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The RB Conundrum: Rams RB Todd Gurley Shows Why Ezekiel Elliott Pick Can't Succeed

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The NFL running back position is not what it was 20 years ago. Why do so many teams struggle to accept that?

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

It's not Todd Gurley's fault.

It's not Todd Gurley's fault the Rams' fourth season under Head Coach Jeff Fisher was also the fourth losing season under Head Coach Jeff Fisher.

It's not Todd Gurley's fault the Rams' offense reached historic nadirs in many aspects.

His performances throughout his Offensive Rookie of the Year-garnering rookie season are not what saw the 2015 St. Louis Rams finish 32nd in the league in offensive yardage gained. They were a byproduct of it.

With the 2016 NFL Draft behind us, eyes are already starting to turn toward the 2017 NFL Draft. With a crop of impressive RB prospects perhaps headlining the early assessments of the next draft class, a piece from Jon Benne at the mothership this AM is looking at how Todd Gurley and Dallas Cowboys rookie RB and #4 overall draft pick from the 2016 NFL Draft Ezekiel Elliott will define the 2017 NFL Draft RB class' draft stock.

It won't, because it already hasn't.

Take Todd Gurley out of it. Forget who we're talking about.

Imagine we're talking about a hypothetical 2014 NFL team that finished with 5,035 offensive yards (28th in the NFL) and 31 offensive touchdowns (21st). Now imagine that team takes an offensive player of undefined position in that year's draft and proceeds to put up 4,761 offensive yards (32nd) and 27 touchdowns (29th).

It's not fair to directly tie the offensive production of the 2015 team to John Doe alone, but you can't extricate him from it.

That's the problem with the misconception people have about Todd Gurley. It's the assumption that he's capable of transcending the limitations of the position in the current era of NFL football. He's not. No running back is.

Part of the issue is that people still associate something to the running back position we don't to others. Consider the following positions: guard, center, middle linebacker and tight end. Each of those positions saw one or less prospect taken in the first round of each of the last three drafts. In fact, here's how each position stacked up through two rounds in the last three drafts:

POS Draft Rd 1 Rd 2
Guard 2016 1 1
2015 1 2
2014 0 1
Center 2016 1 1
2015 1 0
2014 0 1
Middle Linebacker 2016 0 1
2015 1 3
2014 1 0
Tight End 2016 0 1
2015 0 1
2014 1 3

I'm leaving out kickers and punters to help drive this home, because the RB position has a bias that none other seems to enjoy. None of the positions in the table are drafted very highly with any regularity, but we don't see any thinkpieces about "the decline of the guard" or how middle linebackers are being "disrespected in the modern game." Why do we assign so much notional value to the running back position when it has clearly lost most of it? I like how Bill Barnwell put it back in late 2014 previewing the 2015 RB free agency class:

No other non-specialist position is more fungible because so much of what a running back does depends on how well his offensive line plays and how much space is created for him by his quarterback’s ability to throw. Teams have realized this in recent years and mostly stopped treating running backs as precious commodities, only to make an exception when they find that there’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity like signing Toby Gerhart or selecting Trent Richardson in the first hour of the NFL draft or trading a first-round pick for Richardson.

So why do we expect Todd Gurley or Ezekiel Elliott to somehow magically levitate beyond the gravitational pull of the position into some stratosphere that no other running back can reach?

What's perhaps strangest is that the Cowboys were in a unique position to have learned the limitations of the position with respect to an overall running game and offense as a whole having guided DeMarco Murray through his early NFL career.

The Cowboys took Murray in the 3rd round of the 2011 NFL Draft. In 2014, their offensive line and the support of a decent passing game made Murray into the league's rushing leader. A year later, Murray's numbers plummeted in Philadelphia when paired with Sam Bradford, a patchwork O-line and the shift in positional requirements for then-Head Coach Chip Kelly's system. Sadly, some will actually believe that somewhere before and after his 27th birthday, DeMarco Murray went from being "an elite running back" to "washed up."

That's the kind of thinking that oversimplifies the position, and that's the kind of thinking that still tries to legitimize the position to the point of taking one early on in the NFL Draft for teams that (since, yanno, having a selection early on indicates the team isn't really all that good) aren't really all that good.

"Gurley is a game-changing running back, that will elevate the overall improvement of the offense."

"With him back there the passing game should open up and it gives a real threat that cannot be ignored by the defense which helps the play action aspect a lot."

"We are going to run the ball over and over with Gurley and Mason. We are going to eat up tons of clock. We are going to spread the ball around a lot through the air, and occassionally take the tops off of defenses. We are certainly going to eat clock so that this lamborghini defense we have is not on the field every 3rd down."

Todd Gurley was one of the "most unique talents at running back [Fisher] had seen in decades". That's the same Jeff Fisher who coached Eddie George and Chris Johnson with the Titans. The same Jeff Fisher who oversaw Gurley's fine rookie season that patched over the rest of the Rams offense a year ago.

We can point to the QB position all we want. Jared Goff will provide the obvious out moving forward, but the bottom line was the results. Those were real. Those were bad. And those included Todd Gurley.

It's not Todd Gurley's fault.

It's just that he's a running back.