Are running backs still valued in the NFL?

The Browns will have Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon in later this week.

Brian Spurlock/Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

It’s still hard to say with certainty if the NFL running back is an endangered species or if the really good ones are just that much better and more valuable than the others.

That’s a question — just one of many — NFL teams have to ask themselves as the countdown to this year’s draft creeps closer to two weeks away. It’s that question, too, that makes Tuesday’s news that the Browns had Georgia’s Todd Gurley in for a formal pre-draft visit and will have Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon in later this week interesting.

Would the Browns, who hold pick Nos. 12 and 19 in the first round, use one on a running back?

A year after no running backs went in the first round, would any team use a first-rounder on a player like Gurley, who tore his ACL late last fall?

This draft seems to have more unanswered questions than many recent ones, and Gurley and Gordon are certainly two of its most interesting players. Gurley only had 123 carries last year due to the injury and a prior NCAA suspension for signing autographs. Gordon had almost 4,200 yards in his final two college seasons — including an eye-popping 2,587 last season — but had 549 carries over those two seasons.

The last thing an NFL team wants, especially with a high pick, is a guy who’s already taken too many hits or run the tread off of his tires.

Sometimes, these pre-draft visits mean little; teams can have up to 30 visitors. In the case of Gurley and Gordon, the Browns didn’t get any face time with them on the all-star game circuit and may have prioritized other players or other positions during the formal interview process at the NFL Combine in February. It’s unlikely teams there got much informal time with Gurley given the time he spent doing medical checks.

But this is the time for wild theories and wilder guesses, and a Browns team that clearly needs help at quarterback, wide receiver, tight end and pass rusher has met or plans to meet with who most everyone would guess are the draft’s top two runners in a private setting.

The Browns have two intriguing second-year runners in Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell. Both had big moments and spent time in their coaches’ doghouse as rookies, and some learning curve is to be expected as both were coming to the NFL after playing at the FCS level in college. The Browns traded up and traded an extra pick to get West but got Crowell for almost nothing as an undrafted player who had some baggage.

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Crowell was once a big star at Georgia, like Gurley. It’s a shame Gurley came back and got hurt last fall; with his size and speed, he might be a real case study on whether any team would still take a running back in the top 10 or 15 picks. Gurley is a bigger back at 6’1, 222; he looked much bigger in pads, anyway, than Gordon, who was almost 6’1 and 215 at the combine.

If NFL teams think Gordon can be a home-run type of runner, Gordon going late in the first round wouldn’t be a shock. Either Gordon or Gurley going to the Browns at No. 19 would be a surprise, but the Browns have been known to surprise — and should look to create competition for West and Crowell at some point in this draft. There are other college workhorse backs like Ameer Abdullah and David Cobb who should be available in the middle rounds.

As for a running back’s value in today’s NFL, the Steelers got Le’Veon Bell in the second round in 2013 — and Bell was good enough in his second season to garner MVP attention. Carlos Hyde probably would have gone higher than the late second round in last year’s draft if not for some off-field concerns. The curious case of Trent Richardson suddenly not resembling a football player — first for the Browns, then the Colts after a surprise trade — probably gives teams pause. Lots of teams are running the ball by committee in today’s NFL. Only two players, DeMarco Murrary and LeSean McCoy, got more than 300 carries last season.

Both will be with new teams this season. Maybe that’s coincidence, or maybe it’s teams trying to sell high.

There are different ways to approach it, though. The Patriots won the Super Bowl with a committee — and a deep one — of runners. The Seahawks almost won a second straight Super Bowl with Marshawn Lynch as their unquestioned work horse.

As for the Browns, it’s fair to say the team has more pressing needs than a running back. As for the 2015 draft, though, stay tuned. A little over two weeks out, no one seems too sure what to expect.