In part because NFL news is never-ending, and in part because you just can never read enough about allegedly deflated footballs, one off-season story has gotten a small fraction of the attention it would have gotten during a quieter May.
In a time of radical devaluation of running backs, a tailback five months removed from surgery to repair a torn ACL was selected 10th overall in the 2015 NFL draft.
And so you think one of two things about Todd Gurley: Either he’s really good, or the Rams really reached to pick him in the top third of round one.
“It’s never been a big thing to me, where I get drafted, who drafts me,” Gurley said in the wake of the Rams’ choice—and the revelation (per The MMQB) that St. Louis had the rehabbing runner as the No. 1 overall player on its 2015 draft board. “I always felt it’d be a blessing just to get drafted, and to be able to continue playing football somewhere in the NFL. Tenth overall, whatever… I’m happy to just get drafted, period.
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First, a few factoids about the value of running backs:
1. Of the 13 leading rushers in the NFL in 2014, one (Marshawn Lynch) was a first-round draft pick.
2. In the 2014 draft, the first running back came off the board at the 54th overall pick. That was Bishop Sankey, taken by Tennessee.
3. In the four drafts between 2011 and 2014, only one running back was picked in the top 25 of any draft. That was Trent Richardson, selected No. 3 by Cleveland in 2012.
4. Number of teams that have employed Trent Richardson since 2012: three.
5. Number of 100-yard rushing games by Trent Richardson in his last 40 games: zero.
6. And finally: If you take the top 10 rushers in the NFL in 2014 and figure the average overall draft pick spent on those 10 players, that number would be 95, around the last pick of the third round. (That includes one undrafted free agent, Arian Foster. There were 256 players drafted the year he was not chosen, 2009, and so for the sake of figuring this average, I gave Foster the number 257.)
Strangely, in light of all that, when I called around in the days after the draft about any number of topics, I didn’t hear one GM or personnel man say, The Rams are crazy. In fact, I found out that Tampa Bay had Gurley No. 5 on its board. I found out that one annually intelligent drafting team had Gurley at No. 11—and would have tried to move up into the late teens to get him had he still been on the board around pick 15 or 16.
One reason is that NFL teams trust Gurley’s surgeon, Dr. James Andrews, to be able to put his knee back together again and get it in the same condition, or tighter, than when it was injured last November. Andrews told teams the week before the draft that he’d put his professional reputation on the line that Gurley, when fully healed sometime late this year, will be as good as he ever was, and no more susceptible to chronic knee problems than any other running backs.
The other reason: NFL teams saw Gurley as the best back to come into the draft since Adrian Peterson was picked seventh overall in 2007. The comparison is interesting. Peterson is 6-1 and 218; Gurley is 6-1 and 222. Peterson’s official 40 time is 4.40; Gurley’s estimated 40 time is 4.40. Peterson has reportedly run a 40-yard dash in 4.24 seconds, and Gurley, who ran the 110-meter hurdles at the World Junior Championship in 2011, has been recorded below 4.3 in the 40 too. Peterson has made his living being strong enough to make the tough yards between the tackles and fast enough to hit the home runs outside the tackles. Ditto Gurley.
St. Louis has been dying for a franchise running back. Since Steven Jackson left for Atlanta two years ago—and even before, actually; the Rams thought Jackson was declining in 2012—coach Jeff Fisher has wanted a back like Gurley. Fisher is a throwback coach. Most of the league craves an offense with a 60-40 pass-run split. Fisher would love it to be 50-50, or even 55-45 run. He likes to play offense with a back capable of wearing down defenses with long drives early in games and eating the clock in the fourth quarter.
“Here’s what it came down to for us,’’ said GM Les Snead. “Todd, for us, was one of those once-every-few-years talents, one of the best players we’ve seen come out in a while. We just felt he was somebody we couldn’t pass up. This wasn’t about Week 1 against Seattle, whether he’d be ready to go then; we will let nature takes its course on that. This was a long-term decision.
“One of the things we looked at was the team around him. I’m not sure about this, but it’s possible there might not be an offensive lineman who blocked for him at Georgia who will start at the next level, or play at the next level. When we looked at him on tape, we saw him playing against a lot of seven- and eight-man fronts, which is what he’s going to be seeing when he lines up for us. We saw him playing against not a lot of air, which is what he’s going to be seeing when he plays for us. So that translates pretty well.”
I asked Snead about the Adrian Peterson comparisons.
“I can see people thinking of him at that level,’’ he said. “When you watch him, you see him run like that sometimes.”
“That comparison is not up to me,” he said unemotionally. It’s clear this is not the first time he’s been asked about being the best since Peterson—in the eyes of some. “It’s a great comparison, but it’s not something I have any idea about. I’ve got a long way to go for that.”
Mike Mayock said he likes the Marshawn Lynch comparison more. “St. Louis wants to win games the same way Seattle and San Francisco in the same division do—running the ball and playing great defense and playing great special teams,” the NFL Network analyst said. “I like the fit in St. Louis.”
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Fisher really hasn’t had a workhorse back with some outside burst since Eddie George in Tennessee. And even George would admit he didn’t have the burst Gurley does. But the story here is not just Gurley helping Fisher play football the way the coach has always wanted to. It’s also that the Rams don’t want Nick Foles to have it in his head that he has to throw it 35 times every week for the team to have a chance to win. If Fisher had his way, the quarterback would be a complementary player. He doesn’t want to play a Drew Brees or Peyton Manning game—in part because he doesn’t have Brees or Manning, but mostly because he’s more comfortable playing football the more traditional way.
If the rest of the NFL wants to move the chains with 40 mostly short passes every game, Fisher understands. That’s the way teams are being built. He’d preferred to win with a strong ground game, and a mashing line. Now that he has his preferred front five and running back, we should see by late this season (when Gurley is back to form) if he’s right.
“It’s been a long time coming,’’ Fisher said after the draft, speaking of his desire to get a back he can make his go-to offensive key. “Clearly, he was set back because of the injury, but the athletic ability, the strength, the explosion, the acceleration, the instincts that he has as a runner, and he’s also got great hands out of the backfield. He’s that complete back. This was an opportunity we could not pass up. The board was right.”
He’s referring to the board that had Gurley as the draft’s No. 1 overall player. It’s a risk, particularly when recent history says running backs can be found low in the draft (and after the draft too). Fisher might be putting his future with the Rams on the line with Gurley, and one thing is sure: He’s happy to do it.
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