Over the past two years, a running back hasn't been selected in the first round of the NFL draft.
Entering the 2014 season, there are a number of players who can realistically expect to break that trend in 2015. One of those players is Todd Gurley of Georgia. The 20-year-old back has played two seasons in college and been very productive. On 387 carries, he has 2,374 yards and 27 touchdowns. On 53 receptions, he has 558 yards and six touchdowns.
Like any potential first round running back, Gurley's physical abilities are easy to see.
Although he's unlikely to actually be as big as he is listed by Georgia, 6'1” and 232 lbs, Gurley is a very big and powerful runner. Just like a Marshawn Lynch or Eddie Lacy, he should be able to consistently break tackles in the NFL whether he is running on the second level or attacking the line of scrimmage. Gurley's physical ability is such that his forward momentum is very rarely stopped without a gang tackle from the defense.
Even though Gurley is a huge body, he is also a very athletic body. He doesn't carry any unnecessary bulk so he is able to move comfortably in space. He can make defenders miss with his quickness in tight areas and he has the burst to score touchdowns from deep. Gurley isn't going to be the next Jamaal Charles or LeSean McCoy, but he doesn't need to be if he wants to be a dominant NFL runner.
It's easy to find starting caliber running backs in the NFL these days. It's not easy to find special backs though. The difference between a starting caliber back and a special back isn't physical It's technical.
Being a physical freak isn't valuable if you're constantly running into walls of bodies at the line of scrimmage. Just ask Trent Richardson. The one trait each of the most productive backs in the NFL share is vision.
Being able to recognize running lanes and make good decisions is very important, but just as important is the ability to do it quickly. Anticipating how plays develop can allow backs to be proactive in how they attack space and set up defenders. On this play, Gurley appears to recognize that his left guard is going to be late to pick up the linebacker who is attacking the line of scrimmage before he receives the football.
When Gurley got the ball, he was being directed towards the left side of his offensive line. As he took his first step with the ball in his chest, his immediate running lane is taken away by the linebacker who was initially attacking the outside shoulder of his left guard. Gurley has a fullback in front of him to account for the linebacker, but that isn't a favorable matchup for the offense.
This is the point of the play when Gurley should be reacting to the linebacker's presence and beginning his motion to turn to the other side of the field.
However, he doesn't need to begin his motion to turn to the other side of the field because he had already done that. Gurley plants his left foot in such a way that he is moving towards the other side of the field as soon as he gets the ball from his quarterback.
Unless this was a designed cutback, it didn't appear to be, Gurley had to anticipate the linebacker getting to the line of scrimmage before the left guard to already be turning to the other side of the field where a wide running lane has opened between his right tackle and his tight end.
As the right linebacker crashes into the backfield and completely disrupts the blocking to that side of the field, Gurley is already reading the positioning of the other linebacker. He recognizes that the other linebacker is trapped inside of the right tackle, so he aggressively attacks the running lane outside of his right tackle.
Gurley's vision and footwork have got him to this point, but now he needs to use his physical ability after the line of scrimmage to exploit the space he found before the line of scrimmage. The running back position is very much like the quarterback position in this sense.
Some quarterbacks can read the defense and make the right decisions all the time without having the physical talent to make the requisite throws, while some running backs have great vision and always make the right decisions but don't have the speed or explosiveness to exploit the space they find.
Two defenders react to Gurley's presence crossing the line of scrimmage quickly. One is a defensive back in a good position to contain his gain to five or six yards. Neither back can get to Gurley before he accelerates past them and continues on deep into the secondary though.
While we admittedly can't be certain that the above play wasn't a designed cutback for Gurley as soon as he got the ball, the context and consistency of his vision allows us to be more presumptuous.
On this play, Gurley immediately recognizes the cutback lane as he receives the football. His outside running lane is immediately taken away by a failed block. On the inside, the defensive lineman working against the offense's right guard (#61) has lost his discipline. His head has dropped as he overreacts to the offensive line sliding to the left.
Gurley's vision is impressive on this play, but it's what he does to exploit the space that really suggests he can be a special back.
As the defensive tackle regains his discipline and gets a favorable position against the offense's right guard, Gurley plants his foot to sharply change direction past his outside shoulder. Both of Gurley's feet leave the ground as he makes a jump cut against the grain of the defense. He soars past the defensive tackle's outstretched arm and instantly accelerates forward into the secondary of the defense without opposition.