Over the past two years, a running back hasn't been selected in the first round of the NFL draft.
Entering the 2014 season, there are a number of players who can realistically expect to break that trend in 2015. One of those players is Todd Gurley of Georgia. The 20-year-old back has played two seasons in college and been very productive. On 387 carries, he has 2,374 yards and 27 touchdowns. On 53 receptions, he has 558 yards and six touchdowns.
Like any potential first round running back, Gurley's physical abilities are easy to see.
Although he's unlikely to actually be as big as he is listed by Georgia, 6'1” and 232 lbs, Gurley is a very big and powerful runner. Just like a Marshawn Lynch or Eddie Lacy, he should be able to consistently break tackles in the NFL whether he is running on the second level or attacking the line of scrimmage. Gurley's physical ability is such that his forward momentum is very rarely stopped without a gang tackle from the defense.
Even though Gurley is a huge body, he is also a very athletic body. He doesn't carry any unnecessary bulk so he is able to move comfortably in space. He can make defenders miss with his quickness in tight areas and he has the burst to score touchdowns from deep. Gurley isn't going to be the next Jamaal Charles or LeSean McCoy, but he doesn't need to be if he wants to be a dominant NFL runner.
It's easy to find starting caliber running backs in the NFL these days. It's not easy to find special backs though. The difference between a starting caliber back and a special back isn't physical It's technical.
Being a physical freak isn't valuable if you're constantly running into walls of bodies at the line of scrimmage. Just ask Trent Richardson. The one trait each of the most productive backs in the NFL share is vision.
Being able to recognize running lanes and make good decisions is very important, but just as important is the ability to do it quickly. Anticipating how plays develop can allow backs to be proactive in how they attack space and set up defenders. On this play, Gurley appears to recognize that his left guard is going to be late to pick up the linebacker who is attacking the line of scrimmage before he receives the football.
When Gurley got the ball, he was being directed towards the left side of his offensive line. As he took his first step with the ball in his chest, his immediate running lane is taken away by the linebacker who was initially attacking the outside shoulder of his left guard. Gurley has a fullback in front of him to account for the linebacker, but that isn't a favorable matchup for the offense.
This is the point of the play when Gurley should be reacting to the linebacker's presence and beginning his motion to turn to the other side of the field.
However, he doesn't need to begin his motion to turn to the other side of the field because he had already done that. Gurley plants his left foot in such a way that he is moving towards the other side of the field as soon as he gets the ball from his quarterback.
Unless this was a designed cutback, it didn't appear to be, Gurley had to anticipate the linebacker getting to the line of scrimmage before the left guard to already be turning to the other side of the field where a wide running lane has opened between his right tackle and his tight end.
As the right linebacker crashes into the backfield and completely disrupts the blocking to that side of the field, Gurley is already reading the positioning of the other linebacker. He recognizes that the other linebacker is trapped inside of the right tackle, so he aggressively attacks the running lane outside of his right tackle.
Gurley's vision and footwork have got him to this point, but now he needs to use his physical ability after the line of scrimmage to exploit the space he found before the line of scrimmage. The running back position is very much like the quarterback position in this sense.
Some quarterbacks can read the defense and make the right decisions all the time without having the physical talent to make the requisite throws, while some running backs have great vision and always make the right decisions but don't have the speed or explosiveness to exploit the space they find.
Two defenders react to Gurley's presence crossing the line of scrimmage quickly. One is a defensive back in a good position to contain his gain to five or six yards. Neither back can get to Gurley before he accelerates past them and continues on deep into the secondary though.
While we admittedly can't be certain that the above play wasn't a designed cutback for Gurley as soon as he got the ball, the context and consistency of his vision allows us to be more presumptuous.
On this play, Gurley immediately recognizes the cutback lane as he receives the football. His outside running lane is immediately taken away by a failed block. On the inside, the defensive lineman working against the offense's right guard (#61) has lost his discipline. His head has dropped as he overreacts to the offensive line sliding to the left.
Gurley's vision is impressive on this play, but it's what he does to exploit the space that really suggests he can be a special back.
As the defensive tackle regains his discipline and gets a favorable position against the offense's right guard, Gurley plants his foot to sharply change direction past his outside shoulder. Both of Gurley's feet leave the ground as he makes a jump cut against the grain of the defense. He soars past the defensive tackle's outstretched arm and instantly accelerates forward into the secondary of the defense without opposition.
