Is Gurley Already NFL’s Best Back?

At very few positions and in very few sports can a player become the best at his craft only weeks into his professional tenure. But if you’re a truly special NFL running back, you often have an opportunity to make a pretty large statement in the infancy of your career.

The last time that happened in a truly unforgettable way, Adrian Peterson rushed for 1,341 yards as a rookie with the 2007 Minnesota Vikings, averaging a league-high 5.6 yards per carry (among backs with three starts) and scoring 13 total touchdowns in 14 games.

Despite starting only five of his first eight games that season, Peterson had a league-high 1,036 rushing yards at midseason, with a 268-yard edge on the NFL’s second leading rusher, Willie Parker. He went over the 100-yard mark five times and the 200-yard mark twice during that stretch. And the 224 yards he put up in his third career start would have been the high watermark for the ’07 season if not for the NFL-record—it still stands, by the way—296 yards he rushed for in his fifth career start.

Eight years later, St. Louis Rams rookie running back Todd Gurley is starting to feel like this decade’s version of Peterson.

Gurley is only the fourth back since Peterson to be drafted in the top 10. Darren McFadden(2008), C.J. Spiller (2010) and Trent Richardson (2012) weren’t able to come close to replicating what Peterson did early, or beyond early, for that matter. But Gurley might break the trend.

Despite the fact he’s less than a year removed from tearing his ACL (sound familiar?), Gurley has rushed for an NFL-record 566 yards in his first four NFL starts, hitting the 125-yard mark in all four games and scoring three touchdowns in the process.

 

As a result, Gurley leads the league with a 6.1 yards-per-attempt average and ranks fifth in rushing yards despite the fact he’s missed almost three full games and has been on the field for only 41 percent of his team’s offensive snaps.

See how lopsided that is? It’s actually closer than it should be, because Gurley’s yards-per-game average is skewed a fair bit by a nine-yard performance in Week 3 in which he had only six carries on 14 snaps.

Remove that outing from the equation and he’s averaging 141.5 yards per game.

In ’07, we were witnessing Peterson become the league’s best back in a heartbeat, taking the proverbial crown from LaDainian Tomlinson. Now, Gurley is doing the same thing to the 30-year-old Peterson.

Considering Peterson ran for an NFL-record 296 yards in his fifth start, it won’t be easy for Gurley to keep pace in Week 9. But Peterson then suffered a knee injury and ran for 100 yards just once the remainder of the year. Even still, he was widely considered the best back in football in 2008, so Gurley is already solidifying a similar reputation.

  • The man has already broken off 50-plus-yard runs on three occasions. Only 11 other backs have a single 50-plus-yard carry, and none have done it twice. He needs just one 50-yard run in the next nine games to become the first back to do that four or more times since Peterson did it a ridiculous seven times in his historic 2012 campaign.

  • He also leads the league with four 40-yard runs and five 30-yard runs.

  • Sixteen percent of his runs have gained 10-plus yards, which is a higher rate than anyone else with at least 90 carries. He literally has a 10-yard gain once every six times he carries the ball. That’s not far from Peterson’s double-digit yardage rate of 18 percent from his 2,097-yard 2012 season.

Here is some more context from ESPN.com’s Nick Wagoner:

The [71-yard touchdown run he had in Week 8] gave Gurley a run of 45 or more yards for the fourth time in as many weeks and his sixth carry of 20-plus yards on the season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, if you took the sum of Gurley’s longest runs (52, 55, 48, 71) in his first four starts, he would have as many or more yards than 19 other rookie running backs do this season with 226.

Predictably, he’s taking the league—and especially his teammates—by storm.

“Me and Justice [Cunningham] were talking on the sideline today after a couple of runs he made, and we have just never seen a back like him before,” tight end Jared Cook said Sunday, per Wagoner. “Never. It’s like slow motion when the guy runs. He gets out in the open field, and just takes it on his own. I’m just glad he’s on our team.”

Sounds a lot like what Peterson’s teammates and opponents were saying about him eight years ago, when fullback Tony Richardson—who had blocked for Emmitt Smith, Marcus Allen, Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson—called Peterson “the best running back I’ve seen coming out of college,” as Dan Pompei, then of the Chicago Tribune, relayed.

Peterson’s Vikings will host Gurley’s Rams Sunday, giving us a fitting opportunity to observe the transition from one era to another as the 21-year-old Gurley announces to the football world that he has surpassed his 30-year-old counterpart to become the NFL’s best running back.

It’ll be Gurley’s fifth career start. It seems early to draw such grand conclusions, but let’s remember what Peterson did at the exact same point back in ’07.

Advanced statistics courtesy of Pro Football Focus.

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.

Source: MSN Sports

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