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What You Need to Know:
-- Advanced metrics suggest Gurley’s running wasn’t too bad in 2019.
-- He remained among the league’s most explosive runners.
-- Gurley’s receiving performance stunk by any measure.
-- The Falcons will need to see about his knee … and his offensive line.
A Down Season
Last year didn’t give us the Gurley we’d been used to, and everyone saw it coming.
The Rams limited his exposure at the end of 2018, including just 34 total touches across 3 playoff games (compared with 49 for C.J. Anderson). And then nobody would say much publicly about his bothersome left knee in the spring and summer leading up to last season.
Gurley went from averaging more than 18 carries per game in each of the previous 2 seasons to a career-low 14.9 last year. His receptions per game got sliced in half, from 4.2 in 2018 (following 4.3 in 2017) to just 2.1 last year. And Gurley dipped to 3.8 yards per rush and 6.7 yards per catch.
But other measures suggest he wasn’t so far from his previous performance level.
Gurley earned his 2nd-highest season rushing grade from Pro Football Focus, ranking 11th among all RBs in that category. He also beat his 2018 ranking in PFF’s Elusive Rating, checking in 28th among 61 backs with more than 60 carries.
Nick Shook of NFL.com measured runs of 10+ yards and runs on which players hit 15+ miles per hour last year. He found Gurley the league’s 8th most explosive runner among guys with 100+ rushing attempts. Gurley’s 18.4% of runs reaching 15 mph landed him just ahead of Christian McCaffrey on that list.
What might have hurt Gurley more than his knee was a deteriorating Rams offense.
After ranking 6th and 2nd in Football Outsiders’ DVOA in HC Sean McVay’s 1st 2 seasons, L.A. dipped to just 17th last year. With little fear of getting beat deep, defenses stacked the box more. Gurley saw 8+ defenders in the box on 24.2% of his rushes. That marked a big increase over his 7.8% rate in 2018, and even the 16.9% of 2017.
The last time Gurley faced so many stacked boxes came in 2016, when he was all the 32nd-ranked offense had going.
The O-line also crumbled, going from 3rd and 1st in FO’s Adjusted Line Yards in McVay’s 1st 2 seasons (respectively), to just 19th.
Gurley’s passing-game performance proved poor by any measure in 2019, however. He ranked just 79th in yards per target among 87 RBs who saw 10+ targets. He checked in just 66th in yards per catch. And Gurley ranked last among 46 qualifying backs in PFF’s yards per route run. His career-low receiving grade ranked him 132nd among all 137 targeted RBs.
What was the problem that led to Gurley’s low marks across the board? Pretty much everything. Let’s check his annual numbers in average depth of target, yards after catch per reception, catch rate and drop rate …
When you factor in that QB Jared Goff also posted his lowest marks of the McVay years in yards per attempt, yards per completion, passer rating and several other categories -- plus the aforementioned O-line downturn -- it’s easy to find fault with more than just Gurley for the 2019 receiving issues.
Devonta Freeman has generally performed better than Gurley as a receiver but worse as a runner. He leaves behind volume in both areas for Gurley.
Freeman garnered 50.8% of Atlanta’s rushing attempts and 10.2% of targets despite missing 2 games last season. Gurley dipped to 55.6% and 7.8% in his 15 games for the Rams. Even if he doesn’t rebound in receiving efficiency, Gurley seems likely to get a boost in target volume. Atlanta has thrown on at least 63% of offensive plays in each of Dirk Koetter’s 4 seasons as OC. The Rams went 62%, 56.7% and 54.6% pass over the past 3 seasons.
We’d bet on a larger carry share for Gurley than what Freeman got last year as well. His deterioration in the run game looked like the biggest reason for Atlanta to give Freeman the boot. It’s worth noting, though, that Falcons RBs have seen high rates of stacked boxes in recent seasons. Every qualifying Atlanta back since NFL Next Gen Stats started keeping the number in 2016 has seen 8+ men in the box on more than 21% of run plays.
To that end, Gurley at least joins a team whose O-line should be moving in the other direction. The Falcons ranked just 24th in FO’s Adjusted Line Yards last year -- worse than the Rams -- but they were breaking in a pair of 1st-round blockers: G Chris Lindstrom and OT Kaleb McGary. Lindstrom -- the 14th overall pick in 2019 -- made it through only 5 games. The starter at LG, James Carpenter, missed 5 games.
We’ll see about the 2020 version of the line, but it’s fair to expect overall improvement.
It’s also fair to expect continued success from the Falcons offense. Atlanta has finished 6 straight seasons among the league’s top 8 in total yards and 4 straight inside the top half in scoring. The previous 3 seasons with Koetter as OC also included 2 top-8 yardage finishes and a pair of top-12s in scoring.
NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger says the Falcons can play to Gurley’s strengths by installing more zone-stretch run plays, which would help get the veteran outside the tackle box. That could combat 8-man fronts and leverage the aforementioned explosiveness that Gurley still displayed as a runner last season. HC Dan Quinn has indicated he wants more such plays as well, after Atlanta’s run game moved further inside in 2019.
Of course, the big question on Gurley is that left knee. And we won’t really know the answer until everyone gets back onto the field. Koetter has conceded that the team is waiting to see about Gurley’s durability.
"He can do everything," Koetter said. "He's an excellent runner, he's good in the pass game [and] he can protect. The main question no one seems to know is, 'What's his health status? What is his workload?'"
Koetter has also said Gurley will be on a snap/touch count. Fantasy owners don’t ever like to hear that about their RBs, but the notion makes obvious sense here. And before you start to worry, realize that Freeman ranked 15th in the league in opportunities (carries + targets) per game last year. And Gurley ranked 16th.
It’s not hard to project Gurley in that range for 2020, perhaps even with a little upside beyond that.
Draft Sharks Bottom Line:
Gurley’s fantasy stats for 2019 looked scary. But his performance in advanced rushing metrics alter the story. We’re not going to get back the Gurley of 2017 at any point. His left knee requires more careful treatment than that workhorse level. But he’s also clearly not done.
The Falcons signed Gurley to a mere 1-year deal, but they added nothing else to a backfield with unimpressive reserves. Gurley should emerge as the clear lead back for rushing and receiving purposes in an offense that perennially generates yards and points. That’s a nice setup for a fantasy RB2.