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Is Todd Gurley a Fantasy Season-Killer in 2019?

In more fantasy football leagues than not a year ago, running back Todd Gurley was the No. 1 overall pick. It was with good reason. In 2017 Gurley gained over 2,000 total yards and piled up 19 total touchdowns. Not only was Gurley the No. 1 running back in PPR formats by a wide margin, but in many fantasy scoring systems, Gurley was the highest-scoring player overall.

For much of last season, Gurley lived up to that lofty draft status. Over the first 13 games of the 2018 campaign (i.e. the fantasy regular season) Gurley was again the highest-scoring tailback in the game. In that Week 13 game in Detroit, Gurley piled up 26 total touches, 165 total yards, and two scores.

The Downturn for Todd Gurley

Then the bottom fell out.

Just in time for the fantasy (and NFL) playoffs, Gurley’s workload and production fell off a cliff. Limited by an injury the Rams insisted was no big deal, Gurley managed just 25 touches over the next two weeks before being shut down for the regular season. Gurley rebounded a bit with a 16/115/1 rushing line against the Dallas Cowboys in the Divisional Round, but despite proclamations that the 24-year-old was fine, Gurley was a complete non-factor in the NFC Championship game and Super Bowl LIII.

However, despite that vanishing act and reports that Gurley has arthritis in his surgically-repaired knee, fantasy owners appear willing to give Gurley another chance—per early ADP info at Fantasy Pros, Gurley’s coming off draft boards just outside the top five overall in PPR formats and fifth in standard leagues.

Is that wise? Can Gurley regain the form that made him a fantasy monster and MVP candidate in 2017 and for most of 2018? Or does that injury and the presence of rookie third-round pick Darrell Henderson set the stage for a precipitous dropoff in production that threatens to make Todd Gurley the biggest first-round fantasy bust in 2019?

To Knee or Not to Knee?

There hasn’t been much in the way of good news about Gurley’s knee since the Rams lost Super Bowl LIII to the Pats. First came the reports that the knee was arthritic. Then came word (via John Breech of CBS Sports) that Gurley and the Rams were considering stem-cell treatments on his knee.

Of course, in the same breath head coach Sean McVay continued the company line—that Gurley’s knee injury was no big deal.

“We’re going to implement a plan to have him attack it to get that knee back to feeling full strength, feeling good based on just the amount of work that he’s gotten,” McVay said. “That would be no different whether he missed any games or not, though.”

About a  month ago, Gurley told Myles Simmons of the team’s website that his knee’s feeling good—although he also intimated he wasn’t sure how long that would last.

“My knee’s feeling good, man,” Gurley said. “Just been taking it day by day, and feeling pretty good. All I can worry about is how I’m feeling right now. I don’t know how I’m gonna be feeling six months from now. So, like I said, just kind of keep working hard, doing what I’ve been doing these past couple years — communicating with [head trainer] Reggie [Scott] or whatever that is. So really just, like I said, taking it day by day and trying to make sure I’m feeling my best once the season comes.”

I don’t know about you, but I feel better now.

The news wasn’t so rosy from Dr. Jesse Morse, a Florida orthopedist who told Vincent Bonsignore of the Athletic that in his estimation the reality is if Gurley’s knee really is arthritic it’s all downhill from here.

“Without personally examining him, my answers will obviously be very generalized, but unfortunately I believe Todd Gurley has peaked and will not be able to repeat his record-breaking effectiveness,” Dr. Morse said. “He could possibly have one to two more years of elite top-five running back talent, but he will likely lose a step.”

If that didn’t cause a ball of anxiety in the pit of your stomach, this should—Morse believes the best way to delay Gurley’s decline is by scaling back his workload—possibly substantially.

“With the amount of talent and resources that NFL teams have, they should be able to prevent a rapid decline for a Gurley-type talent, especially with as much money as they have invested in him,” Dr. Morse said. “They will likely decrease his workload and strive for something like 150 to 200 rushing attempts, or possibly increase his route-running abilities. Optimizing Gurley will require finding a happy balance between running and receiving, but I do not think he will be able to repeat the volume he has been able to (achieve) over the past couple of years.”

In case you were wondering, Todd Gurley’s career low in carries is 229—in 2018.

Say Hi to the New Guy

Despite the concerns about Gurley’s long-term health and workload, McVay told Simmons that he believes Gurley can still be the focal point of LA’s potent offense.

“Todd has shown that he can handle that,” McVay said. “How we navigate through a season, it’s hard to say. But we anticipate, like we said the other day, [Gurley] being the focal point of our offense. Unless I’m told otherwise, he’s a pretty versatile back and we’re going to continue to utilize all of his skillsets.”

