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Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon and the return of the 1st round running back

There hasn't been a running back taken in the first round of the draft the past two seasons, but two players could change that trend this year.

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The trend of no running backs being taken in the first round of the NFL Draft might be about to change. In what is considered a devalued position, talent seems to be shining through.

"I know over the years we’ve talked about devaluing running backs. At the end of the day, you have to have a few guys who can carry the load," Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said. "This year, I think a couple of those running backs at the top have a chance to be special."

If two are being pointed out as potentially being special, chances are that means Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon. No matter if they’re ordered Gurley and Gordon or Gordon and Gurley, those two are considered by most to be the top running backs in this year’s draft.

Gordon, who came 41 yards shy of breaking the NCAA record for rushing yards in a season this year, seems acutely aware of the perception of his chosen position.

"There’s a lot running backs out here trying to break that trend," Gordon said on Thursday. "We’ve been trying to show people all year that we’re being capable of being drafted in the first round. That’s been a lot of our goals and hopefully we can change that."

The change would be a dramatic one, considering that in 2014, no running back was taken before the 22nd pick in the second round. That year, the Tennessee Titans selected Bishop Sankey out of Washington at No. 54 overall. In 2013, Giovani Bernard was the first one off the board, taken No. 37 by the Cincinnati Bengals.

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Previous first rounders aren’t really helping the cause, though. In 2012, Trent Richardson, Doug Martin and David Wilson were all picked in the first round. In 2011, it was Mark Ingram. C.J. Spiller, Ryan Mathews and Jahvid Best as first-round picks.

Although some of those players has looked good at times, they haven’t been consistent. Some of that can be attributed to the team they’re on or injuries, but generally investing a first-round pick in a running back hasn’t paid off.

"I think we’ve all seen that running backs don’t seem to be drafted quite as high as they used to. I think that has a lot to do with the longevity of the player," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said. "But I do think the value of the running back is really, really critical to having a great running football team."

If there’s one coach that understands the value of having a good running back who can carry the ball a large number of times, it’s Garrett. His running back, DeMarco Murray, carried the ball 392 times last season, 80 more than the next closest back.

"I think you’ll probably find if you really look at it, that running the football is an important part of all championship-type teams," Garrett said. "The runner isn’t the only one who is part of running the football. Controlling the line of scrimmage is big. We’ve made a lot of organizational emphasis over the last few years to use our resources to shore up that offensive line. I think that’s paid dividends for us. But the runner does matter."

If that runner is Gordon, a team will be getting a speedy back with shiftiness in the open field. In Gurley, a team will be getting powerful running back with speed to take runs deep.

"I feel like this class is definitely deep for the running back position," Gurley said. "We have a lot of talent. My job is, I want to be the No. 1 pick. We’ll see how everything goes. I’m just trying to get my knee right."

Gurley is referring to the ACL he tore on Nov. 18 against Auburn. It’s stopping him from working out at the combine and at Georgia’s pro day on March 18. It’s not stopping the hype, however. The NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah has Gurley going in the first round in his latest mock draft. Jeremiah’s NFL Network cohort Charles Davis slots Gurley into No. 16 in his mock draft. ESPN’s Todd McShay has Gurley at No. 31 in his mock draft.

Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson was measured in his thoughts about the position and it’s value.

"I think it’s just the way it goes," Thompson said. "I think whether it’s this year or two years from now or something, there’ll be a year where there’s five of them going in the first round. It’s just cyclical and interesting but it probably doesn’t mean anything philosophically. I don’t think teams are less inclined to take running backs now than they were five years ago."

The overall numbers of running backs taken indicates as much. Since 2000, an average of 23 running backs get taken in the draft. In 2014, the total number of running backs picked was 22. In 2013, it was 26. Still, however, no first-round picks at the position. Gordon thinks one reason is because the NFL is now a more pass-heavy league. He has another theory, though.

"Maybe (teams) just thought the running backs the past couple years aren’t first round talent," Gordon said. "I don’t know. We just have to change that this year and show people we can go in the first round."