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The Curious Case of Todd Gurley: Draft or Avoid in Fantasy?

Since Priest Holmes went back-to-back as the No.1 Fantasy RB in 2002 and 2003, a total of 14 different running backs have claimed the top spot. That’s right. For nearly 15 years, no RB had repeated as fantasy’s highest scorer… until last year.

In 2018, Todd Gurley broke this drought, finishing as the RB1 in two straight years with an absurd 350 FPs and 342 FPs (Half-PPR) respectively. Even more impressive, Gurley achieved this despite missing two games.

To reward his historic, consistent dominance, experts now rank Gurley at 18th overall (RB11), while he falls to Round 2 in most mock drafts.

Wait, what?

Yes, that’s correct. The man who has hand delivered fantasy titles in back-to-back seasons is now being dragged through the 2019 offseason fantasy mud more than any other player.

Indeed, some of this concern — fueled by Gurley’s arthritic knee, last season’s late collapse, and Darrell Henderson‘s addition — is warranted.

But has the hate gone too far?

The Wolf certainly thinks so. In fact, he believes Gurley is a league-winning value play anywhere outside of the Top-Five.

The Positives

1) A Reminder on How Dominant Gurley Has Been Since McVay Arrived

Gurley’s elite talent should be immediately clear to anyone who’s watched him play. Few match his power to shed tacklers and truck through congestion, and even fewer also come with the long speed to house it with space. Stir in soft hands and strong route running, and Gurley’s a mix of prime Marshawn Lynch‘s bruising strength + Alvin Kamara’s elusive big-play and receiving abilities. In case you need a refresher:

Perhaps Gurley’s strongest asset, however, is his ability to finish runs in the Red Zone. Gurley is an absolute bloodhound at the stripe, evidenced by 40 total TDs over his past two seasons.

As an elite scorer, Gurley has been fantasy’s most consistent weapon over the last two seasons. Last year, he topped 22 Half-PPR FPs in 12 of 14 games (86%). Half of these contests crossed the 30 FP, week-winning threshold. Dating back to 2017, Gurley has topped 10+ FPs in 27 of 29 GP (93%).

That floor and ceiling is simply unparalleled, and is buoyed by…

2) Gurley’s Role in a Top-3 Scoring Offense is Perfect, Even With Volume Hit

Under wunderkind Sean McVay, the Rams have morphed into an offensive juggernaut. In fact, Los Angeles skyrocketed from 2016’s lowest scoring offense (14.0 PPG) to 2017’s highest-powered attack (29.9). Then, amidst worries he would be “figured out,” McVay engineered an even more potent offense in 2018 (32.9) that trailed only MVP Patrick Mahomes‘ Chiefs.

In short, this offense has been genuinely unstoppable for two straight seasons.

The main philosophy and backbone of McVay’s attack is “marrying the running and passing game” and become an unpredictable force. This is accomplished through a heavy dosage of play-action and screens off of run-design plays.

Of course, for this to functionally operate, the running game must be established first. McVay hails from the “Shanahan Tree” of zone-blocking, which has historically produced dominant stats for no-names and elite talents alike. A player of Gurley’s caliber absolutely feasts on the gaping holes and cutback lanes created by a line moving in unison. He’s especially dangerous in the screen game built off this run-game.

In short, Gurley’s been the perfect engine for McVay’s high-powered locomotive.

This has been most prominent at the goalline where, as mentioned, few match Gurley’s finishing abilities. He’s racked up the 2nd (69) and 1st (73) most Red Zone touches in the league, including back-to-back seasons with the most GL carries (18 carries each). He’s scored 19 and 21 total TDs in the process.

