Todd Gurley Contract Is the Dawning of Another New Era for NFL Running Backs

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterJuly 24, 2018

Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley rushes against the Seattle Seahawks in the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017, in Seattle. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)
John Froschauer/Associated Press

We are no longer in the Era of the Quarterback. We are in the Era of the Running Back.

The lush and risky four-year, $60 million contract extension the Rams signed Todd Gurley to Tuesday, according to a source, illustrates that. And there are more running back deals on the horizon that might be wealthier.

While quarterback remains the most important position, the running back is re-emerging as the most dominant one. That may seem like a contradiction, but it's not.

As a team source with the Rams explained, "Quarterbacks are the prize, but running backs are the warriors."

Translation: Pass-throwers are still the key in a passing league, but runners like Gurley, on teams that don't have Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson, are the players who actually win games.

Running backs have signed big-money deals before, but it's been decades since teams, frightened by the threat of injury at one of the more injury-prone positions, flushed them with large amounts of guaranteed cash.

It's also been a long time since we've seen runners outshine quarterbacks in popularity and importance. But we are starting to see exactly that.

It's like the NFL has stepped into a time machine and traveled back to the 1990s, when players like Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith and Thurman Thomas ruled the Earth.

After Gurley, Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell likely will get an even bigger deal at some point in the future, and he even tweeted about Gurley's deal Tuesday. And there are already league rumblings that Arizona's David Johnson will get a significant pay raise from his rookie deal by the time the season starts.

Le'Veon Bell @LeVeonBell

lol and ppl thought I was trippin?...

The Rams team source said in a text the deal with Gurley (which the source confirmed includes approximately $45 million in guaranteed money) came together quickly in the past week, adding that the team sees Gurley as a transformative figure in the NFL landscape.

Le'Veon Bell has been sparring with the Steelers over his desire for a new long-term contract with the team.
Le'Veon Bell has been sparring with the Steelers over his desire for a new long-term contract with the team.Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

Indeed, while players like Tom Brady still rule the sport, the investment teams are making financially and tactically to their ground games is growing—quickly.

In Arizona, Los Angeles, Buffalo, New Orleans, Jacksonville, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Miami, the running games are (mostly) the stars, not the quarterbacks.

In Tennessee, Dallas and Kansas City, offenses lean as heavily on runners as they do the quarterbacks. Even in places like Atlanta, where Matt Ryan puts up astronomical numbers, he is greatly assisted by Devonta Freeman (watch those Freemans).

The only places where quarterbacks remain unquestioned kings are in New England, Green Bay and Seattle. The Super Bowl champion Eagles finished with 2,115 rushing yards last year, third-best in football.

Want more proof? Consider the dramatic uptick of draft capital teams are investing at the position. Before the Giants selected Saquon Barkley second overall this past spring, the average position of the first running back taken in the draft since 1995 was 14th overall. Barkley was the highest runner selected since 2006, when the Saints picked Reggie Bush.

Saquon Barkley became the highest-drafted running back in more than a decade when he was selected No. 2 overall this past spring.
Saquon Barkley became the highest-drafted running back in more than a decade when he was selected No. 2 overall this past spring.David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Truth be told, the draft has been trending that way even before this year. Leonard Fournette went fourth overall and Christian McCaffrey eighth in the 2017 draft. Ezekiel Elliott was fourth in 2016 and Gurley 10th in 2015. Melvin Gordon was 15th that same year.

But in 2013 and 2014, not a single running back was taken in the first round. That broke a streak stretching back to 1936, according to Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

What's changing? The economics of the sport, for one. The league has piles of cash, and the salary cap continues to rise significantly. This gives teams the ability to take more risks since they can more quickly recover from a runner who doesn't work out. Ten years ago, however, giving a back the kind of money Gurley just received, or Bell will, was considered far too risky.

The less physical nature of the sport is also changing things. It's still brutal, of course, but rule changes in recent seasons have favored protecting offensive players, unlike in the past. Running backs are also finding a path to longer careers thanks to medical advances and 21st-century training regimens.

Put everything together, and the running backs have regained some of the ground they lost to the men who hand them the ball.

Go down the list of runners now leading their teams, and it has the makings of some type of dystopian nightmare for linebackers: Gurley, Bell, Elliott, Johnson, Alvin Kamara, Barkley, Kansas City's Kareem Hunt, Gordon, Fournette, Freeman (watch out for those Freemans), Dalvin Cook in Minnesota and Derrick Henry in Tennessee.

It's been a long time since running backs had this much star power.

The running back renaissance is here.


Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.


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