It always feels wrong to bet against great players in fantasy football. Anyone with eyes could see right from the jump last season that Todd Gurley is indeed one of those great players. The electrifying and powerful rookie began a dominant run in Week 4 where he showed himself to be one of the best running backs in the NFL right away.
However, everything in fantasy football is a value proposition. With Le'Veon Bell suspended for the first four games, Gurley is the clear top running back off the board across formats with an ADP of the third pick overall, per Fantasy Football Calculator. Given the wealth of factors outside of his own individual talent, that's a tough proposition to make.
Running back is the most opportunity-driven position in fantasy and they rely on a wealth of other variables to boost them to a top-five finish even in standard leagues. Since 2009 there is a clear correlation between top-five fantasy running backs and a heavy target load, playing in good offenses and attachment to a strong quarterback. If you'd like to see that correlation visualized, you can through this LINK.
Here we'll go through those three variables and examples of running backs from the last seven years to try and identify common factors in top-five fantasy finishes. We'll also look to see how Todd Gurley's outlook projects for each of those three variables.
Even in a standard scoring fantasy league you want your RB1 to be involved in his team's passing game. Even if you aren't simply awarded for the reception like in PPR, the yards and potential touchdowns that follow not only boost a running back's ceiling, but that also pump up his floor.
Adding receiving value in addition to their rushing work also keeps a running back from falling victim to his team's game script. We all know that teams have to take to their air when they're trailing and most end up eschewing the running game. In those situations, a running back needs to have passing-game chops in order to stay on the field.
In recent years runners with an involvement as a receiver have the clearest path to landing in the top-five in standard leagues. Of the 35 top-five fantasy backs since 2009:
Finished with 60 or more targets - 54.3 percent
Finished with 40 to 59 targets - 31.4 percent
Finished with fewer than 40 targets - 14.3 percent
Since 2009 only five running backs that finished in the top-five scorers had fewer than 40 targets. Those players were Adrian Peterson (2015), Todd Gurley (2015), Marshawn Lynch (2012), Alfred Morris (2012) and Thomas Jones (2009). Among those five backs, only Gurley played on a team that did not finish with a winning record. All five of them finished with double-digit touchdowns, the great equalizer to a lack of reception volume.
However, his lack of passing down work doesn't appear to be changing anytime soon. The Rams re-signed Benny Cunningham as a restricted free agent this offseason. Cunningham was on the field for a whopping 71.3 percent of the Rams third-down plays, which was fifth-most in the NFL behind Giovani Bernard, Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen and Duke Johnson. The Los Angeles coaching staff clearly values Cunningham's ability as a receiver (71 catches the last two seasons) and pass protector. The Rams also have Tavon Austin (7.8 average depth of target) to soak up running back-like targets in the short areas of the field.
Todd Gurley finished as a top-five fantasy back as a rookie despite his lack of passing game work because he was an elite touchdown scorer. His rushing touchdown rate (touchdowns/carry) of 4.4 was the third highest in the NFL among backs who had 150 or more carries. However, that lack of passing game-induced floor was evident during a disastrous three-consecutive game stretch last season when Gurley scored just once and averaged 5.9 fantasy points per contest.
Playing in good offenses
We established in the previous section that running backs who aren't a factor in their team's passing game pecking order need near elite touchdown potential to overcome that and become top-five fantasy backs. Running back is inherently an opportunity-based position, so the best way to score touchdowns as a rusher is by playing in an efficient offense.
Among all metrics and rankings available for evaluating an offense's proficiency, Football Outsider's DVOA is one of the most accurate and sensible. Football Outsiders' website explains the metric's function, "DVOA measures a team's efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent." Instead of just raw counting yards like traditional rankings, DVOA combines all the relevant factors.
Running backs attached to these efficient offenses have a better chance of racking up yards and touchdowns on the way to a top-five fantasy finish. Of the 35 top-five fantasy backs since 2009:
Played in a top-10 DVOA ranked offense - 42.9 percent
Played in an offense ranked between 11th and 17th in DVOA - 31.4 percent
Played in an offense ranked 18th or worse in DVOA - 25.7 percent
Merely 25.7 percent of the top-five fantasy running backs since 2009 were able to overcome playing in bad offenses. Only two of those players also finished with fewer than 40 targets in Todd Gurley (2015) and Thomas Jones (2009).
