Avoid Todd Gurley at His Current Draft Price in Fantasy Football

While things are looking up for Todd Gurley, the cost to get him on your fantasy squad in 2017 is too high.

I remember being 10 years old and wanting a specific baseball bat for Christmas so bad I couldn't stand it. I made my Mom swear up and down that she was keeping Santa apprised of my wishes.

And then I saw the bat in my parents' closet weeks before Christmas. Mom made up a good story to keep me believing in Santa, and I mostly bought it. After all, Mom never lied to me before, right?

But deep down I knew what was up.

Believing in Todd Gurley headed into 2017 is starting to feel similar. All offseason I've wanted to believe a bounce back campaign is coming. And there are good reasons to think it might. But I can't shake the nagging feeling of disbelief.

So let's weigh the evidence on whether his current Average Draft Position (ADP) of being the sixth pick in the second round of standard 12-team leagues is justified.

Santa's Helpers

Look, there was almost nothing good about the Los Angeles Rams' offense last year. And football is the ultimate team sport, in that symbiotic relationships spread benefits throughout the entire offense.

There was nothing symbiotic in the Rams' offensive machine last season helping Gurley.

Moreover, Gurley had quite possibly the least imaginative coach in Jeff Fisher, whose team philosophy almost always managed to bog down his team's offensive output.

Using numberFire's signature on-field performance metric, Net Expected Points (NEP), we can see how Fisher’s teams’ offenses have performed as a whole. (NEP accounts for down-and-distance data to quantify player and team performance above-or-under expectation. You can learn more about NEP by checking out our glossary.)

Team Season Adjusted NEP per Play Adjusted NEP per Play Rank
Titans 2000 0 8
Titans 2001 0 10
Titans 2002 0.05 10
Titans 2003 0.04 9
Titans 2004 -0.04 21
Titans 2005 -0.1 29
Titans 2006 -0.04 25
Titans 2007 -0.05 23
Titans 2008 0.04 15
Titans 2009 0.02 15
Titans 2010 -0.02 22
Rams 2012 0.03 19
Rams 2013 0.04 17
Rams 2014 -0.02 27
Rams 2015 -0.04 32
Rams 2016 -0.12 32

After 2004, Fisher's teams achieved top-half offenses only twice, and they never did so during his tenure with the Rams. This contrasts neatly with new head coach Sean McVay, whose last two seasons with the Washington Redskins produced back-to-back top-10 offenses per Adjusted NEP per play. So offensive creativity is coming to Los Angeles.

And there's reason to hope McVay can help whip Jared Goff into shape, which would certainly help Gurley find running room. And while Goff was really bad last year, McVay has had recent success turning an early career dud into a very productive quarterback.

Player Drop Backs Passing NEP Passing NEP per Drop Back Passing Success Rate
Kirk Cousins (2012-13) 211 -27.60 -0.13 38.86%
Jared Goff (2016) 231 -64.56 -0.28 33.77%

Prior to McVay's arrival in 2014, Kirk Cousins was a bottom-feeding quarterback, achieving a putrid -0.13 Passing NEP per drop back from 2012-13.

In 2014, Cousins compiled a much improved 0.09 Passing NEP per drop back. And in 2015 and 2016 Cousins shot up to 0.24 Passing NEP per drop back in both seasons. So while Goff may not have the weapons Cousins has access to, a Cousins-circa-2014-level improvement isn't out of the question.

Moreover, the Rams also scored a massive upgrade at left tackle by signing All-Pro Andrew Whitworth and releasing Greg Robinson. Per Pro Football Focus, Whitworth has played over 500 more snaps and given up 10 fewer sacks than Robinson since he came into the league. He also surrendered pressure to the quarterback more than three times less frequently than Robinson.

The addition of Whitworth should be a big boon for both run blocking, and providing more time for Goff to throw, which could soften up the stacked boxes Gurley became so used to running straight into.

So things can and should get better for Gurley in 2017.

Fred Claus

But it's important not to exonerate Gurley completely for his struggles in 2016. While the Rams' offensive line was horrendous, other running backs like Carlos Hyde and Jay Ajayi ran behind bottom-third run-blocking units per Football Outsiders and managed to put up above league average Rushing NEP per rush and Rushing Success Rates.

While he was efficient in 2015, it's important to recognize the role big runs played in propping up his numbers. How can we tell? His Rushing Success Rate, which is the percentage of runs that positively contribute to NEP, has been well below league average (39.03% since 2015).

Season Rushes Rushing NEP Rushing NEP per Rush Rushing Success Rate
2015 229 7.98 0.03 36.24%
2016 278 -34.4 -0.12 35.25%

In fact, Gurley's five largest runs in his career -- all occurring in 2015, totaling 275 yards -- account for 13.8% of his total rushing yards over two seasons. So if you take the big runs away -- which opposing teams were able to do in 2016 -- he hasn't produced well, even in his heralded rookie season.

Moreover, his role in the passing game may be reduced with the addition of Lance Dunbar in the backfield. That would be a devastating blow for fantasy owners, as it's really the only thing that kept Gurley fantasy-relevant in 2016, given that he wasn't producing even with high volume on the ground. And the numbers shows that this is probably what the Rams ought to do.

Season Player Rec Reception NEP Reception NEP per Target Reception Success Rate
2014 Lance Dunbar 18 18.93 0.86 77.78%
2015 Lance Dunbar 21 11.17 0.49 66.67%
2016 Lance Dunbar 16 6.98 0.29 62.50%
2015 Todd Gurley 21 10.67 0.41 71.43%
2016 Todd Gurley 43 10.45 0.18 55.81%

Gurley's 2015 season was more efficient on a per target basis than Dunbar's 2016, but Dunbar had just come back from a brutal injury in which he tore his patellar tendon, MCL, and ACL. But Dunbar's 2014 season -- albeit on a limited sample size -- showed just what kind of offensive threat he can be when fully healthy. His 0.86 Reception NEP per target ranked first among the 67 running backs with at least 20 targets that season.

So if Dunbar can get back to full health, the Rams would be foolish not to utilize him as their primary passing weapon out of the backfield, particularly if Gurley performs as inefficiently through the air as he did in 2016.

A Lump of Coal

I want to believe the Todd Gurley bounce back is coming. And there's a decent shot it will happen, given the changes that have come to Los Angeles this offseason.

In the middle of the second round, though, fantasy drafters want as close to a sure thing as possible, and the Todd Gurley bounce-back season is the exact opposite of a near certainty. Drafting him could just as easily lead to getting a lump of coal in your stocking as it could getting that new baseball bat you've been wanting.