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Is there a trade market for Todd Gurley?

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NFL: DEC 29 Cardinals at Rams Photo by Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Who needs much of an intro to this? Let’s just fact it out.

The Los Angeles Rams have a running back named Todd Gurley. He turns 26 on August 3, 2020. He signed a four-year, $57.5 million contract extension on July 25, 2018, the first year of which begins next season. His cap hit to the Rams in 2020 would be $17,250,000. That cap hit is made up of a $13,050,000 guaranteed salary and a $4,200,000 prorated signing bonus.

On its own, that makes Gurley the highest-paid back next season by $1,750,000 over second-place Le’Veon Bell, $3,000,000 over third-place David Johnson (expected to be traded or released), and $6,350,000 over fourth-place Ezekiel Elliott. Clearly the expectation is for Gurley to be the best running back in the NFL, which he arguably was the year before July 25, 2018 (league-best 2,093 yards from scrimmage and 19 touchdowns) and the season after (1,831 yards, league-best 21 touchdowns).

Between Week 13 of the 2017 season and Week 13 of the 2018 season, a period of 16 games, Gurley rushed 308 times for 1,615 yards, scored 20 touchdowns, was targeted 89 times and caught 68 passes for 783 yards and seven touchdowns. He fumbled one time. That would put Gurley at 2,398 total yards from scrimmage with 27 touchdowns. One fumble. The Rams went 14-2.

In the history of the NFL, two players have had more than 2,400 total yards in a single season: Chris Johnson in 2009 and Marshall Faulk in 1999. Last season, Christian McCaffrey had 2,392 yards. None of those players scored more than 19 touchdowns during those campaigns. You’d have to find LaDainian Tomlinson, who in 2006 had 2,323 total yards with 31 touchdowns, to find a comp like that.

In other words, the pertinent information is that during a portion of time around his contract, Gurley was producing like one of the best backs of all-time. He was 23-24 years old.

On December 9, 2018 against the Chicago Bears, Gurley carried the ball 11 times for 28 yards and caught three of seven targets for 30 yards. Beginning with that game and going until the end of the 2019 season, Gurley has carried the ball 246 times and gained 933 yards while scoring 14 touchdowns. He’s been targeted 69 times and caught 44 passes for 313 yards, scoring two touchdowns. He’s fumbled three times. The Rams have gone 9-8 over that 17 game period.

This does not include the 2018 playoffs, in which Gurley had 16 carries for 115 yards in the divisional round, but 14 carries for 45 yards in the following two games combined. During his four-game playoff career, Gurley has caught eight of 17 targets for 15 yards.

And now, the knee.

On November 15, 2014, while sharing the ball with Sony Michel at the University of Georgia and in his first game back after a four-game suspension, Gurley tore his left ACL against Auburn. After posting one of the most successful careers by a Georgia running back in history, Gurley entered the 2015 NFL Draft. Despite his injury, ACL tears are widely considered to be treatable with a return to full ability.

This obviously was not in dispute when Gurley was the best running back in the league for a period of almost two years. However towards the end of the 2018 season, around the time that those previous 17 games started, Gurley sat out two games with “inflammation” in his knee. In his place C.J. Anderson, a 1,000-yard rusher with the Denver Broncos a season earlier who had been cut by the Carolina Panthers and signed for LA’s stretch run without Gurley, rushed for 167 yards and 132 yards in those games, respectively.

This also raised doubts about the importance of Todd Gurley to the offense, but Anderson was not retained for 2019 and he ended up carrying the ball just 16 times for the Detroit Lions last season. In the 2019 offseason, it was reported that Gurley might have arthritis in the injured knee.

The connection between ACL tears and arthritis was explained in this video by Dr. Brian Sutterer, MD:

Sutterer says that is it “very, very unlikely” that the only damage was a torn ACL, though he couldn’t rule it out. He also expresses a concern for treating arthritis, should any person have arthritis, of course not being able to diagnose or confirm that Gurley has it.

Since the divisional round win over the Dallas Cowboys in which both Gurley and Anderson rushed for over 100 yards, Gurley has not topped 100 yards again. As a player who often produced in the passing game, Gurley posted seven receiving yards or less eight times in 2019; from 2017-2018, Gurley did this only twice. If it is his knee that is bothering him or slowing him down, then it appears to be doing the job.

