A version of this article was published by the Detroit Free Press.
With the release of Reggie Bush earlier this week, the Detroit Lions could be looking to revamp their running back corps. I wrote at the conclusion of the season that running back should be one of the top priorities this offseason. With Bush gone, there is now ample room for an upgrade. Joique Bell, Theo Riddick and George Winn remain in the fold, but the Lions desperately lack a true home run threat out of the backfield. They are likely to add another back before training camp, possibly through the 2015 NFL draft.
Each week, we’ll examine a running back from this year’s talented crop. Up first is Georgia’s Todd Gurley.
In the first season under the new regime of Jim Caldwell and Joe Lombardi, the Detroit Lions seemed to focus on taking the pressure off of Matthew Stafford with a more balanced and conservative offensive approach. Stafford attempted 37.6 passes per game, the lowest of his career excluding his three game stint in 2010. He also posted the lowest interception rate of his career, throwing just two picks per 100 pass attempts. Caldwell and Lombardi appear intent on corralling Stafford’s gunslinger mentality, no longer asking him to make 45 throws every game.
For this philosophy to be successful, the Lions will have to improve a rushing attack that ranked 29th per Football Outsiders. There are a handful of appealing options on the free agent market, but the Lions are in need of a young explosive bell cow that they can lean on for years to come. Spending on a veteran running back may not be the most fiscally responsible move, with this year’s running back class rated as one of the best in recent years. ESPN’s Scouts Inc. has five runners with a second round grade, and another seven backs with third or fourth round grades.
Todd Gurley is the highest rated back on most boards based purely on talent. The North Carolina native burst into the spotlight as a true freshman in the Southeastern Conference, rushing for 1385 yards and 17 touchdowns.
At the start of Gurley’s junior season, he was a Heisman Trophy Candidate. But his season did not go as planned as he dealt with an onslaught of adversity. He was suspended four games in October by the NCAA for accepting $400 for autographs. After missing five weeks he returned, only to suffer a fourth quarter season-ending ACL injury (on a non-contact play) when coaches foolishly gave him 29 carries.
At 6-1 and 222 pounds, Gurley is blessed with the rare combination of size, power, and speed but he has major durability concerns. Let’s dissect the tape to examine Gurley’s strengths and weaknesses.
In three seasons at Georgia, Gurley averaged 6.4 yards per carry and rushed for 36 touchdowns in 30 games. He caught 65 passes for six scores, and was a dangerous kickoff returner with two 100-yard kick return touchdowns on just 11 career returns.
Gurley is known for his physicality and toughness. He barrels through defenders, consistently falls forward for extra yardage, and is rarely taken down on initial contact. He is the type of back that will lower the wood on a defender instead of stepping out of bounds. I could have included 50 different runs that exemplified his bruising style.
Against Clemson in the 2014 season opener, he shed Vic Beasley (a projected first round selection in the upcoming draft) behind the line and exhibited exceptional balance by running through a second tackle. He stayed on his feet for an extra 13 yards.
Gurley always finishes his runs and it usually takes two guys to drag him to the ground. Weak, half-hearted tackle attempts will not slow him.
Against Clemson in the 2013 opener, Gurley showed excellent patience and vision on this 12-yard touchdown jaunt. The timing of the play was thrown off from the beginning because the quarterback and fullback bumped into each other before the handoff. Gurley did not panic after initially being stalled by his fullback, and kept his head up and shoulders squared to the line. This allowed him to see the cutback lane and make a deadly jump cut back to the inside, away from the over-pursuing defense.
That is Bashaud Breeland–a corner with Washington who started 15 games this season as a rookie–who tried to tackle Gurley high at the five-yard line and looked foolish. That tackling effort will not work against Gurley, who possesses a powerful stiff arm.
Gurley displayed patience, vision and burst on this touchdown run. He stayed square to the line, found the seam, made one cut to elude a defender, and was gone.
Just watch this heads up play against South Carolina last season on a crucial 3rd-and-16.
Gurley may not be a burner like Chris Johnson, but he certainly has above average speed and burst.