Considering his size, this is a phenomenal physical achievement. Only one back in the NFL can boast to be as big as Gurley, as powerful as Gurley, as explosive as Gurley and be able to execute a jump cut as impressive as this. That player rushed for 2,000 yards in 2012.
Jump cuts aren't really subtle, they're explosive and very quick, but it should also be noted that Gurley can make very subtle movements with his feet to take advantage of the defense.
Because it can be very difficult to see the subtlety of a player's footwork through images, and even more difficult from this angle, I am going to use this rainbow effect down the left hashmark to highlight where Gurley puts his feet at different stages of this play.
As Gurley gets the football, his left foot is on the yellow line of the rainbow. At the same time, the blocking scheme ahead of him is failing. The center and left guard block down on their assignments successfully, so the interior of the defensive line is being pushed towards the far sideline. Meanwhile, the left tackle is advancing onto the second level while the right guard pulls to the other side of the field.
All of that movement leaves the Georgia fullback to account for the Clemson defensive end.
The Clemson defensive end hits the fullback and pushes his way onto the fullback's inside shoulder. This creates a running lane for Gurley to attack to the left of the offensive line, but there is a deep defensive back attacking the line of scrimmage and the right guard, the only free blocker left, wouldn't be able to get to the remaining linebacker before he got to Gurley at the line of scrimmage.
Gurley stays on the yellow line instead of rushing towards the left running lane to try and beat the defenders to the spot. From here, Gurley could have attacked the right side of the offensive line, but because his left tackle was coming across the field, he has inside leverage on the linebacker to that side of the field. This means any outside run would negate the positioning of his blocker.
While Gurley is still on the yellow line, he is angling his body to run towards the left side of the offensive line.
A decisive cut has put Gurley's next step on the orange line on the other side of the rainbow line. He is now angled towards the left running lane, where a free defender is waiting for him. Even though he is still moving forward at this stage, Gurley isn't anywhere near at full speed as he hesitates to allow his blocking to develop more.
Instead of continuing towards the outside running lane, Gurley pushes back towards the middle of the defense where he has three blockers. He still can't run to the right side because of the other linebacker, but the interior of his offensive line has the right guard, the fullback and the left tackle in good positions. They haven't yet pushed the defenders off the line of scrimmage, but Gurley is only looking for a slight crack in the defense to exploit.
Once he sees it, he aggressively attacks it.
Gurley continues downfield for a seven yard gain. As he crosses the line of scrimmage, there are three defenders taking away each of the running lanes that he could have attacked if he had rushed the play. Instead, by using his footwork and patience, he was able to help create a running lane with his blocking by manipulating the defense.
While Georgia's blocking on this play wasn't good, we too often see running backs who are willing to run into walls of bodies to try and break through instead of being patient. Even though Gurley is a big back who has the talent to break through walls of bodies, he understands that trying to find space to attack is the smarter approach.
As a runner, Gurley has all the tools required to be one of the NFL's best running backs. However, even the best runners in the NFL also need to be prevalent in the passing game these days.
Not only can Gurley make some very impressive receptions away from his body...
...he also understands how to be patient with his blocking on screen plays. Gurley may never be a varied route runner or be someone who can consistently line up as a receiver, but his ability to break off big plays working from the backfield should be enough to allow him to be productive in different ways. It's not like Adrian Peterson is a great receiving back.
Where Gurley will have some concerns is in pass protection. He is a willing pass protector who has the physical size and short-area quickness to be effective in the future, so that concern is minor in the context of his all-around game.
The running back position has been devalued in the NFL. There is no arguing against that. Backs are no longer receiving big money offers in free agency and a back hasn't gone in the first round of the draft since 2012. Importantly, there is a distinction between value and importance.
Running backs have lost their value because of supply and demand, not because of their importance on the field.
Last season's rookie class of backs showed off how important the impact from the position can be. Eddie Lacy kept the Green Bay Packers offense on track when Aaron Rodgers was injured. Le'Veon Bell became a bellcow for the Pittsburgh Steelers once he got on the field. Zac Stacy lit a spark under the St. Louis Rams offense late in the season, while Giovani Bernard and Andre Ellington proved to be consistent big play threats for the Cincinnati Bengals and Arizona Cardinals.
Because it's the availability of talent and not the importance of the position that is devaluing running backs in the NFL, the trend of high quality backs falling out of the first round won't continue forever.