FRISCO, Texas — Ezekiel Elliott won’t be running off to federal court the week of the season opener the way he did last year, when the star running back of the Dallas Cowboys was fighting the NFL’s six-game suspension over domestic violence allegations.
While the 2016 NFL rushing leader knew he would suit up for the first game last year as the case played out in court, he had no idea beyond that. This time, there’s no question about Elliott’s availability after Sunday’s trip to Carolina.
“I would never say last year I wasn’t engaged with the game,” he said Wednesday. “It is a lot more stress free, though. I would say that.”
Elliott triggered a handful of questions about his motivation after offering the “chip on my shoulder” cliche. One question boiled down to this: Was he trying to prove he’s the best back in the NFL?
“That’s exactly it,” said Elliott, who led the league in yards rushing per game last season while finally serving the suspension starting at the halfway point. “I want to prove I’m the best back in the game. That’s what my focus this offseason was.”
Elliott didn’t play a snap in the preseason for the first time in his three years as a pro. He says he’s ready anyway. Right guard Zack Martin says all anyone needed to do was watch Elliott in training camp in California.
“Something just feels different,” Martin said. “I think he’s ready for a big year.”
The Cowboys are counting on it. Quarterback Dak Prescott, Elliott’s fellow rookie standout two years ago, has a revamped group of receivers after the departures of 15-year tight end Jason Witten and franchise touchdown receptions leader Dez Bryant.
Dallas isn’t making any secret over feeding off the player known for his “feed me” gesture every time he gets a first down. It doesn’t seem to matter to the Cowboys — or Elliott — how many defenders will be close to the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped.
“I mean, we’ve faced eight, nine, 10-man fronts every week since I got here,” Elliott said. “I don’t know how many more guys they can throw in the box. Yeah, there’s going to be more focus, I believe, on me. 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.”
Elliott’s legal drama played out almost week to week last season. During the week before his final game before the suspension, he was forced to be away from the team for several days until getting a legal reprieve two days before the Cowboys beat Kansas City.
“There was a lot of stuff going around in his life that he had to deal with,” coach Jason Garrett said. “For the most part when he was here he was pretty locked in and did what he needed to do. Now that it’s behind him, you just see him that much more focused, that much more ready to go.”
Even with the suspension, Elliott has the most yards rushing through two seasons (2,614) for a franchise that once featured all-time NFL rushing leader Emmitt Smith and another Hall of Famer in Tony Dorsett.
There are questions about the offensive line with center Travis Frederick battling a condition that has sidelined him indefinitely, and a rookie starter at left guard in second-round pick Connor Williams.
All the more reason for Elliott to apply the focus he tried to carry throughout the offseason.
“How that carries it over to the field, how that helps the field, is when I get out there, I’ve taken all the mental reps I need to,” Elliott said. “I’ve taken all the physical reps I need to. Mentally, I know my assignment, I know my landmarks, I know my pace. It’s like when I get in the game, I’ve been there before.”
And this year, he plans on being there the whole time.
“I’m young,” Elliott said. “Got fresh legs. 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.”
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