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Todd Gurley - A Definitive Outlook for 2020

On December 2nd 2018, Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley II torched the Detroit Lions for 132 yards and two touchdowns in a Rams victory. Gurley was capping off one of the best two-year stretches by a running back in recent memory and was the face of one of the NFL's best offenses. He received a massive contract extension prior to the season and was set to lead the Rams backfield for the next five years.

18 months later, Atlanta Falcons running back Todd Gurley went viral on Twitter for a workout video showcasing him working out his arthritic knee. 18 months ago, Todd Gurley was an All-Pro and considered by many to be the best running back in the NFL. Today, Gurley is one of the biggest question marks in the NFL.

A soon-to-be 26-year-old, three-time All-Pro running back set to be a bell-cow in one of the NFL's more talented offenses would usually be considered a steal as the 15th ranked running back. With Todd Gurley, it's a bit more complicated.

Editor's Note: Our incredible team of writers won two writing awards and received 12 award nominations by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. A big congrats to our very own Byron Lindeque (Golf) and Jordan McAbee (NASCAR) for both winning Writer Of The Year awards! Be sure to follow RotoBaller's analysis and advice all year long, and win more. Win More With RotoBaller!

 

What Happened In 2019?

I detailed Gurley's knee situation in detail in my 2019 outlook for Gurley, but here's the short version: Gurley missed a few games at the end of the 2018 season, split carries with CJ Anderson during the playoff stretch, and was revealed to have developed arthritis in his surgically-repaired left knee. Reports were downplayed throughout the offseason, but the Rams' decision to draft a running back in the third round of the 2019 draft raised a ton of red flags. Still, everyone in Gurley's camp, as well as the Rams' organization, downplayed the entire situation and expected Gurley to be fine in 2019.

And that's exactly what Gurley was in 2019. Fine. This would be a much easier situation to break down had Gurley either returned to his 2018 form or completely fell off a cliff in productivity. Instead, he played fine. 

15 games, 857 rushing yards, 14 total touchdowns, RB14 in PPR, RB17 in PPR points-per-game. 

The numbers were low enough to show that Gurley may never get back to his old-self and they were low enough for the Rams to decide he wasn't worth paying $17 million this season. But they weren't low enough to show that Gurley didn't have anything left in the tank or that he wasn't worth giving another shot in a better situation.

There were plenty of factors in Gurley's decrease in production last year. The Rams' offensive line production completely fell off a cliff. One of the best units in the league in 2018, the 2019 squad was a disaster. Proven talent turned into shells of themselves, and unproven talent continued to prove nothing. It led to the entire offense regressing.

Another factor was Sean McVay's refusal to commit to establishing the run in many games last season. Gurley only had 18 or more carries six times last season, all of which resulted in Rams wins. There were very few chances for him to get into a grove. Additionally, the Rams decided to give his backup, Malcolm Brown, an increased workload in the beginning of the season, taking even more opportunities away from Gurley. He certainly didn't look as sharp as he did in 2018, but Gurley showed plenty of glimpses when he was actually given the chance.

Perhaps the most alarming development for Todd Gurley last season was his complete lack of production in the passing game. A major factor here is that Gurley simply had to block more in pass protection due to the disaster of an offensive line in front of him. But that doesn't excuse Gurley looking absolutely lost when they chose to have him run routes. He had a few noticeable drops and was only truly productive as a pass-catcher in a Week 5 shootout with Tampa Bay, a game in which the Rams made it a point to throw Gurley the football.

There's two ways to view Gurley's 2019 performance:

Glass Half Full: 

Todd Gurley still managed to finish as the RB14 in PPR despite playing behind PFF's 31st ranked offensive line and being a complete ghost in the passing game. The Rams offense was shockingly bad at times and Gurley was just another victim of a Super Bowl hangover. He'll bounce back in a new situation. He'll only be 26 at the start of the season

Glass Half Empty: 

Todd Gurley produced a career low in yardage in 2019 and finished 37th in yards per carry. The passing game struggled because he failed to establish the run, and don't even get me started on what he did in the passing game. He has arthritis in his knee and is only getting older. He'll already be 26 at the start of the season.

 

Onto Greener Pastures?

Gurley quickly signed a one-year deal with the Atlanta Falcons after being released by the Rams. When asked about his newest signing, Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter stated "The main question, that no one seems to know, is what is his health status?"

Clearly, the Falcons don't even understand the deal with Gurley. But they took a chance on the former Georgia Bulldog and seem to be investing in Gurley as their lead back in 2020. He has virtually no competition for carries in the Falcons backfield. They're desperate for production out of the position. Gurley is going to get the ball in 2020. The big questions are will he be able to produce, and if he's healthy, should he be able to produce fantasy value in the Atlanta offense?

Dirk Koetter has been running NFL offenses for the past 13 years. His teams have produced in the bottom-10 finishes in rushing yards for seven of them. All seven of those came in the past eight years.

Koetter's first taste of being an offensive coordinator in the NFL was with Jacksonville from 2007 to 2011. His teams finished in the top 12 in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns in four of those five seasons, including two top-three finishes in yards. Koetter was blessed with a smooth transition from an aging Fred Taylor into an arriving Maurice Jones-Drew and was not afraid to feed either of them. He coached MJD to each of his three Pro Bowl appearances.

Since Jacksonville, Koetter has coached in Atlanta and Tampa Bay, and his rushing attacks have not been great. Part of the reason has been an emphasis on the passing game. You don't run a run-heavy offensive attack with Matt Ryan on your team, and Koetter chose to take the same approach with a developing Jameis Winston. He let his quarterbacks sling it, and that won't change in 2020.

