The site is the NFL Draft, where many players’ futures are decided. Many are chosen on the opening night of the three-day event, unless of course you play running-back. Between 2013 and 2014, no running backs were selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. The 2015 iteration however, marked a reversal of that trend.
In the previous several years, much had been made about the declining value of running backs in professional football. “Don’t take one in the first round” would be a golden rule spoken as gospel by NFL talent evaluators, while also often hearing suggestions not to pay backs long-term, big money extensions. This is the notion that has largely surrounded the position in the past fifteen years.
Yet the 2015 Draft began providing arguments against this narrative. With the #10 pick, the St. Louis Rams took Georgia product Todd Gurley, who was selected despite coming off a torn ACL. This marked the first running back to be selected in the 1st round of the draft since David Wilson in 2012. Only five selections later, the San Diego Chargers nabbed Wisconsin back Melvin Gordon. While noteworthy selections at the time they occurred, their larger impact has been seen in the few years that followed. Over the next three drafts (2016-2018), 6 running backs were selected in the 1st round, along with several others in the 2nd round.
With the weight of 1st-round pedigrees, Gurley and Gordon have always been under intense scrutiny. Yet early on, both backs shined.
Gurley was an instant star for the Rams, showing off a rare combination of speed, power and vision with the ball in his hands right from the jump as a rookie, carving out over 1100 rushing yards in only 13 games. Despite a down 2nd year, when Rams offensive wizard Sean McVay arrived on the scene for Gurley’s third season, the former 1st rounder exploded to new heights, with a two-year run with back to back seasons of 1800 total scrimmage yards to go along with 40 total touchdowns over the time frame. Gurley earned two pro-bowl trips to go along with an Offensive Player of the Year award in 2017.
Likewise, Gordon became a focal point of an electric Chargers offense. Being one of the quickest backs in the league along with superb receiving ability, the Wisconsin product became one of the league’s ultimate dual-threats. He began his rookie season slower than Gurley, but absolutely broke out in his sophomore season, racking up nearly 1400 total yards and 12 total touchdowns. Following his breakout campaign in 2016, Gordon had two more immensely productive seasons, displaying a nose for the end-zone in scoring 26 touchdowns. Gordon had become a star on a loaded Chargers team.
These histories make it all the more shocking that both of their original teams have decided to cut bait with their now former stars just a season removed from high-level production. Gurley and Gordon both have unique stories that have led us to this point. To that end, it is fascinating to speculate if either, or both players can rebound with their new teams next season. Let’s take a look into each of their stories.
Todd Gurley: An NFL Mystery
Todd Gurley appeared to be on a Hall of Fame trajectory after his first four NFL seasons. The Rams star had already made three Pro-Bowls and three All-Pro teams, while also leading a football resurgence for the franchise. The Rams even appeared in the Super Bowl in Gurley’s 4th season. However, the Rams run in the playoffs that season is where a concerning narrative began to circle Gurley.
Talk late that season and into the playoffs, revolved around the running back’s health. His usage late in the regular season began to wind down, as justified by Coach Sean McVay to rest the star up for the playoffs. Yet in the playoffs, a similar trend developed. While Gurley played in every game, many pointed out that he was used less than veteran back-up CJ Anderson, whom the team had signed in the midst of the season. This became alarming during the Rams’ Super Bowl LIII loss to the Patriots where Gurley touched the ball a mere 11 times despite the team mightily struggling to produce offense.
In the offseason, speculation surrounding Gurley’s health continued. This time, reports signalled that the runner had what a CBS source described as an “arthritic component to his knee”. The long-term perception of Gurley was significantly in doubt from that day on. The optics for the Rams could not have looked worse, given that only a year prior the team had given Gurley a contract extension that at the time reset the market for running backs. Much loomed as the 2019 season began with the mystery surrounding how healthy Todd Gurley would be, on top of the high expectations for the Rams.
The results? A team that was coming off a Super Bowl appearance looked a shell of its former self, and Gurley was no different. Gurley managed a career low in both rushing yards (857) and total yards (1064) and averaged a poor 3.8 yards a carry. He did, however manage to score 14 total touchdowns but many were quick to evaluate that Gurley had lost some of his trademark explosiveness. The Rams, who had dropped from a 13-3 record in 2018 to 9-7 in 2019 while missing the playoffs, had a looming question about the future of Gurley.
We now have our answer: the Rams opted to cut their losses with Gurley, absorbing large dead cap penalties in order to avoid future financial commitments. I figured, along with some others, that Gurley might have had to wait a while on the market. Given the circumstances around the current pandemic, teams cannot get their own doctors in to do full physical evaluations on players. Which is why I was personally shocked to see that the Atlanta Falcons swooped in to grab Gurley just days after his release, signing him to a one-year deal worth approximately six million.
