After putting together one of the best rookie seasons in NFL history last year, Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott will be trying to do something in 2017 that most great rookie backs weren’t able to do in their career: improve in Year 2.
Although it’s easy to look at the Cowboys offense and think that Elliott will be unstoppable in 2017, there’s a lot of things that could keep that from happening. Of the 10 best rookie rushing seasons in NFL history, seven of the backs saw their numbers decline in Year 2, and their numbers went down for reasons that could eventually affect Elliott.
In some cases, there was an injury, and an injury to anyone — particularly Elliott, Dak Prescott or anyone on the Cowboys’ offensive line — could cause Elliott’s numbers to drop in 2017.
In other cases, big-time rookies saw their numbers drop because they couldn’t handle the spotlight that came with a record-breaking rookie year.
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To get an idea of what Elliott’s up against, let’s take a look at the 10 best non-Zeke rookie rushing seasons in NFL history and see how those players did in Year 2. Elliott himself comes in third on the list, but we’re saving him for last.
11. Doug Martin, Buccaneers
- Drafted: First round, 31st overall (2012)
- Rookie year: 1,454 yards, 11 touchdowns; 472 receiving yards, one touchdown
- Second year: 456 yards, one touchdown; 66 receiving yards, one touchdown
Martin exploded onto the scene in 2012 with 1,454 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns for a Buccaneers team that sorely needed a big play threat out of the backfield. Not only is Martin’s rushing total the 11th-best rookie rushing season in NFL history, but it still stands as the second-best rushing season by anyone in Buccaneers franchise history. Although the Bucs were optimistic that Martin would be even better in Year 2, that didn’t happen due to a torn labrum he suffered in Week 7. Martin only played in six games in 2013, and ended up with 456 yards.
Even before the injury, Martin wasn’t on pace to match his rookie year. In 2013, Martin was only averaging 3.6 yards per carry before he got injured, a full one yard off his 4.6-yard average from his rookie year.
10. Barry Sanders, Lions
- Drafted: First round, third overall (1989)
- Rookie year: 1,470 yards, 14 touchdowns; 282 receiving yards, zero touchdowns
- Second year: 1,304 yards, 13 touchdowns; 480 receiving yards, three touchdowns
Even Sanders — who’s widely regarded as one of the best running backs in NFL history — saw his rushing numbers drop off in Year 2 after a strong rookie season. During his rookie year, Sanders rushed for 1,470 yards even though he only played in 15 games. In his second season, Sanders was still impressive, but he saw a drop-off in almost every major rushing category, including total rushing yards, yards per game (98 to 81.5), yards per attempt (5.3 to 5.1) and rushing touchdowns (14 to 13). The one thing Sanders did improve on was his production as a receiver. In 1990, Sanders totaled 480 receiving yards, which was a big jump over the 282 yards from his rookie season.
The Cowboys would probably be thrilled if Elliott has a second season similar to the one that Sanders had.
T-8. Curtis Martin, Patriots
- Drafted: Third round, 74th overall (1995)
- Rookie year: 1,487 yards, 14 touchdowns; 261 receiving yards, one touchdowns
- Second year: 1,152 yards, 14 touchdowns; 333 receiving yards, three touchdowns
Marin’s second year went a lot like Sanders’ sophomore season did; although the Patriots running back saw his rushing total drop, he did become more of a threat in the passing game. Martin’s second year had the best ending of any running back on this list: The Hall of Famer was the only back who ended up playing in a Super Bowl during his second season, and Martin was a big reason why the Patriots made it.
During New England’s wild card game, Martin rushed for 166 yards and three touchdowns in a 28-3 win over the Steelers. The rushing total was somewhat of a surprise because Martin had only hit the 100-yard mark twice during the 1996 season.
