If you ask just about anybody associated with the Dallas Cowboys, they see a difference in Ezekiel Elliott.
“Just how hard he was running, how far he was running every play, the amount of reps he was taking, I mean, just everything was kicked up a notch,” Pro Bowl right guard Zack Martin said. “I think he’s gotten himself in very good shape and is ready to take a lot of the load there.”
Elliott senses a difference, too.
“I think it’s just my focus,” he said. “I’m definitely going into this year with a chip on my shoulder, and I think I have a lot to prove. I was more focused and ready to go out there and prove what I can do on the field.”
Entering last season, Elliott was fighting a six-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. Days before the season opener against the New York Giants, he was in a Sherman, Texas, courthouse and was granted a stay that allowed him to play.
He played the first eight games of the season before begrudgingly accepting the penalty.
Asked if he has thought about where he was a year ago at this time, in trying to get ready for Week 1, Elliott said, “No, that’s behind me.”
The will-he-play or won’t-he-play talk was almost a daily saga. Later in the season, he played without practicing the entire week. From the outside, it appeared to be a drag on Elliott, but he still managed to run for 983 yards in 10 games.
“I would never say last year I wasn't engaged with the game,” Elliott said. “I did a great job of checking my s--t at the door. It is a lot more stress-free, though. I would say that.”
But he acknowledged that chip he will have on his shoulder stems from not playing a full season in 2017 and “just not performing the way I believe I could have.”
After leading the NFL in rushing in 2016 with 1,631 yards, Elliott’s name was prominent when people rattled off the league’s best runners. While he still remains in the conversation, the field is a little more crowded with Le’Veon Bell, Todd Gurley, Kareem Hunt and even Saquon Barkley, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2018 draft by the New York Giants.
“I want to prove I’m the best back in the game,” Elliott said. “That’s what my focus this offseason was.”
Wasn’t he already there?
Running backs coach Gary Brown has been with Elliott more than anybody in the organization since the Cowboys took him with the fourth pick in the 2016 draft.
“As athletes, we need to go out and be true to ourselves first and prove we belong on that elite level,” Brown said. “Being that he didn’t win the rushing title, he didn’t do the things, achieve the goals that he wanted to that he set for himself, he has a reason to go out and prove to himself again that he is worthy of being in that conversation.”
The Cowboys have made sure to preserve Elliott leading into Sunday’s season opener against the Carolina Panthers. For the first time in his career, he did not get a carry in the preseason. They know their success will hinge on what Elliott can do.
“He’s been working really hard to get ready,” Brown said. “He’s been doing extra running. He’s been taking more carries then he ever has in practice. So we all believe he’s ready to go.”
The Cowboys have questions in the passing game without Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. They will go with a group of receivers and tight ends and hope the production can match what Bryant and Witten did for years. At least early in the season, they have questions on the offensive line. It’s not clear when -- or if -- Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick will play as he deals with Guillain-Barre Syndrome. His replacement, Joe Looney, has 13 career starts, including three with the Cowboys. None has come at center. They will start a rookie at left guard in Connor Williams, a second-round pick.
“We’ve faced eight-, nine-, 10-man fronts every week since I got here. I don’t know how many more guys they can throw in the box,” Elliott said. “I mean, just go back and watch the film. Go back and watch the games. Guys don’t play two-high, they play single-high. They bring an extra safety in the box, and if they don’t bring an extra safety in the box, then we punish them. ... I mean, yeah, there’s going to be more focus, I believe, on me, but I mean, I just don’t understand how you could say we’re going to throw more guys in the box. There’s only 11 guys on the field, and they’re already putting as many as they can in there. So I mean, it’ll be our 11 vs. theirs.”
The Cowboys believe Elliott can make the passing game better because of the attention he receives. They believe he can help the offensive line because he can make up for the misses.
In his first two seasons, Elliott has averaged nearly 25 touches a game, running and receiving. That number could go up in 2018 as the Cowboys look to exploit the chip on his shoulder.
“I’m young. Got fresh legs. I’m going to grind it out,” Elliott said. “There’s no pacing. Every week in the NFL matters. If they want to give it to me 30, 35 times a game, I’ll take that.”