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Todd Gurley - A Definitive Outlook for 2019


Todd Gurley's knee has become more than a matter of concern - it's an enigma.

Despite being fantasy's number one overall player for each of the past two seasons, Gurley's stock is sinking quicker than the Titanic. He's reportedly developed arthritis in his surgically-repaired knee. It may or may not have affected his performance and playing time in the playoffs. It may or may not be a major factor in his performance and playing time again next year. Nobody knows because the Rams have kept the details close to the vest, and it's driving fantasy owners insane.

Gurley is currently ranked as RotoBaller's eighth overall player and is trending downward. He's slipped to 17 in the FantasyPros consensus rankings. He'll likely continue to dip in stock until the season starts. But is a decline in ADP this massive warranted for somebody who's coming off back-to-back fantasy MVPs and is all-but-certainly going to start in Week 1? Let's take a deep-dive into everything we know about Todd Gurley heading into the 2019 season.

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The Injury - What We Know

On December 16th, 2018, Todd Gurley suffered a knee injury in a late-season showdown with the Philadelphia Eagles. Gurley left the game briefly before returning to the field and finishing out the game. The injury was classified as a Grade 1 Knee Sprain and Gurley referred to it as "inflammation." The injury kept Gurley out for the remainder of the season and the Rams signed veteran C.J. Anderson to fill the void. Anderson played so well that he continued to receive snaps throughout the playoffs, despite Gurley being active for the duration of the team's playoff run and rushing for over 100 yards against Dallas in his first game back.

The Rams and Gurley downplayed any problem with Gurley's knee following the season, and Sean McVay insisted that Gurley was 100% healthy after the Super Bowl. Regarding his lack of usage in the season finale, McVay stated that the team planned on a shared-backfield approach with Gurley and Anderson.

As to why they failed to produce, McVay credited New England's defense. “Todd nor C.J. got involved because they did some different things – nothing that we didn’t expect, but I think when you go 5-yard run, then have a couple penalties to set yourself back where now you’re at second-and-10 and you’re not converting on some third downs-and-shorts,” he said. “So we didn’t get the amount of plays off and didn’t have the drive continuity where we’re punting more than we did, and that’s a big result of why those opportunities were limited for him and just going into the game the way we had thought.”

On March 2nd, 2019, The Athletic's Jeff Howe reported that Gurley had developed arthritis in his left knee, the same knee that he had surgically repaired in college after suffering a torn-ACL. The Rams never directly acknowledged whether or not Howe's report was true.

On March 22nd, the Rams matched an offer-sheet from the Detroit Lions to keep backup running back Malcolm Brown in Los Angeles for two more years. The decision was a no-brainer regardless of Gurley's health, as Brown is a capable backup and the deal was only worth $3.25 million over two years. The Lions responded a few days later by signing C.J. Anderson to a one-year deal a few days later. Just when it seemed like the Rams would enter 2019 with the same backfield they had at the start of 2018, they selected Memphis back Darrell Henderson early in the third-round of the 2019 NFL Draft. This was the biggest sign that the Rams may be reconsidering Gurley's backfield touches. You don't draft a guy like Henderson that high and not have a plan for him.

On May 31st, GM Les Snead laid out the team's off-season plan for Gurley. “We’re not going to run him at all during OTAs,” Snead said. “We’re definitely not keeping score in May so we’re doing things to continue getting his knee and the quads and all the things around him in the best possible shape and as fresh as possible so when we do go to Carolina – because I doubt we see Todd in the preseason, along with a lot of our starters.” The preseason comment is not a surprise at all. Gurley and many other Rams starters didn't see a single snap in last year's preseason.

Gurley finally gave some insight into how he was handling the offseason on June 11th. “I’m fine, I’m training, I’m doing what I’m doing in the offseason – what I’ve always done up to this point, so it’s just part of getting ready for training camp and the season,” Gurley said. Gurley insisted that he'll be ready for camp and that he was doing the same workouts he had been doing last offseason, though one comment from Gurley felt a bit ominous: “I had bigger problems to worry about coming out of college. This is small.”

Finally, on June 17th, Gurley's personal trainer Travelle Gaines confirmed that there is an arthritic component to Gurley's knee, but downplayed the lasting effects of it. "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 also stated that he had not heard of any plans to decrease Gurley's touches, confirmed that Gurley's offseason workouts remained the same, and claimed that Gurley could have suited up in the final two games of the regular season if he was needed.

 

Usage - What We Know

Earlier in June, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported that there was an understanding in Los Angeles that Todd Gurley would no longer be the team's bell-cow back. "The days of Todd Gurley just being the straight-up, every-down bell cow are probably over, just based on his knee, his age, the position, the amount of carries he's had," said Rapoport.

This report is a lot less cut-and-dry than the rumors about Gurley's knee, as the Rams have been vocal about Gurley being a major part of the offense moving forward. "You can expect Todd to be a focal point of our offense going forward," McVay stated on the Rich Eisen show on April 12th, "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."

As we mentioned above, Gurley's trainer also stated that he had heard nothing about the team cutting back on Gurley's workload. "It's never been told to me that there's a plan to decrease his workload come Week 1," said Gaines. When they asked him about the team's decision to draft Henderson in the third round, Gaines stated "At the end of the day, you need solid running backs, and they grabbed a home-run running back in the third round. ... If you watched the games last year, Todd typically sat out two to three series last year. I don't see anything changing with that, so you need a back who can catch, and I believe Darrell averaged around 9.0 yards per carry, a home-run type guy."

