Can Todd Gurley Repeat His Fantasy Football Success in 2018?
Raise your hand if you you won your league because of Todd Gurley last year? (Raises hand.)
CBS Sports ran a survey of 15,000 teams, and just over 62% of these winning teams contained Gurley. The question is, "Can Gurley repeat his historic 2017 performance this year?"
Right around this time last year, there was a lot of hesitation around drafting Gurley, who was going as late as the middle of the second round in some leagues. Last year may have been the perfect storm for the third-year back to succeed in, but could the 2018 Los Angeles Rams provide an even more favorable environment for last year's top back?
There are a lot of factors that lead to a running back’s success for fantasy. But if we look at Gurley’s situation heading into the 2018 season, there are three factors that support the idea that Gurley will repeat his 2017 performance.
Another offseason in Sean McVay’s offense should greatly benefit Jared Goff's development as a passer and as a conductor of the team's spread attack.
McVay came into the the Rams organization and lit a fire underneath the remains of the smoldering heap that was the Jeff Fisher-led Rams. It is no secret that teams who have consistency at both the player personnel and coaching staff levels tend to do better. Overhaul is a sign of an unhealthy, unsuccessful team. The Rams are far from that.
In his article from February, Ethan Sauers looks into the implications of coaching changes on fantasy production. Using the Rams as an example, he shows that as a quarterback's level of play increases, those of the running backs increase along with it. While the quarterback position saw an increase of 72.19%, the running back one and running back two saw increases of 113.62% and 15.48%, respectively.
To illustrate this further, Ethan showed that since 2015 the average changes in fantasy production were as follows:
From this, we can take away two things: the impact of Sean McVay on the offensive production of the Rams greatly outperformed in comparison to the mean, and the impact of coaching changes on running backs clearly shows a measurable increase in fantasy production.
When we look at how Watkins joined the Rams last season, in the middle of the preseason, it was basically a setup for failure. He came into an organization and had to learn a new system quickly and without the benefit of the season. Cooks, on the other hand, made his way over to the team a lot earlier in the offseason, and has been making a clear connection with Goff. So what does this have to do with Gurley?
However, while Watkins' production wasn't off the charts his presence was felt in that he was a complementary field-stretcher, which is the role Cooks should seamlessly take over in 2018. Gurley reaped the rewards a year ago, as he saw eight or more defenders in the box only 16.85% of the time. Of the nine running backs with 1,000 or more yards, Gurley ranked ninth.
In 2018, with Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods taking care of the middle of the field, Cooks should stretch the field with his speed. If we follow the logic that he will only help Gurley's case, there is a real possibility that Gurley faces a stacked box with even less frequency.
In 2017, the Rams ranked 12th in points allowed and 19th in yards allowed. They were even more respectable than they first appear, too, as they ranked seventh in points allowed per drive and sixth in defensive DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), according to Football Outsiders. If expectations hold true, their defense will only be better in 2018.
With the additions of Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, and Ndamukong Suh to go along with 2017 AP Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, it will nearly impossible for an offense to get rolling against the Rams. With the Rams defense likely to force more three-and-outs and keep the offense on the field more, the Rams project to be ahead in games more than they were in 2017, when they went 11-5 but with six wins by a touchdown or less.
These types of positive game scripts bode well for Gurley, who will be used not only to pound the ball early and catch the ball out of the backfield through, but also for clock management late. And that's where we get to the single most important measure by which we must evaluate Gurley’s situation: volume.
Volume has never been an issue for Gurley. In his three seasons in the league, his workload has been one of the heaviest in the league. In his rookie season (2015) he saw 47.5% of the team's total offensive snaps -- per Pro Football Reference -- and 19.2 touches per game despite appearing in only 13 games (because of injury). The year after, Gurley was in on 73.8% of the team's snaps and saw his touches increase to 20.1 per game. And finally, in 2017, his snap percentage moved to 76.4% as he logged a career-high 23.7 touches per game -- 4th in the NFL behind Le'Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette.
If those four numbers don't say it themselves, volume if king in fantasy, and particularly for backs. Since 2010, there have been 62 running backs with 300 or more touches in a season. Only 4 of those backs have finished outside the top 12 running backs and none have finished outside the top 24. In that same time span, of all the running backs to finish the season with 20 or more touches per game, only 12 out of 63 running backs (19.0%) finished outside the top 12; of those 12. Of those, only 4 played full seasons; the rest missed at least some time.
Predicting Gurley to finish the 2018 season with another season of 350 touches is not an unrealistic endeavor either. The 23-year-old has been trending up when it comes to usage, and it does not seem like his volume will head downward anytime soon. With him being used more in the passing game, the additional carries he will see because of clock management, and the likelihood that he will see less defenders in the box, he should see more volume in 2018.
Gurley's in a prime spot to benefit from a great, high-volume situation and put together another historic season. Will he finish as the top running back in fantasy? We can't be sure; that has a lot to do with the rest of the running back field. But what we can say with a great amount of certainty is that all signs point toward a repeat performance from Gurley in 2018.