We’ve all seen those Todd Gurley highlights come across our televisions during a gamebreak or on RedZone because, let’s face it, the Rams haven’t exactly been Game of the Week material in the recent past (although that could change in the second half of the season as St. Louis sits at 4–3).
Gurley certainly looks impressive galloping through defenses on big gains, like the 71-yard touchdown he had on Sunday against the 49ers. Big, strong and fast would describe Gurley, who at this point looks like a cross between Adrian Peterson and former Jaguars great Fred Taylor. Considering Gurley is less than a year removed from tearing his ACL in his final season at Georgia, it’s even more impressive.
Gurley’s statistics back up the snippets we’ve seen. Despite missing the first two games (and having just six carries for nine yards in his debut against Pittsburgh on Sept. 27), Gurley is fifth in the NFL in rushing yards (575), first in yards per game (115) and first yards per attempt (6.1). Gurley is also tied for second with seven rushes of 20 yards or more, and first with four rushes of 40 yards or more.
Naturally, with those highlights and stats, the accolades have poured in for the Rams’ rookie RB. Columnists and talking heads have espoused that he is an undeniable talent who may change how his position is viewed by front offices, starring as this year’s No. 10 pick after 2013 and ’14 saw consecutive first rounds without a running back drafted for the first time since 1963.
That will be proved in time, but at this point, Gurley is a bit perplexing. He has gaudy numbers, but just about every analytic you check has him as a good but not great back.
What’s the truth? All of it, actually, if you take it in context.
Per Football Outsiders (through Week 7, before the 49ers game), Gurley had a success rate of 45%, which ranked just 27th out of 38 qualifying backs. Success rate measures a back’s consistency based on the percentage of carries in which the player gains 40% of the needed yards on first down, 60% on second down, or 100% of needed yards on third or fourth down. That indicates that Gurley’s not getting a lot of mid-range gains, but has a lot of stuffed runs and a few really long gains.
The Rams’ offensive line is No. 1 in an FO stat called Open Field Yards, which measures how many running back yards come at least 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. This stat points to Gurley’s home run ability and how he is very tough for a one-on-one tackler to bring down in the open field, which the film backs up.
At Pro Football Focus, Gurley is the 11th-rated running back. If you toss out the first three weeks of the season, Gurley moves up to fifth but is well behind the top four of Doug Martin, Le’Veon Bell, Devonta Freeman and Chris Ivory. Gurley’s average of 3.2 yards after contact average since Week 3 is tied for eighth. In the same time period, Gurley is tied for fourth in missed tackles (18) behind Bell (23), Freeman and Martin (both with 19).
There’s no question that Gurley is probably the biggest home run threat at running back in the NFL, and his 58.1 breakaway percentage on PFF (percentage of a back’s yardage that comes from rushes over 15 yards) shows that. Martin and Denver’s Ronnie Hillman are tied for second at 49.8%.
Finally, Gurley is sixth in PFF’s elusive rating, which illustrates a runner’s success after being helped by his blockers. Bell, who was the undisputed top back in the game by any measure before his knee injury on Sunday, is first with an amazing 90.6.
What does the film say about Gurley? Basically, that he gets what is blocked for him, and he has the finishing burst to make a big play if given a hole. Take a look at these screen shots from some of Gurley’s biggest runs on the season.
As you can see in every picture but the 48-yarder against the Browns, you have to give the Rams’ offensive line a lot of credit as well on those big plays. The unit has had their problems: Gurley’s 25.5% of stuff runs (gaining one yard or less outside of the opponent’s five-yard line) is mostly their issue, though it must be pointed out that among the best backs, only Bell, DeMarco Murray and Chris Johnson have a lower stuff percentage. But Gurley’s pretty much getting what’s blocked for him. So on those big runs, LT Greg Robinson, LG Garrett Reynolds, C Tim Barnes, RG Jamon Brown (starter Roger Saffold had season-ending shoulder surgery two weeks ago) and RT Rob Havenstein should take a bow as well. That bodes well for the future of the Rams. Reynolds (28) and Barnes (27) are the oldest starters among that group. They’ll get better with time.
The same goes for Gurley. It’s amazing that he’s already at this point so soon after ACL surgery. He deserves all the bouquets thrown his way just for that. The simple fact that Gurley is to the point where he’s getting what is or isn’t blocked for him a great majority of the time shows that he has a leg up on most rookie runners, who usually have a longer adjustment period.
Gurley also seems to be getting better with every game. That 48-yard run against the Browns was by far his most impressive run of the season to date. Not only did he find a miniscule cutback lane and break two tackles at the point of attack, but he then quickly got back up to speed and went horizontal to the sideline before most defenders knew what was going on. That’s a situation where Gurley greatly exceeded what was blocked. Once he starts doing that with more regularity, he will be one of the league’s elite. Six games into his career, Gurley is showing that time is going to be sooner rather than later.