The comment about Gurley sitting out two to three series a game isn't completely accurate. While Gurley played just 75% of snaps in games he suited up last year, this included two blowout wins in which he played in under 70% of the snaps. Gurley would play in 85% or more of the snaps in nine of the 14 games he suited up in 2018. It may not be three series worth of snaps, but it's also not like Gurley was on the field every single down. For comparison, Robert Woods was on the field for 95% of the offensive snaps in 13 of the 16 games he played in last season, for a total of 94.64% on the year.

We have to go back to the Henderson pick though. Is there any reason the Rams grab a running back in the third round if they're still confident in Gurley's health? The answer is, surprisingly, yes. “If you go back to when we signed Lance Dunbar – Sean’s always felt like his offense would be, let’s call it, slightly more explosive when you have a change-of-pace-type running back,” Snead said in regards to the Henderson pick, “We attempted with Lance Dunbar a couple of years ago, you know, his knee didn’t work out. We thought about doing it in last year’s draft. A couple of enemies chose a few of those change-of-pace backs ahead of us. It’s always been something we’ve been trying to do, obviously, since Sean walked in and felt like it would be a nice complement.”

McVay also added to the importance of getting another weapon like Henderson. “I think, when you get a player like that, too, it enables you to activate some different personnel groupings where you have so much confidence in the guys, especially our receivers when you’re a heavy 11-personnel team,” McVay said. "Being able to give somebody a chance to come in and provide a different threat is exactly what we identified. He was kind of one of those guys that stood out for us, so we’re excited about getting him here.”

The brain trust in Los Angeles even implied that Gurley and Henderson could be on the field together. “Sean will split him out and let him run some routes. … Because you can run the ball as a change of pace guy, but to be able to split out – a little bit like James White with New England and be able to run some routes similar to a slot receiver,” Snead said.

Judging from what the Rams have said, it seems like Gurley is going to see a ton of work in 2019. But we can't take everything they say as gospel. They could be keeping their cards close to the vest here. Unfortunately for fantasy owners, this is a topic we'll be trying to figure out all of August, and a topic that we won't truly have an answer to until the Rams take the field in Week 1.

 

Should You Take a Chance on Gurley?

Let's go back to the Rams' playoff run last winter.

Todd Gurley returned from his knee injury to face the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round of the NFC Playoffs. He played in 57% of the offensive snaps and ran for 115 yards and a touchdown in his first game back from the injury. He came out in the NFC Championship and was, to put it frankly, terrible. He dropped a pass that was intercepted and wasn't able to do much of anything. C.J. Anderson stepped in and played much better, and found himself as the team's primary back in the second half. Gurley was on the bench for 54% of the snaps in the team's 26-23 victory in New Orleans.

Was Gurley's poor play a result of the injury? It's possible, but keep in mind that he ran for over 100 yards just a week prior. Was Gurley's injury the reason he was on the bench for the second half? It's unlikely considering that he snaps in the second half and the Rams wouldn't put him on the field if he had a chance of re-injuring the knee. He saw the bench because he was playing terribly and C.J. Anderson was having an incredible late-season run. Gurley played in 66% of the snaps in the Super Bowl. There's no reason to look much into his performance here, as the entire Los Angeles offense played like the 2016 Rams.

The main takeaway here is that Gurley played through this injury. As far as we know, this is the same injury that he is currently dealing with it. And in the case of the Dallas game, he played pretty damn well through this injury.

Todd Gurley ran for 17 touchdowns in 2018. Every single one of these came in the red zone. 14 of them came within the 10-yard line, and 9 of them came within the five. Why does this matter? The newest member of the backfield, Darrel Henderson, is a home-run hitter. He's on the field to make big plays. If these big plays don't result in a touchdown, expect Gurley to be the guy to come in and clean up in the red zone. Even if his touches get cut, he's going to be the team's goal-line back. Gurley scored so much last season because the Rams were in the red zone all the time. That's not going to change overnight.

The red zone numbers are just too high to ignore. Gurley will find touches in the red zone even if he gets his overall touches reduced. And how much, really, can the Rams reduce Gurley's touches if he's healthy? You can cut Gurley's 2018 fantasy points per game number in half and he's still the overall RB20 in PPR. That's the absolute worst case scenario if he's on the field all year. His numbers won't dip in half.

But what if he doesn't play in all 16 games. Is there a chance he re-injures his knee? It's possible, but having arthritis in his knee will have more long-term effects on his knee and body than short-term. He can play through this injury. He already has. Only this time the Rams will have had seven months to prepare for how they will treat it before, during, and after games. They've been a smart organization over the past two years. Expect them to know what they're doing when it comes to dealing with their $60 million running back.

Gurley is too risky to take as the overall number one pick. There's no denying that. But he's on a free-fall that has him going in the mid-second round. At that value? He's absolutely worth taking a chance on. To me, it's more likely that he finishes as the overall RB1 than it is that he becomes a part of a full-blown RBBC. It feels like his touches will be vultured a bit by Henderson, but not enough to tank his value past the second round. If he continues to fall, I'll be gobbling up second-round shares of Gurley like no other. He's somehow become a sleeper pick.

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