Fantasy Impact: Todd Gurley to the Falcons
After five brilliant seasons with the Los Angeles Rams including back to back #1 overall fantasy seasons, the Rams released Todd Gurley Thursday afternoon. Less than 24 hours later, the Atlanta Falcons announced that they’d be signing the 25-year-old veteran to a one year contract.
I mentioned yesterday on Twitter immediately after Gurley was released that Atlanta would be the ideal landing spot for him. Over the past week, I’ve moved Gurley up from my #16 running back and an early third round pick to my #12 running back and an early second round pick. Let me tell you why this move gives me more confidence in his fantasy stock.
There are many who will scoff at the heading because they remember Los Angeles scoring 527 points in 2018. That was literally one of the greatest offenses in NFL history, but in the NFL, things move fast. Last year they scored just 394 points which is still solid, but less than 1 point per game better than the Falcons scored. And let’s not forget, the Rams did that with a much better running back (who they no longer have) plus they are looking to trade Brandin Cooks.
Most importantly, the Falcons’ offensive line is night and day better than the Rams’ offensive line, especially in the run-blocking department. That was with first round pick, Chris Lindstrom missing 11 games and James Carpenter, their other guard, missing five, himself. Gurley was the single least efficient runner in the NFL during the 2016 season behind an abysmal offensive line. In 2017 and 2018, it was among the five best and he was the #1 fantasy back each year. Last year, it plummeted to the bottom five and, what do you know? Gurley dropped to RB #12.
Not only that but the Falcons tied for first with the fasted tempo in football last year, running 68.5 plays per game. Additionally, Gurley moves from perhaps the best defensive division in football to easily the worst, which allowed 145 more points last season than the NFC West.
“Hold on a second! What about his knee?” Folks, do you realize Gurley compiled over 1,000 yards and 14 touchdowns again last season in a “down year”? The dude still played 15 games (more than 2018 and the same as 2017). Gurley has been playing with this arthritic knee his entire career and it hasn’t held him back so why is that suddenly going to change in 2020?
Besides the offensive line, there was one other major difference between his 2018 #1 overall fantasy season and last year’s drop-off: the Rams moved him from a three-down, bell-cow, game-script-proof back getting 18.3 carries and 5.8 targets per game to one splitting the workload with Malcolm Brown and company. Gurley dropped to 14.9 carries and just 3.3 targets per contest last year.
Atlanta has no competition for running back targets and while they may draft a back of the future (perhaps a change of pace back like Anthony McFarland), this is Gurley’s backfield. With Devonta Freeman and Austin Hooper now gone, that opens up 167 targets in the Falcons passing game for Gurley to partially gobble up. And let’s not forget that once the Rams realized their error in judgment, Gurley proved he can still be a workhorse, rushing 119 times in their final 7 games including three games with 20+ carries.
WHO STARTS AT RB FOR THE RAMS?
Everyone is suddenly so excited about Darrell Henderson but it is rare for a rookie running back to see just 43 touches then suddenly become a workhorse the next year. It may be more likely that Malcolm Brown is the starter if the Rams stand pat, or rather, that this is a committee as we saw in Week 6 when Gurley was out. In that game, Brown had 11 touches, Henderson 7 and the wideouts carried the ball 4 times combined.
The most probable scenario, though, is that Los Angeles scoops up any of the available veteran running backs for cheap. Melvin Gordon is still a free agent with only Miami, the Rams and maybe Denver or Detroit still needing a starter. Devonta Freeman, Carlos Hyde (1,070 rushing yards last year) and Lamar Miller are all still available as well. My money is on Hyde ending up with the Rams while Henderson takes over a third-down back role like we’ve seen from Duke Johnson over the years.
They could, of course, go to the draft for a starter instead. With so few teams needing a running back, it wouldn’t be out of the question to see Jonathan Taylor and/or D’Andre Swift fall to the Rams at pick #52 overall in the 2nd round. Even if they decide against taking a back there, one of Cam Akers, Zack Moss or Clyde Edwards-Helaire will likely still be an option in the 3rd. At this point, let’s not pretend we know the Rams will be moving on with Henderson as the starter.
Over the past decade, the average starting running back misses 3.2 games per season. Seeing as though Gurley has missed just seven (two for rest in 2018) over five seasons, it’s clear that he is more durable than your average back. Let’s just play it conservatively, though, and say they we expect him to miss that average of 3.2 games.
The Falcons ran the ball 362 times last year and with no competition in sight, you’ve got to figure Gurley gets the same 70% workload that he handled over the second half of the Rams’ season last year. That amounts to 253 carries over a full season but just 202 when you account for the average 3.2 games missed. With the substantial offensive line upgrade, his 3.8 yards per carry should jump closer to the 4.7 and 4.9 marks in 2017 and 2018 behind great offensive lines. I’ll put him at 4.4 which over 202 carries comes to 889 rushing yards.
In the passing game, Freeman saw 5.0 targets per contest and while he is a quality receiver, Gurley has shown to be just as good through the air over the years. Hooper is now gone too. Many of Hooper’s targets, of course, will land with Hayden Hurst, but with the downgrade at that position, it seems probable that many will filter out to other positions. Mike Tagliere’s research has shown that tight end and running back targets are a give and pull so an elite tight end leaving correlates more heavily with running backs taking on those targets than wideouts. We’ll bump up Freeman’s leftover 5.0 targets per game to 5.3 for Gurley. At 12.8 assumed games played, Gurley sits at 68 targets on the year (a 39% increase from what the Rams gave him last season).
Fearless Prediction: 202 carries, 889 rushing yards, 10 rushing touchdowns and 3 lost fumbles with 68 targets, 49 receptions, 440 receiving yards, 2 touchdowns. That amounts to 223.4 half PPR points which would have been RB9 last season just ahead of Leonard Fournette and Chris Carson.
Fantasy Draft Outlook: Gurley is rumored by most analysts to now be firmly within their second round which should mean his ADP ends up there. I’d take him at the 1st/2nd round turn ahead of all non-Michael Thomas wideouts and just behind Joe Mixon, Nick Chubb, Austin Ekeler and Josh Jacobs in that order.