T-8. Mike Anderson, Broncos
- Drafted: Sixth round, 189th overall (2000)
- Rookie year: 1,487 yards, 15 touchdowns; 169 receiving yards, zero touchdowns
- Second year: 678 yards, four touchdowns; 46 receiving yards, zero touchdowns
Despite a huge rookie season from Anderson in 2000 — where he finished fourth in the NFL in rushing yards — the Broncos decided to roll with a running back by committee in 2001 that put a huge damper on Anderson’s production in Year 2. Anderson had to split carries with Terrell Davis, and was never the same after that. Even though he was splitting carries, Anderson still wasn’t as productive. After averaging 5.0 yards per carry in 2000, that number dropped to 3.9 yards per carry in 2001.
7. Clinton Portis, Broncos
- Drafted: Second round, 51st overall (2002)
- Rookie: 1,508 yards, 15 touchdowns; 364 receiving yards, two touchdowns
- Second year: 1,591 yards, 14 touchdowns; 314 receiving yards, zero touchdowns
After making Anderson split carries in 2001, the Broncos clearly learned their lesson, because in 2002, they didn’t make the same mistake with Portis. Portis is one of the few running backs on this list who actually got better in his second season, and that’s because the Broncos made sure to keep him as their feature back. In his second season, Portis added 83 yards to his rookie rushing total, although he did score one less touchdown on the ground in 2003 than he did during his rookie year of 2002.
6. Edgerrin James, Colts
- Drafted: First round, fourth overall (2000)
- Rookie year: 1,553 yards, 13 touchdowns; 586 yards receiving, four touchdowns
- Second year: 1,709 yards, 13 touchdowns; 594 yards receiving, five touchdowns
If Elliott wants to emulate anyone on this list, he should probably shoot for James. Just as Elliott had Dak Prescott during his rookie year, James also had a young quarterback on his team in Peyton Manning, who was finishing his third season in 1999. With Manning on the roster, opposing defenses couldn’t key in on James because that would leave them open to punishment from Manning.
During James’ second year in the NFL, the Colts offense clicked and had one of the most impressive seasons in NFL history. James blew by his rookie rushing total with 1,709 yards in his second year, a number that still stands as the top rushing season in Colts’ history.
Manning also threw for 4,419 yards that season (2000), which led the NFL and was the highest total of his career until he finally passed that single-season number in 2009.
If Prescott can hit 4,000 yards passing in 2017, and there’s no reason to think he can’t, Elliott could be the biggest benefactor.
5. Ottis Anderson, Cardinals
- Drafted: First round, eighth overall (1979)
- Rookie year: 1,605 yards, eight touchdowns; 308 receiving yards, two touchdowns
- Second year: 1,352 yards, nine touchdowns; 308 receiving yards, zero touchdowns
It’s almost a miracle Anderson was able to do anything during his rookie year, considering he played for a team that was starting a quarterback (Jim Hart) who threw just nine touchdown passes compared to 20 interceptions. No matter what era you’re in, that’s an ugly touchdown-to-interception ration.
When the every opponent can design a game plan to stop you, it’s kind of hard to improve in Year 2, and Anderson didn’t. After putting up 1,605 yards during his rookie season, Anderson’s second-year total went way down. Of course, going way down from 1,605 isn’t an embarrassment. Anderson still finished the 1980 season with 1,352 yards, which ranked third overall in the NFL.
4. Alfred Morris, Redskins
- Drafted: Sixth round, 179th overall (2012)
- Rookie year: 1,613 yards, 13 touchdowns; 77 receiving yards, zero touchdowns
- Second year: 1,275 yards, seven touchdowns; 78 receiving yards, zero touchdowns
Elliott actually has a lot in common with Morris. Both rookie running backs entered the NFL with a fellow rookie quarterback and found immediate success. Unfortunately for the Redskins, that success ended quickly after Robert Griffin III was injured during a playoff loss to the Seahawks that ended Washington’s 2012 season.
Although Griffin eventually recovered from the injury, he was never the same, and he ended up struggling through the 2013 season, which meant Morris had to carry most of the offensive load that year. After averaging 100.8 yards per game during his rookie year, Morris only averaged 79.7 yards per game in his second season.
