The early to mid-2010s was one of the best periods of NFL Football ever. From superstar quarterbacks like Peyton Manning, Cam Newton, and Tom Brady, along with stellar defenses such as the Legion of Boom and the No-Fly Zone Denver Broncos, this era provided us with some fond memories of the game. Of course, you had great running backs like LeSean Mccoy, Demarco Murray, and the electric Chris Johnson. However, from 2016 to 2019, two running backs who stood atop the peak were the Dallas Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott and the Los Angeles Rams’ Todd Gurley.
Both have taken a heavy fall from grace, with Gurley not having a spot on an NFL roster, but back then, both were bright young stars with amazing playstyles to their game. These two had many NFL fans asking at the time the question of who was the better of the two. The period of discussion comes from the 2016 NFL season through the 2019 NFL season, as the campaigns where both backs were at their best in the league simultaneously. For context, Todd Gurley was drafted by the then St. Louis Rams with the 10th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft out of Georgia. Out of the gate, Gurley showed high promise, putting up 1106 rush yards and tallying 10 scores as a rookie in only 13 games played. While he disappointed in 2016 under head coach Jeff Fisher, Gurley quickly bounced back in 2017 under the young yet innovative Sean McVay. With over 2000 scrimmage yards and 19 touchdowns in his first season under McVay, Gurley steamrolled his way to the AP Offensive Player of the Year Award. He followed this performance up with another All-Pro season in 2018 before a late-season case of arthritis in his knee hampered him in the Rams' run to Super Bowl 53. The knee issues would linger into an average 2019 campaign, where Gurley would not be named an All-Pro for the first time since 2016. He would find a spot with the Atlanta Falcons in 2020 but struggled with injuries there, too. Gurley hasn’t played in the NFL since.
As for Ezekiel Elliott, he was drafted fourth overall by the Dallas Cowboys in 2016 after bursting onto the scene in Ohio State’s 2014 national championship season. Dallas was coming off a year where star quarterback Tony Romo was sidelined with a twice-broken collarbone, causing Dallas to tailspin and end the year with a 4-12 record. Dallas would draft Elliott with hopes to rejuvenate a backfield recovering from the loss of previous star Demarco Murray and took quarterback Dak Prescott out of Mississippi State in the third round as insurance if Romo were to go down again. Romo did go down, and with a rookie tandem in the backfield, the Cowboys went from worst to first in the NFC with a 12-4 record. Although Prescott won the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year, Elliott had arguably a better year, accumulating 1631 yards on the ground with 15 touchdowns, along with 363 yards and a touchdown through the air. Although they lost in a thriller to Green Bay in the divisional round, there was promise for this young core. After dealing with a lengthy suspension case the following year, limiting Elliott’s sophomore campaign, he led the league in rushing yards with 1434 yards and helped Dallas reach the postseason. From there, Elliott got paid the biggest extension a running back had received at the time with a six-year, $90 million contract, and the fall from grace began. After is payday, Elliott slowly became a shell of himself to the point where he was released in the 2023 offseason by Dallas in a cap-crunch move. Now, Elliott resides in New England, splitting carries with Rhamondre Stevenson.
Both players were outstanding for their times, but which one was truly better? According to Pro Football Reference, Todd Gurley, from 2016 to 2019, had a total of 1036 carries for 4298 yards, which amounted to just over four yards per carry, plus 48 touchdowns on the ground. On the flip side, Ezekiel Elliott had 1169 carries for 5405 yards over this span for 40 touchdowns. As for receiving, Todd Gurley had amounted to 197 receptions for 1902 yards, at around ten yards per catch, and found the endzone 12 times. The Cowboys star runner himself had 189 catches, 1619 yards, and eight touchdowns. As a runner, Elliott had better counting stats, which could be attributed to more touches, but he also had more yards per carry. However, Todd Gurley was a better receiving back overall, so it’s hard to differentiate.
While both players had a sad fall-off after their huge paydays, no one can deny that during their peaks, no running back in the game was quite like Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley. Both should be appreciated and respected for what they did during their primes and shouldn’t be forgotten in time to the history of the game, as they were both staples to that era of NFL football.