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Fantasy Football: Can Todd Gurley Finish As An RB1?

Let’s take a step back in time. The year is 2018, and the month of August is approaching. As your draft date draws nearer, you’re mock drafting away in preparation for the big event. By the will of the Fantasy Gods, you’ve been given the first overall pick in the draft. So, who’s going to be the heart and soul of your team? If you answered with any name other than Todd Gurley, I’m sorry, you’re lying. Todd Gurley had just come off a season with 2,093 all-purpose yards and 19 total touchdowns, and you know you couldn’t wait to draw the envy of your league-mates when you tied him to your roster. For all the faith you invested in the Rams’ running back with your coveted draft position, you were greatly rewarded.

Fast forward to 2019, and well…things didn’t go according to plan in Los Angeles. The Rams’ offense as a whole struggled mightily to produce at the level they had in 2018. At the root of all this was the poor play from the offensive line. Pro Football Focus graded them as the lowly 31st ranked offensive line in the league. Without many open running lanes to work with, Gurley dropped from an eye-popping 4.9 yards-per-carry down to 3.8. His rushing production wasn’t the only aspect of his game that dipped last season though. Gurley lost a total of 28 receptions, 373 yards, and two touchdowns through the air, leaving him with his least productive receiving season since his rookie year.

Further adding to the fog of Gurley’s fantasy future, the Rams unexpectedly parted ways with him back in March. After the dust settled, Rams General Manager Les Snead stated that cutting Gurley wasn’t “a salary-cap issue.” He went on to justify the decision by expressing doubt about Gurley’s ability to produce for the team.

Now, finding himself in an Atlanta Falcons jersey, Gurley is looking to prove that he’s still got it. At the moment, Todd Gurley is ranked as the RB15 in Half-PPR according to Fantasy Pro’s expert consensus rankings. There are plenty of opportunities in the Matt Ryan driven offense, but can he make the most of his situation? More specifically, can he finish the year as an RB1?

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Can Todd Gurley Finish As An RB1?

While Todd Gurley drove owners to fantasy supremacy for much of 2018, his arthritic knee became an issue down the stretch. For some, his absence in Week 16 may very well have ended championship runs. Not only did Gurley sit out in Weeks 16 and 17, he also combined for a mere 14 carries in the NFC Championship and Super Bowl respectively. Despite the Rams’ insistence that he was healthy, the evidence laid before us said otherwise. After losing an anticlimactic Super Bowl to the Patriots, Les Snead spoke all offseason about reducing Gurley’s workload in 2019. McVay contradicted this in press meetings, but for all of his denial, Gurley’s lighter share of the work was undeniable. He went from nine 20+ touch games to less than half that total with four. It wasn’t until later in the season that we saw his touches significantly increase.

By the time Gurley saw his volume of work go up, his efficiency hadn’t gotten any better. Starting with Week 11, when he saw his first 20+ touch game, he managed only 3.48 yards-per-carry to finish the season. In that same stretch, he actually ran for less yards-per-carry than his season total of 3.8. Gurley can’t shoulder all of the blame for his poor play though. As mentioned above, his offensive line played horribly all season. Now that he’s running behind a new offensive line, the question is whether or not his efficiency can increase to his norm.

Atlanta’s Offensive Line

Unfortunately for Gurley, Atlanta’s offensive line didn’t play well enough last season to inspire confidence. They graded out as the 24th best unit in the league. While the team tried to address their line in the 2019 draft, their efforts weren’t rewarded. On top of taking two rookies in the first round, the Falcons signed free agent James Carpenter to a four-year deal. Sadly, both Carpenter and rookie Chris Lindstrom missed significant time during the season. Although, in Carpenter’s case, he wasn’t all that missed. Prior to heading to IR, Pro Football Focus gave him a terrible grade of 45.3. Alternatively, Lindstrom came back in week 14 and flashed signs of promise. While Lindstrom’s play helped justify his selection, their other rookie Kaleb McGary was another story. Among 38 qualifying right tackles, McGary finished at a pitiful rank of 34th.

