Le’Veon Bell, Jamaal Charles and Arian Foster are out for the season with injuries. Adrian Peterson is putting together a strong year, but he’s still just the No. 11 running back in fantasy points per game. The Bears offense has held back Matt Forte, who is now dealing with a knee injury of his own. Devonta Freeman has made a star turn and sits atop the running back rankings, but there’s a reason why his place feels precarious. That reason is a rookie in St. Louis who, four starts into his career, has already rewritten the record books. Todd Gurley is the subject of our Week 9 Fact or Fiction.
Fact: Todd Gurley is the Best Fantasy Running Back in the NFL
First, they took Jamaal Charles. Then they came for Le’Veon Bell. The injury fairies better stay away from Gurley, who needed all of four games (and those two injuries) to become the best fantasy back in the NFL. There’s no player I’d rather have for the rest of the season, and with Bell likely to miss the beginning of next year, Gurley will almost certainly be the consensus No. 1 pick in 2016 drafts. This seems like a good time to point out that he tore his ACL less than a year ago.
Let’s first go over the numbers before we take a more detailed look at why the Rams’ prize rookie has been able to claim the running back throne in the same amount of time it took the Royals to roll through the playoffs en route to the World Series crown on the other side of Missouri. In four starts, Gurley has 566 yards and three touchdowns on 88 carries. He set a post-merger record for rushing yards by a player in his first four games as a starter. He has run for at least 5.3 yards per carry and no less than 128 yards in all of his starts. Gurley is fifth in the league in rushing yards despite having at least 19 fewer carries than everyone else in the top 10. He’s tied for second in the league with seven carries of at least 20 yards. Every other running back with at least five such runs is north of 100 carries on the year. Oh yeah, and four of Gurley’s carries for 20-plus yards went for at least 48 yards. This seems like another good time to point out he tore his ACL less than a year ago.
We’re not done with the numbers. Gurley owns three of the top-10 rushing performances this year, despite playing just four games thus far (we’re not including his shake-the-rust-off six-carry debut against the Steelers in Week 3). He’s fourth in the NFL with 3.13 yards after contact per carry. He’s 11th in the league with 18 missed tackles forced, but everyone ahead of him has had at least nine more carries. There have been 14 carries of at least 50 yards this year in the NFL. Gurley has three of them. No one else has more than one. This seems like a good time to point out that the Rams rank last in the league in passing yards per game, 21st in passing yards per attempt, and 28th in passing touchdowns. Gurley isn’t getting any help from Nick Foles & Co., yet he’s still doing things we haven’t seen from a rookie running back. And yes, it also seems like a good time to point out he tore his ACL less than a year ago.
Like Adrian Peterson, part of Gurley’s greatness is the way he can turn a bad day into a great one by popping one huge run. We saw that in Week 8, when Gurley had 15 yards on his first six carries, and then ripped off a 71-yard touchdown run that gave the Rams a lead they would never relinquish. The play is out of shotgun and is designed to go in the A gap between the center and right guard. A hole opens up immediately, and Gurley has two choices. He can either bounce it to his left through door No. 1, or jump cut to the right and go for door No. 2. Here’s what Gurley was seeing at decision time.
Gurley chooses door No. 1, and that turned out to be the correct move. Rookie safety Jaquiski Tartt, No. 29, would have had an angle to at least slow Gurley down if he went to the right. By going to the left he created a one-on-one situation with safety Eric Reid. When Gurley first broke through the second level, Reid wasn’t that far away from making a tackle, as the screenshot below illustrates.
Unfortunately for the 49ers, Reid doesn’t quite have Gurley’s speed.
Gurley was decisive at the point of attack to get through the hole, he had the vision to make the right choice when both cuts appeared plausible, and the speed to pull away to turn a good play into a huge, game-changing one that brought his fantasy owners 13.1 points in standard-scoring leagues.
Aggressiveness to the vision to the breakaway speed: this is why his 20-plus-yard runs don’t stop at 20 or 25 yards. We had another such example in Week 7 against the Browns.
Foles is under center for this play, with the tight end to the right of the formation and Gurley the single set back. This appears to be a simple off tackle run to the left side of the formation, and the Browns have it snuffed out early. Well, at least they might if it weren’t Gurley running the ball. Here’s the shot from the opposite end zone when Gurley gets to about the line of scrimmage. That arrow points out Gurley’s helmet.
So, yeah, most mortals would have gone down somewhere right around that spot. Gurley is not like most mortals. He found a tiny crease to break through, but the play still should have been dead after about four or five yards. Defensive end Xavier Cooper, who has about 70 pounds on Gurley, gets to him in a position to make a play at the 33-yard line. We see in the screenshot below where the two players meet.
Next, see if you can find where Cooper ends up. Don’t worry, this isn’t some football version of Where’s Waldo. He’s the player underneath the arrow.
At this point, Gurley has already done all of the heavy lifting to turn this into a 15-yard gain. He has a first down, and the Rams are at midfield. Gurley is special, however, because after turning what should have been a loss into 15 yards, he turns what could be just 15 yards into 48. After shedding Cooper, Gurley sees this in front of him.
He bounces all the way to the outside, but there’s still a wall of Browns directly in front of him. His only hope to get any more significant yardage out of this is to beat all of them to the sidelines.
Gurley does get some help with a great backside block from Tavon Austin, but this play is almost entirely the work of the rookie magician/running back. Gurley is at his own 45-yard line in the screenshot above, and there are five Cleveland defenders on their feet and within striking distance of making a play on him. This run did not end until he reached the Browns’ 22-yard line.
Just watch this GIF and try to tell me that this doesn’t look like Peterson. He even has the high knees and the ball in his inside hand.
It’s runs like this that make the great ones who they are. A lot of running backs in the NFL could have gained 15 or 20 yards on these plays, even the second one. Gurley racked up a total of 149 on them. Those are the types of runs that swing games, both in real life and fantasy. Gurley has already shown an ability to make them consistently at 21 years old and four games into his NFL career. This seems like a good time to point out that he tore his ACL less than a year ago. From the setback that ended his college career, Gurley has ascended to the top of the NFL’s running back food chain.
Photo: Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images (Gurley action)