Granted, most, including myself, expect Gurley’s overall usage to take a decent hit in 2019. Otherwise, he would likely be a repeat as first overall pick. Expecting a drop is perfectly reasonable, considering Gurley’s knee concerns, last season’s fade, and Henderson’s addition. Both McVay and GM Les Snead have heavily hinted at reducing Gurley’s usage all offseason, including at the Combine before they traded up to add Henderson:

“Todd he’s had a lot of carries since he’s come into the league,” Snead began, “So, obviously, (in college at Georgia) did the ACL so over that time there’s an element of wear and tear… are we going to lessen that load to, let’s say keep him fresher for the season and for seasons beyond. And then, if you go that route, right, you have to have a good let’s call it ‘Batman and Robin combination’… it’s something we want to be intentional about and proactive.”

Even so, Gurley could take a solid hit in snaps and touches, and still absolutely feast. He’s the games best GL hammer in an offense that’ll visit the Red Zone more than any other.

In fact, let’s say his snap shares drop -10% or even -15% from his 75% (2018) and 76.4% (2017), and Gurley enters more of a 60/40 split with Henderson. In the process, let’s also overestimate and drop Gurley’s 23 touches per game down to 17; this would’ve ranked 14th in the league last year behind the likes of Chris Carson, Marshawn Lynch, and Jordan Howard.

Based on Gurley’s hyper-efficiency (1.086 FPs per touch), which is largely fueled by his hefty TD totals, he would have still scored over 295 FPs. This would have still bested all but three other RBs (Barkley, McCaffrey, and Kamara).

If you don’t expect Gurley to sustain something similar to this efficiency, you have to also be expecting:

A) The Rams offense will suddenly be figured out (Not happening).

B) The 5’8″, undersized Henderson will steal GL carries from the best hammer in the game (Also unlikely).

Or

C) Gurley’s arthritic knee to sap him of his explosiveness, especially at the stripe (OK, maybe).

Even further, some speculate Gurley may indeed see a snap decrease, but could still maintain his usual 22ish touches. Maurice Jones-Drew, who spoke with Gurley and McVay this offseason, predicted as much:

“I think you can expect (22 touches per game). But he may not be on the field for 80 snaps,” Jones-Drew said. “He may be on the field for 60 or 50 snaps instead of having to be on the field for 16 games playing 80 snaps to 90 snaps a game. That’s not gonna happen anymore.”

Simply put: this offense is too good, and Gurley is too great of a fit within it, especially at the goalline. As such, he could absorb a significant usage decrease and still maintain immense, Top-7 RB fantasy value.

That is, assuming the following concerns aren’t too large in 2019:

The Concerns

1) The State of Gurley’s Knee

Gurley’s health has been one of the offseason’s buzziest mysteries, especially after he played second-fiddle to CJ “Thickums” Anderson during the season’s stretch run.

Unfortunately, nothing overly concrete has emerged, with McVay and Snead offering “wear and tear” as the reason Gurley was phased out. Moreover, the details we do have aren’t exactly promising.

On the positive front, Gurley did not require offseason surgery, and (as far as anyone knows) he has avoided the ominous sounding stem cell treatment.

On the negative, Gurley is reportedly dealing with arthritis in his surgically repaired knee, which his trainer has since confirmed. This is common after any surgery, especially ACLs, which Gurley underwent in 2014 while still at Georgia. An orthopedic surgeon, speaking anonymously to The Athletic, said: “When you use the words arthritis in a knee that had an ACL back in college, that’s the connection. You’ve lost the alignment, and the tires are wearing out prematurely.”

What this means for Gurley’s effectiveness and longevity remain unclear. Unsurprisingly, Gurley and his trainer Travelle Gaines have both downplayed the severity of the arthritis.

“I had bigger problems to worry about coming out of college. This is small,” Gurley said.

Meanwhile, Gaines added this should always have been expected and it’s now more an issue of management:

“Everybody knew when Todd came out of Georgia that there would be some kind of arthritic component to his knee, which is part of every surgery whether it’s a shoulder, a knee, an ankle,” Gaines said late last week. “He’s now at the year-five mark, all we’re doing is managing that.”

In fact, Gaines goes as far as to say he doesn’t expect “a decrease in his workload…Todd typically sat out two to three series last year. I don’t see anything changing with that.” He further explained how “not one thing has changed” in their offseason preparation, saying Gurley is “strong, in great shape” and reportedly even down six pounds to improve his speed.