With his new team, Gurley comes home to Georgia, where he starred in college with the Georgia Bulldogs. Can he do the same with the Falcons? It is difficult to say whether if he can rebound to his previous levels of production or if he truly has become a victim of his injuries at just 25 years-old. In Atlanta, Gurley will almost assuredly be the lead-back, given the team’s thin depth at the position after releasing former running back Devonta Freeman earlier last month. He joins an offense that has an established franchise quarterback in Matt Ryan, an all-time wide receiver in Julio Jones and several other high caliber contributors on the offensive side. The team has a much-maligned head coach in Dan Quinn who faces a make or break season with a defense that has been shaky to say the least over the past few years. This is to say that the Falcons will indeed rely on Gurley to be a big piece of their squad next season. But can he deliver?
While on the surface Gurley appears to not be the same running back he was before reports of his lingering injury, the numbers say we might need a bigger sample size to find out. His 2019 production looks eerily similar to his 2016 sophomore campaign on a statistical basis. In 2016 he ran for 885 yards versus 857 in 2019 despite playing one less game. His yards per carry figure was actually lower in 2016 (3.2) than this past season (3.8). Finally, he managed only 6 total touchdowns in 2016 versus 14 this past season. This is to say that maybe the steep decline in production this past season is not entirely on Gurley but perhaps more so on the Rams, who had a significant change along the offensive line prior to last season, losing key contributor Rodger Saffold at guard.
Perhaps then Gurley should more or less be given the benefit of the doubt. That is why this coming season is so intriguing to further uncovering the mystery that is Todd Gurley’s career. What better way to decide it than heading back home in the national spotlight.
Melvin Gordon: Fighting History
Gordon, though not on the same Hall of Fame arc as Gurley, was a star in his own right by 2018. Being one of the key linchpins on a 12-4 Chargers team, the future never looked brighter for the former first rounder. Then, came the 2019 offseason.
Unlike his draft-day counterpart Gurley, who received a lofty extension from the Rams in 2018, Gordon was facing the possibility of entering the 2019 season with one year left on his rookie contract. Running backs like Gordon and Gurley rarely see large second contracts for many reasons such as concerns about workload as they get older. In this sense, Gordon was fighting the strong narrative against paying top dollar for running backs. With one year left on his contract, he took action. He held out from offseason workouts, training camp, and later part of the 2019 season in search of a new deal. This proved to be a failed strategy.
Not only did the Chargers hold off on giving Gordon his contract requests, but the team became more reliant in his absence on his back-up, Austin Ekeler. Upon his return to the field, Gordon was fairly productive, rushing for 612 yards and catching 42 passes for 9 total touchdowns. However, the team struggled as a whole and now finds itself picking in the top 10 of this month’s draft. The Chargers reportedly offered Gordon a contract of around $10 million annually during a point in his holdout, and this was as high as the team was willing to go. Reports just prior to free agency this season claimed that the Chargers offered Gordon contracts even lower than that 10 million annual average.. To make matters worse for Gordon, the team extended Ekeler to a new four-year contract last month, signaling that the team’s priorities had changed. Ultimately, the extension never came, leaving Gordon no choice but to enter the free market.
With none of the health concerns of Gurley, I expected Gordon to sign first. That did not happen, as Gordon, despite drawing interest, remained on the market after several days. This was likely due to Gordon not receiving the offers that were anticipated in terms of annual value. Ultimately though, he inked a two-year pact with the Denver Broncos for roughly $16 million total.
The Broncos are a fascinating team to keep an eye on going into the 2020 NFL season and the addition of Gordon only adds to the intrigue. He pairs with established young back Phillip Lindsay, a true gem the Broncos uncovered two seasons ago. Lindsay already has back-to-back 1000 yard seasons to begin his career and now has Gordon to lighten the load. Gordon should especially help out in the passing game, an area where Lindsay is not as prominent. However, striking the right balance between the two runners, especially with Gordon on a short-term deal looking to prove himself again, will be key. Additionally, Gordon has even signaled publicly that he would love to stick it to his old team, which is evidenced in his decision to go to Denver to stay within the AFC West. He will be motivated to prove the Chargers wrong and he will get two up close matchups to do so in each of the next two seasons.
Ultimately, I believe the Gordon addition will be judged upon not only his personal production, but his impact on the team’s success as a whole. This was a move that is certainly welcomed by Broncos fans, but certainly not one they were required to make, given how established Lindsay already is. Therefore, Gordon’s tenure will likely be judged upon if he can help the Broncos emerge as playoff contenders over the next few seasons. On paper, the Broncos now have one of the best backfield’s in the league, and expectations of this being a breakout season in Denver put plenty of pressure on Gordon’s shoulders.
Coming Full Circle
Ultimately, since the day they were drafted, Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon have and always will be linked. As recently as just over a year ago, it appeared as though they would help lead an evolution of the value of running backs, and in some ways, they arguably did. They helped the perception of drafting running backs early on draft day by making instant impacts with their teams in both the rushing and receiving game, making teams imagine of what adding an elite athlete at running back could do for offenses. Yet, there’s no denying that their stock has trended down over the past year, with much riding on a strong 2020 bounce-backs for both Gurley and Gordon.