Ezekiel Elliott likes to give Todd Gurley credit for the NFL’s running renaissance because the Los Angeles Rams star ended an unprecedented two-year drought of backs taken in the first round of the draft.
With MVP-type numbers on a team looking like a Super Bowl contender, Gurley is the best example why it’s a good time to be a running back not many years after the position seemed undervalued in what is still considered a passing league.
“Definitely it’s starting to re-emerge,” said Elliott, who was the NFL rushing leader as a rookie in 2016 with the Dallas Cowboys. “He was the first one in that draft and then as the years went on, more backs started to get picked and they’ve all been doing well. I wouldn’t take all the credit, but I think it’s just a new age of backs.”
And an age of young backs. Gurley went 10th overall to the Rams when they were in St. Louis, followed five picks later by Melvin Gordon to the Chargers when they were still in San Diego. Now both backs are in LA.
Elliott was the first of two straight rookies to win the rushing title, followed by Kansas City’s Kareem Hunt last season. Among the top 10 rushers this season, eight are 25 or younger.
That’s still not getting to New York Giants rookie Saquon Barkley , the No. 2 overall pick and highest back taken since Reggie Bush went second in 2006.
“I guess I kind of did start the first-round thing again,” Gurley said. “But those guys are great players. They put themselves in great positions to be where they are at today, and you see why they are having success in the NFL.”
Elliott got a top-four thing going when the Cowboys drafted the Ohio State star fourth overall in 2016. Now there have been three straight years with a back taken at least that high: Leonard Fournette fourth out of LSU the year in 2017, then Barkley from Penn State this year.
The other top 10 running back over the past three drafts also illustrates one reason runners could be in vogue: their ability as pass catchers. Carolina took Christian McCaffrey eighth overall out of Stanford last year, even with the perception he might be a third-down back.
Now McCaffrey has a respectable 111 carries for the playoff-contending Panthers while ranking fourth among running backs with 49 catches.
“A lot of times teams that had a feature back, he was considered the first- and second-down guy, and then they put in a little scatback to be the third-down receiver,” said Buffalo general manager Brandon Beane, who had a hand in drafting McCaffrey while with Carolina. “Well, now, you’re getting these guys that can do it all.”
Hunt and Barkley have made it back-to-back seasons for rookies to start their careers with six or more straight games of at least 100 scrimmage yards. Barkley’s run ended there, but now he’s at seven of his first eight games despite another miserable season for the Giants (1-7).
Hunt started his career with seven straight last year — the first rookie to do that since Kevin Jones for Detroit in 2004.
Not that multipurpose lead backs are a new thing.
“I don’t think anyone’s ever matched how Marshall Faulk produced in the passing game, and that seems like 8 million years ago,” Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said of a back who was the 2000 NFL MVP in the middle of three straight years with at least 1,300 yards rushing and 800 receiving.
Oh, and Faulk was the second overall pick in 1994.
“I just think of these guys have been doing this stuff in this league for years,” Linehan said. “I think people probably targeted them because they’re the best with the ball in their hands.”
Gurley is well on his way to his first rushing title with 868 yards; leads the NFL with 16 touchdowns, including 12 rushing; and has a chance Sunday against Seattle to become just the fourth player with at least one TD in each of the first 10 games. The others are all Hall of Famers.
The former Georgia standout has a 162-yard lead over James Conner, the replacement for Le’Veon Bell in Pittsburgh when Bell decided to stay away from the Steelers rather than play under the franchise tag.
Conner’s emergence also shows the depth of the 2017 class — even with Fournette missing all but two games with a hamstring injury after rushing for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns as a rookie for a team that reached the AFC championship game.
The second-year group has two of the NFL’s top three rushers in Conner and Hunt, who have almost 1,400 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns between them, while Hunt has another six receiving TDs.
The versatility of 2017 Offensive Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara helps quarterback Drew Brees in one of the NFL’s best offenses in New Orleans. Dalvin Cook (Minnesota) and Joe Mixon (Cincinnati) are expected to play leading roles in their respective run games.
And forget for a moment about the draft. Another second-year player, Matt Breida in San Francisco, is ninth in the NFL with 531 yards rushing after going undrafted. Denver rookie Phillip Lindsay is sixth at 591 after not getting selected.
“A lot of times there’s a lot of backs in the draft,” Washington coach Jay Gruden said. “You might be able to get one that’s close in the second round, but you won’t get that left tackle who’s a star in the second round or that defensive lineman or that outside ’backer or that corner.”
There’s a different kind of renaissance with the Redskins: an “old” guy leading the way. Adrian Peterson, the 33-year-old three-time league rushing champ, has helped Washington to the NFC East lead by ranking fifth with 604 yards.
“I don’t think that position’s ever been devalued,” Gruden said. “I think you look at what Zeke’s done and you look at some of the other young running backs, Le’Veon Bell, and what type of impact they can have on your football team.
“We’re learning that right now firsthand with Adrian Peterson. Even though we didn’t draft him, obviously, but the impact these backs can have on your football as far as running game, controlling the clock and then the play-actions. It’s big time.”
It’s been big at draft time recently as well.