Though this seems bias and perhaps overly optimistic, Gurley still could be a few years away from the arthritis truly reducing his level of play. Still, to avoid a steep decline, nearly all doctors agree he’ll need to reduce his workload:

“Without personally examining him, my answers will obviously be very generalized, but unfortunately I believe Gurley has peaked and will not be able to repeat his record-breaking effectiveness,” speculated Dr. Jesse Morse of Florida Orthopedic Specialists. “He could possibly have one to two more years of elite top-five running back talent, but he will likely lose a step.”

Yet, Dr. Morse offered optimism. After all, Gurley has access to some of the best medical treatments and personnel, leading Morse to believe that the team “should be able to prevent a rapid decline for a Gurley-type talent.” Instead, as an issue centered more around management, the team will need to “decrease his workload,” especially in practice. PFF’s Scott Barrett also noted the Rams could easily reduce his load in blowout situations:

As of now, Gurley is expected to be on track for Training Camp, where he’ll likely have his reps managed. With proper management, the arthritis seems to be more of a long-term fantasy issue, as Gurley could still be a TD-scoring force even with a solid reduction in touches. He’s been an Iron Man health-wise up until now, missing only three games since returning from his torn ACL as a rookie. For at least 2019, Gurley should still have plenty left.

2) Offensive Line Concerns

Benefitting from unparalleled continuity in 2018, the Rams had all five starters return and play over 1,000 snaps together, the first time this has been achieved in over 10 seasons. Ultimately, they graded out as PFF’s No.6 unit.

Unfortunately, the line is in disarray entering 2019, even with stalwart LT Andrew Whitworth delaying his retirement. Though the Rams are set at the bookends, with Whitworth and Rob Havenstein both returning, the interior is a complete question mark. Guard Roger Saffold, PFF’s second highest graded run-blocker in the league, has departed to Tennessee, while the team declined C John Sullivan‘s option.

Though Saffold in particular will be impossible to replace, the team did spend heavy 2017 draft capital preparing for this exact issue. Depth isn’t the biggest issue, but rather uncertainty and unprovenness. Austin Blythe, who started at right guard all last year, returns and could play center, while any one of David Edwards, Joseph Noteboom, and Brian Allen will all battle for the other two spots along the interior.

Ideally, the zone-blocking scheme will cover up most growing pains. Still, a lesser line may mean less running room for Gurley and the rest of this backfield.

 

Summary

Indeed, Gurley comes with more red flags than your usual back-to-back 340+ FP scorer. Primarily, his arthritic knee feels like a ticking time bomb, and will ultimately result in a reduced workload as early as this season. Fewer touches is a foregone conclusion, especially with the explosive Darrell Henderson added as the ideal “Kamara-style” complement.

Still, Gurley’s been so dominant, and remains the perfect centerpiece to McVay’s run-focused, play-action assault. The HC acknowledged as much, gushing: “You can expect Todd to be a focal point of our offense going forward,” McVay told Rich Eisen. “He’s in a good place, he’s feeling good and will continue to be a central piece of our offense and I don’t see that changing.”

This is especially true at the stripe, where Gurley should once again push for the league-lead in Red Zone usage and TDs. He’s still among the NFL’s best finishers within an offense that lives in scoring territory and should remain Top-Three in scoring. This will help Gurley maintain 15+ TDs and his uber-efficient points-per-touch metrics. With such high-quality usage, Gurley should be able to maintain Top-Five RB stats, even if his actual volume is decreased to even 60% (16-18 touches per game).

Really, the only huge concern should be a shocking and sudden breakdown of his knee. To alleviate this, Henderson would be a dominant force as a featured back here, and is available beyond Round 8. With this handcuff in place, the reward so far outweighs the risk, it should be a no-brainer.

Take the plunge on Gurley in Round 2, secure Henderson by Round 7, and laugh at all your opponents who doubted one of the greatest fantasy force’s of the last decade.

 

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