Todd Gurley: Bounce-Back Fantasy Season or Bust?

Heading into the 2020 season, one of the more polarizing running backs is the former consensus top pick in fantasy drafts, Todd Gurley. It’s crazy how quickly things can change in fantasy football, and ADP from year to year can change extremely fast, especially with running backs. In 2018, Gurley was the consensus 1.01 in just about every format, both redraft, and dynasty fantasy football leagues. In 2019, Todd Gurley’s ADP fell and he was being drafted just outside the first round, but still, a top ten running back.

This year, Gurley’s ADP has taken a massive hit and according to FantasyPros, he’s currently the RB24 and the 59th player off the board. This means you’ll have to use a late fourth-rounder or an early fifth-round draft pick if you want to own Gurley in redraft leagues. I expect this ADP will rise a bit as the season continues to get closer, but there’s obviously a ton of concern surrounding Gurley and many owners are nervous to draft him. The biggest question that fantasy owners want to know is whether he’s due for a bounce-back season or is he going to be a bust?


The Falcons Backfield

Running Back By Committee

In 2019, we saw a running back by committee in Atlanta, with no real winner as far as carries or touches went. Devonta Freeman led the way with 656 rushing yards on 184 carries over 14 games, averaging a career-low 3.6 YPC and averaging 13.1 attempts per game, but he didn’t see usage like we’ve seen out of him in the past. He also found the end zone just six times, with just two of them being rushing touchdowns. Brian Hill had the next most carries with 323 rushing yards on 78 carries, also with two rushing touchdowns. Ito Smith and Qadree Ollison both finished the year with 22 carries, while Smith was much more efficient with his carries, neither were much of a factor, but it’s worth noting that Ollison led the team’s running backs with four rushing touchdowns. The touchdowns in 2020 will really be a big determining factor of just how productive Gurley is in 2020 for your fantasy teams.

With Freeman out of Atlanta, the backfield is truly wide open for Gurley to jump in and take over, so long as he’s healthy. Freeman’s 184 carries are now up for grabs in an offense that we’ve seen be extremely explosive in recent years. With a healthy Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and now Gurley, the Falcons have everything they need to turn things around in 2020 and become that offensive powerhouse that we’ve seen in the past. Obviously the biggest area of concern is his health and whether or not he’ll stay on the field enough to see the volume that we want out of a productive fantasy running back.

Usage

In 2019, the Falcons averaged 22.6 rush attempts per game, which was good for 30th in the NFL. The only teams that averaged fewer carries per game were the Washington Redskins and the Miami Dolphins. In 2018, the Falcons also were 3oth in the NFL in rush attempts per game, ahead of just the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers. It’s worth noting that 2018 the Falcons offensive coordinator was Steve Sarkisian and in 2019 it was Dirk Koetter. Whether this was due to the personnel or other factors, it’s worth noting that Koetter is back for 2020, and we’ve seen that he’s more of a pass-first coach as he was in Tampa Bay.

As far as receiving usage goes, Freeman caught 59 passes in his 14 games last year, which was good for the eighth-most in the NFL. Meanwhile, Gurley caught just 31 passes in 15 games, which was tied with Ronald Jones for 34th in the NFL in 2019. Gurley will need to see similar usage to what Freeman saw in Atlanta last year if he really is going to give us high-end fantasy production.

Touchdowns and Red Zone Work

The biggest question for the 2020 season regarding Gurley is whether or not he can stay healthy. His knees and their issues are no secret, and the concern is real. It was clearly real enough too that the Rams were comfortable with moving on from him. If the Falcons continue on the same path as they’ve been the last few years, the rushing attempts for Gurley are definitely a concern. Gurley saw just 49 targets in 2019, which was the lowest he’s seen since his rookie season, where he saw just 26 targets in 13 games played. Touchdowns have been huge for Gurley, as he’s 12, 17, and 13 rushing touchdowns over the past three seasons.

In 2019, Gurley saw 51 red zone carries, which was good for third in the NFL behind just Ezekiel Elliott (59) and Christian McCaffrey (54) while he totaled 12 rushing touchdowns. In 2018, Gurley led the league in red zone carries, with 63 rushing attempts for a whopping 17 touchdowns. Needless to say, touchdowns have been huge for Gurley’s fantasy production, and he’ll need to see similar red zone work in 2020 to really bounce back.

It’s worth noting that in 2019, Devonta Freeman saw just 20 carries in the red zone for two touchdowns, despite playing in 14 games. This was outside the top 30 in the NFL and was tied with Gus Edwards, Kerryon Johnson, and Benny Snell. For what it’s worth, Gurley is obviously a much more talented running back than Freeman, but this system will need to see a major uptick in red zone work for the running back position if Gurley is to bounce back.

Bounce-back or Bust?

The biggest question that we have moving forward with Gurley is whether or not he will bounce back for fantasy purposes. It might be a bit of a copout answer, but it truly is going to come down to health. If Gurley plays all 16 games, there’s no reason why he won’t return on value and produce at least RB2 numbers in all formats in 2020. Based on simple volume alone, Gurley should easily see around 200 carries this year and will be involved in the passing game to a similar degree that he saw with the Rams. Both teams are West Coast offenses that like to air it out, and Gurley catching passes out of the backfield is an excellent weapon that any quarterback would utilize, especially in a dome in with Matt Ryan.

With a current ADP of 59th overall, Gurley being the 24th running back off the board honestly feels a bit low. A few names that immediately stick out as guys being drafted over Gurley where I’d much rather gamble on Gurley’s upside include TY Hilton, Darren Waller, and Deshaun Watson. We’ve all seen how talented Gurley is on the field, and while he’s obviously not quite the player he once was, the opportunity to be the lead back in an explosive offense is tough to ignore. The Falcons only signed him to a one-year deal and clearly also have their concerns about him. Recently, it was reported that Gurley passed his physical and he’s good to go for the 2020 season.

That being said, I believe Gurley is poised to out-perform his current ADP, but to be a bounce-back candidate would mean he’s moving back into that high-end level of fantasy production. Which is more than likely not going to happen. He is coming off a season where he played 15 games and finished as the RB14 in PPR formats while finishing as RB12 in standard-scoring leagues. It’s tough to really “bounce-back” after a season where you finished as a low-end RB1 or high-end RB2 depending on your scoring settings, but I believe he’ll out-perform his ADP of RB24, even if he doesn’t play all 16 games in 2020.


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