When he walked away from an elite college football program and the position that would have likely made him a first-round NFL draft pick, Jalen Hurd was simply betting on Jalen Hurd.
Hurd had done extensive research. He hadn't made his highly publicized 2016 decision "on a whim," as he explained in a July 2018 interview with Bleacher Report's Matt Hayes. Rather, he was wagering on his long-term future. "Running backs last 3.5 years in the NFL. Wide receivers can last 10 or more years," Hurd said. "Receivers are more valued than running backs in the NFL, and I can play this game a lot longer and can be more valuable as a receiver.
"It's not just a position and career change, it's a life change. Baylor is reinventing itself. I'm reinventing myself. We both have a lot to prove."
In 12 games as a full-time Baylor receiver, the former 1,200-yard rusher in the SEC didn't disappoint: He amassed 69 receptions, 946 receiving yards and four touchdowns for the Bears. But stellar numbers haven't quelled the uncertainty that lingers about his divorce from the Volunteers, his mid-college-tenure change of heart and his credentials as a big slot receiver at the professional level.
"If he were my son, I would have kept him at running back," says Jim Nagy, a draft analyst and executive director of the Senior Bowl, who served as an NFL scout for 18 years. "Wide receiver is a dime-a-dozen position. I understand the rationale that they play longer, and you can have a longer career, but the receiver position is a dime a dozen. … It's very watered down. The league wants big running backs—there's not very many of those. So, he went from a position of scarcity to a watered-down position, which philosophically didn't make a lot of sense to me."
But agreeing on degrees of scarcity isn't easy, and few would disagree that 6'5" wide receivers with the ability to contribute in the offensive backfield are also scarce.
"I'm a true receiver," he told the media at the combine, per Jim Wyatt of the Titans' official website. "But, also, you can also have an elite running back if I'm back in that position, as well." He later added, per Erik Bacharach of the Tennessean: "I can make the spectacular catch, I can make the routine catches, I can make the cross-middle catches, but then when you actually get the ball in my hands, then I'm a running back in space. So that's definitely, I would say, intriguing to people."
That Hurd is "down to do anything"—and can do anything—is a case for and against him. On the one hand, his ability to adapt demonstrates his potential. On the other hand, that skill set comes with a unique set of challenges.
If he were my son, I would have kept him at running back—longtime scout Jim Nagy
"You have to have a really clear vision of how he fits on the team," says Dan Hatman, a former Eagles, Jets and Giants scout, who now serves as director of scouting development at the Scouting Academy. "You have teams that have very clear profiles, and if he's not a clear profile fit to what you've been doing, you have to debate it: Does your staff get excited about his skill set and whether or not they're going to want to craft a new profile? That may be a yes or a no. And then you have other programs where he immediately fits into a profile that they're ready or want to create."
That vetting process must be considered, says former Eagles, Redskins and Chiefs scout and active NFL team personnel consultant Dan Shonka. "You really have to want him on your team," Shonka adds. "You've gotta have a role in mind for him before you draft him."
Hurd's unique situation makes him particularly difficult to evaluate. Does he have too much baggage? Should the position change be considered a red flag? How exactly should a talent like Hurd be assessed?
Of the several well-connected former scouts who spoke on the record about Hurd, all agree there is digging to be done. "I think teams just have to investigate and figure out why the player made the change," says former NFL pro scouting director Mike McCartney, who now works as a player agent. "I think if the player really believes he's better-suited at a different position and the skill set does indicate that, then it makes sense to make a change. I don't remember too many position-change issues where it was really a red flag—as long as the player produces."
Scouts agree there are cases in which position changes could be construed as acts of desperation for prospects who just aren't cutting it, but those scenarios are hard to miss. That can be determined if a scout does his due diligence to find out whether a prospect's coaching staff tried to jam a square peg into a non-square hole.
"If they're like, 'Listen, we looked at him in four, five, six spots, and that's the only place he could function,' and that doesn't necessarily translate," Hatman says, "I'm going to have a real hard time making a case for that guy unless we can somehow objectively assess that their coaching staff is incompetent."
It's not clear what happened to Hurd in Knoxville. NFL.com's Chase Goodbread reported in February that when Hurd bailed on the Volunteers midway through the 2016 campaign, his relationship with Tennessee head coach Butch Jones "had been strained for almost two years," adding that the two "never saw eye to eye" on Hurd's role. Last month, Hurd said Jones and his staff insisted he play in the backfield. "He told me that he wanted me to play one role in the offense, and that role was at running back," Hurd told Justin Melo of Music City Miracles. "He wanted me to play what he wanted me to play, and that was about it."
