The role and value of the running back in the NFL has evolved as much as any position over the past decade, with a league-wide trend favoring versatile players who can contribute equally to the passing attack as to the ground game.
Todd Gurley embodies the postmodern ball carrier as well as anyone.
After racking up 2,093 yards and 19 touchdowns from scrimmage last year for the Los Angeles Rams to bounce back from a rough 2016 season, Gurley is again off to a running start with 220 total yards and four touchdowns in his first two games. Arizona's perennial Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson aptly summed up the strategy for containing Gurley prior to the Rams-Cardinals game last week.
"Just be like flying missiles," Peterson said, "always hitting him and getting 11 hats on the ball."
With Le'Veon Bell still waiting to sign his contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers and resume his equally electric career, Gurley was ranked as the NFL's top running back by a panel of 10 football writers from The Associated Press. He received nine first-place votes.
"With offensive guru Sean McVay using him in all the right ways, Gurley has established himself as not only the NFL's No. 1 running back but one of the league's finest offensive pieces at any position," wrote the Washington-based Howard Fendrich. "He shows how a running back can still matter in today's game."
The Rams gave Gurley 343 touches last season, his third in the league, but 64 of those were catches for a whopping 788 yards. Not only does this increased emphasis on throwing to running backs keep defenses off-balance, it can reduce wear and tear by cutting down on time running between the tackles. So the Rams had no qualms about giving Gurley a contract extension this summer worth $60 million, two years before he was eligible for free agency.
"Gurley is proof No. 1 that drafting running backs high can be a very good idea," said Barry Wilner, the AP's national football writer in New York.
Bell, who took first billing in the rankings last season , finished second despite spending the first two weeks of the season at home — and counting. The lowest he placed on any ballot was fourth.
"Worth every penny he's holding out to get," wrote the Philadelphia-based Rob Maaddi.
Ezekiel Elliott, who led the league in rushing yards per game in each of his first two years with the Dallas Cowboys, was close behind Bell for third place.
"Just look at how much Dallas struggled during Elliott's suspension last year," said Josh Dubow, who's based in the Bay Area.
Rounding out the top 10: Alvin Kamara (fourth, New Orleans Saints), David Johnson (fifth, Arizona Cardinals), Kareem Hunt (sixth, Kansas City Chiefs), Saquon Barkley (seventh, New York Giants), Leonard Fournette (eighth, Jacksonville Jaguars), Melvin Gordon (ninth, Los Angeles Chargers) and LeSean McCoy (10th, Buffalo Bills).
Hunt, who had to share the rookie spotlight last season with Fournette and Kamara, was the only one outside the top three who appeared on all 10 ballots. McCoy, who turned 30 this summer, was the only one older than 26 on the list. He was fourth in the NFL last year in yards from scrimmage, behind Gurley, Bell and Hunt.
Barkley was the lone rookie on the list, a testament to his potential despite playing in only two professional games. The Denver-based Arnie Stapleton ranked him second, the same spot where Barkley was taken in the draft this spring ahead of quarterback Sam Darnold of the New York Jets.
"The average lifespan of an NFL running back is much shorter," Stapleton said, "but what a life it could be for the Giants with Barkley leading the way."
1. Todd Gurley, Rams
2. Le'Veon Bell, Steelers
3. Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys
4. Alvin Kamara, Saints
5. David Johnson, Cardinals
6. Kareem Hunt, Chiefs
7. Saquon Barkley, Giants
8. Leonard Fournette, Jaguars
9. Melvin Gordon, Chargers
10. LeSean McCoy, Bills