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SportsColumnistsBob Glauber

Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon on solid ground to be first-round draft picks

Georgia running back Todd Gurley, left, and Wisconsin

Georgia running back Todd Gurley, left, and Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon are expected to be selected in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Credit: AP

You have no doubt listened to the doom-and-gloomers who tell you that the running game in the NFL is on the way out, that the running back position has been devalued and, thus, so have the running backs themselves.

Only one problem: It's simply not true.

If the running game -- and running backs -- was headed the way of the Wing-T offense, then how do you explain the Bills taking about half an hour to trade for Eagles Pro Bowl running back LeSean McCoy and then giving him a $40-million contract? And why would Eagles coach Chip Kelly replace McCoy with not just one but two running backs, including DeMarco Murray, who earned himself a new contract that could be worth as much as $42 million?

The Seahawks were so desperate to convince Marshawn Lynch not to retire that they agreed to a three-year, $31-million contract that will pay him a whopping $12 million in 2015.

Make no mistake: There may have been a significant increase in the emphasis on the passing game during the last two decades, but running backs -- and the running game -- still are very much a part of the fabric of NFL offenses.

And by the end of the third round of this week's NFL Draft, there should be another handful of highly effective running backs to add to the talent pool.

After two straight years of no running backs taken in the first round, that streak is almost certain to be broken when commissioner Roger Goodell calls the names of Georgia tailback Todd Gurley and Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, who finished just behind Hall of Famer Barry Sanders (2,628-2,587) for the most rushing yards in a season in NCAA Division I history. There could be more.

"I think it's a great class of running backs," said Gordon, who had 29 touchdowns last season. "We have a lot of talent in this class. I just think we have the talent to go [in the] first [round] this year."

The fact that no running back was taken in the first round the last two years has only fueled the debate about a reduced reliance on running backs. But the actual statistics tell a different story. In fact, the running game is alive and well.

Consider: In the 1994 season, when Hall of Fame running backs Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Jerome Bettis and Marshall Faulk were at or near their peaks, NFL teams averaged 448 carries per season for 1,668 yards and 12.1 rushing touchdowns. In 2014, teams actually averaged more yards per season (1,781) and only slightly fewer rushing TDs (11.9).

One more stat just in case you're not entirely convinced that running backs remain intrinsic to today's NFL: In 1994, there were 10 players with at least 1,000 rushing yards. In 2014, there were 13.

"It's hard to say if we're a devalued position," Gordon said. "Teams are just going with the picks they actually need. I don't know the thoughts that are going through their heads. I can't answer that, but we just have to change that this year and show people that we're capable of going in the first round."

Gordon and Gurley are the class of this year's running backs and are expected to go in the first round. Gurley is coming off reconstructive knee surgery after being injured in his first game back after serving a four-game suspension for violating NCAA rules by taking money for autographs. But the former Georgia star believes the knee will not be an issue.

"I just know the way I work, what type of back I am and what type of player I've become over the past couple of years," Gurley said. "I'm going to work as hard as possible to get back and be that guy when I come back."

There are other quality running back prospects, too. Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah totaled 3,301 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns in the past two seasons. Tevin Coleman of Indiana ran for 2,036 yards and 15 touchdowns in a featured role. Miami's Duke Johnson had 1,652 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. Boise State's Jay Ajayi had 1,823 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns, although a previous knee injury has raised concerns among some teams.

"I think there is a resurgence of running backs," Ajayi said. "Just looking at this class of running backs, I think this is a very strong class. I think for the years to come that the NFL is going to see a rise, and a new running back class will just help the position grow and become more of a prime position."

There's no telling where this year's running backs will be ranked once their body of work is considered, but chances are good at least three or four -- perhaps more -- will emerge as capable, if not elite, runners. But regardless of where they end up, the truth is that there still is a place for the running game in today's NFL. A very important place, as a matter of fact. Gurley, Gordon and the rest of this year's class plan to provide additional proof.

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