If this is the player that Todd Gurley is now, then he potentially goes from being the best back in the NFL to being replaceable by a rookie or free agent, especially based on his lack of three-down, receiving abilities. If the blame is to be laid on the offensive line, Jared Goff, Sean McVay, or something else external, then Gurley could go back to providing a level of value well above replacement.

And therein lies the gamble for the Rams or any team that trades for Gurley: is it him or is it the environment? Well, if Los Angeles is willing to trade him, then that is not a good sign that they believe they are the problem. If the Rams believe that they can put Gurley into position to succeed by fixing their issues on the offensive line, then there may not be enough incentive to trade him as he may be more valuable to them than to any other team. If the Rams don’t believe that, then they may just look for any team willing to take his upcoming base salaries off of their payroll as they look to address a host of issues related to the 2020 salary cap.

Just by being willing to trade Gurley, the Rams are admitting that they have lost faith in Gurley, and that should hurt the value of the return somewhat. It also means that if the return is low, maybe there are more teams willing to take that risk that his knee is not an issue for at least next season.

The most appealing aspect of acquiring Gurley is that he has a $5,500,000 base salary, as $7,550,000 of his guaranteed base salary comes in the form of a roster bonus likely to be paid by LA. As noted, Gurley is the most expensive back of 2020, but only to the Rams. If he is traded and paid $5,500,000 by another team, they’re paying him like the ninth-highest paid pack in the league.

It is still somewhat expensive, but what would Gurley receive if he was a free agent this year as he was originally supposed to be? The fact that he’s coming off of his worst season since his second year under Jeff Fisher and the concerns around his knee would not bode well for him and he’d suddenly be a much lesser option compared to free agent Derrick Henry. However, his base salary hits at the moment total $21 million, though he also has $5 million roster bonuses in 2021, 2022, and 2023.

Would a team sign Gurley to a four-year, $36 million contract that included three roster bonuses that they wouldn’t need to pay if it turns out he isn’t the player he used to be? A team could trade for Gurley and consider it a two-year deal: $5,500,000 base in 2020, $4,000,000 base in 2021, and a $5,000,000 roster bonus. That’s two years for $14,500,000, an average of $7,250,000. But if he doesn’t perform adequately in 2020, then you’ve only paid $5,500,000.

(Author’s note: I am not a cap expert. I’m doing my best here, but his $5,000,000 roster bonus for 2021 seems to kick in based on him being on the roster by the third day of the 2020 league year, but there’s “offset language” that could change that and I don’t know what that language is. I’m open to editing this article again after I’m corrected!)

Given that there are teams that will fall well below the 2020 salary cap, I believe this does make Gurley tradeable. We know that the Rams are unlikely to release Gurley, though they would save themselves the $7,550,000 roster bonus if it happens in the next month or so — they are expected to meet soon to discuss:

“From what I am told, what the Rams want to do — and what coach Sean McVay specifically wants to do — is sit down with Gurley before any decision was made,” Rapoport said. “So that’s probably going to happen before they decide how are they going to proceed with someone who at times has been the best running back in the NFL.

”Obviously this is not a simple decision. Cutting him just to save cash would be something that, while theoretically possible, cap-wise would be extremely difficult, more than $10M in a salary-cap hit just for releasing him and if they did it before June 1 it would be astronomical. Trading him would be more possible, obviously they would still be stuck with some of the cap hit but it would alleviate some of the cash issues. Either way whatever decision they make on Todd Gurley would probably have to be before the middle of March. That’s when more than a $7 million roster bonus is due for him. A very expensive decision they have but considering what he played through, how much pain in the knee and how much of a focus has been on him, you can certainly understand why at least all options are on the table here.”

We have seen teams eat large amounts of salary at the beginning of a deal to simply have the roster spot for a player they no longer see as viable — the Antonio Brown situation comes to mind — but it is unlikely. Teams probably can’t sit back and wait to see if he’s released so that they can sign him without giving up a draft pick or taking on his current contract, but if he does become available because he’s waived, that seems to be a horrible sign for his knee.

Now to kick it back to the headline: Is there a trade market for Todd Gurley?

He’s a 26-year-old running back who tore his ACL almost six years ago and who reported “inflammation” in 2018 and who posted zero 100-yard rushing games with virtually no threat in the passing game in 2019. The comp for 2017-2018 Gurley is prime Marshall Faulk. The comp for 2019 Gurley is David Montgomery.

