- An overhaul in staff and a new system will be a blessing to this entire offense.
- The offensive line will be much improved with Whitworth at left tackle.
- Gurley is still favored to rank in the top five in carries per game.
- He could lose out on passing downs if Dunbar stays healthy.
- The Rams are still terrible and don’t have quarterbacks or receivers to keep defenses honest.
- There’s a chance that Gurley’s rookie season was a fluke, even if it’s a small chance.
Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt: The Todd Gurley Story
You guys, what if Todd Gurley is bad?— Russell Clay (@RussellJClay) April 15, 2017
A disastrous start in San Francisco, late on a Monday night doubleheader, was the first of many for Todd Gurley. He touched the ball only 18 times for a grand total of 42 yards. That translates to 5.2 PPR points, if you’re keeping score at home.
What we couldn’t have known at that time was just how bad the 49ers’ defense was, or would become. They ended up allowing 2,654 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns. That combo of yards and touchdowns has only happened 20 times in NFL history. On average, they allowed over five yards-per-carry. Gurley got two shots at this defense and managed 2.85. (thinking face emoji)
We also couldn’t have known at the time that the 49ers’ game was not an outlier. It wouldn’t be until Week 3 that we’d finally carve a sliver of hope, which was unfortunate for everyone except those who managed to trade him somewhere after his 85-yard, two-score performance against Tampa Bay and before his Week 4 game against Arizona.
By mid-season, memories of his Rookie of the Year performance in 2015 had been replaced with conversations of “what do you do with Gurley?” Can’t drop him yet. Can’t start him. Can’t even trade him. He was, after all, getting volume. It’s hard to imagine a worse situation.
But, from there, things did get worse. Saved only by volume, Gurley was either getting hit in the backfield or hitting the backs of his blockers. Once the season settled, we were left with 3.2 yards-per-carry and a cloud of doubt. After 16 weeks of football, he finished with an RB18 ranking in PPR leagues, and has only one game of more than 89 rushing yards since Week 8 of the 2015 season.
And that’s the story of how one running back went from being the best prospect since Adrian Peterson to being the biggest bust in fantasy football history. What makes it especially interesting is that you could have been wrong about Gurley two straight years—first with doubting his ability to produce as a rookie coming off of a major injury, and then buying into the hype a year later only to end up with an overpriced Isaiah Crowell, who actually scored more season-long fantasy points.
All that’s left now is to separate the fear from the uncertainty and answer the question “Which Gurley are we drafting in 2017?”
Changing of the Tackles
We’d like to blame the offensive line for what happened. Quarterbacks, too, while we’re at it. But that’s the easy way out. After all, those concerns existed in his rookie season as well. One could argue his 2016 top-five redraft price failed to properly adjust for the uncertainty of both the Rams’ offense as a whole and their run-blocking ability in general.
Indeed, the line was bad. Football Outsiders ranked them 29th in both run blocking and pass protection. This, despite the Rams committing seven draft picks to offensive linemen between 2014 and 2015, including Greg Robinson—a second overall selection in 2014 who made his way from starting at left tackle to being benched in Week 12.
Long story short, the Rams offensive line is still a major weakness that has yet to be finalized. Hopefully, the addition of Andrew Whitworth will solidify the left tackle position and allow Aaron Kromer, their new offensive line coach who recently was a part of the Buffalo Bills leading the league in rushing yards, a chance to focus on the other four.
It was, after all, the left side of the line that paved the way to Gurley’s success in 2015:
(stats courtesy of ProFootballReference)
Of his 26 carries that went for at least 10 yards, 14 of them came while running left. In fact, 92 of his 229 carries went that direction for 538 yards, a healthy average of 5.85 per tote.
Those numbers cratered last year. The carries were there—98 ran left—but only produced 325 yards. Going right was even worse, where he managed only 2.76 yards-per-carry. And despite an increase of 49 attempts from 2015 to 2016, the majority of them ended up as runs behind center—34.5 percent of his total. Conversely, 27.1 percent of his carries went that direction in 2015. Perhaps being slammed up the middle 96 times isn’t the best use of guy that is struggling to make his own yards. Regardless, it didn’t matter which direction Gurley ran, he couldn’t get anywhere.
