Gur­ley’s MVP look high­lights NFL’s run­ning re­nais­sance

It’s ‘a new age of backs,’ says Cowboys’ Ezekiel El­liott

The Hamilton Spectator - - Sports - SCHUYLER DIXON

Ezekiel El­liott likes to give Todd Gur­ley credit for the NFL’s run­ning re­nais­sance.

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 firstround thing again,” Gur­ley said.

“But those guys are great play­ers.” 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.”

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).

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 eight mil­lion years ago,” Cowboys of­fen­sive co-or­di­na­tor 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 162yard 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 of­fences 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 three­time 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.

TONY AVELAR THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Todd Gur­ley II (30) cel­e­brates a touch­down with of­fen­sive tackle Rob Haven­stein.

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