Gurley: 223 carries, 857 yards, 3.8 YPC, three fumbles, 31 catches, 207 yards, 14 touchdowns

Montgomery: 242 carries, 889 yards, 3.7 YPC, two fumbles, 25 catches, 185 yards, seven touchdowns

The main difference between Gurley and Montgomery, a third round rookie for the Chicago Bears, was touchdowns. But I think touchdowns are largely impacted by situation and Montgomery’s situation with Mitchell Trubisky and the 29th-ranked offense was perhaps not as good as LA’s, even in a down year for Sean McVay. Montgomery’s 2020 salary cap hit is $945,681.

A team acquiring Gurley would be paying him 5.5 times as much as what the Bears are paying Montgomery. The acquiring team would have to have:

  • Salary cap means. Do they have, not just $5.5 million in space, but so much space that they can fit in $5.5 million for a running back who might be as good as David Montgomery?
  • A need for a STARTING running back. A team likely does not add a $5.5 million running back in order for him to split carries with another starting running back. It does not mean he can’t go to a team who will have a committee, but he probably does not go to the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens are paying Mark Ingram $5.5 million and he had 202 rushing attempts in 2019, compared to 176 for Lamar Jackson and 133 for Gus Edwards. We see teams who have $5 million backs in committees: Dion Lewis in Tennessee, Tevin Coleman in San Francisco, Gio Bernard in Cincinnati. But those teams have cheap backs around those backs. So I believe that an acquiring team could have a good young running back, but I find it less likely that they’d have a good veteran or a star young running back.
  • Wants to run it. The Kansas City Chiefs added LeSean McCoy and they didn’t plan to run it much. McCoy also didn’t help much. He also cost $3,000,000. I would not expect Gurley to land in a “Chiefs situation” based on his potential to have a $5,500,000 base salary and having his base salary in 2021 also guaranteed. I would expect him to go somewhere that wants him to run the ball and knows that he might need to be paired with a back who can catch the ball.

Let’s just go with those three criteria. I don’t believe a team has to have a great amount of trade capital because I don’t think that it would cost much in trade value to acquire Gurley. He’s not going to get back a day one or day two pick unless Ryan Grigson, the former Indianapolis Colts GM who traded a first for Trent Richardson, crawls back into a position of power.

Oh right, Dave Gettleman exists. Hey, imagine if the New York Giants paired Gurley with Saquon Barkley. I don’t believe the Giants will trade for Gurley. Who could?

Miami Dolphins

Cap Space: $89.3 million

Starting Running Back: Kalen Ballage, Patrick Laird

Biggest incentive to add Gurley: Too many to list

The Dolphins had the worst rushing offense in the NFL and the worst situation at running back, especially after they traded Kenyan Drake to the Arizona Cardinals. Ballage had the most carries on the team, going 74 times for 135 yards, a clip of 1.8 yards per carry. Miami has five of the first 56 picks in the draft and could take a back, but it might be smarter to add one in free agency or a trade and then take a stab at a young player on day three.

They also have few stars to sell on TV. DeVante Parker is not a star. Josh Rosen is not a star and maybe not a Dolphin next season. Christian Wilkins and Charles Harris are not stars. Miami has the most cap room in the NFL and nobody to pay! Nobody! Their main star next year could be Tua Tagovailoa or Justin Herbert or some other rookie quarterback. Gurley’s already dealt with taking pressure off of a young franchise QB with Jared Goff. They probably can’t attract many free agents of note without overpaying and if Gurley was a free agent, maybe they would be happy with a $36 million contract for him.

The Dolphins may present the best case for Gurley but if they’re the only team in the ring, then the Rams will get even less in return.

Buffalo Bills

Cap Space: $80.1 million

Starting Running Back: Devin Singletary

Biggest incentive to add Gurley: A Sean McDermott team in need

In 2019, McDermott and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll ran a committee of Frank Gore (166 carries), Singletary (151), and Josh Allen (109). In his previous two seasons he had LeSean McCoy, as well as Chris Ivory and Mike Tolbert. When McDermott was the defensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers, he often witnessed Ron Rivera run a committee of Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams, Cam Newton, and Tolbert. Daboll, as the offensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns in 2010, created a Madden monster in Peyton Hillis. With the Dolphins in 2011, he got a 26-year-old Reggie Bush over 1,000 rushing yards. With the Kansas City Chiefs in 2012, a 26-year-old Jamaal Charles had 1,509 rushing yards. Gurley is turning 26.

