Each of the past two drafts have failed to yield a first-round running back. This year that streak will likely be broken, thanks to the combination of a talented 2015 draft class and multiple teams in the back half of the first round needing help at the position.
With a quality landing spot all but assured for each of the consensus top two backs in this class, the fantasy dilemma becomes: Melvin Gordon or Todd Gurley?
The red flag for Gurley isn’t hard to find: his final season at Georgia ended prematurely when he tore his ACL, and he couldn’t even have doctors examine him at the Combine because he wasn’t far enough removed from the surgery for his knee to be manipulated. Gurley also missed three games the previous season with an ankle injury, so there are concerns about his durability. If you want to spin it differently, Gurley is a low-mileage back built for the NFL with elite size, speed, and agility. He also has outstanding ball security and might be the best running back prospect to enter the NFL since Adrian Peterson, with a physical style that draws comparisons to Corey Dillon, Jamal Lewis, and Marshawn Lynch.
Gurley is a throwback to the do-everything backs of a decade or more ago, though both he and Gordon have limited experience in pass protection and as receivers. If he makes it all the way back from his injury he’ll be a long-time feature back in the NFL.
Gordon doesn’t have that same injury red flag as Gurley, though his collegiate mileage was also kept down—at least until last year—by a crowded Wisconsin backfield that also included Montee Ball and James White. However, don’t lump Gordon in with Badger backs who have failed to carry that success into the NFL; he has significantly more burst than any of his recent Wisconsin predecessors, with acceleration more like Jamaal Charles or DeMarco Murray. Gordon also has elite balance and sprinter’s speed, and he was consistently explosive in college despite a heavy workload his final season as well as facing defenses focused expressly on stopping him.
Where the Charles/Murray comparisons hit a snag is in the passing game; while both of those aforementioned backs were accomplished receivers entering the NFL, Gordon has work to do on that facet of his game. He also has only average bulk for an NFL feature back, and there are questions about ball security as well.
If you’re looking for short-term fantasy bang, Gordon certainly seems in line to make the quickest impact. However, his long-term NFL future may wind up being less feature back and more explosive contributor a la Reggie Bush or C.J. Spiller. With Gurley you may have to wait a year for him to return to full strength, and there’s no guarantee he comes all the way back. But if and when he does, he fits all the specifications of a top-end feature back—with fantasy results likely to follow.