IRVING, Texas (AP) — Ezekiel Elliott already has a lofty spot in Dallas Cowboys lore. Now the former Ohio State running back has to try to live up to it.
The Cowboys took Elliott with the No. 4 overall pick in the NFL draft Thursday night, the highest spot for a running back in the 26 years that Jerry Jones has been the team’s owner and general manager.
The only other running back to go higher for Dallas was Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett at No. 2 in 1977. And all-time NFL rushing leader Emmitt Smith, another player in the Hall of Fame, went 17th in 1990, the second draft under Jones.
“I’m glad that my name’s even up there with those guys,” said Elliott, the No. 2 all-time rusher at Ohio State behind two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin. “I definitely don’t consider it a burden. I think I’m at my best in hard situations, situations of pressure.”
Elliott has something of a head start. He was the star when the Buckeyes won the national championship at the $1.2 billion home of the Cowboys during the 2014 season, rushing for an Ohio State bowl-record 246 yards with four touchdowns in a 42-20 victory over Oregon.
“It’s crazy how things work,” Elliott said. “I am very familiar with ‘Jerry Land.’ I’m pretty excited to get back to ‘Jerry Land’ and put on a show.”
Running back wasn’t the biggest need going into the draft with Darren McFadden coming off a strong season and the Cowboys adding two-time Pro Bowler Alfred Morris from Washington in free agency. But the Cowboys will get to put the top-rated running back in the draft behind one of the NFL’s best offensive lines. Dallas took blockers in the first round three times in a span of four seasons starting in 2011.
“We think we’ve got a chance to have a foundation player,” Jones said.
The Cowboys also had a strong interest in Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch, who went to Denver at No. 26 when the Broncos moved up six picks in a trade with Seattle. Jones said Dallas, holding the third pick in the second round at No. 34 overall, was close to a deal.
Jones said he wasn’t sure what that meant for the rest of the draft at quarterback with the Cowboys, who are trying to find Tony Romo’s backup and possibly his replacement.
The Cowboys had a high draft pick in part because Romo missed 12 games with a twice-broke left collarbone, leading to a worst-to-first slide in the NFC East and a 4-12 record.
“If you’re going to have a young one, you want him on the field and you want him playing games, but you really don’t want him playing games,” Jones said. “You want Romo playing in all the games.”
The Cowboys decided to spend their highest pick since 1991 at running back a year after electing not to re-sign 2014 NFL rushing champion DeMarco Murray in free agency. The Dallas running attack was inconsistent early last season without Murray, improving only after McFadden replaced lead back Joseph Randle six games into the season. The Cowboys eventually released Randle.
“I think that means that they have a lot of trust in me,” Elliott said. “But there are a lot of battle-tested running backs in that room. I do not think at summer’s end I will start. That’s a job I’m going to have to earn.”
If Elliott can win the starting job over McFadden and Morris, he will get a chance to play with Romo and 2014 All-Pro receiver Dez Bryant.
Romo’s injury was the biggest problem for Dallas last season, but Bryant was out five games after breaking his right foot in the opener. He also missed the final two games as the injury continued to bother him all season.
“I think we can be a three-headed monster,” Elliott said.
The 6-foot, 225-pound Elliott finished with 3,961 yards at Ohio State, declaring for the draft after his junior season. He holds the school record for rushing yards in consecutive seasons with 3,699 in 2014-15.
In the inaugural College Football Playoff to wrap up the 2014 season, Elliott rushed for 476 yards in two games, starting with 230 in a victory over Alabama.
Dallas’ biggest need going into the draft was defensive end, but top target Joey Bosa, a teammate of Elliott at Ohio State, went to San Diego with the third pick. The Cowboys were also strongly considering Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey at defensive back after finishing last in the NFL in takeaways in 2015. Ramsey went fifth to Jacksonville.