That trend is far from reversing favorably for running backs. The number of running backs that play in bottom-14 ranked DVOA offenses to finish inside the top-five dips to just 15 percent since 2012. The pace of NFL offenses is on the rise, as is the emphasis on the passing game. As such, it is more important than ever for running backs to be attached to efficient offenses to accumulate their points.
Of course, touchdowns are the lifeblood of fantasy football scoring. The more an offense finds itself in scoring position the more likely the running back has a chance to rack up touches in the red zone. Of the 35 top-five fantasy backs since 2009:
Played in an offense ranked in the top-10 in total points - 48.6 percent
Played in an offense ranked between 11th and 17th in total points - 25.7 percent
Played in an offense ranked 18th or worse in total points - 25.7 percent
Almost half of the running backs to finish inside the top-five in standard leagues since 2009 played in a top-10 scoring offense. That might come off as an obvious necessity but it often goes overlooked when fantasy drafters start chasing top backs.
The need for a running back to be featured in a top-scoring offense is only trending upwards the last four years. Since 2012, a whopping 60 percent of the top-five players at the position played in a top-10 scoring offense.
Todd Gurley's outlook: The Rams were the 29th-ranked scoring offense last season and there's little reason to imagine they'll drastically improve this year. Todd Gurley himself accounted for 40.7 percent of the team's total touchdowns all on his own. The supporting players around him aren't up to par to help shoulder their share of the load.
Beyond their personnel, one of the reasons the Rams struggle to score points is the painfully slow pace of their offense. In their final year in St. Louis, the team finished dead last in the NFL running just 920 plays. That dead-last finish is not an anomaly, rather it's quite consistent with the way Jeff Fisher's teams are trending.
As the rest of the league embraces up-tempo offense predicated on playing fast and scoring points, Fisher is regressing back to the stone ages. Fisher's offenses ranked 13th on average in plays run from 2000-07 in Tennessee. However, in his final three seasons with the Titans and four with the Rams, Fisher's offense have slowed to a sloth-like pace. From 2008-15, Fisher's teams ranked 26th in the NFL on average in plays run, finishing with over 1,000 plays just once and ranked 32nd in the league twice.
Even if you're a generational talent, the margin for error in a slow and ineffective offense like the one Los Angeles projects to be is just so razor thin. Given the way Jeff Fisher's teams operate and the surrounding personnel, only a massive improvement at quarterback will boost the Rams' offensive outlook.
Attached to a strong quarterback
The third variable critical for running back success is their connection to a quality quarterback. We often think of top running backs playing with game managers at the position while they soak up a ton of rushes on the ground. At times, that is the case, but there's a clear correlation between quarterback quality and running back success in fantasy. Intuitively strong quarterback play produces efficient and high-scoring offenses, which as we continue to see is the clearest boom for a fantasy running back.
Measuring quarterback play can be tough and there's a ton of noise in raw production metrics, like fantasy points per game. Of the 35 top-five fantasy backs since 2009:
Played with a quarterback ranked in the top-10 in fantasy points per game - 28.6 percent
Played with a quarterback ranked between 11th and 17th in fantasy points per game - 22.9 percent
Played with a quarterback ranked 18th or worse in fantasy points per game - 48.6 percent
*quarterbacks with a minimum of 100 completions
At first blush this doesn't lend a ton of credence to the theory that a running back needs to play with a good quarterback. The running back to quarterback fantasy finish is a near 50/50 split between average to top-10 quarterback finishers and below average ones. However, the gap does widen since 2012 with a 60/40 split between top-17 finishes and those below.
However, as mentioned earlier, there's a ton of noise in counting stat metrics like fantasy points. One of the best metrics to measure quarterback quality is adjusted yards per attempt. Footballguys staff writer and numbers wizard Chase Stuart explains the metric, "Yards per Attempt is the basic statistic around which the passing game should be measured. It forms the base of my favorite predictive statistic (Net Yards per Attempt) and my favorite explanatory statistic (Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt). But it's not perfect. In theory, Yards per Attempt is a system-neutral metric."