The Falcons knew they needed to address their mediocre offensive line to compete in the NFC South, and they did so both in free agency and the draft. Staring with free agency, they signed Justin McCray, who can provide competition to the struggling Kaleb McGary at the right tackle. It wasn’t the most exciting signing, but they can’t afford another lackluster season like McGary had last year. Where the draft is concerned, they selected Matt Hennessy out of Temple in the third round with the 78th pick. Hennessy came out of college as a center, but the team may be able to use him as a guard if need be. Atlanta should see a slight bump in productivity from this group, and they’ll certainly be a step up from the line in Los Angeles, but at best, they’ll be a middling crew throughout the season.

Injury Concerns

Due to COVID-19, teams haven’t been able to conduct health and injury screenings like they normally would when signing free agents. For Todd Gurley, this means the team hasn’t been able to properly examine his knee and assess what limitations he may face in the coming year. Offense Coordinator Dirk Koetter said as much in a recent interview. “The main question that no one seems to know is, ‘What’s his health status? What’s his workload?’ We’re just going to have to find that out once we get here and get him working, get him up and running.”

For a team who did nothing else in the offseason to address a shallow corps of running backs, it was a bold move to bring in a player with serious injury concerns. Concerns that couldn’t be addressed, no less. Considering Gurley’s injury baggage, it isn’t comforting to know that he doesn’t have a viable option to spell him in the backfield. At least in Los Angeles, he had Malcolm Brown and Darrell Henderson to take some of the work off his plate. Combining inefficiency and less work, Gurley failed to reach the 100-yard mark once last season. He’ll be the undisputed workhorse in Atlanta, but there are serious doubts as to whether or not he’ll hold up over 16 games with that kind of usage.

Gurley’s Role In Atlanta’s Offense

Remember Ito Smith and Brian Hill? They’ll be the only relief available for Todd Gurley when he’s gassed. Ergo, he’s rarely going to come off the field. Take last year for example, in only 14 games, Devonta Freeman saw 243 touches, despite being wildly inefficient. That may not sound all that impressive, but much of this is due to the fact that Atlanta was constantly chasing points. As a result, Freeman saw 59 receptions on the year. That’s not a number you can ignore, but then again, what’s 59 catches when you only average 6.9 yards-per-reception? That volume of receptions is good for a solid weekly floor in PPR, but the lack of explosion offers very little ceiling. Gurley, on the other hand, has only averaged less than Freeman’s 2019 yards-per-reception total once in his career. The only catch is that the season in question happened to be last year.

With Gurley in line to take over the receiving duties in the backfield, that leaves one of two high-quality touch boxes checked. The other, however, leaves room to be desired. The second category I’m speaking of is goal-line carries. In all of Freeman’s 184 rushes, a measly ONE carry came at the goal-line. I don’t expect Gurley to inherit that inordinate total, but it does tell us that Atlanta won’t use him in that area as the Rams did.

There’s no question that Gurley is in line for a high volume of work. His total touch count isn’t what concerns me though. His decline in efficiency in the passing game and the likely neglect he’ll receive at the goal-line is seriously concerning. Without the appeal of touchdown opportunities, what’s his upside?

Final Thoughts

I ran across an interesting stat that might further put his 2020 outlook in perspective. In the last decade, there have only been 21 seasons of 1,200 rushing yards by running backs 26 and older. Additionally, every one of those seasons came with a modest to below-average yards-per-carry total of 4.2 or less. Gurley can absolutely hit that mark, but his injury concerns and a mediocre offensive line hamper his chances. If Gurley’s yardage totals are at risk, and his touchdown upside isn’t there, his path to an RB1 finish is virtually impossible. What we’ll likely be looking at is a season similar to the one Le’Veon Bell had last year. In PPR, that was good enough for an RB16 finish. While that may not seem all that disappointing, Bell wasn’t a player who could win you a week.

At best, you’re looking at a top-15 finish for Gurley in PPR. His work in the passing game alone will keep him relevant. In my own PPR rankings, I have Gurley as the RB19. As an unexciting, low-ceiling player with limited upside, Gurley won’t be a player I’ll be drafting. If you start the draft with a run on wide receivers, he can serve as your RB2, but I wouldn’t feel good about it personally. It’s a sad truth, but the glory days of Todd Gurley are in his rearview mirror.

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