There is one outlier season, however. Koetter took over as offensive coordinator in Tampa Bay and built a powerhouse rushing attack. The Bucs finished fifth in yards and second in yards-per-rush, led by the two headed monster of Doug Martin and Charles Sims. Looking back, it's an astounding feat. Martin was an absolute disaster in the seasons that led up to 2015 and the seasons that followed, while Sims was a complete non-factor in the following two seasons before being out of a job. Producing those kinds of numbers, with a rookie quarterback nonetheless, is nothing short of a miracle.

If we're being honest, 2015 was the only time Koetter has had a talented running back since MJD. Martin completely fell off a cliff after 2015 and the other guys in the Tampa Bay backfield were not cutting it. In Atlanta, he's dealt with guys on the tail-ends of their NFL careers: Michael Turner, Steven Jackson, and Devonta Freeman. There's a chance that Gurley winds up fitting right in with those names. But there's also a chance that he breaks the curse. Stranger things have happened... such as Doug Martin and Charles Sims combining to make one of the best one-two punch backfields in the NFL.

 

Monumental Upside

There's a lot to like about the Atlanta offense heading into 2020.

Production in the passing game is a given. Atlanta led the NFL in passing attempts last season and finished third in yards under Koetter. Julio Jones and Matt Ryan still play for Atlanta. Younger guys such as Calvin Ridley, Russell Gage and newcomer Hayden Hurst will be factors. Atlanta is a pass-first offense and will remain that way. That should open some space up for Gurley to run when he gets the chance.

Atlanta's offensive line wasn't very good last season, but things can only get better. They've brought back all five starters from 2019, two of which were first-round picks in 2019. Having time to mesh as a unit is critical for offensive line production. With Jake Matthews as an anchor on the left side and a few up-and-coming talents on the right side, this unit has nowhere to go but up. They should be improved in 2020.

It's almost as if the stars aligned for Gurley and allowed him to sign in a perfect situation. Atlanta will allow him to remain a feature back without having to carry the load of a run-heavy offense.

Now, you can't lay all of this info out without talking about the knee. It's not like the arthritis in Gurley's knee got up and vanished. It's still there and it will remain there for the rest of his career. But this is an injury that will have more long-term problems than short-term. It's going to give Gurley pain for the rest of his life, but it can be managed enough for him to play football. Arthritis doesn't come and go. It's here and isn't going anywhere. He's not going to miss a game in 2020 due to arthritis. Given what we saw last year, the biggest concern is that the inflammation caused by arthritis was the reason Gurley struggled in 2019. If that's the entire story, things could get a lot worse in 2020 and it could be the last season of his career. But the symptoms this issue will cause are the kind that will force Gurley to retire at 30 instead of 34, rather than be a week-to-week issue and distraction. He played in 15 games last season after all.

It seems like there's three possible outcomes for Gurley in 2020:

The worst-case scenario is, obviously, the arthritis in his knee becomes a massive problem and he's not even able to look like he did in 2019, let alone 2018. The Falcons wouldn't be able to commit to him as a feature back and he becomes a part of the worst running back by committee backfield in NFL history alongside Brian Hill and Ito Smith. This doesn't feel like a likely outcome. Gurley showed signs of slowing down in 2019, but he played a ton of snaps and didn't look like he'd be falling off a cliff production-wise anytime soon.

The likely scenario is that Gurley looks similar to how he looked in 2019. Not as explosive and dangerous as he was at his best, but good enough to produce well when given the right opportunity. His pass-catching days are mostly behind him, but that doesn't stop Gurley from putting up similar numbers to last year and being a reliable week-to-week starter. This feels like a likely outcome. Gurley has a nose for the red zone and will shine when given the chance to take a drive home. His touchdowns may even increase a bit playing alongside Matt Ryan, but his yardage total will hover in the 900-1,000 range. Still, for a guy you're likely going to draft in the third or fourth round, this is a fine outcome.

The best-case scenario is that Gurley was woefully mismanaged in 2019. The Rams chose to buy into the belief that his knee wasn't right and refused to lean into him the way they did in previous seasons. This, paired with a complete regression from the team's offensive line, doesn't allow Gurley to succeed at a high level.

Now, he's playing with Matt Ryan. He's playing with Julio Jones. He's back in Georgia. Most importantly, he's back, and he shines. The Falcons produce one of the leagues best dual-threat offenses, and Gurley gobbles up yards and touchdowns. The pass-catching woes of 2019 turn out to be a fluke and he puts up solid numbers through the air. His knee looks just as good as it did in 2017 and he winds up being the overall RB1, putting up massive numbers in the process.

Is this likely? Probably not. But it's in the realm of possibility. There's truly only a few running backs in the NFL that you can say have a chance at finishing as the overall RB1 in 2020. Most of them will be going in the first round. Gurley's current ADP is 61! That number is certainly going to get smaller as more and more drafts happen, but it seems likely that Gurley will be available in most leagues in the third round. He's a slam dunk at that value. He has no competition for carries and the only thing keeping him from being at least startable is health. Health was a concern going into last season and it never proved to be much of a factor in his fantasy output.

Taking Gurley in the third round feels more likely to win you a championship than derail your season. There aren't that many backs out there who have no competition for carries and will be available at Gurley's price. Keep your eye on how Gurley's ADP plays out. You might be able to get him in the fourth or fifth round. But he's worth going and grabbing in the third, especially if you go with two receivers early.

You know the risks with Gurley. The potential rewards far outweigh the risks at his current price. He has league-winner potential. It wouldn't be the first time he had a third-round ADP and carried teams to fantasy glory.

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