And over the last few weeks as we’ve seen some fantasy rankings portend the 2019 season, one thing we’ve seen is a marked decline in fantasy expectations for Los Angeles Rams RB Todd Gurley.
The RB1 over the last two seasons is seeing a sharp reaction to the drama that played out at the end of the regular season into the playoffs last season. PFF’s Jeff Ratcliffe dropped Gurley to RB9 and #16 overall. Sports Illustrated’s Michael Beller went even further dropping him all the way to RB21 and 44th overall.
I think we can all understand why projections would anticipate a drop in his fantasy outputs. My own statistical projection had him slipping under 1,000 rushing yards but still putting up 15 touchdowns and his highest yards per carry of his career. But the extent of his knee injury/condition/whatever and the coaching staff’s reaction to it (and the subsequent drafting of RB Darrell Henderson in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft) certainly suggest a downturn in Gurley’s outputs in 2019.
Over at the Rams Wire, Cameron DaSilva has a piece up today looking at recent fantasy rankings from Draft.com with this to say about Gurley:
In Draft.com’s best ball format, Gurley’s current ADP (average draft position) is 18.2. That’s 10th among all running backs, behind players such as James Conner and Dalvin Cook. There’s clearly some doubt surrounding Gurley’s fantasy potential heading into next season, and it shows with where he’s being drafted.
Let’s say his rush attempts are reduced by 20 percent next season. That’s a drop-off from the 267.5 he’s averaged the last two years to only 214. If he averages 4.8 yards per carry like he has since 2017, that’ll put him at 1,027 yards.
We’ll apply that same workload reduction to his receptions. He’s averaged 61.5 catches per season the last two years, so 80 percent puts him at 49 catches – still a very respectable number. At 11.1 yards per catch (his average the last two seasons), he’d have 544 yards receiving.
So all told, that’d put Gurley at about 1,571 yards and however many touchdowns he scores – likely somewhere between 15 and 18. Those are still very good stats for a running back and ones that warrant being a first-round pick in fantasy drafts. But remember: That 20 percent workload reduction is just an estimation. It could be far greater than that.
It certainly could.
The problem though is that it’s going to be a week-to-week process. That’s what makes these fantasy rankings a bit insincere.
Every week, three factors are going to determine Gurley’s workload heading into a game before the chaos of in-game management sets in.
Heading into Week 17 last year, Gurley revealed that he aggravated his knee in the season opener against the Oakland Raiders in Week 1 but that by Wednesday his knee felt back to normal. That clearly wasn’t the case after Week 15 when he aggravated the knee again against the Philadelphia Eagles causing him to miss the final two games of the regular season.
So part of the issue in trying to gauge Gurley’s 2019 season is that we have no idea when his knee will respond as it did after Week 1 and when it will respond as it did after Week 15.
This will be the first aspect of week-to-week preparations. Did he aggravate his knee? If so, is it something that threatens his availability to play next week? Of course a lot of this will be a process through practices on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. It doesn’t necessarily mean the injury report will be a legitimate reflection of the condition of his knee.
I’ve said frequently since the end of last year that I don’t see any reason Gurley can’t be as healthy for Week 1 in 2019 as he was for Week 1 in 2018. The problem is what happened to his knee in 2018. Trying to anticipate how it will respond week-to-week in July is impossible.
The second factor in assessing Gurley’s outputs week-to-week will come down to the gameplan for the opponent.
In Week 6 last year against the Denver Broncos, Todd Gurley ran the ball for a career-high 208 yards on 28 carries. A week later, he had two rushing touchdowns on just 15 carries to go with a receiving touchdown that opened up such a substantial lead over the San Francisco 49ers (39-10!) that it allowed backup RB Malcolm Brown to get 13 carries (3rd highest game total of his career) and rack up 65 rushing yards (the highest game total of his career).
Game plans are unique. No two opponents are the same. So Rams Head Coach Sean McVay, Run Game Coordinator/Offensive Line Coach/Co-Offensive Coordinator Aaron Kromer and Running Backs Coach Skip Peete won’t anticipate using their running backs the same amount every week let alone Gurley’s usage himself. And trying to anticipate the totality of those gameplans now is pretty impossible since we don’t know what teams will look like especially once we’ve all played enough football to get a sense of what teams really are.
