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Georgia’s Gurley is cream of the running back crop

This is the sixth in a nine-part series previewing the NFL Draft on April 30-May 2. Today’s installment: Running backs.

News Sports reporter

There is no way around it. The best running back in this year’s NFL Draft is damaged goods.

So if you want to draft Georgia’s Todd Gurley, you do so knowing that he’s still recovering from a serious knee injury. By all accounts, he is doing well and should be fully ready to play by the start of the regular season, but there still is some risk associated with making the choice.

Yet, most draft analysts believe Gurley is worth that risk.

“Throw the durability out with Gurley, and I know you can’t throw it out but if you did, he would be, I think, a lock as a top-10 pick,” ESPN’s Todd McShay said. “I think he’s one of the best five, six, seven talents in this entire draft. … I would draft him, I’d keep him for five years and I think we’d have great success with him because he’s just as good in terms of power as he is with a straight-line burst through the line. Once he gets going with a head of steam, he’s an absolute freight train as a runner.

“And I think the most underrated part of his game is in the passing game. He’s good in protection and he’s so natural catching the football. I think he’s one of the more natural pass-catchers at the running back position in this class.”

Which is saying something, because the class is as good and as deep as it has been in a few years.

If Gurley is, as expected, a first-round choice, that would snap a two-year streak of running backs failing to be selected in the first round. The position has lost considerable value in recent years as most teams have put the bulk of their investment into either enhancing their passing attack or their ability to defend against the pass.

Quality running backs have been widely viewed as players that can be acquired in the late rounds or as undrafted free agents.

This year is different. After Gurley, another player who is expected to be a first-round choice is Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon.

There are several other running backs who are expected to be selected in the second and third rounds, including Tevin Coleman of Indiana, Jay Ajayi of Boise State, Ameer Abdullah of Nebraska, Duke Johnson of Miami (Fla.), and David Johnson of Northern Iowa.

“The running backs are good this year,” Bills Director of Player Personnel Jim Monos said. “It’s a good mix. You’ve got some size guys, productive guys, guys that love football. They’re all pretty smart, we’ve talked to all of them.

“It’s like these guys are ready to just come and play. A lot of them are ready to come and play now.”

That’s exactly the type of backs all teams want, because the position has such a limited shelf life. Once a player reaches the end of a four- or (if he’s selected in the first round) five-year rookie contract, he has likely reached the end of his most productive seasons. The wear and tear of the position doesn’t allow for a whole lot of longevity.

“I think there is a resurgence of running backs,” Ajayi said at last February’s NFL Scouting Combine at Indianapolis. “Just looking at this class of running backs that we have in this draft class, I think this is a very strong class and I think for the years to come that the NFL is going to see a rise, and a new running back class will just help the position grow and become more of a prime position.”

The other bit of good news regarding this year’s running backs group is that most of its top prospects are from teams that employ pro-style offenses rather than the spread attacks that make it difficult to project how offensive players will perform in the NFL.

“It’s easier to see that this guy’s going to come in the league and he can do these things that we want him to do whereas when we’re in the spread, a lot of times those running backs have open lanes to run in and you see it’s there, but they don’t have to use their vision,” said Kelvin Fisher, the Bills’ director of college scouting. “They don’t have to use their footwork. They just have to run, and I think that this year, there’s more backs that come out of a pro-style type of offense. I mean, it’s probably the top 10 backs in the draft that come out of a pro-style offense.”

With Gurley at the top.

He refused to allow NFL team doctors to examine his knee at the combine for fear that all of the tugging and twisting of it might do more harm than good to his chances of being a high pick. Gurley has since, however, consented to a follow-up exam, and the results were favorable.

“I’m just trying to get my knee back right and just show the teams that I can come back healthy,” he said at the combine. “The timetable is six to nine months. I got hurt in November, so I’m not really giving no timetable. I’m just trying to get back safe, but as quick as possible.

“I know what I can do. I feel like I can come in and help a team. That might sound ridiculous, but that’s the confidence I have in myself.”

Gordon shares that confidence, and with good reason.

McShay thinks Gordon is “just as good a runner” as Gurley.

“You could argue that he has better vision,” McShay said. “His acceleration is off the charts. I love him as a runner and I love his competitiveness and his fearlessness as a runner.

“I just worry about three things: ball security; seven of his 12 fumbles in his career came in 2014, so it was a problem toward the end of his college career. And then the passing game, as a receiver and in pass protection. He had three catches his first three years and this last year had 19. You saw that he was a little more comfortable catching the ball and I think he’ll continue to improve, but it’s never going to be a strength of his game. I just don’t know how natural he is in space without the ball running routes, getting open, getting back to the quarterback.

“Pass protection, I think he became adequate. He shows willingness, and awareness improved a little bit. But he’s really got to do a better job of becoming more assertive and being able to sustain blocks and handle power rushers. I expect Gordon to be a first-round pick, but despite the injuries, I have Gurley rated considerably higher than Gordon.”

Next: Defensive backs.

email: vcarucci@buffnews.com

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