In 2015, years before some people wrapped their entire identity around trying to appear smart by publicly proclaiming everyday to not invest in the running back position, I remember that former Turf Show Times managing editor Joe McAtee and I came together to agree that the Los Angeles Rams made a mistake by drafting Todd Gurley with the 10th overall selection.
Now it’s my turn to flout my flute about how smart I thought I was for criticizing the Rams that week. But in actuality, Gurley had plenty of high notes over the first four years of his NFL career.
Though the phrase “running backs don’t matter” wasn’t popularized until 2018 (I know because I was involved in the creation of an article that helped start it), the tide against the running back position was forming at least a decade ago. It’s so old that “running backs don’t matter” and the entire Twitter team that continues to push this agenda is simply hack at this point.
Move onto something new. Find original ways to innovate.
In the mid-aughts, it was not unusual to see a running back drafted in the top five, as Ronnie Brown, Cadillac Williams, Cedric Benson, and Reggie Bush can attest to. In fact, they can attest to it so hard, that those four names are four of the most usual suspects for explaining why we don’t see running backs in the top 10 anymore.
Though other examples from the aughts of top-10 running backs would include LaDainian Tomlinson and Adrian Peterson, there were too many backs who underwhelmed and disappointed because of injuries or a bad supporting cast. Following the whiffs on Ryan Mathews, C.J. Spiller, Knowshon Moreno, and Darren McFadden from 2008 to 2010, the tide had turned badly against first round running backs by 2011.
From 2011 to 2014, only Trent Richardson (3rd), Mark Ingram (28th), Doug Martin (31st), and David Wilson (32nd) had been running backs drafted in the first round.
So yeah, the argument against drafting a running back started well over a decade ago and it was kind of already decided by the NFL themselves in beginning of the 10s... and I don’t know why you’d still wrap your identity around this “anti-running back investment” movement when the entire NFL and the vast majority of fans have already moved on. The NFL STARTED the anti-running back investment movement well before Twitter was even a popular website owned by an alien from another planet.
And speaking about aliens, Todd Gurley came in and mucked up the gears once again in 2015. Or at least, Les Snead kind of did.
People were not shocked when the Cleveland Browns drafted Trent Richardson with the third pick in the 2012 draft, and it was even less surprising that Richardson rushed for 950 yards and 11 touchdowns as a rookie with another 367 yards through the air; in fact, Trent Richardson was an NFL Top-100 player (71st!!!) after his rookie season. But then no first round running backs were selected in 2013 or 2014.
To then take one 10th overall in 2015 seemed a little ludicrous, especially for a team with as many needs as the Rams had back then.
Just one year earlier, Snead’s first round consisted of the biggest bust (Greg Robinson) and the biggest steal (Aaron Donald) of the 2014 first round, and I recall that me and Joe spent hours talking about how awful it would be for the Rams to draft Todd Gurley, a move that many had been expecting.
We did a podcast together shortly after the Rams selected Gurley with the 10th overall pick (players who went off the board directly after him: Trae Waynes, Danny Shelton, Andrus Peat, DeVante Parker, Melvin Gordon, Kevin Johnson, Arik Armstead, Marcus Peters, Cam Erving, and Nelson Agholor) and railed on about how the value of the running back position could no longer meet the expectations of being an early first round pick.
Years later, many would say that we were justified in our beliefs back then.
But from 2015 to 2018, I’m not so sure about that.
Gurley won Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2015, went to the Pro Bowl, and was a second team All-Pro. Over the first four games of his career, Gurley rushed for 566 yards and scored three touchdowns.
In 2016, the final year for Jeff Fisher, Gurley failed to rush for over 85 yards in any of his 16 contests, and his 3.2 yards per carry was as bad as it gets for an NFL starting running back. The “haters” were back in full effect.
Sean McVay was not one of the haters.
When McVay arrived in 2017, he unlocked the full potential of a 23-year-old Todd Gurley. Over the next two seasons, Gurley averaged 88 rushing yards and 47 receiving yards per game, he led the NFL with 40 touchdowns scored, he was a first team All-Pro both times, and he was the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2017.
The Rams also went 22-5 over his first 27 starts between 2017 and 2018, until an injury derailed Gurley’s career and L.A.’s offense at the end of the 2018 season. Though C.J. Anderson did an admirable job and was impressively productive in the 2018 playoffs, he was no Todd Gurley.
If you can’t see the difference, you can still be saved. I was. Eventually, I came to see the light.
Todd Gurley vs The Philadelphia Eagles 2017. One of @TG3II most exciting games with 135 yards and 2 TDs. Gurley had amazing balance for a bigger runner. The true MVP of 2017, if you ask me. And look at @Rodger_Saffold mauling players on the move! Love the effort even in defeat pic.twitter.com/4QtpBIT2SF— RAMS ON FILM (@RamsOnFilm) April 5, 2022
But fittingly enough, Todd Gurley also helped destroy the value of running backs once and for all.
The Rams made a huge mistake by extending Gurley and ultimately his propensity for injuries is also what made every fan wary of using first round picks—or extending stars to new contracts—anyone who plays the running back position. That essentially came down to the contracts of Gurley and Le’Veon Bell around the same time and now the value or running backs hasn’t been this low since the early 10s.
Ezekiel Elliott, Christian McCaffrey, Leonard Fournette, and Saquon Barkley were all top-10 picks from 2016 to 2018. But since 2019, the only first round backs have been Josh Jacobs, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Travis Etienne, and Najee Harris, and none of them were drafted earlier than 24th.
There is not expected to be a first round running back in 2022. A big season by Texas running back Bijan Robinson could potentially change that in 2023.
But I have to give credit to Gurley for proving me wrong over the first four seasons of his career. Other than a Fisher blip in 2016, Gurley was one of the most electrifying and valuable players in the NFL for two seasons and he helped guide L.A. to winning records and being in position to reach the Super Bowl in 2018. I do not believe for a second that Anderson or Tre Mason could have done the same and that’s without taking any credit away from McVay or the offensive line. Gurley did his part.
It was also Gurley who helped prove the “anti-running back investment” people right, but not until a few years after the draft.