Is Todd Gurley Primed for a Dominant Rookie Season?
I know the majority of the world swears they don't eat McDonald's, but can we all admit that the restaurant chain's decision to serve breakfast all day is one of the greatest ideas in fast food since Five Guys decided that fry portions should be relative?
The only problem with the miracle of midnight breakfast? Probably that we had to wait years for this "brinner" innovation to finally hit the market, despite a persistent public outcry for the McMuffin goodness. But with the wait now over, one can only assume that the great reveal will prove to be well worth it.
Do you see the Todd Gurley tie in? Because we had to wait awhile to see him play?
After months of rehab, speculation, timetables and anticipation, Sunday was finally the official unleashing of the greatest running back to enter the NFL since Trent Richa... errr, Adrian Peterson?
The Rams drafted the former Georgia star 10th overall in the 2015 NFL Draft despite an ACL tear that threatened to delay his return to the field and potentially sap the big back of the elite athleticism that made him a premier talent at the position. While many see the running back as a devalued position in the NFL, the Rams (and several other teams) still saw the ultra talented back as one of the top three players in the draft.
So it probably surprised no one in St. Louis to see him rip off several impressive runs on Sunday to seal a victory against the division leading Arizona Cardinals, a defense that had previously limited opposing backs to just 3.5 yards per carry. Gurley would finish the day with 19 carries for 146 yards and 2 receptions for 15 yards.
But does his success make him a must-start back for fantasy teams moving forward, especially on a Rams team with an average offensive line? And what is his potential in this new look Rams offense?
The Fine Print
While on the surface 146 yards and 7.7 yards per carry is as impressive as it gets, it is worth noting that 137 of those yards came on just 5 carries. He managed only 9 yards on his other 14 attempts, including being hit in the backfield for a loss three times. Of course, you can't take those five runs away from him, but it does demonstrate that it was often tough sledding behind a rebuilt Rams offensive line.
In Week 3, Gurley's first game, he ran the ball six times for nine yards. Only one of those six carries added positively to the Rams' expected scoring output, as measured by our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. He finished the day with a Rushing NEP score of -1.30, meaning he lost points for the Rams -- not an uncommon occurrence for running backs but nothing to be excited about.
Gurley's 19-carry game in Week 4 brought up his Rushing NEP on the right side of zero: 0.93. That score ranks him 21st among 60 backs with at least 15 carries on the season. As we could expect from his uneven distribution of yards in Week 4, he wasn't exactly steady.
Gurley's Rushing Success Rate, the percentage of his carries that have led to positive NEP gains for the Rams, is just 28.0%. That ranks him 55th among those 60 backs with at least 15 carries. He's depended on big plays -- not consistency -- to get his NEP on the positive side of zero on his 25 carries.
On the flip side, of course, that means that Gurley flashed the special traits that made him such a coveted player in both NFL and fantasy community.
Despite seeing eight and sometimes nine defenders in the box with the Cardinals needing a stop down two with only two minutes on the clock, Arizona's talented defense couldn't stop the young back. He busted through the defense for two big runs, including one that likely would have been a touchdown had he not slid to the group to end the game.
Perhaps the biggest sign pointing to a big season for the rookie was the fact that backups Tre Mason and Benny Cunningham had only four combined rushing attempts on the day. Many expected Mason to split carries with Gurley, but he was on the field for only two plays all game. We all know Jeff Fisher loves to ride a workhorse runner, with Eddie George never receiving fewer than 312 carries during his career under the former Titans coach. Chris Johnson also had two seasons with more than 315 attempts under Fisher.
Just as promising might be the moderate success of Nick Foles, and especially his ability to throw the deep ball. If he can continue to keep defenses honest, it will at times inhibit defenses from just stacking the box to stop the run. With both Kenny Britt and Tavon Austin looking like real wide receivers, it will only help this team as they seek to grind out wins with a strong defense and running game.
The Final Payoff
With the potential of an Eddie George-sized workload, Gurley could easily emerge as a top-10 back for the rest of the season, even behind a less than stellar offensive line. Our algorithms project him as the 14th-best running back for the rest of the season. This is bolstered by the fact that Gurley is a threat as a receiver and is talented as a pass blocker, making him a true three-down threat.
For context on that optimism, consider that Gurley is already tied for the league lead in 20-yard-rushes after only really receiving a big workload in one game.
What was also evident on Sunday was that his speed is no joke for a big back. While we didn't see Gurley break contact often, a staple of his at Georgia, it was clear that this is a player that has serious talent and explosiveness under a year removed from tearing his ACL. With each passing week he should only get stronger and faster as he learns how to beat the speed of an NFL defense and adjust to the blocking of his offensive line.
For those who drafted Gurley early this summer, it appears that patience is paying off in a big way. Now pardon me while I head to McDonalds for an Egg McMuffin. #noregrets