I did a standard 10-team mock draft today. I got the seventh pick and managed to grab Odell Beckham Jr in the first round. The rest of the first round went as expected: Johnson, Bell, Elliot, McCoy, Brown, Jones, Evans, Nelson. Then the odd pick: Devonta Freeman went at 10 – before Gurley? Then the running backs started flying off the board: Gordon, Murray, Howard, Ajayi. Gurley droped to 24, just one pick before Jacksonville Jaguars rookie Leonard Fournette.
NFL.com’s most recent mock draft had Gurley taken as the ninth running back off the board at pick 17, so Gurley falling to 24 surprised me. I passed on Gurley to take AJ Green at 14. I avoided running backs for the next two picks and wound up with a stable of Spencer Ware and Eddie Lacy.
What I learned is that receiver is much deeper than running back this year, and barring a wild situation where AJ Green falls to you at 14, you should grab a running back in the first two rounds. The running back situation gets a bit murky if you don’t grab one of the top four backs (Bell, Johnson, Elliot, McCoy,). There are a lot of genuinely interesting options in the second round: Gurley, Murray, Freeman, Ajayi, Howard, Fournette, Miller.
Say you’re in my mock draft position, and AJ Green isn’t there to take. You need a running back after getting Beckham in the first round. Should you draft Todd Gurley?
Let’s start by looking at what makes Gurley such an interesting pick in 2017. As a rookie in 2015, Gurley gave life to an otherwise abysmal Rams offense, rushing for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns in just 13 games. He was a second team All-Pro, a Pro Bowl selection and the 2015 NFL Rookie of the Year. The peak of his 2015 season was a 4-game stretch where Gurley averaged 6.43 yards per rush and looked like the best running back prospect in years.
Here’s where it gets alarming with Gurley. Since that 4-game stretch, he’s averaged just 59 yards a game and 3.43 yards per rush. A major factor in Gurley’s drop in production is the offense around him. The 2016 Rams trotted out one of the most depressing offenses in recent memory. Quarterback Case Keenum played awful and Jared Goff wasn’t an improvement. All defenses had to do was stack the box, rip through the Rams offensive line and eat Gurley alive before he could even get moving. He didn’t cross the 100-yard mark once in 2016, and has only crossed it once in his last 24 games.
The Rams hired a young offensive mastermind in new head coach Sean McVay. He turned Matt Jones and Rob Kelley into successful NFL running backs in Washington. He should do wonders for Gurley. Goff should also improve under McVay, which will force the defense to back out of the box and respect the passing attack a bit. The Rams also addressed their holes on the offensive line and added a few veterans.
Once you look at the facts, the remaining question is simple: was Todd Gurley’s fall a result of an abysmal offensive system around him, or was that four-game stretch a fluke? I’d lean 90% towards the former and 10% towards the latter, but as a fantasy owner and a Rams fan, that is a frightening 10%.
The 90% is still strong enough to warrant drafting Gurley. I want to draft Gurley. But at 14, is he worth it? Let’s take a look at the other running backs I mentioned earlier, and how they stack up compared to Gurley.
DeMarco Murray, Tennessee
Risk: Former Heisman winner Derrick Henry played well in limited time for the Titans last season. He’s the running back in waiting and will be breathing down Murray’s neck all year long.
Reward: Murray was the fifth leading scorer among running backs. As long as he’s the Titans starter, there’s a very high chance he does it again.
Draft over Gurley?: Yeah, and I don’t really think twice about this one. Murray proved that his rough stint in Philadelphia was just an anomaly. He’s still averaging 4.6 yards per rush on his career even with the 3.6 he had with the Eagles. He’s the next best back on the board once the big four are gone.
Devonta Freeman, Atlanta
Risk/Reward: Freeman is such a bizarre fantasy prospect. Last season, Freeman ran for over 100 yards just twice and was the sixth highest scoring back in the league. Here’s a two game stretch that showcases Freeman’s inconsistency:
Two blowouts against two awful teams and Freeman couldn’t have two more drastically different performances. Freeman had four multi-touchdown games last year. He averaged just under 100 total yards per game. The risk is an 18 yard game. The reward is 153 yards and three touchdowns. And sometimes you’ll get something in between.
Draft over Gurley?: Freeman proved last year who he is. His 96 YPG isn’t bad at all for someone as shaky as Freeman. His highs greatly outweigh his lows. I’d take him over Gurley.
Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers
Risk: Danny Woodhead’s injury last season threw a wrench in the Chargers offensive plans and Gordon became the de facto three-down back. Even though he was a touchdown machine in 2016, he didn’t find the end zone once in 2015. There was a few games last year where Gordon was very touchdown dependent. A Chargers offense at full health will likely result in Gordon’s usage taking a hit.
Reward: I think Gordon has a pretty safe floor as long as he’s still used as a passing back and the goal line back for the Chargers in 2017. It’s not unrealistic to imagine him putting up similar numbers to his 2017 season.
