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Which teams may trade up for Marcus Mariota?
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Which teams may trade up for Marcus Mariota?
Thursday March 19th, 2015

ATHENS, Ga. – Todd Gurley wore brown slacks and a grey zip-up jacket as he spoke to reporters following Georgia’s Pro Day on Wednesday. The outfit contrasted starkly with what Gurley’s teammates were wearing. Most of the Bulldogs working out for NFL teams donned black workout shirts and shorts with white lettering. In comparison, Gurley was decidedly overdressed.

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There was a reason for his wardrobe, of course: Gurley didn’t take part in Georgia’s Pro Day. The Bulldogs’ former running back is in the midst of rehabbing a torn ACL suffered last season. On Wednesday, Gurley wasn’t able to show off his talent for the 31 NFL teams in attendance, a group that included Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien. But Gurley said there’s plenty of tape to watch if teams are interested.

“Good thing I’ve got a little film to prove a little something,” Gurley said with a smile.

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That film is proof that Gurley could be one of the best running backs in the 2015 NFL draft. The tape might be short—after all, Gurley essentially played a mere two and a half seasons in Athens—but the 6'1", 220-pound back overwhelmed most of the SEC during that span. Gurley started 27 of his 30 games in Athens and compiled 18 100-yard rushing games. His 44 total career touchdowns ranks second behind Bulldogs legend Herschel Walker (52). He rushed for 1,385 yards as a true freshman in 2012 and 3,285 in his career, averaging 6.4 yards per carry. And still, the ending to Gurley’s college career could have many NFL teams questioning his viability as a draft pick.

Those questions have little to do with his talent. Instead, NFL minds want to know how he’ll bounce back from an injury that ended his Georgia career. Gurley tore his ACL in a 34-7 win over Auburn last Nov. 15, and as a junior most expected he would never play for the Bulldogs again. Now NFL teams want to make sure they won’t sink money in a broken-down investment on draft day.

On Wednesday, Gurley described his rehab as “pretty smooth,” and he said his plan is to be healthy enough to participate in an NFL team’s mini-camp in July. Dr. James Andrews, who performed Gurley’s surgery last November, refuted reports in February of uncertainty surrounding Gurley’s progress. Asked to assess his health this week, Gurley wouldn’t put a number on it, but he said it has been positive.

“I’m not a trainer, so I can’t really tell you where I’m at exactly.” Gurley said. “But I feel like I’m doing pretty good. I haven’t had any setbacks or anything.”

Of course, an injured knee isn’t the only question mark on Gurley’s resume. Last season the NCAA suspended him for four games for accepting more than $3,000 for autographed items over a two-year period. After entering the year as a top candidate for the Heisman Trophy, Gurley’s potentially stellar season went down the drain. Now Gurley is fielding questions from NFL teams about his decision-making off the field.

“Like I told them before, I made a dumb mistake,” Gurley said. “I should’ve never done it. I knew the rules. I still broke them. But I’m definitely ready to move on and get on to my life. But it’s still going to be something that’s brought up. It’s just something I learn from.”

Gurley spent plenty of time on the practice field on Wednesday, but it was in a supporting role. He said the competitor in him had a tough time not performing on Pro Day. Gurley still met with a number of scouts and he already took in one NFL meeting with the Detroit Lions. He estimates he has about five more scheduled over the coming weeks, including a visit with the Carolina Panthers on Thursday. But Gurley knows the one interview he can nail is the on-field portion.

Georgia hoped Gurley could take part in the team’s Pro Day, and the school considered moving the event back later in the spring to accommodate its star. But Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said Gurley’s response to that option says plenty about his maturity.

“Todd said, “Coach, don’t do that for me,” Richt said. “’I’m going to have plenty of opportunities. What’s the very best for the rest of the guys? If they want to go earlier, let’s go earlier.’ He was very gracious about all that.”

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Many consider Gurley and Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon the two best running backs in the draft. Still, the position hasn’t produced much first-round talent in recent years. No team has drafted a running back in the first round since 2012, when the Cleveland Browns took Alabama’s Trent Richardson with the No. 3 overall pick. In fact, Richardson was one of three running backs taken in the first round that year.

Gurley wants to hear his name called early on draft night. He’s been graded as a late-first to early-second round pick, and this week NFL Network analyst Charles Davis said Gurley is “everything Melvin Gordon is and then some.” SI.com’s Chris Burke projects Gordon as the first running back taken in the draft at No. 17 to the San Diego Chargers.

And Georgia players are adamant that NFL teams would be making a big mistake by passing on Gurley.

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“He’s a guy who has all the talent in the world, but he works like he’s a guy who’s never touched the field,” receiver Chris Conley said. “As cliché as it sounds, he’s the complete package of a running back.”

Said quarterback Hutson Mason: “He obviously gets a lot of fame and a lot of attention, and sometimes a lot of times that gets to those guys’ heads, and you see their work ethic drop. But Todd, I can honestly say he was very consistent with his work ethic. He was always on time and was always trying to mold guys and be a vocal leader.”

As he prepares for the NFL, Gurley has sought advice from current pro players. Conversations with tight end Eric Ebron of the Lions and running back C.J. Spiller of the New Orleans Saints have convinced Gurley to take his rehab seriously. He hopes to receive an invite to the draft in Chicago—“I’d definitely take that chance”—but for now, his draft plans are uncertain. Gurley’s focus for the moment is making sure his knee can withstand an NFL career.

His injury and NCAA troubles notwithstanding, Gurley has the look of an NFL starter. The question is which team takes a chance on him.

“He’s the best player in the draft, without a doubt,” said Georgia center David Andrews. “If I’m drafting someone, I’m drafting Todd Gurley.”

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