(stats courtesy of ProFootballReference)
It’s difficult to separate how much of it was his fault and how much of the blame we can spread. On a positive note, Gurley ranked seventh in broken tackles when including those that came on receptions. So maybe it’s fair to throw stones at the offense as a whole, and particularly those that have blocking responsibilities.
As it stands, our Matt Bitonti has the Rams’ offensive line ranked 29th. But he added this:
“They could be half decent once they settle down. The cohesion score doesn't like that Robinson is moving to right tackle and that John Sullivan only started one game last year and zero the year before. Whitworth should be a good signing right away. If everything settles they rise as high as 16th.”
There is hope that this group can heal together and at least improve greatly on a forgettable 2016 season.
Middle School Offense?
There are so many points of failure in the Rams’ offense that we could spend a lot of time discussing coaches, play calling, quarterbacks, wide receivers, game scripts, offensive line play… you name it. All of it is justifiable.
The good news is that Jeff Fisher is gone. His replacement, Sean McVay, has spent the last three years as the offensive coordinator for Washington, the final two of which featured the 10th and 12th highest scoring offenses in 2015 and 2016 respectively. They did not, however, demonstrate much in the way of running prowess. But that may be a matter of talent.
Things look quite a bit different in L.A. McVay will no longer have an experienced gunslinger at quarterback. Instead, he’ll have a raw second-year product in Jared Goff, who played half of his rookie season and was just a few clicks above being terrible. Needless to say, there will be a learning curve.
Said curve will undoubtedly lean on the presence of a strong running attack. Gurley is light years better than anyone in Washington, and it would be foolish to assume McVay doesn’t feel the same way. However, the way he runs his offense may tell a different story. According to Sharp Football Stats, only five teams called more 11 personnel—one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers—than Washington in 2016. Well above the 60 percent league average, McVay ran that formation on 73 percent of plays, and threw the ball while in 11 personnel 70 percent of the time. So, it stands to reason Goff and his receivers will be the top beneficiaries of the Rams’ new offense.
But the bigger concern is how he’ll disperse passing downs amongst running backs. Chris Thompson was the primary guy in Washington with 62 targets and 49 receptions (12th most among running backs). That’s good news for Gurley, one might think, until we remember that Lance Dunbar—a pass-catching specialist—is now a part of the Rams’ backfield. This is an unfortunate development as the one blessing from Gurley’s 2016 was his usage in the passing game, which more than doubled from 21 receptions on 26 targets in 2015, to 43 receptions on 58 targets last year.
If McVay falls back into his 11 personnel tendencies, which would be a great improvement for the Rams in general, the threat of a split backfield is more than worth considering as the season approaches. One way or the other, this offense almost has to improve. What are the chances that they finish second-to-last in both yards-per-carry and yards-per-throw two years in a row?
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…
What this all boils down to is whether or not we can confidently draft Gurley at his ADP, which, as of this writing, is 21st overall per our consensus rankings. It seems we failed to appropriately bake the volatility of the Rams’ offense into his price last year. We thought “he did it as a rookie; he can do it again.” We are now nearly getting a two-round discount, but is it enough?
He’s not Adrian Peterson. Of that I’m sure. And we can’t assume a great player will always rise above his terrible team, especially when that player is a running back. But between the evidence above, and the projections below—which average out to approximately 227 PPR points, enough for an RB8 finish last year and an RB5 finish in 2015—there exists a strong indication of a bounce-back year.
Other View Points
Jamey Eisenberg over at CBS Sports says Gurley’s sophomore year was the worst we’ll see and that he’s worth the risk in 2017.
Via ESPN, Alden Gonzalez quotes head coach Sean McVay noting that the Rams will be able to find a much better run/pass ratio with Gurley than he did in Washington, but a bounce-back will require a team effort.
FantasyPros’ Mike Tagliere likes Gurley’s prospects in McVay’s offense and sees him getting 300-plus carries.