than the move makes perfect sense, especially in collecting a 2017 first rounder and a 2018 second rounder.
It’s why taking a running back at No. 8 doesn’t seem like such a gamble. They received good value in the trade down and the opportunity to select Elliott, assuming the Cowboys don’t take him first.
While conventional wisdom in a pass-first era suggests you can find running backs lower in the draft, it hasn’t worked out for the Browns since the Richardson deal. Terrance West, a 2014 third rounder, lasted just one season here and Isaiah Crowell, an undrafted free agent, has demonstrated little consistency. Johnson, a 2015 third rounder, is a dynamic receiver out of the backfield, but he won’t make a living running between the tackles.
Elliott would give the Browns a three-down, bell-cow back, one who’s accustomed to playing in cold weather.
The franchise has many options Thursday night. The Browns could do a lot worse than the Big EZ at No. 8 overall.