2. George Rogers, Saints
- Drafted: First round, first overall (1981)
- Rookie year: 1,674 yards, 13 touchdowns; 126 receiving yards, zero touchdowns
- Second year: 535 yards, three touchdowns; 21 receiving yards, zero touchdowns
Rogers is the poster child for what can happen when you get too famous too fast. After the Saints made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 1981 NFL Draft, Rogers responded with a 1,674-yard season that was a rookie rushing record at the time. However, after his big year, the following offseason turned into one big distraction.
The ugliest part of Rogers’ offseason was when he admitted to using cocaine so he could gain immunity in a federal court case. After that, things only went downhill from there.
In a strike-shortened 1982 season, where the Saints only played nine games, Rogers only saw action in six of those games and wasn’t very impressive when he was on the field.
By the end of the season, Rogers had no explanation for his huge drop-off from his rookie year to his second season.
“I’m not breaking any tackles. I’m not making those long, good runs. I just don’t know,” Rogers said in December 1982, via UPI.com. “I just don’t have that acceleration.”
Rogers only averaged 89.2 yards per game in his second year, a huge drop from his rookie year average of 104.6 yards per game.
1. Eric Dickerson, Rams
- Drafted: First round, second overall (1983)
- Rookie year: 1,808 yards, 18 touchdowns; 404 receiving yards, two touchdowns
- Second year: 2,105 yards, 14 touchdowns; 139 yards, zero touchdowns
Not only did Dickerson set the standard for rookie running backs, he’s also the gold standard for second-year running backs. The man who currently holds the NFL rookie rushing record followed up his unbelievable 1983 season by setting the league’s all-time rushing record in 1984.
Shooting for Dickerson’s record probably isn’t a realistic goal for Elliott, who will be playing in a Cowboys offense that’s much more diverse than the one Dickerson played in with the Rams. During Dickerson’s record-breaking season, the running back carried the ball 379 times, which was a ridiculously high number when you consider that the Rams only attempted 358 passes that year.
The odds of Elliott the ball 379 times — or getting more rushing attempts than Prescott has passing attempts — is pretty much zero. Prescott finished the season with 459 passing attempts last year while Elliott carried the ball 322 times.
Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys
- Drafted: First round, fourth overall (2016)
- Rookie year: 1,631 yards, 15 touchdowns; 363 receiving yards, one touchdown
- Second year: TBA
If you just read down the list of those rookie running backs, you may have noticed that no one was ranked No. 3, and there’s a reason for that: That’s Elliot’s spot after putting together the third-best rookie rushing season in NFL history.
Now, the question: Can he improve on those numbers in 2017?
If you’re a Cowboys fan looking at this list, the two names you want to circle are Barry Sanders and Edgerrin James. Both players played in an offense during their second year that had a similar pass-run ratio to what the Cowboys will likely have, and both players were highly successful.
Based on what the Cowboys offense did in 2016, and based on the fact that the Cowboys have a better offensive line than the 2001 Colts or 1990 Lions had, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Elliott blow by his total yardage number in the upcoming season.
As Rogers proved in 1982 though, one distraction can be enough to kill an entire season, which should have Cowboys fans slightly worried because Elliott’s offseason has seemingly been one huge distraction. Besides theinto his alleged domestic violence incident, Elliott is also dealing with an and a speeding ticket, where he was cited .
Finally, let’s not forget about Alfred Morris, who stands as proof that it only takes one injury for everything to unravel on an offense that once looked unstoppable.
The good news for Zeke is that three of the players on our list eventually made it to the Hall of Fame, and coincidentally — or not — all of three of them had a huge second year. If Elliott can put together another strong season, I’m not saying he’s headed for Canton, but in just two years, he’ll have justified the Cowboys’ decision to spend the fourth overall pick of the draft on him.