December 21, 2019; Santa Clara, California, USA; Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley (30) during the second quarter against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
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How Todd Gurley’s release will impact the 2020 NFL draft

The Los Angeles Rams released running back Todd Gurley on Friday just two years after making him the highest-paid running back in the NFL by signing him to a four-year, $60 million extension with $45 million guaranteed in July 2018.

Gurley’s body simply hasn’t cooperated with him since putting pen to paper. And while he did score 17 touchdowns in 2018, his arthritic knee slowed his production at the end of that season and limited him in 2019 to just 857 rushing yards, the lowest output of his career.

Still, even as disappointing as Gurley’s season was last year compared to his career averages, he did score 12 touchdowns and will have his suitors on the open market. According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the Falcons and Dolphins were both interested in potentially trading for Gurley when the Rams began shopping him.

But here we are. Gurley is out of work and his fellow first-round running back from the 2015 NFL Draft, Melvin Gordon, is having a hard time finding a gig, too. In fact, all 22 running backs who were drafted that year will begin 2020 on a team that didn’t select them or are out of the NFL entirely.

That’s a devastating blow to running back truthers who believe the position still has enough value to select in the first round.

Last year’s rushing leaderboard works as further proof that a top-32 running back should be reserved for the truly elite talents. The NFL’s leading rusher, Derrick Henry, was a second-round pick. Only two of the top five rushing leaders — Ezekiel Elliott (No. 2) and Christian McCaffrey (No. 4) — were first-round picks. Seven of the top 10 were picked outside the first round.

The 2020 NFL draft will feature quality running backs, some of which will garner first-round consideration. Georgia’s D’Andre Swift, Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor and Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins are among the top names available, and while we may only see one picked in Round 1, all three should come off the board within the first 50 selections.

But don’t be duped here. The real issue with running back valuation is in free agency, not the draft. Running backs will dominate Day 2 (the second and third rounds) for the foreseeable future because unlike most positions, they can make immediate contributions right away. Generally speaking, running backs have the easiest transition from college to the pros.

With so much backfield talent getting pumped into the NFL year after year, teams will shy away from contracts like Gurly and Elliott’s. Once those first contracts expire, clubs will dip back into the draft to find their next starter. The cycle will go on and on until the league makes a drastic shift back to the ground-and-pound days of the early-90s.

That ain’t happening anytime soon.

Gurley was a trailblazer for running backs who hoped to ascend into the big-money territory of wide receivers and other playmaking positions. Instead, his career narrative has hurt that cause.