INDIANAPOLIS -- A generation ago, Georgia running back Todd Gurley may have been a top-10 pick despite the knee injury that cost him a lot of the 2014 season, and the four-game suspension he received for daring to autograph memorabilia for a fee (proving, once again, that the NCAA is the only organization that cares about the NCAA's rules). In today's NFL, Gurley isn't battling against the torn ACL he suffered in mid-November, nor is he fighting against any perception or character issues related to his suspension. If Gurley is able to put up good medicals at the scouting combine, and he says all the right things about his suspension, those past problems shouldn't be issues.
What Gurley's really battling against here is the larger reality that NFL teams, whether they say so publicly or not, view the running back as far more of a fungible entity. There's been no first-round back taken in the last two drafts, and Trent Richardson, who was selected third overall in the 2012 draft by the Cleveland Browns, has been a huge bust with the Colts following a Sept., 2013 trade with the Browns, so much so that the Colts are rumored to be ready to void his contract. Two other backs were taken in the first round that year: Tampa Bay's Doug Martin, whose injury history has made him more of an afterthought, and David Wilson of the Giants, whose injury history ended his NFL career sadly at the age of 23.
Meanwhile, backs selected over the last few years in the third round (Dallas' DeMarco Murray), the second (Pittsburgh's LeVeon Bell and Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy) and the seventh (Baltimore's Justin Forsett) were among the league leaders in rushing. Of the top five rushers in 2014, only Seattle's Marshawn Lynch was a first-round back (and his value had diminished so deeply in Buffalo that the Seahawks ended up getting him for a couple of mid-round picks in 2010.)
This year, in the abstract, there are at least two backs worthy of first-round regard -- there's Gurley, and there's Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, who ran for an NCAA-leading 2,587 yards and 29 touchdowns in the 2014 season. Coaches, scouts and execs will tell you about Gurley's speed, toughness and vision, and Gordon's elusiveness, open-field expertise and underrated toughness.
But in today's NFL, the question still remains: will anyone take a back so high, when the league's risk-assessment model seems to be trending the other way? Let's say that Gurley's on track to be the guy who gained 911 yards and scored nine touchdowns last season even with all those distractions, and Gordon is everything he's cracked up to be. Would NFL teams still pull the trigger?
Gurley took the podium at the combine and expressed confidence that he'll be back fully from the injury, though he won't be able to do anything at the combine, and the recovery time of 6-8 months will keep him from doing anything at his Pro Day in March. Teams will have to go entirely on faith, which complicates the issue pretty seriously.
"I'm doing medical and interviews and all that," he said. "I've been doing light jogging and a little ladder work -- a lot of strengthening for the quad and hamstring. Hamstring curls, single-leg squats and all that."
Gurley knows that he could be a footnote to history as South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore was after his awful knee injury. Then again, he could survive a serious knee injury and still thrive in the NFL, as Willis McGahee and the pre-scandal version of Adrian Peterson have. He's got a belief in this class of running backs, and his place in it.
"We have a lot of talented guys, and my job is to be worthy of the number-one pick. We'll see how everything goes. I'm just trying to get my knee back right, and show teams that I can come back healthy.
"I'm not here to be number five overall, or a second-round pick. I know what I can do, and I feel that I can help a team."
Speaking to the media on Thursday afternoon, Gordon was similarly effusive about his future -- as he should be, since he's taken the pole position once held by Gurley in this draft class.
"There are a lot of running backs out here, including myself, who are trying to break that trend," Gordon said of the first-round drought. "We've been telling people all year that we're capable of being drafted in the first round, that's been our goal, and hopefully, we can change that. There's a lot of talent in this class. We're a close group, and I think we have the talent to go first."
Still, there's the matter of recent history working against Gurley and his compatriots, even if the NFL won't admit it. Packers general manager Ted Thompson, who took Alabama's Eddie Lacy in the second round of the 2013 draft and has seen Lacy develop into a legitimate franchise player in a pass-heavy offense, believes that the decline in perceived running back value is more a matter of coincidence.
"I think it’s just the way it goes," Thompson said. "I think whether it’s this year or two years from now or something, there’ll be a year where there’s five of them going in the first round. It’s just cyclical and interesting but it probably doesn’t mean anything philosophically. I don’t think teams are less inclined to take running backs now than they were five years ago."
Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, who rode Murray to a playoff berth in 2014 and now faces a potential future without the free agent back on the roster, spoke up assertively for the position.
“DeMarco’s a heck of a football player and has been since we drafted him a few years back," Garrett said. "I think you’ll probably find if you really look at it, that running the football is an important part of all championship-type teams. The runner isn’t the only one who is part of running the football. Controlling the line of scrimmage is big. We’ve made a lot of organizational emphasis over the last few years to use our resources to shore up that offensive line. I think that’s paid dividends for us. But the runner does matter. I think we’ve all seen that running backs don’t seem to be drafted quite as high as they used to. I think that has a lot to do with the longevity of the player. But I do think the value of the running back is really, really critical to having a great running football team. I think the history in the NFL proves that. Recent history proves that. He certainly had a big impact on our team.”
As far as plugging another back behind what many believe is the league's best run-blocking line, Garrett wasn't going for that at all.
“I don’t like that expression, ‘Plug another back in there.’ DeMarco Murray led the NFL in rushing by over 500 yards. His impact on our football team was significant, our ability to control the line of scrimmage, control the football, helped the other parts of our team out. He was a big part of all that. The value of being able to hand the ball to somebody 25 times a game, week in and week out, is significant. His impact was huge for our team. But again, there’s a business of the NFL that we all understand. I know both sides are talking, we’re trying to get it done. Understand that every decision we make is in the best interest of the Dallas Cowboys. We feel like DeMarco Murray has done a great job for our football team and we’d love to have him back.”
Seattle general manager John Schneider, who has traveled to the last two Super Bowls on Marshawn Lynch's back to a great degree, agrees that the positional value is still high, and should continue to be.
"I just know that every year you scout and evaluate like every position the runners that are out there, whether it's free agency or the draft. I personally think this is a pretty good running back group this year. I don't have an answer for you whether it is cyclical or not."
The answer that rings true is that it is cyclical for the most part, dependent on talent to a degree, but based on the NFL's schematic changes over the last few years. Gurley and Gordon might be ready for the NFL, but where is the NFL ready to meet them?