Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that this year's NFL Draft may be the first in three seasons to see a running back picked in the first round. In fact, many are projecting two running backs -- Georgia's Todd Gurley and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon -- to get taken on the first day, possibly in the top 20.
So, which player will have a better career? Which running back will buck the committee-backfield trend and become an NFL bell cow for their new team? Let's take a quick look at both players' key attributes, and see how they stack up side-by-side.
Power, balance on contact
The Georgia prospect measured out at 6'1, 222 pounds at the Combine and looks the part as an NFL running back. He's well proportioned - not too high cut or low cut, has a thick lower half and big hands. He's a powerful inside runner that packs some punch behind his pads, and has good forward lean between the tackles. His inside runs aren't always smooth -- he frequently stumbles and chops his legs herky-jerky with his head down -- but he's always picking up positive yardage and is mindful to keep his feet punching and lower body churning.
He's got a sneaky-effective and subtle stiff-arm that discards would-be tacklers with apparent ease. He makes sharp, understated jukes and cuts that eliminate the real need to run people over -- he'll usually look to inflict some damage as the run finishes on the sideline -- but he often powers through arm tackles and churns through attempts at the lower legs.
One thing that makes me believe he'll be an excellent pro runner is that he almost never gets squared up by a defender coming in for a tackle. He is always deflecting off of hits, getting skinny through a gap, sliding or spinning forward for additional yard or two. He's always able to dive forward even when wrapped up, and rarely loses yardage. He has an uncanny knack for catching himself with his off-hand and staying upright, keeping his legs underneath him as he fights for more yards.
At 6'1, 215 pounds, Gordon has plenty of size for the NFL and is a rocked up physical specimen. He too runs with easy speed but his feet are just about the quickest of any skill player in this draft. For a big man, he's runs with surprising smoothness, and he gets up to top speed quickly because he's almost always on balance. Because of this, in the open field, he can run through arm tackles and frequently hurdles would-be tacklers' attempts.
He runs with incredible balance -- always centered and never lunging or tripping himself up. His footwork, again, is the most impressive part of his game. On some totes, he'll look like he's brushing up on his ladder drill skills.
In the open field, he's pretty adept at taking a hit and bouncing off of it to keep the play alive, and has an effective stiff arm that he utilizes well. He's not the type to hover left or right and make you whiff on a tackle like Shady McCoy or Marshawn Lynch, but he'll get you off balance enough to simply run through your now off-balance attempt at a tackle.
But, and this is a big but, on the inside, between the tackles, I didn't see a whole lot of that. He's not one to consistently push a pile. He's not one to break many tackles on dives and inside runs, and doesn't regularly pick up the tough yards when he's hit at the line of scrimmage. In fact, he gets stuffed at the line pretty frequently, and without much pop behind his pads. You see too many ankle tackles. He'll sometimes run himself out of short gains and end up with losses trying to get to the outside.
EDGE: To me, Gurley is clearly the superior power player and regularly runs defenders over, drags tacklers an extra few yards, spins, dives and works for every inch of field when he's running up inside. He's not the smoothest inside runner, as I said earlier, but even when he lets his eyes drop and lowers his shoulders to power forward, he manages to bounce off tackles with regularity while keeping his feet moving.
Gurley has easy speed. He doesn't take much time to hit top gear, and he often looks like he's playing the game at a different speed than everyone else. His quiet helmeted gait reminds me the most of a bigger version of Jamaal Charles; give him one little window and he'll punish you for it.
He annihilates pursuit angles by players in the defensive secondary.
Furthermore, once he gets past the defense, it's over -- he's rarely caught from behind.
His edge speed gives Gordon a run for his money as well. Gordon is probably the best "bounce-it-outside" runners in the nation, but Gurley is no slouch. If you give him one inch or take a bad angle on the backside pursuit, he can make you pay by strafing it outside before turning on the jets downfield. If he gets a step on you, goodnight -- he's to the edge and upfield in a heartbeat.
Gordon also has easy speed and his acceleration is elite. He's been knocked for getting caught from behind a few times and he didn't run a blistering 40 at the Combine, but he's definitely field fast with explosive cutting ability. He had more big plays than anybody in the world last year.
If Gordon gets the corner on you, just say goodnight.
Decisiveness, suddenness, first-step explosion
Gurley consistently demonstrates good decisiveness to cut up field rather than try to bounce or reverse it. Also, he's got that decisive "foot in the ground" to cut up the middle and hit top speed in what seems like nano-seconds. Before you know it, your angle of pursuit is woefully miscalculated, and he's running past you.
Gurley doesn't push piles, necessarily - he's not like Marshawn Lynch or Eddie Lacy in that sense -- but he'll get north-south in a hurry and before you know it, you think you've stopped him in his tracks, but he's four to five yards into your defense.
Gurley also has one trait that will pay huge dividends in the in the NFL: he has the uncanny ability to get skinny through tight gaps in the defense and can slip through when creases aren't offering up much real estate.
Gordon is a little bit choppy-footed at times and can get caught trying to reverse it or bounce it outside when he should just take the meager gain, but overall he's extremely sudden and explosive in short areas.
Like Gurley, he rarely gets squared up by would-be tacklers, and he can plant his foot in the ground and get to top speed in the snap of a finger.
EDGE: This one's tough. It's pretty damn close, honestly, but I have to go with Gurley, who I believe has more decisiveness and first-step explosion. Still they both bring a lot to the table in foot quickness and suddenness.
Ability in the pass game
Gurley was used pretty frequently in the screen game and naturally excelled in it. He has reliable hands, and a natural feel for looking back for the ball at the right time.
As for pass protection, he understands the concepts, is rarely in the wrong position, but could stand to get a little stouter. He can get stood up and pushed back into the pocket, which might be a function of his height.
Gordon is, from the games I watched, a solid pass protector that looks to lay the hurt on chip blocks and pickups. He was not used as a pass catcher as frequently as Gurley, but in the pros you could see him really make some hay on swing passes and screens.
EDGE: I'd give it to Gurley, who had 65 career catches to Gordon's 22. They both display the ability to pass protect though, which is obviously a huge deal early on in the NFL.
Gurley adds value as a potentially dangerous kick returner. Gordon did not return kicks the last two seasons.
So, to answer the question I posed at the top of this article -- which running back will buck the committee-backfield trend and become an NFL bellcow for their new team? Can I say both? Do I have to choose one?
For my money, Gurley is the clearly superior back, but the injury questions related to the recovery of his knee make that judgement a little more complicated. You now have to project Gurley's potential loss of speed and explosiveness when comparing him to a guy like Gordon, who checks a lot of boxes as well.
Overall, I see Gurley has the top running back in the class. Assuming his knee heals normally, he has the potential to become a superstar in this league.