GURLEY'S REBIRTH? Don't underestimate the back's dynamic potential in Atlanta
Don't let Todd Gurley's recent release from the Los Angeles Rams fool you into believing he's a washed-up player incapable of making a resurgence as the Atlanta Falcons' RB1. The 2017 Offensive Player of the Year will not only enjoy a major bounceback season, but he will re-emerge as an MVP candidate while serving as the centerpiece of an offense that will light up scoreboards across the league.
I know those are lofty expectations for a running back coming off a disappointing season on a team that was supposed to be a Super Bowl contender, but Gurley is joining the best offense that he's ever played on. The 2020 Falcons have better personnel at the marquee skill positions, and their offensive line is a significant upgrade over the unit Gurley left in Los Angeles.
Don't believe me? Take a look for yourself.
Would you rather have Matt Ryan or Jared Goff? How about the combination of Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Hayden Hurst vs. Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp and Gerald Everett/Tyler Higbee? What about an offensive line in Atlanta that features five former first-round picks? You want that, or L.A.'s patchwork group that struggled for most of 2019 following the departures of Rodger Saffold and John Sullivan?
Unless you're a Rams homer, you'd pick the Falcons' nominees in each scenario. The Dirty Birds have premier players on the perimeter, including one of the best receivers in all of football, as well as a former MVP at quarterback. The mere presence of Jones and Ryan will create more opportunities for Gurley to get loose, and he's proven that he's a monster against light boxes in the recent vintage. According to Next Gen Stats, Gurley faced a light box (fewer than seven defenders) on 43.7 percent of the Rams' offensive snaps in 2017 and '18, compiling a robust yards-per-carry average of 5.8 -- most among running backs with a minimum of 100 rushing attempts in this span.
Looking at the Falcons' roster and their potential "11" personnel package (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR), the offense should face plenty of light boxes. Opponents will be forced to largely concentrate on defending the Ryan-Jones connection, with Ridley serving as a high-end complement on the back side. Atlanta will be able to take advantage of those looks by getting the ball to Gurley on an assortment of runs and passes out of the backfield.
Before you @ me regarding Gurley's diminishing production in 2019, I think it is fair to ask if No. 30's talents were maximized by Sean McVay and Co. during his final season in L.A. In 2017 and '18, Gurley averaged 22.7 touches, 88.1 rush yards and 135.3 scrimmage yards with 40 total touchdowns. In 2019, those numbers plummeted to 16.9 touches, 57.1 rush yards and 70.9 scrimmage yards with 14 total touchdowns. In addition, Gurley's playtime percentages (75.8 to 74.6 to 71.5) and touch percentage (45.4 to 40.0 to 33.8) steadily decreased over the past three seasons.
Did Gurley's health dictate the reduction, or did McVay forget about his top offensive weapon?
Remember, McVay pointed the finger at himself in early December. Asked about what caused an uptick in usage for the back, the coach deadpanned, "Me not being an idiot."
"Gurley still has it," I was told by an AFC running backs coach who studied the Pro Bowler after his release. "They didn't use him enough, but his speed, burst and running skills are still there. ... He just needs to be featured like he was in 2017 and 2018. If he gets the rock, he will put up big numbers."
And as I mentioned before, the Rams' offensive line did not get the job done last season. At the end of the regular season, Pro Football Focus ranked the unit 31st. Tough to run through holes that don't exist.
It's easy to dismiss a running back when he has reached a certain point of his career, but I wouldn't underestimate Gurley's chances of re-emerging as one of the top playmakers in football, especially given his upgraded supporting cast in Atlanta.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.
Not sure if already posted, Brooks makes some very interesting points.