As far as counterfactuals go, it's one to which Cowboys fans hadn't given much thought before the 2017 season: What if the Cowboys hadn't drafted Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth pick of the 2016 draft and had taken the player many experts thought they would, Florida State cornerback Jalen Ramsey?
Last year, one would've been hard-pressed to argue that the Cowboys should give Elliott back, given the chance. This year, with the Cowboys' season in ruins and Ramsey and the team that picked him — the formerly woebegone Jacksonville Jaguars — one game away from the Super Bowl, it's an easy case to make.
As the 2016 NFL draft began on April 28, 2016, the Cowboys were widely expected to take the best defensive player left on the board when they went on the clock with the fourth pick. While the team had gone 4-12 in 2015, running back Darren McFadden finished fourth in the NFL in rushing despite starting just 10 games, proving the Cowboys' theory that an average running back could produce like a star behind the team's all-world offensive line. With Tony Romo expected back to shore up the team's biggest problem on offense in 2015, inconsistent quarterback play, adding a dynamic talent like Ramsey or Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa to the Cowboys' mediocre defense seemed to be the obvious move.
It may have been obvious, but it didn't happen. The Cowboys brain trust, led by Stephen Jones but no doubt influenced by Jerry Jones, went with flash instead of substance and selected Elliott, the shiniest offensive bauble available. For a while, at least, it worked out.
Thanks to Elliott and fourth-round quarterback Dak Prescott, who became the Cowboys starter after Romo suffered yet another back injury during the preseason, the Cowboys offense was one of the two or three best in football during the 2016 season. The running game rolled up yards in chunks, just as it had the previous two seasons. Prescott protected the football, picked up first downs with his legs when he had to and was great in the red zone. The Cowboys went 13-3 and came within getting one defensive stop of Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers of making the team's first NFC Championship Game appearance since 1995. The Cowboys may not have needed an elite running back, but Elliott's performance as the league's leading rusher certainly took some of the sting out of burning such a high pick on such a fungible position.
Despite 2016's bitter end, the 2017 season was one of the Cowboys' most anticipated since the '90s until Elliott's off-the-field transgressions infringed on his team's on-field future. In August, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Elliott for six games after the league's investigation of domestic violence allegations made by Elliott's ex-girlfriend. Elliott fought the suspension throughout the fall, playing in the Cowboys' first eight games as his appeal played out in the federal courts before conceding and sitting out weeks nine through 14.
Elliott's court battle and absence cost the team dearly. A longer ban, too, could loom for the running back, who stirred controversy by pulling down a woman's shirt at Dallas' 2017 St. Patrick's Day parade and getting into an altercation at Clutch in Uptown. While neither of those incidents resulted in league discipline, any further violation of the league's personal conduct policy by Elliott could result in a lifetime ban from the NFL.
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In Jacksonville, Florida, Ramsey quickly developed into a genuine shutdown cornerback, demonstrating the combination of speed, physical play and ball skills that makes him one of the most exciting young defensive backs in the NFL since his fellow Florida State alumnus, Deion Sanders. Ramsey has seemingly gotten better with every game he's played, helping lead a Jaguars defense that's dragged a mediocre offense to Sunday's AFC Championship Game against the Patriots. While he has gotten into several on-field scraps — most notably with Bengals wide receiver AJ Green — he's faced no off-field disciplinary issues since being drafted by the Jaguars with the fifth pick in 2016.
The part that really hurts is that the Cowboys could've easily ended up with another premium running back, had they skipped on Elliott. Assuming the Cowboys picked Ramsey, they wouldn't have been forced to use both their second- and third-round picks in the 2017 draft on cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis. Teams selected two elite runners, the Chiefs' Kareem Hunt and Saints all-world utility back Alvin Kamara, in the third round while University of Texas ex D'Onta Foreman, who has the skills and running style to be a star in the Cowboys' system, went in the fourth round. There is no doubt that the Cowboys would rather be heading into the offseason with Ramsey and Kamara or Hunt than Elliott and his baggage.
Despite Elliotts' and the Cowboys' troubles, however, the running back will have plenty of time to make things right. If he helps the Cowboys to their first championship in almost a quarter-century, no one will care whether picking him was the right football decision. If he doesn't, or worse, if he gets kicked out of the league, the Cowboys' 2016 draft pick, one that looked like one of the best in franchise history as recently as last year, could go down in infamy.