INDIANAPOLIS — Just a few years ago, there was a trend with running backs in the NFL.
There were questions about how much the position still held value, particularly because backs appeared to be interchangeable. Consequently, no running back was selected in the first round of the draft in 2013 and 2014.
But now it appears that line of thought has dwindled. The Rams ended the first-round drought in 2015 by selecting Todd Gurley at No. 10 overall. And Gurley has since shown his immense value by becoming the 2015 AP Offensive Rookie of the Year and the 2017 AP Offensive Player of the Year.
Between those two seasons, Gurley did have a tough 2016. But the Georgia product was able to thrive under the guidance of head coach Sean McVay, finishing the year atop the league in yards from scrimmage, total touchdowns, and rushing touchdowns.
"He's a fun player to work with. And the thing that I was so impressed with with Todd when we came in last year is the way that he went about his business, his day in day out — worked extremely hard," McVay said at the NFL Combine this week. "You could see he took an intentional approach to get better, become a more complete back."
"He was offensive MVP for reason. Special, special player," general manager Les Snead said, referring to Gurley's 2017 award. "Did it a lot of different ways. Running the football, catching the football, scoring touchdowns."
Gurley is part of the reason the value of the running back may be on the rise once again, but there are plenty of others around the league who have contributed to that as well. Players like Le'Veon Bell, Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram, Ezekiel Elliott, Christian McCaffrey, Kareem Hunt, and LeSean McCoy — among many others — have all displayed an ability to be game breakers at running back.
"I think is it the value of the running back but sometimes, especially the last few guys, they're just … really talented human beings. So if they had played something else maybe the value of that position would have gone up," Snead said. "So it probably depends on the person that's actually putting on the helmet. And I think the value of the running back gets more valuable when that player actually is one of your more important offensive weapons and how a coach can use it.
"But it's interesting, going back to when we were in high school: who touched the ball the most? The running back," Snead continued. "And it's probably still that way in the NFL, so I think it's always been a very important position."
Still, different running backs have different styles and skill sets. And that can also affect the way a player is characterized and valued.
"Are they more in line, first- and second-down-type running backs? Are they more change of pace? Can they catch? And the really good ones can do both where, you can run between the tackles but also send him out," Snead said. "And that way when this running back is in the game at least the defense is on its heels a little bit in terms of, 'All right what is he going to do?' Where if you get specialized defensive coordinator's going to go, 'OK so and so is in the game they're probably going to throw it or block it.' But I think now in college football it's hard to be a running back and not catch the football."
That leads to Friday's activities at Lucas Oil Stadium, where running backs are among the positions going through on-field workouts at the Combine. One such incoming rookie is Saquon Barkley, who completed an electrifying career at Penn State with 3,843 yards rushing and 43 rushing touchdowns plus 1,195 yards receiving and eight receiving touchdowns in three seasons.
Given that the Rams have the 23rd overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft — and, oh by the way, have a guy named Gurley — they're not truly in the market for a top-tier back like Barkley. But Snead did have some praise for the Nittany Lion in his Thursday presser.
"It's always fun when you're watching a player and you know there's no chance he's getting to you. And we've got a good running back so you're probably not picking him, and [if] he does fall to you, you might trade that pick," Snead said. "But you know he's not getting there and it's fun, [so] you sit back and go, 'Wow, this guy's just fun to watch.' He did some amazing things."
But so did the Rams' running back throughout 2017, which is why Snead said this:
"He's one of those guys, if I was paying to go see a game, I'd say, 'Let's go to see Todd Gurley and one of the Gurdles' — that's what we've nicknamed the hurdle, the Gurdle," Snead continued, explaining the term to the Combine's national media. "So it's just fun to watch him and … I can tell you this — he really helps the Rams offense."