That would be a lot easier to believe if the Rams hadn’t both matched the offer sheet on reserve running back Malcolm Brown and used an early third-round draft pick on Darrell Henderson of Memphis, a 5’8″, 208-pounder many considered the most explosive tailback in this draft class.

Lance Zierlein of praised the pick, while saying out loud what everyone with two eyes and a functioning cerebrum thought—that Henderson was brought in in part to help manage Gurley’s workload.

“Gurley’s knee injury limited him down the stretch last season,” Zierlein wrote, “and the Rams’ offense suffered because of it. The team may look to limit Gurley’s workload, and the addition of Henderson means that explosiveness will not be sacrificed when the RB2 is in the game. Henderson averaged 8.9 yards per carry over his last 344 rushes and had 11 touchdowns of 54-plus yards in 2018 alone. The high-flying Rams just super-charged their depth at running back.”

As Bleacher Report’s Mike Tanier pointed out, third-round backs have a recent history of becoming significant parts of the offense in short order.

“Henderson was selected in the third round, just like Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, David Johnson, Duke Johnson, Tevin Coleman, James Conner and others in years past,” he said. “Third-round running backs have a habit of starting out as “different threats” and becoming the primary threat or the successor to an expensive, underperforming (or disgruntled) veteran.”

Of course, as Lindsay Thiry of ESPN reported, McVay was quick to say that the Rams didn’t draft Henderson because of Todd Gurley’s health. “This had to do with his skill set,” McVay said. “He was a player that we identified as a unique playmaker.”

OK, that’s it. Enough coachspeak. I’m calling BS. The Rams are very much a team in “win now” mode, and while they don’t have a ton of needs there were bigger ones on the roster than running back early in Round 3—unless you’re concerned that Gurley won’t hold up.

There’s also the matter of Gurley’s four-year, $60 million contract extension. The deal included $45 million in guarantees and is structured in a way that makes it all but impossible to get out from under until at least 2021. If the Rams aren’t judicious with Gurley and he goes down, the team is going to be saddled with one of the most expensive sideline cheerleaders in the league.

The reality is this—if Henderson’s anything close to the talent many in the draft community believe him to be, Gurley’s not sniffing the 300-plus touches he had each of the past three years. It just wouldn’t make any sense for a Rams team with their eyes set on Miami and Super Bowl LIV.

The Verdict

Is it theoretically possible that Todd Gurley will buck conventional medical wisdom, perform on a per-touch level that spurs the Rams to give him a heavier workload and rides that workload to another fantastic fantasy season? Yes.

It’s also possible that I’ll win both Mega Millions and Powerball in the same week, but it sure as heck ain’t likely.

Listen, I get it. Gurley’s upside is about as tempting as it gets. If he was on your squad two years ago, it’s pretty likely you won your league. If he was on it a year ago, he at least got you to the playoffs before the world caved in.

But at his current ADP you’re drafting a player at his absolute ceiling with a huge injury red flag and a rookie behind him on the depth chart who will all but certainly take a sizable chunk out of his workload.

The realistic best-case? Gurley stays healthy all season and is effective enough on a per-touch basis—even with fewer of those touches—that he comes close to justifying that lofty ADP. The odds of him meeting it aren’t good. The odds of him exceeding it are all but non-existent.

It’s just as possible though that Gurley’s production drops at a level commensurate to that reduced carry-share. Or that the knee seizes up again and Gurley winds up on the shelf. To say that those are not desirable outcomes for the first pick made in a fantasy draft is an understatement.

If Gurley drops to the back end of Round 1 or top end of Round 2, then rolling the dice on Gurley might become more palatable. But there’s been no indication to date that’s going to happen, and in the middle of the first round the risk/reward ratio with Gurley is all kinds of out of whack.

There’s a saying in fantasy football…”You can’t win your fantasy league in the first round of the draft, but you can lose it.”

A lot of people who draft Todd Gurley in Round 1 in 2019 are going to find out the truth of that saying—the hard way.

A member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and Pro Football Writers of America who resides in Columbus, Ohio, Gary Davenport has been featured on a number of fantasy websites and in nationally circulated publications, including the USA Today Fantasy Football Preview and the magazines distributed by Fantasy Sports Publications Inc., for whom Gary is both a contributing author and associate editor. Gary is an eight-time FSWA Award finalist and two-time winner who has been a finalist for that organization’s Fantasy Football Writer of the Year award each of the last three years. He won the honor in 2017. Gary also appears regularly on Sirius XM Radio (including live from Radio Row at Super Bowl XLIX) and over-the-air stations across the country. He knows football. Or so he’s heard.

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