|Michael Conroy / Associated Press|
|Melvin Gordon averaged nearly eight yards per carry while rushing for 1,609 yards for the Badgers in 2013.|
A few weeks ago, I wrote that I expect the devaluation of the running back position to end in the 2015 draft. I believe the college landscape is full of talented running backs with the skills to step in as impact players at the next level. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Georgia's Todd Gurley were at the top of my list, but I wanted to take a deeper look at the frontrunners to see which one would be my choice today. Given some time to dig through the game film, here's what I discovered when I matched up two of college football's top runners in a tale of the tape:
Top college RBs to watch in 2014Take a look ahead to the 2014 college football season with the best running backs to follow this fall.
The best running backs in the game display remarkable vision in tight quarters. Elite runners have their feet attached to their eyes, which allows them to quickly bounce into creases on the back side at a moment's notice. Gurley shows outstanding vision and anticipation as a downhill runner. He attacks creases between the tackles, yet has the agility and body control to slide into open seams. More importantly, Gurley keeps his shoulders square, which allows him to see the entire defense and pick up yards despite facing eight-man fronts.
Gordon displays exceptional vision with the ball in his hands. He quickly spots open lanes between the tackles, but also shows the awareness to bounce to the outside when defenders fall inside. Gordon complements his terrific anticipation with remarkable stutter-step quickness, balance and body control. As a result, Gordon is a home-run threat every time he touches the ball as a runner.
NFL scouts and coaches covet hard-nosed runners with the ability to run through contact. Elite runners are expected to break tackles at the point of attack to ensure gains on most carries. Additionally, top running backs display strong finishing skills, allowing them to fall forward at the end of runs. Gurley is an old-school runner with excellent size, strength and power. He blows through defenders in the hole and finishes his runs with authority. Although a series of nagging injuries last season prevented Gurley from displaying the physicality and toughness that quickly made him a household name as a freshman, he flashed enough strength and power to pique the interest of scouts searching for a potential workhorse runner at the next level.
Gordon is a sneaky power runner with surprising lower-body strength. Measuring 5-foot-11, 203 pounds, he looks like a finesse runner, but routinely runs through arm tackles at the second level. Gordon's ability to bounce off contact, maintain his balance and accelerate to top speed has not only led to big runs, but it's one of the reasons he ran for a ridiculous 7.8 yards per carry in 2013.
Speed is overrated at the running back position, but NFL coaches still covet runners with outstanding acceleration and burst. Thus, elite runners must be able to hit a gear to explode to and through the second level when huge lanes appear between the tackles. Gurley displays outstanding short-area quickness and explosiveness with the ball in his hands. The 6-1, 232-pound junior repeatedly exploded through creases on powers and counters to record a host of 10-plus yard gains for the Bulldogs. In addition, Gurley displayed home-run ability as a rusher by outrunning multiple defenders in the secondary on the way to explosive scores (see Clemson game; 75-yard touchdown run). Although he doesn't appear to possess sub-4.4 speed, Gurley's combination of size, speed and acceleration should rank among the elite runners in the 2015 or 2016 classes.
Gordon is the prototypical home-run hitter at the position. He is a speed demon (Gordon reportedly clocks 40-yard dash times in the low-to-mid 4.4-second range) with remarkable explosiveness and instant acceleration. Gordon quickly gets to top gear in the open field, but appears to have an extra burst when he needs to pull away from defenders on long runs. This is readily apparent when Gordon takes a Fly-Sweep heading to the perimeter and hits the turbo button turning the corner. He simply has another gear that few defenders in the Big Ten can match, resulting in a number of big runs on perimeter plays since he cracked the rotation in 2012. With Gordon entering the season regarded as the premier home-run rusher in college football on the strength of a career 8.1 yards-per-carry average, it's hard to question his speed, burst or explosiveness as a perimeter runner.
The running game in the NFL is viewed as an afterthought in a pass-centric league. Thus, the top running backs in the draft must display big-play ability to warrant serious consideration at the top of board. Gurley certainly flashes big-play potential despite playing in a downhill, pro-style offense at Georgia. The junior standout shows remarkable quickness, instincts and awareness in the open field. Additionally, he flashes surprising acceleration and burst for a big runner, which makes him a coveted commodity in scouting circles.
Gordon's big-play ability stands outs on tape. He repeatedly turns Fly-Sweeps and outside zone runs into big plays (20-plus yard rushes), yet is a disciplined runner committed to the four-yard gain. Gordon rarely is tackled for a loss despite being a nifty dancer at the point of attack. He has a tremendous feel for finding the seam on the back side, and excels at wiggling through traffic to pick up positive yards. Given Gordon's combination of speed, acceleration and instincts, it's very likely his big-play ability will translate well to the pro game.
Running backs in the NFL must be able to contribute to the passing game as receivers. Offensive coordinators routinely use running backs on screens, checkdowns and option routes to give the quarterback an outlet against pressure. Gurley is a terrific pass-catcher. He shows strong hands and is a nifty route runner. Although he isn't asked to run a number of exotic routes, he displays enough balance and body control to execute the basic routes in a pro playbook.
Gordon hasn't been exposed to the passing game during his time at Wisconsin. He has just three career receptions in three seasons and hasn't been asked to run a variety of routes as a Badger. Although Gordon appears to be athletic enough to be an effective receiver, he hasn't put enough reps on tape to give him an accurate grade.
After hearing so much about the top running backs in the 2015/2016 classes, I assumed Gurley would win this comparison with ease. However, I was more impressed with Gordon's speed, acceleration and overall skills when I studied the tape. In fact, I believe Gordon is a complete running back with all of the skills to be a standout at the next level. He reminds me of a young Darren McFadden from a style standpoint, but I envision him becoming a more complete runner as a pro. While Gurley exhibits the skills to be a terrific pro, too, I would opt for Gordon as my pick at this time. It will be interesting to see if the comparison holds up throughout the fall.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.