Todd Gurley Isn't Worth Your Second-Round Fantasy Pick
The good news is that the team finally canned Jeff Fisher, replacing him with former Redskins offensive coordinator Sean McVay. Gurley could benefit from the hire of McVay because McVay is likely to have the offense play at a faster pace; the Rams played with the third-slowest pace in the league last season (28.7 seconds/play), while McVay's Washington unit was more towards the middle of the pack (27.6).
The Rams had one of the worst offenses in the league last season, so it’s hard to see the them performing any worse in 2017. Their offensive line in particular was awful, but it should improve with the acquisitions of center John Sullivan and left tackle Andrew Whitworth. Apparently, Gurley even sees improvement in “franchise quarterback” Jared Goff. So there’s that.
Gurley truthers better hope an increase in play volume allows Gurley to maintain his target market share, because volume has been about all he's had going for him lately -- it certainly hasn’t been efficiency.
Can Gurley return to his rookie-season form with a new coach and upgraded offensive line? And will the addition of Dunbar significantly cut into Gurley's fantasy value?
My Rushing Expectation charting, which balances metrics with film evaluation (one of the toughest things to do in fantasy football) can provide some clues as to how to approach Gurley in 2017 fantasy drafts.
Rushing Expectation: Todd Gurley
Gurley has rare speed and very good acceleration. However, he rarely used those traits to get to the outside, and the few times I saw him reverse field on a cutback, he failed to create yards on his own in poorly blocked situations. As we speak, Jeff Fisher is probably checking his pockets somewhere pondering what happened to the athletic freak who was supposed to change everything for the Rams offense.
In charting Gurley, I saw a running back who has all the physical tools of an elite feature back. That said, his season in 2016 was one of the worst I've seen in my entire 60-player sample. He struggled with efficiency, as well as in other key metrics like success rate versus seven or fewer defenders in the box.
Gurley's struggles started up front. The Rams had an overall Expected Success Rate on rushing attempts of 39.4 percent, fourth-lowest in the league, and well below the NFL average of 46.3 percent. They were equally terrible at blocking for running backs in the passing game, posting an Expected Success Rate of 38.3 percent, which was also the league's fourth-lowest mark. Given these conditions, we can’t possibly put all the blame on Gurley . . . right?
I will continue to stress that Expected Success Rate is an insanely useful metric because it does a great job separating a running back's performance from that of his blocking, which is especially relevant in Gurley's case because the Rams have had some of the worst offensive line numbers in the league over the past two seasons.
However, even when taking the Rams' putrid blocking into account, Gurley still performed well below expectation.
In fact, among my 60-player sample, Gurley finished with just a 21st-percentile Expectation Score on the ground and a 23rd-percentile Expectation score through the air in '16.
Gurley struggled to create yards before contact, a metric which I intuitively believe can be a reflection of either a running back's ability or his offensive line's play, to varying degrees. The running backs that pique my interest the most are those that post strong yards before contact numbers despite below-average blocking (like Spencer Ware did last year). While I believe that Gurley's poor yards before contact numbers are largely an indictment of his offensive line in this case, it's disappointing that a back of his supposed caliber wasn't able to perform better in this metric.
Compounding the problem was the fact that Gurley also broke very few tackles, which is highlighted by his 26th-percentile ranking in rushing yards after contact.
Gurley's failure to overcome his offensive line's poor play is magnified because he didn't even face an above-average percentage of loaded boxes (which is surprising for a team that consistently found itself in negative game script). It’s possible that Gurley felt pressure to make plays on every touch since there was not much other playmaking to speak of on the Rams offense. He looked like a totally different back than the one he was in college, when he routinely displayed elite mental processing skills and maturity. And while he certainly possesses the elite breakaway speed to make big plays, I saw issues with his pad level; he runs too upright when approaching physical confrontations in the open field.
On the plus side, Gurley made some impressive adjustments to poor passes, specifically on the outside, which was the area of the field where he was targeted the most. He has above-average hands, catches the ball away from his body, which enables him to make difficult contested catches.
Overall, my charting has provided two noteworthy takeaways:
Gurley has underperformed relative to his rare athletic ability. This could be due to any combination offensive line, quarterback play, or scheme. Or it could be that Gurley is not as good at football as we thought he was.
Gurley is a capable pass-catcher. However, it's worrisome that arguably his best work came in the passing game given that Dunbar may siphon passing-down snaps.
Gurley's '15 season might have been a mirage. Per Football Outsiders, his cumulative Success Rate that year was 41.0 percent, and after adjusting for his offensive line, Gurley would have produced an Expectation Score of 1.01 -- almost exactly average.
So while Gurley experienced negative regression in his second year after a highlight-filled rookie campaign, let’s not pretend he was consistently special in his rookie year, either. He made a lot of big plays that year, but those are difficult to sustain and skew yards per carry average, which explains Gurley's dip in yards per carry from 4.8 in '15 to 3.2 last season.
How Much Passing-Down Work Will Lance Dunbar Steal?
Behind Gurley, things should play out relatively predictably. As is a diminutive back (5-foot-8, 187 pounds) with very good acceleration and quickness, but marginal power and minimal balance through contact, Dunbar is best suited for a passing-down role. He is expected to be used as the third-down back, in a similar vein to how McVay used Chris Thompson, who averaged 4.3 carries and 3.9 targets per game in McVay's offense last season. Like Gurley, Thompson commanded 70 percent market share of his team's running back targets last season, so if Dunbar is going to play the Thompson role on the Rams, something has to give.
Todd Gurley 2017 Fantasy Outlook
With whispers in the football community that Gurley is Trent Richardson 2.0, Gurley has a lot to prove in '17.
Working in Gurley's favor is an offensive line that added some pieces and has nowhere to go but up. Not working in his favor is that he will likely lose passing-down snaps to Dunbar, although that could be offset somewhat if McVay speeds up the offense's pace.
Ultimately, Gurley is locked into workhorse volume on the ground, so it’s difficult to be completely down on his long-term outlook, especially with Jeff Fisher no longer Jeff Fisher-ing the offense.
That said, I will have zero shares of Todd Gurley in 2017 at his second-round ADP.
Why would I draft Gurley in the second round when I can instead draft a running back in the fifth or sixth round who plays in a better offense, and who I believe in a lot more (like Ty Montgomery, or Ameer Abdullah, for instance)?
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