With the 2015 NFL draft fast approaching, it’s time for all 32 NFL teams to start getting their draft boards in order and ranking players based on their own preferences. At SI, it’s time for us to do that as well. To that end, Doug Farrar and Chris Burke have assembled their own definitive Big Board, consisting of the players they feel deserve to be selected in the first two rounds.
As we move into the top half of the [hypothetical] first round, each player gets his own, more detailed scouting report. There are few better prospects to start this with than Georgia running back Todd Gurley, who was one NCAA suspension and one knee injury away from having an unbelievable season.
Bio: When he's healthy and not serving time for violations of the NCAA's Byzantine code of conduct, Gurley displays the kind of repeatable production that could make him a true franchise player in the NFL. He missed four games in 2014 for accepting money for autographs, and suffered a torn ACL in his first game back from that suspension against Auburn on Nov. 15. When he was on the field, Gurley put up an insane level of production in every 2014 game, but his best performance came in the season opener against a Clemson defense that ranked first in all of Football Outsiders's collegiate metrics, when he ran 15 times for 198 yards and three touchdowns and added a 100-yard kick return touchdown for good measure.
We're left to wonder what Gurley could have done with a full season, but his history speaks for itself—he set a school freshman record with 17 rushing touchdowns, and finished his college career with 510 carries for 3,285 yards and 36 touchdowns on the ground. If Gurley is able to avoid further knee issues, he may very well be the best player in this draft, regardless of position.
Strengths: Possesses a truly rare combination of power and speed. Most backs at his size simply can't hit the edge with his acceleration and unique second gear. Patient behind his blocks to sweeps and pulls outside, and can hit top speed in a flash. Has a muscular frame that allows him to be merciless with his power in the open field, even when he runs too high; Gurley's blend of acceleration and brute force makes every tackle a real adventure. Has excellent vision to maintain advantage of openings, and can move through them in time. Better lateral agility than you see in most power backs—can juke defenders, though he prefers to plow through or just outrun them. Will add value as a receiver out of the backfield. Laterally quick enough to cut back against the grain and find new gaps on either side of the line. Has a nasty stiff-arm. Decent blocker who can upend defenders when he hits the target right on. Doesn't fumble often and gets a very high percentage of his yardage after contact.
Weaknesses: Gurley's medicals will obviously be a major issue as the draft draws closer and his NFL team hopes for his start time—ACL surgeries generally take six to nine months to fully recover. The physical nature of his play has led to an injury history beyond that (missed three games with an ankle issue in 2013) that may give teams pause. Not especially agile in short spaces, and needs a second to ramp back up when he re-directs, which could be a problem unless he's able to maintain the speed portion of his rare talent equation at the next level. Needs to be more exact with his blocking. But honestly, when we're talking about on-field weaknesses, we're splitting hairs here. The hypothetically healthy Todd Gurley is as close to a sure thing as you'll see.
Conclusion: Every once in a while, a player will hit the draft who alternately makes you shake your head at his pure physical talent, and makes you shake your head just as much when you wonder what might have been. Were it not for the NCAA's outmoded regulations and one knee injury, Gurley may have put together a record-shattering season in 2014. He gained 911 yards, scored nine touchdowns and averaged 7.4 yards per carry in just six games last season. He never gained less than 131 yards in games where he was featured (there was a six-carry, 73-yard performance against Troy in which Gurley was pulled because the Bulldogs beat the Trojans 66-0). It was clear through the season that he was playing at a different level than most people on the field, and against SEC defenses, that's no mean feat.
Gurley was unable to test that knee at the scouting combine in late February or at Georgia's pro day on March 18. The team that drafts him will have to go on faith that the advancements in knee surgeries over the years give players like Gurley more and better opportunities to recover and succeed in the long term. If not, it would be a shame—because this is a rare, special player with unreal potential for NFL success.