This is a rushing team with a rushing need and the third-most cap space in the NFL. Next season they could run a second-year Singletary with Gurley and Allen. Buffalo has a lot of day three picks.

McDermott used to be with the Panthers and Gurley is a cat dad.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Cap Space: $79.8 million

Starting Running Back: Ronald Jones

Biggest incentive to add Gurley: Getting over the hump

Peyton Barber is a free agent. The Bucs went 7-9 but they had perhaps the best run defense in the NFL, some exciting weapons on offense, and could be in a position to win the NFC South in 2020, I think. With the Arizona Cardinals in 2016, Bruce Arians and Harold Goodwin — then the offensive coordinator, now the assistant head coach and run game coordinator — oversaw David Johnson’s All-Pro season. So while they have a reputation for the passing game, Arians and Goodwin and OC Byron Leftwich aren’t against finding good running backs. Because they have the financial means, maybe Tampa Bay would be willing to take on the risk of adding a back who has a very high ceiling.

Houston Texans

Cap Space: $55.1 million

Starting RB: Duke Johnson

Biggest incentive to add Gurley: Opportunity to trade for a running back

On August 8, 2019, the Texans traded a conditional third round pick to the Cleveland Browns for Duke Johnson. On August 31, they traded Martinas Rankin for Carlos Hyde. This is also a team that made deals involving Jadeveon Clowney, Laremy Tunsil, and Gareon Conley last season. Houston is not a team afraid to deal and not afraid to be involved in deals with big names.

Hyde is also a free agent and Johnson is the only back of note on the roster. They signed Lamar Miller to a four-year, $26 million contract in 2016, so a similar contract to Gurley four years later wouldn’t be out of line. There’s a need and a means. Johnson is not a rushing down running back, he’d actually be the perfect complement to Gurley.

Tennessee Titans

Cap Space: $50.7 million

Starting RB: Derrick Henry?

Biggest incentive to add Gurley: If they’ve lost Henry

Should the Titans find out that they’re not going to be able to re-sign Henry — and paying any back the amount of money that Henry is about to get is a hairy situation, see: Gurley, Todd — then maybe Gurley, Todd would be a better direction to go in. Tennessee was in a similar situation in 2016 when they traded for DeMarco Murray and took his awful contract off the Philadelphia Eagles’ hands.

The Titans have to re-sign Ryan Tannehill and that could cost them the ability to use the franchise tag on Derrick Henry. Teams can now use both the franchise and transition tags at the same time, but it may be hard to keep Henry regardless. It would pair him with the aforementioned Lewis, or they could cut Lewis and just draft the next Derrick Henry.

Los Angeles Chargers

Cap Space: $47.6 million

Starting RB: Austin Ekeler

Biggest incentive to add Gurley: He doesn’t even have to move

The Chargers may not want to re-sign Melvin Gordon, the player they drafted five picks after Gurley. They could instead use any Gordon money on Gurley and have a nice complement to Ekeler, who is not really a running back but is a great receiver. It may be enticing for Gurley to get a fresh start while still getting to debut SoFi Stadium and a nice opportunity for the Chargers to add a big name to debut in SoFi with whatever QB they have next season.

Other teams — there may be other teams, but I’ll stick with these six as good evidence that there is a market for Todd Gurley. My favorite match right now is probably the Bills, a 2019 playoff team that is rarely in play for big names and who could add a 26-year-old recent MVP candidate to a rushing team with a young quarterback in need of help at a moment when they’re very unlikely to get anywhere near hitting the $206,000,000 cap. Buffalo has Cleveland’s fifth round pick and perhaps that is enough of a return for the Rams to comfortably relieve themselves of $4.6 million in 2020 cap room.

The Bills’ highest paid player in 2020 is center Mitch Morse, at just $11.6 million. That’s their highest-paid player. Next is Star Lotulelei at $10.1 million. Gurley can easily fit on the salary and what’s the point of all these days three picks — two fifths and three sixths — if not to take shots at players like this when they become available? You’re going to have a hard time finding someone with a Gurley ceiling in the fifth or sixth round and the money, when you’re $80,000,000 under the cap, is a non-issue.

The market is there. Will the Rams enter it?