CHICAGO - It was his first trip to this city but not his first stroll down this lane of doubt and conjecture about his NFL future. No, Todd Gurley stood in Grant Park here on Wednesday morning among several of his draft peers seemingly in a different place in a distinctive corner.
He is the Georgia running back who was faster and tougher than them all until suffering a torn ACL in his left knee five months ago. The surgery is complete. The rehabilitation is ongoing. But the speculation over whether his brilliance will return and which NFL team is willing to gamble in a draft process that inherently every year is already all risk and wager makes Gurley a double riddle.
There are NFL general managers who rank him as a top 10 selection in Thursday night's first-round action here.
There are others who insist he is a late first-round pick.
There is also a group who would not touch him in the first round solely due to the medical matter.
"I've visited 10 teams," said Gurley, insisting those teams asked him not to disclose which ones, but Detroit, Dallas, New England, Carolina, Jacksonville, Cleveland and Tennessee are reportedly among them. "Each one gave me a physical. They all took a strong, close look at my knee. I've heard all of the talk about how high or how low I might be drafted. I try to avoid it, but you can't avoid it. Friends text me about it. It's everywhere I turn. So, I'm just trying to be patient, to be hopeful and wait until my name is called. Until I get that call from my new team."
He is 20. He leaves Georgia as a junior. He was suspended four games last year from Oct. 11 through Nov. 8 for violating NCAA rules when he participated in autograph signings for sale. His return game was on Nov. 15 against Auburn. And down he went with injury. College career over. His draft and NFL future immediately on the clock.
His surgery was on Nov. 25.
An NFL general manager told me: "This is a good kid. There are no character flaws that concern us. But the injury set him back and now it's a question of how much he is going to get whacked. One team's doctors could love the way that knee is healing and see nothing and another team's doctors could say don't touch him. It is all about the medical with him - nothing else."
Oh, there is more.
Gurley is fighting an NFL climate of renewed trepidation in highly drafting players who have recent injury issues. He is battling the notion that running backs are not worth high picks - none have been selected in the first round since a trio in 2012 (Trent Richardson at No. 3, Doug Martin at No. 31 and David Wilson at No. 32).
Gurley seems different. He talks differently. His posture and his presence are striking.
NFL scouts say before his injury that he was a home-run hitter, a break-the-line-of-scrimmage-and-go back who rarely got caught. That at 6-feet-1, 226 pounds he is a violent runner who often wins in contact. Excellent feet and hips. Startling stop and go. Instinctive. He has been compared with running backs Bo Jackson, Herschel Walker, Walter Payton and Adrian Peterson.
His focus, though, is on recapturing a complete Todd Gurley.
"There have been indications from the doctors that I could be ready for training camp in August, but I am not putting any specific timetable on that," Gurley said. "Nobody knows. And with an injury like this, the worst thing you want to do is rush it. I think that team that drafts me has to be thinking about the long term, not just this season. I can't be in a situation, no matter how well I recover, that I am expected to be pounded out there for four quarters. I fully expect to be able to play and I fully expect to play well this season. But I know that we have to be smart. I know I will be involved in that decision no matter where I go or who I play for. Any player in that situation has to be.
"I had to man up to the teams that I went to visit. They asked me about the autograph stuff and I told them. I knew I was wrong. I knew it was wrong. Rules are rules. It was my fault. I got hurt last year. I am doing everything I can to get stronger and get back. These are two facts of my situation. You can't go run and hide. To where? Everybody knows about it. You can't act like it's any other way. I am not a person who likes to go and hide."
Gurley is from Tarboro, N.C.
"I brought my crew with me here to Chicago - my mother, brother, sister, girlfriend, dad, best friend, high school coach," he said. "They've never been in this situation just like I haven't. So, I'm kind of leading them through it as I find my way through it. That's OK. I've always been a leader and decision maker in my family. I've gotten a lot of advice that I appreciate from Thomas Davis (the Carolina Panthers linebacker who this year was named Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year). He calls. I call him. He's a Georgia guy and a really experienced NFL guy, so, he understands."
An NFL personnel executive told me that Gurley did not score well on his intelligence test. The executive said it is not a deciding factor in the draft process but is a piece of the puzzle. Gurley responded:
"I know I'm smart enough. There is raw intelligence and there is football intelligence. Some players have neither. Some players have both. Some players have one. I don't think anyone who has been around me long enough on or off of the football field has any concerns in either one of those areas."
This is how far the plucking and probing of NFL draft analysis delves. It is an inexact science that can be a cruel, rude and crude science. Florida linebacker Dante Fowler, Jr., and West Virginia receiver Kevin White - both projected first-round picks - were in Grant Park on Wednesday. Both said they paid attention to Gurley's Georgia career and have become more familiar with Gurley up close through the Combine and draft process.
Fowler, Jr., said: "He (Gurley) is one of my favorite players. I think he is going to come back better and stronger. He has the will and talent for that."
White added: "He (Gurley) is humble. He has a different type of mindset. He has a strong mind. He is going to take over in the NFL. I think he will be a No. 1 back for a team in his own time. I think he will be a star. There is a lot of respect for him from all of the potential draft guys here."
There was a moment during the players' media session in Grant Park where Gurley and Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon stood back to back, answering questions. These are the two prime running backs in the draft. Gordon's recent medical history is clean. Gurley's is not. Gordon is a top-flight back.
But Gurley has the tantalizing allure of potential greatness.
A grasp from a different place. A more distinct corner.
"I am not driven by others' doubts," Gurley said. "My passion comes from within. I am blessed to be here in Chicago and have this opportunity. Whenever my name is called, my hands will probably be sweaty; I'll have to dry them off. And I just have to make sure when I walk out there that I don't trip and fall. I don't need any more injuries."