When you measure quarterback quality using an efficiency related metric like AY/A rather than a counting stat like fantasy points you see a clearer picture of a running back's need for a quality quarterback come to life. Of the 35 top-five fantasy backs since 2009:
Played with a quarterback ranked in the top-10 in adjusted yards/attempt - 42.9 percent
Played with a quarterback ranked between 11th and 17th in adjusted yards/attempt - 20 percent
Played with a quarterback ranked 18th or worse in adjusted yards/attempt - 37.1 percent
Now we see clearly the boost a good quarterback brings to a fantasy running back, with just 37.1 percent of the top-five finishers playing with a below average passer. Even if they are not racking up yards and touchdowns, a quarterback who brings at least marginal ability to the table makes life easier on his backfield-mate.
If we isolate top-five running backs since 2012, the difference once again widens. Among those backs, 55 percent of them played with a quarterback ranked inside the top-10 in AY/A, and just 30 percent with one who finished 18th or worse. Of those six backs, four of them came in the top-five finishers during the apocalyptic collapse of the running back position last season. The other two were Matt Forte (2014) and Adrian Peterson (2012). Forte received a massive boost from playing in Marc Trestman's offense and the 130 targets he handled, which was tied for the second-most for a running back since 1992. Peterson's 2012 was his super-human season where he rushed for 2,000 yards despite returning from a torn ACL.
Both of those seasons are massive outliers from what's expected of the running back position. Peterson's 2012 and Forte's 2014 demonstrate the level of historically elite production needed to overcome dreadful play behind center.
Todd Gurley's outlook: The Rams made a significant investment in their quarterback position this offseason, trading a bevy of future picks to move up to No. 1 overall and select Jared Goff. However, that far from guarantees that the position will be a stark upgrade over the disaster it was for the Rams last season.
NFL Media's Bucky Brooks came away from a visit to Los Angeles' training camp thinking, "To my surprise, Goff isn't anywhere close to being ready to play as a starting quarterback at this stage of training camp." Subsequently, he's second of the team's initial depth chart after working exclusively with the backups during training camp to this point. ESPN's Ed Werder believes there is a strong possibilityCase Keenum remains the starter to begin the regular season. Jared Goff more than likely will end up being a successful NFL quarterback, but the signs are pointing against that happening right away.
Keenum is the type of backup who despite his limitations, can get a team through a few games if he has good surrounding talent. The Rams don't have that and the offense would be capped with him behind center. Los Angeles could be even worse off with an unprepared Jared Goff behind center before he's ready. Unless the rookie makes major strides in the rest of the preseason, the quarterback position will once again be a negative for the Rams and Todd Gurley would need to have a historic season to reach the top-five for fantasy.
After diving into these non-individual talent-based variables for running back success, the evidence looks quite damning for Todd Gurley's outlook as a potential top-five fantasy back. He would need to enjoy a historically strong season to overcome those odds and, at worst, maintain his 4.4 touchdown rate from his rookie season.
However, there is the chance he is just that good and without question, we should be open to that being the case. If you look over the original spreadsheet outlining the top-five backs since 2009, you see that only one player did so while not meeting the threshold for any of the three variables. That player was indeed one Todd Gurley.
With that being said, Graham Barfield made the point that 2015 was such a massive outlier for the running back position. The data presented in this article also showed a clear shift in the way running backs were trending from 2012 to 2014 in their correlation to our variables. It might be hard for Gurley or any other running back to replicate a top-five finish while coming in the red for all five categories in a more stable year for the position.
Regardless of that, if you're taking Todd Gurley in the top-five picks, much less No. 1 overall, you're banking on him bucking layers and layers of positional trends. You likely need Gurley to have a historically great season to pay off that value given his situation. You're pricing him at a wildly optimistic ceiling and not taking into account at all any possible regression from his touchdown work as a rookie.
Todd Gurley is destined to become a truly great NFL running back but is he's far from the safe pick in fantasy the public views him as at the moment. Regardless of your format, Gurley should not be a top-five fantasy pick. If you own one of those early picks, your best bet is to back away from Gurley in favor of a top wide receiver or even a running back who projects more favorably in these situational variables like David Johnson or Ezekiel Elliott.
Taking Todd Gurley in the top-five is a Hail Mary attempt at hitting a historical season and ignoring the way the NFL is heading altogether. As the top back off the board, he's priced above his most-likely ceiling due to a situation completely unconducive to week-to-week running back success in today's NFL.