Add the fact that Tennessee also had Alvin Kamara on the roster in 2015 and 2016, and the picture gets fuzzier for a scout to parse. "I think the most important thing is to try to get as good a feel as you can as to what happened at Tennessee," says Nagy. "You need to get a handle on that and why that circumstance happened. There's a lot of dynamics, because this is a radical shift from being a 240-pound running back to a 215-pound wideout. You have to get a feel for a person, then you have to evaluate the athlete."
There are more questions. Regarding his transfer, Hurd said he was happy to be in a "less crazed" environment at Baylor. Does that mean he'll have trouble in a more "crazed" NFL environment like Philadelphia, Dallas, Pittsburgh or Green Bay?
What about Hurd's durability? He has had his share of injuries: He suffered a late-season knee injury, which caused him to miss a bowl game and most of the predraft process; he endured two concussions at Tennessee, per Wyatt; he has successfully completed just two full seasons since he was a senior in 2013 at Beech High School in Hendersonville, Tennessee, where a shoulder injury cost him almost his entire senior season. He has publicly wondered how long he will last.
Then again, there is evidence Hurd has matured. He's demonstrated commitment to his adopted position, and Baylor head coach Matt Rhule has praised Hurd heavily for his strong work ethic and selflessness. Hurd has also admitted he should have at least finished the 2016 season with the Vols—an approach that is likely to win over scouts and general managers.
"Damn right. Looking back at it, yeah, I should've waited it out. I should have finished the season even if I wouldn't have played again," Hurd told Goodbread. "I don't think I'd be looked at in the same negative light I am now. But I didn't see that at the time. I regret it, but it wasn't a decision I made lightly. There would be less to explain now."
Hurd's short tenure as a wide receiver isn't the sole reason for teams to exercise caution. It also highlights something elemental about the draft process.
"The one thing that every team has to balance for a lot of players—and this will be the same for him, as he's only had one year at the position—is how much developing is needed versus how much upside there is," McCartney says. "Some teams will figure there's a lot of development left, and he might not have a way to play right away. Other teams may look at it and say, 'Hey, he's got a lot of upside, and he's only going to get better and better because he's only done it one year.' It just depends—every team is different."
Some scouts noted that a lot will hinge on Hurd's malleability. Shonka can see him excelling as a wing back "if he's willing to block." But for that to work, Nagy says, the player's got to be agreeable.
"You'd have to get a handle on how willing and open he would be to maybe doing some stuff as a third-down back out of the backfield," he says. "I get that the kid doesn't want to be an every-down banger at the running back position, but how open would he be to lining up in the backfield in some situations? Because there has to be buy-in from the player. He doesn't offer any versatility if he's not going to buy in to the role."
He goes on, "Teams really need to focus on spending as much time with Jalen as they possibly can."
The most experienced football minds still diverge when it comes to the pivotal decision Hurd made in 2016. One school of thought says Hurd made a smart move because it's difficult to perform the duties of an NFL running back at 6'5". "It's really hard to be that long and move in those kinds of areas," Hatman said. That there wasn't a single back in pro football last season who was taller than 6'3" is illustrative of this. "There's diminishing returns. There's a reason why we see running backs be closer to 5'9" than 6'3". This happens at corner as well. … Those really small, nuanced footwork patterns are just hard if you've got long limbs. Biomechanically it's a lot more to move. That doesn't mean they can't do it, but generally speaking it's a lot harder to execute."
Others view Hurd's length as a differentiating factor that could have allowed him to be a special running back, like a modern-day Eric Dickerson. Hurd tends to play smaller than he is and has a sneaky elusiveness. (In a recent interview with Melo for Draft Wire, Hurd attributed this to that fact that he was "small for basically my entire life" before hitting a growth spurt in high school.)
The split is indicative of the crapshoot the draft is. Hurd's decision to buy stock in himself and short his original position could eventually be looked back on as a stroke of genius. The reality is slot receivers are in, and running backs are not. This is the most pass-happy era in NFL history, which means backs are losing value—i.e. commanding less money. If pro football is leaving the running back position behind, those at the position with the talent to play elsewhere are smart to consider alternatives.
We might never know whether Hurd made the right call. But his story consists of more than a simple position change. His case is complicated. Maybe even, according to Hurd, unprecedented.
"Point me in the direction of somebody who's done what I've done," Hurd told Melo in the Music City Miracles interview. "When have we seen an elite running back become an elite wide receiver?"
It's arguable if Hurd has become "elite" at his new position, but given the state of the game, it might just be a matter of time. Ty Montgomery made the opposite switch as a wide receiver-turned-running back. Richard Sherman was a receiver before he became a cornerback. J.J. Watt and Jason Peters were tight ends before they went on to star at defensive end and offensive tackle, respectively. Julian Edelman is one of several former quarterbacks who have excelled elsewhere. No running back has successfully switched to receiver.
Hurd could be that trendsetter. But ask scouts, and they'll tell you there's plenty of work to be done on multiple fronts.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him at @Brad_Gagnon.