Subject: better option in the passing
Content: Ezekiel Elliott never has offered much about his state of mind at training camp a year ago when the star running back of the Dallas Cowboys faced the possibility of a suspension over domestic violence allegations. So let his position coach explain the difference now that the drama is gone. ”You go at this time last year <a title="" href=""></a> , he’s very stressed out,” running backs coach Gary Brown said. ”Wasn’t himself. Looked big. Now he looks happy and jubilant and lean and just going out there and having some fun. So it’s a completely different Zeke than it was last year.” The six-game suspension was announced while the Cowboys were in California last year. Elliott’s legal team sued after the club had returned to Texas, sparking a two-month court fight that finally ended with the 2016 NFL rushing leader serving the ban halfway through the season. Elliott had an uneven start last year before looking more like the rookie sensation who helped lead the Cowboys to an NFC-best 13 wins alongside quarterback Dak Prescott, the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year on that playoff team. Then Elliott ran out of legal options , the Cowboys lost three straight games and Dallas ultimately missed the postseason at 9-7. There isn’t any waiting and wondering now. ”I am just ready to go out there and prove myself and be the running back I am for this team,” Elliott said in his first meeting with reporters at camp. ”And go out there and have a good year.” The suspension wasn’t the only thing that had Elliott in the headlines last year. There was video of him pulling down a woman’s shirt during a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Dallas. The NFL cited that incident in its letter detailing his punishment while saying it didn’t play a role in the outcome of a yearlong investigation conducted despite prosecutors in Ohio not pursuing the case. Elliott also was linked to a fight outside a bar not long before the team reported to California last July, although his name didn’t appear in the police report detailing the incident. This offseason came and went without any significant headlines. ”I am being more cautious, more focused on my game,” said Elliott <a title="Mike White Color Rush Jersey" href="">Mike White Color Rush Jersey</a> , who turned 23 last week. ”And focused on having a good year.” After leading the league with 1,631 yards rushing in 2016, Elliott had the best per-game rushing average last season at 98.3 yards. His 2,614 yards through two seasons are the most in franchise history, ahead of NFL all-time rushing leader Emmitt Smith and another Hall of Famer, Tony Dorsett. The Cowboys aren’t making any secret about building their offense around him. Dallas dumped Dez Bryant, the franchise leader in touchdown receptions, in a cost-cutting move in the offseason. They believe the passing game with Prescott is best-suited feeding off Elliott. That’s why the Cowboys were as interested as Elliott was in a quiet offseason for the former Ohio State star. ”It’s important for him, it’s important for his teammates <a title="" href=""></a> , it’s important – obviously – for our franchise and what people’s thoughts are on him,” executive vice president of personnel Stephen Jones said. ”I think it was huge that he was able to really get his hands around what this is all about – the challenges that are out there. Hopefully it’ll continue.” With Bryant and 15-year tight end Jason Witten gone, Elliott mentions leadership every time he talks to reporters now. While acknowledging that vocal leadership doesn’t come naturally for him, he’s shown some signs in position drills at camp. ”I think he’s grown into it pretty well,” Brown said. ”Obviously he’s not a vocal leader. But I think he leads by example. When guys see him finishing the way he finishes and working the way he works, that speaks louder than his voice.” As for Brown’s ”happy” thoughts about Elliott, the 2016 All-Pro will whoop and holler from time to time while carrying the ball to end zone even after the whistle blows during practice. ”I think he’s in good spirits,” backup running back Rod Smith said. ”I’ve seen what he went through last year and seeing him to be able to overcome all of that and just to see him now just having to worry about nothing but football, it’s a beautiful feeling.” Owner Jerry Jones supported Elliott’s legal fight even though it kept the issue lingering over the team when a quicker resolution might have given the Cowboys a better chance at a playoff push late in the season. ”I just think he looks veteran-ish <a title="Antonio Callaway Color Rush Jersey" href="">Antonio Callaway Color Rush Jersey</a> ,” Jones said Sunday. ”I think he looks confident. I think he’s getting good hard work in. Fundamental work. He just looks sound to me. I’m glad to see him get that solid work in.” — Jerick McKinnon had a steep learning curve when he arrived in San Francisco as the highly paid featured back for the 49ers. After four seasons as mostly a backup in Minnesota, McKinnon was one of San Francisco’s big-ticket additions in free agency this offseason and took some time to learn coach Kyle Shanahan’s complex new offense. ”When I first got here, I was lost. I was really lost,” McKinnon said. ”My head was spinning. It’s different protections I have to learn, different concepts I have to learn and basically I have to take my whole way of thinking for four years and switch it up to a new one. I guess it’s complex when you’re new to it, but once you start studying it, you get it. I’m starting to get it.” McKinnon has shown just that early in training camp. He broke a long run around the left side on the team’s first 11-on-11 drill of the summer and also has made several catches out of the backfield. Those skills are why the 49ers gave the career backup a $30 million, four-year contract this offseason. McKinnon will get paid $12 million in 2018. Only Todd Gurley and Saquon Barkley have signed contracts that will pay them more this season, according to But McKinnon feels no added pressure because of the high price tag. ”I’ve had the same mindset I’ve had since my rookie year <a title="" href=""></a> , which is coming in and working,” he said. ”A lot of guys get contracts and some of them get content. For me, it’s about staying the same and continuing to work and showing my teammates how I work and what I bring to the table and pushing everybody around me.” McKinnon spent four years in Minnesota after being drafted in the third round in 2014 out of Georgia Southern. He has rushed for 1,918 yards with an average of 4.0 yards per carry, has 142 catches for 984 yards, and has scored 12 touchdowns. McKinnon had his most productive season last year, when he ran for a career-high 570 yards while setting personal bests with 51 catches for 421 yards. McKinnon replaces Carlos Hyde, who left as a free agent for Cleveland. McKinnon has more speed and is a better receiving threat than Hyde and should fit well into Shanahan’s offense. But Shanahan said McKinnon’s strengths start as a runner. ”You have to be a good running back to truly get the effects of being good in the pass game because if you’re only good in the pass game, then they can just treat you as a receiver and it’s different <a title="" href=""></a> ,” he said. ”So, it starts with being a running back and we really like him as a running back. We studied every run he had in Minnesota. I think he fits in the type of runs we do very well. He’s got the speed. He’s got the cutting ability and he’s got the toughness to run through arm tackles. Then the pass game is the huge bonus. He is a matchup issue. He’s very good in his routes. … Just versatility-wise, he’s going to help us a lot.” Having a running back who is a threat in the passing game is a crucial part of Shanahan’s offense. The Niners ranked third in the NFL last year with 113 receptions out of the backfield, up from just 67 the previous year under Chip Kelly. While Hyde had a team-high 59 catches last season, he wasn’t particularly productive. He averaged just 5.9 yards on those catches and turned only 28.8 percent of them into first downs. Those numbers are significantly below McKinnon’s 8.3 yards per catch and 39.2 percent first downs as his skills make him a better option in the passing game. ”Jerick is a unique talent,” quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said. ”He can do things out of the backfield. You can line him up in the slot. … He can do so many different things that it’s hard for a defense. What do you put on him? A linebacker, a safety, a corner? It’s a pick your poison type of thing so it makes my job a whole lot easier.” — .