Draft over Gurley?: This is the most interesting debate of the bunch to me. Gurley and Gordon were taken within five picks of each other in the 2015 draft and have the exact opposite career trajectory. When you look at their career totals, Gurley has about 300 more rushing yards and four more touchdowns while trailing Gordon has a 100 yard lead in receiving. Gurley has played two more games than Gordon, so they would be almost identical in numbers if Gordon produced his career averages for two more games.
I wouldn’t take Gordon over Gurley. Even if Gordon is riding the hot streak, I think 2015 Gurley was better than 2016 Gordon and 2016 Gurley was better than 2015 Gordon. But this is as tight as it gets in a running back debate this year for me. I wouldn’t fault anyone who chooses Gordon.
Jordan Howard, Chicago
Risk: The dreaded sophomore slump plagued Gurley and many others before him. We’ve seen under the radar running backs have great rookie seasons, be over drafted as sophomores and then vanish. Rams fans saw it with Zac Stacy. Bears fans saw it with Jeremy Langford just last season. It’s possible that Howard could suffer the same fate.
Reward: Howard is better than those guys. He looked really good as a rookie. The Bears offense is going to revolve around Howard in 2017. He’s one of the few guys on this list I think could top his 2016 numbers. If he bumps his touchdowns up in 2017, he’s going to be a scary fantasy option.
Draft over Gurley?: The Rams fan in me tells me no, but the fantasy owner in me tells me yes. Drafting a sophomore after a hot rookie season is a bit of a risk. But drafting said rookie over a third-year player who was previously followed up a hot rookie season with a sophomore slump? I’m taking my chances with the hot hand.
Jay Ajayi, Miami
Risk: Ajayi was a healthy scratch in Week 1 last season simply because nobody thought he was a good player. He has no effect on the passing game. He only passed the 100 total yard mark four times last season. Out of all the players on this list, Ajayi has the highest chance of being irrelevant in 2017.
Reward: Of his four 100+ yard games, three of them he ran for over 200 yards. He’s one of four players to post back to back 200 yard games in NFL history. He ran for 529 yards and four touchdowns in a three-game stretch last season. His highs were out of this world. If he can become a more consistent player in 2017, he’ll establish himself as a franchise leading back.
Draft over Gurley?: I don’t think so. He’s actually more risk than Gurley in my eyes. His bad games in 2016 weren’t because of somebody taking his carries, they were just because he played bad. Ajayi has enough promise to make me feel good about drafting him. Just not enough to justify taking him over Gurley.
Lamar Miller, Houston
Risk: We more or less know what we’re getting from Lamar Miller.
Reward: We more or less know what we’re getting from Lamar Miller.
Draft over Gurley?: No. Miller is a pretty safe pick, but he doesn’t excite me at all. He ran for over 1,000 yards last year and had just five touchdowns. In an offense that basically didn’t have a passing game, you’d expect more from Miller. The passing game can only get better in 2017 and that doesn’t leave much room for Miller’s usage to go up. Guys like Gurley and Ajayi can potentially win you championships, but might also be the reason your team is fighting for the Sacko. Miller won’t be either.
Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville
Risk: This guy has never played a snap in the NFL and isn’t exactly joining the best offense in the league. It’s not set in stone that he’ll get red zone carries or passing downs in Jacksonville. We’ve seen plenty of rookies disappoint in year one.
Reward: Fournette was a monster at LSU. He’s the best bet to be the breakout rookie back in 2017. He’s an elite running back prospect and there is a chance the Jaguars offense revolves around him.
Draft over Gurley?: No. Gurley has a higher floor and a slightly higher ceiling this season. I’d be ecstatic to get Fournette at the right value, but expect owners to reach for the rookie in drafts this year.
To sum things up, here’s my Top 10 Running Backs for 2017. It’s only May, so this is subject to change:
- David Johnson
- Le’Veon Bell
- Ezekiel Elliott
- LeSean McCoy
- Demarco Murray
- DeVonta Freeman
- Jordan Howard
- Todd Gurley
- Melvin Gordon
- Jay Ajayi
When factoring receivers into the mix, Todd Gurley lands as the 18th overall player on my board.
Back to the question at hand: if you took a receiver in round 1 and came on the clock with the 14th pick in a 10-team league, should you draft Gurley? Unless one of the top five receivers (Brown, Beckham, Jones, Evans, Green) is on the board, I think you do take Gurley. A Beckham/Gurley duo coming out of the first two rounds has me excited. By the time the snake reaches you again at 28, all the running backs we talked about will most likely be gone. If you want Gurley, you’re going to have to take him in the second round. You have to decide if he’s worth it.
Steve Rebeiro is a staff writer and podcast host for Rams Talk. He graduated from Marquette University in 2016. For more of his opinions, follow him on Twitter here or check out his podcast Tejas and Lil Stevie.