Is Todd Gurley's Rookie Season the Real Deal?
“Adulting is hard.”
This was the text I received from my best friend a few weeks ago, when he had finally decided to buy a car. I understood: he had spent the previous few months re-enrolling in college to finish his bachelor’s degree after taking around seven years off, moving to Chicago (his sixth cross-country move in that time), and getting his first feature-length screenplay into pre-production. I’d say it’s been a strong finish to 2015 for Adam.
He’s right, though; growing up and doing real people things isn’t as easy as coasting through life, eating pizza rolls, and playing video games all day long, and I know one young guy who isn’t taking it easy like that. That would be Todd Gurley, rookie running back of the St. Louis Rams, who now has four consecutive games with 125 or more rushing yards and has shattered Hall of Fame Rams rusher Eric Dickerson's record for rushing yards in the first four starts of a career. That’s “steak dinner and opera night” type quality; not binge-watching New Girl on Netflix and pouring a bowl of cereal for dinner.
With the kind of big-boy football he’s impressed with in just his first four NFL starts, it might be time to let Gurley sit at the grown-up table. That’s what we’ll examine today: is Todd Gurley the real deal?
Big Man on Campus
Let’s put Gurley’s historic career beginning into proper context. When he was drafted 10th Overall in the 2015 NFL Draft, our own Michael Luchies profiled him, and compared him to a “slightly leaner and faster version of Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell.” Now that we’ve seen him in NFL action, this comparison doesn’t seem hyperbolic in the least, despite a seemingly career-threatening ACL tear in his final college season.
We have to acknowledge that the young man from Georgia is having one of the best starts to a career that we’ve ever seen. In fact, Gurley is averaging 6.13 yards per carry and 115 rushing yards per game. Only one other post-merger rookie running back has sustained the former over 90 rushes, and only two rookie running backs have had a yards per game mark over 110: Gurley and the aforementioned Dickerson.
If Gurley’s 6.43 yards per carry and 22 rushing attempts per game from Weeks 4 through 8 hold their pace through the rest of the 2015 season, Gurley will accumulate 1,848 rushing yards, despite having missed the first two weeks of the season. Where would that place him among historical rookie rushers?
The table below shows Gurley’s pace compared to the current top-five historical rookie running backs’ performances. They are organized by rushing yards. How historic would Gurley’s season be at this pace?
Not a bad table to be sitting at, all things considered, and Gurley would be at the head of it. Should this pace hold, Gurley would be one of just 26 post-merger rookie running backs with at least 1,000 yards and at least 10 touchdowns, as well as just one of two hyper-efficient runners with fewer than 300 rushing attempts and more than 1,500 yards (Clinton Portis had 1,508 yards on 273 attempts in 2002).
That’s where our heralded rookie could be. Now, how likely is it that he gets there, and is he the real thing?
Where we really separate the children from the adults is when we peel back the play on the field and look at not just yards and attempts, but the true value production a player creates. We know Todd Gurley has racked up stats, but is he racking up value as well?
We turn to the Net Expected Points (NEP) metric to find out. NEP helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and assign them contextual value so they relate even closer to the game on the field. By adding down-and-distance value, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.
Gurley has so far produced 0.15 Rushing NEP per play, and 0.26 Reception NEP per target through Week 8. With his current pace of 292 attempts and 23 targets, he’s on track to attain about 43.80 Rushing NEP and 5.98 Reception NEP. Where does his 46.49 Total NEP pace rank among rookies since 2000?
Only four rookie running backs since 2000 have attained at least 39.00 Total NEP in their first year, which would make the Georgia product just the fifth. The table below shows the other four in terms of Rushing NEP, Reception NEP, and the per play value of each, organized by Total NEP.
|Player||Rush||Rush NEP||Per Play||Tgt||Rec NEP||Per Play|
Among all rookie running backs since 2000, Gurley’s projected Total NEP would rank fifth. Not only would his 43.80 Rushing NEP be the second-highest rookie mark, behind just Portis, it would be the 10th-best Rushing NEP posted by a running back ever. His 2015 campaign would become one of just 12 running back seasons in history to sustain a 0.15 Rushing NEP per play or more with over 150 rushes.
Even more impressive is how little he's being used -- and how little value he's producing -- in the passing game. With passing plays innately a gain of value (making Reception NEP innately positive) but rushing attempts innately a loss of value (and therefore causing Rushing NEP to skew below zero from average backs), Gurley is doing incredible things on the ground to generate this much production for his Rams.
Now, all of that said, we know that the more rushing attempts a player gets, the more his average diminishes. There are more tough defenses to run into, more chances for failed plays, and so on. Is Todd Gurley’s rookie campaign pace sustainable?
If we want to know how legitimate Gurley’s 2015 campaign has been, we need to look at how good the rushing defenses he has faced so far have been. This will also help us see what’s to come for him. By averaging the Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play rankings of each defense on team schedules, the Rams have had the ninth-toughest rushing strength of schedule in the league.
So far, however, Gurley has only played the fourth-ranked Arizona Cardinals, 25th-ranked Green Bay Packers, the 32nd-ranked Cleveland Browns, and the 28th-ranked San Francisco 49ers. That said, his best yards per carry mark in game so far this year (7.7) came against the best run defense he’s faced in Arizona.
It’ll be interesting to see how he performs against better talent, so what’s to come for Gurley? The table below shows the ranking of defenses by Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play that St. Louis will face from here on out.
With three top-10 run defenses still to play, but two bottom-10, this seems to be a fairly balanced schedule the rest of the way for the Rams. That said, I am nervous about his lackluster Rushing Success Rate -- the percentage of rushing attempts that go for positive NEP gains -- against even an average run defense.
The average Success Rate this season is about 40.1%; Gurley’s is just 37.8%, which ranks him just 39th among the 57 running backs with at least 30 rushing attempts on the season. This offensive line may be the one reason that Gurley doesn’t achieve history in his rookie year.
No matter what happens, however, we know the Rams are going to give their first-round rookie the ball. Despite being down two scores to the Packers in Week 5, Gurley toted the ball 30 times. The Rams also have the 10th-most run heavy play calling ratio in the NFL so far; they’re going to give Gurley every chance to prove he’s ready for the big-boy gig.
Despite coming when he’s just 21-years old, Gurley’s 2015 will hopefully be one for the ages.