Earlier in the same 2013 game against Clemson, Gurley blew through a huge hole for a 75-yard touchdown scamper. The impressive part of the run was once Gurley was in the open field. The safety had the angle on him, but Gurley ate up the cushion and easily outpaced him.
Against Clemson in the 2014 season opener, Gurley rushed for 198 yards and three scores on 15 carries. The Tigers finished the season fifth in the country in rushing yards allowed per game and gave up just 2.97 yards per rush. Yet Gurley torched them for the second straight season. On this run, the cornerback did not want any part of Gurley. Gurley ran right through the defender, stayed on his feet, and cruised away from the safety for a 51-yard touchdown.
Gurley was a world-class high school hurdler. He competed for Team USA in the 2011 World Youth Championships and for Georgia during his sophomore campaign. Last season against Tennessee, he showed off his athleticism by turning the corner and hurdling a defender.
Gurley has tight hips and is mostly ineffective when forced to run east-west. He succeeds as a one cut, downhill runner. However, he doesn’t have cement feet and can chop and make a move, as seen here when he eluded a defender to turn what should have been a negative play into a nine-yard pickup.
You won’t see Gurley dance with defenders often, as he prefers to use a stiff arm and power through them, or make one cut and go.
Against Auburn in 2013, he set up the safety like he was going left, but stuck his left foot in the ground and cut back right.
That is an excellent understanding of how to manipulate a defender.
He has a bruising, upright running style, which gives defenders a wider targeting zone to exploit and can leave him vulnerable to punishing hits.
On this play from week two of last season, watch how high Gurley runs. He doesn’t lower his shoulder before contact and therefore wasn’t able to drive through the defenders. He was stonewalled for a minimal gain, though you like his effort and fight.
Gurley is improving at lowering his shoulder, but he has work to do in that area. Despite his hardnosed running style, ball security wasn’t an issue. Playing in college football’s most physical conference, Gurley had just three fumbles on 575 career offensive touches.
Gurley is a capable receiver out of the backfield. He didn’t run an array of routes, but was a factor in the screen game and in the flats. He showed a natural ability to adjust to passes while on the move and good acceleration once he found an opening.
Gurley is bigger than most backs so he has the size and strength to anchor in one-on-one pass protection matchups versus blitzing linebackers and safeties. On this play, Gurley provided a nice cut block on a blitzer, allowing his teammate to gain the edge on a jet sweep.
Gurley kept his head up, and though he may have hit the defender in the ankles instead of the knee, he put the defender on the ground and opened a sizable running lane. He was inconsistent in this area in the six games I studied. Like most young running backs, his technique must be refined however, he is a willing blocker and should improve with experience.
Gurley was a special player from day one of his career at Georgia and likely would have been a top 15 selection if not for his unfortunate knee injury. His powerful, punishing running style reminds some NFL execs compared him to Marshawn Lynch, while others have mentioned Fred Taylor and even Adrian Peterson.
Skeptics will argue that Gurley was the beneficiary of plenty of wide running lanes at Georgia. Freshman Nick Chubb stepped in for him and had a phenomenal season, posting eight straight 100-plus yard rushing games to finish the year.
Durability is the major concern for Gurley. He missed three games as a sophomore with a sprained ankle, as well as portions of two other games with hip and ankle injuries. He of course is currently rehabilitating his injured knee.
Gurley may not be ready from Day 1 this season, but the expectation is that he could be an impact player in the latter half of the season and a potential lead back in 2016.
Too often, fans clamor for instant impact and gratification, but that’s not how NFL teams should be drafting. They are looking for the best player four or five years down the road, not in year one. Gurley has the talent to be an exceptional player, but is he worth the risk, especially with a talented crop of backs that could be had in the later rounds? This is the question the Lions (and the rest of the league) are surely weighing when they look at Gurley as they prepare to reload in the draft. As Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly says, “the best ability is durability.”
Credit to Draft Breakdown for the game film. All Illustrations and GIFs were created by Marlowe Alter for the purpose of reporting, commenting and critiquing.