After a month or so of football between varying performances and the injuries that take place, the Rams might be looking at their October opponents and anticipating a game where they can run the ball well. Between the Seattle Seahawks, the 49ers, Atlanta Falcons and Cincinnati Bengals, the Rams could be facing a poor run defense. Both the Falcons and Bengals were in Football Outsiders’ bottom seven run defenses last year (FWIW, the Rams were too...). So as the Rams get ready to face a team struggling to defend the run, they might opt to go to the ground more often than usual. The opposite holds true as well especially if a team that defends the run well struggles against the pass or puts up points early. We all remember Gurley getting just four carries against the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship, but his 13 carries against the Saints in Week 9 was his lowest carry total of the season at that point.
Gameplans are unique. Trying to gauge them now when we don’t know how teams will perform or what injuries they’ll be dealing with week-to-week is impossible.
Henderson’s hot hand
Part of what offered an interesting offramp for the Rams in trying to deal publicly with Gurley’s knee in the playoffs was the arrival and performance of C.J. Anderson.
Anderson didn’t just show up to fill time when the Rams signed him heading into Week 16. He put up monster numbers thanks to some phenomenal performances from the offensive line. Against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 16, Anderson had 20 carries for 167 yards. A week later to close out the regular season against the Niners, he had 23 carries for 132 yards (good reminder here of the impact of the section above on gameplans determining outputs...). In the Divisional Round, the offensive line had the best performance I’ve ever seen from a Rams O-line paving the way for Anderson to rack up 123 yards on 23 carries with Gurley adding 115 yards from 16 carries.
But as I mention in that NFC Championship game against the Saints, things changed. Gurley had just four carries to Anderson’s 16. As NFL Network’s Steve Wyche put it, McVay opted for the hot hand.
So the last factor that will impact Gurley’s fantasy outputs week-to-week is the matter of the hot hand.
And whose hand.
The idea of a hot hand from Malcolm Brown never really threatened Gurley’s work rate. The idea of a hot hand from C.J. Anderson clearly did.
I think it’s pretty clear that a hot hand from rookie RB Darrell Henderson could too.
Things change year-to-year, but the Cleveland Browns and Tampa Bay Buccaneers both struggled to defend the run last year. If the Rams’ gameplan in either of those games is to run the ball heavily in either game and that leads to some expanded opportunities for Henderson, what if excels when given them? What if Henderson becomes the hot hand? Think of the luxury of being able to rest Gurley throughout October at least to expose him less than October of 2018 when he had 90 carries in four games. Isn’t that the entire reason why the Rams drafted Henderson? To help keep Gurley fresh for a playoff run into the postseason to avoid the “wear and tear” Gurley succumbed to?
So the last aspect of the week-to-week considerations is simply how Gurley and Henderson are doing whether they’re overperforming or underperforming. Should Hendo ball out or Gurley struggle (and I guarantee this is going to happen this year at some point), calls from fans and the media to expand Hendo’s work rate and curtail Gurley’s will be inevitable especially given the pressure to do just that as a point of reaction to the end of Gurley’s 2018 season. Should Hendo struggle as a rookie at times and Gurley have a big game (and I guarantee this will happen too), fans and media will address the difficult decision to ride with Gurley despite the vulnerability it exposes him to.
But we simply don’t know which games will produce which Henderson or Gurley. The Rams will obviously respond to the hot (and cold) hand as it comes, but knowing right now when that will take place and who it will be is impossible.
This is the difficulty in speaking in generalities about Gurley’s 2019 season as a whole. The three factors above will vacillate week-to-week. We don’t know how or when or to what degree. So while fantasy rankings might be anticipating a major drop in Gurley’s performance, it’s not really reason to fret for Rams fans.
If anything, it’s just an indication that things are going to be very interesting for the Rams as they manage his workload in 2019 however they decide to do so.
Week to week, that is.