The question in the headline seems ridiculous on first glance. Of course Todd Gurley is a good fit for the Falcons ground game, as he would be for almost any ground game in the league. He is Todd Gurley, the supremely talented Georgia product with 5,400 yards and 58 touchdowns in just five seasons. He has been, on balance, preposterously good in his career, and he’s still just 25 years old.
That probably explains why very few people are unhappy with this signing.
Snap reaction: What do you think the of Todd Gurley joining the Falcons?— The Falcoholic (@TheFalcoholic) March 20, 2020
What I wanted to do is take a quick step back from the news and explain two things: Why Gurley is a logical signing and a good fit for the Falcons, and why our excitement about it the addition is a bit muted. The first concerns his evident talent, well-rounded game, and appeal to the large crossover UGA/Falcons fanbase. The second essentially just concerns his health, specifically the arthritis in his knee that the Rams did such a cloak and dagger job of managing last season.
Let’s get into it.
Why he fits
Gurley does everything well. As a runner, he’s still capable of dazzling plays where he fights through contact and goes a country mile. As a receiver, he’s a capable player with good hands who can handle all the volume you want to give him. As a blocker, he’s stone solid, and we know the Falcons value their backs for their pass protection chops.
Critically, Gurley is also a comfortable fit for an inside zone ground game, and that’s what Koetter obviously prefers after we saw it in action a year ago. Koetter has never been a particularly creative or effective mind when it comes to designing compelling ground games, but he’s had success in the past when he’s had a big, well-rounded threat who can wreak havoc on runs up the middle. With a configuration like Jamon Brown, Alex Mack, and Chris Lindstrom in front of him, plus Keith Smith available as one of the league’s more effective blocking fullbacks, Gurley is going to get both the opportunity and hopefully the support he needs to rebound from a career-worst year in 2019.
As a runner, Gurley has the vision necessary to find open space. Once there, he’s difficult to bring down thanks to his speed and power, and he has a nose for the end zone that may serve to make noted touchdown scorer Qadree Ollison an afterthought.
If you're just waking up, GOOD MORNING. pic.twitter.com/HXc0thfi8i— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) March 20, 2020
As a receiver, Gurley is more solid than spectacular, especially based on his work a year ago. The mere fact that he’s not one-dimensional is enough to make him useful in this offense, because Koetter certainly still found a way to funnel targets to Devonta Freeman, and Gurley was a more efficient pass-catcher than Free even in his down year. It’s nice to create at least some uncertainty as to what a back is going to be doing on any given play, and teams have to respect Gurley through the air as well.
The blocking is also a big deal that I don’t really want to underrate. The Falcons pass and they pass a lot, and that will never change so long as they have Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and then Dirk Koetter calling the plays. Gurley’s excellence in this regard will keep him on the field in all situations, and he’ll likely be a net upgrade on Freeman for that reason alone. I’m not arguing that’s the primary reason he was signed, but it helps.
Finally, Gurley is here in at least small part because he’s beloved by Georgia fans, and they may now flock to Falcons games in a way they wouldn’t have otherwise. I’m not arguing this is the primary reason, either, but Atlanta is well aware of how popular Gurley is and what this mean moves to them from a marketing and sales perspective.
Overall, then, Gurley’s a fit for the reasons you’d expect that he’d be a fit: He’s at least solid at just about everything, and some aspects of his game remain legitimately great. Koetter loves himself a true feature back, and he just got to snap up one with a tremendous track record.
Why we’re concerned
Simply put, Gurley did not look like the same player last year. The Rams offensive line took a significant step backward, which does help to explain his dip in production, but there is a lot more than that going on here.
Start with the way the Rams deployed him in 2019. He received 33 fewer carries, 32 fewer targets, and saw his snaps reach the lowest point they had since his rookie season. The pitch count they wouldn’t acknowledge was particularly significant early on in the season, when Gurley once had just 5 carries in a single game, and he didn’t touch 20 until Week 11. He received 20 or more carries just three times in all of 2019.
The explosiveness was missing a bit, too. Gurley’s season-long carry in 2019 was 25 yards, compared to 36 yards the year before. His yards per carry dipped from 4.9 in 2018 to 3.8 in 2019, he had 24 fewer first downs on 33 fewer carries, and his yards after contact fell from 617 (or 2.4 yards per attempt) to 374 (or 1.7 yards per attempt). That bled into his usage and efficiency as a receiver, as he went from 27 first downs through the air in 2018 to 8 in 2019, from a stellar 9.9 yards in 2018 after the catch to 6.3 last year, and his drop rate also increased. He was still more efficient as a receiver than Devonta Freeman was a year ago, but worryingly his efficiency numbers on the ground were eerily similar to Freeman during the worst year of his career.
One game into Gurley’s 2019 film, and that old juice isn’t there. The #Falcons rushing success in 2020 will likely still hinge on the O-line’s ability to create push & lanes and the scheme’s ability to dial up advantageous looks.— Aaron Freeman (@falcfans) March 20, 2020
Again, you can hang some of this on the Rams and their bizarre usage, which was never going to let Gurley get into the rhythm he needed to. There’s no question that his numbers would look better if Sean McVay had utilized him more and more effectively and if the blocking had been better, regardless of the state of his knee. At a year and $5 million, too, the price is right and the length of the contract isn’t going to come back to kill the Falcons if the knee is an issue.
I’m a believer that you shouldn’t just wave away concerns if they’re legitimate, though, no matter how much you like the player. I firmly believe Gurley is one of the three most talented backs in the NFL today, but I also believe the Rams limited his training camp and preseason looks and carried that over into the season because of legitimate medical concerns that the Falcons’ physical is also going to turn up. It didn’t prevent Gurley from having a fine season, but it was not a season that was up to his standards, and he’s about to go to an offense that didn’t do a great job of putting Freeman in a position to succeed just last year. If Gurley isn’t a standout, there’s almost no chance Koetter’s going to work around that to make the most of it.
Times change, and people change too. Gurley may not be the world-crushing force he was from 2015 into late 2018, and all the evidence points to a major piece of that being related to the arthritis in his knee. He’s still a capable back, but it’s very possible the Gurley who utterly annihilated the NFL in 2018 is gone forever.
If Dirk Koetter can gin up a more effective gameplan for the run game and the offensive line looks better—and I think the latter is at least likely—Gurley will still likely have a fine year on something like 200-225 carries, and figures to offer at least a modest upgrade over Freeman in Koetter’s preferred scheme. He’ll be a popular man in Atlanta regardless and a net upgrade on an offense that should be better in 2020, a pivotal year for this regime and this franchise. We’ll hope against hope that Gurley will once again be one of the NFL’s true elite backs this season, but even if he isn’t, this signing makes a ton of sense for this Falcons team.