Big news dropped on Day 3 of Free Agency when it was announced that the Atlanta Falcons were bringing former University of Georgia hero Todd Gurley home.
Gurley will fill the hole at running back vacated by Devonta Freeman, who started 14 games for Atlanta last year before getting cut as a cap casualty a few days ago.
Cutting Freeman saved a little more than $3 million in cap space, which was used to mostly cover the $6 million tab on Gurley’s new one-year contract with the team.
Both running backs look to be past their peaks in the NFL. Freeman has dealt with nagging injuries which have slowed him down since the end of the 2017 season, and Gurley has an arthritic condition in his knees which has drastically reduced his own shelf life.
While both look to be dwindling versions of what they were at their apex, each one had a statistically solid 2019 which was marked by more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage.
Let’s take a deeper dive into the comparison of Toddy Gurley vs. Devonta Freeman in 2019, looking at each of their numbers as well as the situations they were in.
Rushing: 184 carries, 656 rushing yards (3.6 yards per attempt)
Receiving: 70 targets 59 receptions, 410 receiving yards (5.9 yards per target)
Total: 243 touches, 1,066 yards from scrimmage (4.4 yards per touch)
Rushing: 223 carries, 857 rushing yards (3.8 yards per attempt)
Receiving: 49 targets, 31 receptions, 207 receiving yards (4.2 yards per target)
Total: 254 touches, 1,064 yards from scrimmage (4.2 yards per touch)
From a pure yardage standpoint Gurley and Freeman were nearly identical, with just two total yards of separation. To put it into perspective, Freeman was 47th in the NFL in yards from scrimmage last year while Gurley was 48th.
Gurley churned out more of his yards on the ground — despite the very prevalent knee issues and clear snap counts throughout the season (never touching the ball 20+ times until Week 11 and reaching that threshold three times all year), he still managed 39 more carries than Freeman in 2019.
However, it should be noted that the Rams were 17th in the league in rushing attempts (401) while the Falcons were 29th (362). Overall, Gurley still handled a higher percentage of his team’s carries (55.6%) in comparison to Freeman (50.8%).
On the flip side of the coin Freeman had a distinct advantage in receiving yards, beating Gurley out in every single raw receiving metric. The Falcons led the league in passing attempts in 2019 (684), but the Rams weren’t too far behind in third place (632).
As far as opportunity is concerned, Freeman owned a higher share of Atlanta’s aerial attempts (he accounted for 10.2% of the team’s targets) than what Gurley saw from QB Jared Goff in Los Angeles (accounting for 7.8% of his team’s targets).
Opportunity aside, however, Freeman was still the more efficient receiver as far as yards per receiving attempt goes.
However, I’d be remiss not to mention the difference in passing philosophies between these teams, and how that affected receiving opportunities for each RB — Freeman was 15th among all RBs in the NFL in air yards, while Gurley was 49th, meaning that Matt Ryan pushed the ball a bit further downfield when targeting Freeman while Goff’s targets to Gurley came on average closer to the line of scrimmage.
“Money Conversions” = First Downs and Touchdowns
6 rushing/receiving touchdowns - 55th in the NFL
2 rushing touchdowns - 49th among RBs
4 receiving touchdowns - 5th among RBs
33 rushing first downs - 26th among RBs
17.9% first down rush percentage
17 receiving first downs - 14th among RBs
28.8% first down reception percentage
50 total first down conversions
14 rushing/receiving touchdowns - 5th in the NFL
12 rushing touchdowns - 5th among RBs
2 receiving touchdowns - 14th among RBs
51 rushing first downs - 15th among RBs
22.9% first down rush percentage
8 receiving first downs - 41st among RBs
25.8% first down reception percentage
59 total first down conversions
The biggest difference between Freeman and Gurley in 2019 is the touchdown figure. Gurley had much more of a nose for the end zone than Freeman and achieved double digit touchdowns for the fourth time in his five years in the NFL (Freeman has only achieved that feat twice in six seasons).
Most of those scores came on the ground — 12 out of 14 to be exact. Gurley scored more rushing TDs by himself in 2019 than what the Falcons had as a team overall on the ground. TG3 accounted for 60% of his team’s 20 rushing TDs, while Freeman had 20% of Atlanta’s 10 rushing scores.
Likewise, Gurley had more of a nose for the first down sticks, particularly on the ground — recording more first down runs and having a higher percentage of those runs result in moving the chains.
True to form to everything else we have seen so far, Freeman had more of a knack of converting his receptions into first downs. Of course, this can again partly be attributed to the Falcons targeting him downfield more than what Gurley experienced in LA.
Two areas of TG3’s game which haven’t been affected by the arthritis in his knees have been his vision and instincts. Gurley was still a touchdown machine in 2019 despite the physical limitations — only Aaron Jones, Christian McCaffrey, Derrick Henry, and Mark Ingram found the end zone more times than he did in 2019.
The short yardage game is where Gurley really did a lot of his damage. He finished ninth in the league in percentage of touchdowns scored on runs inside the 10, and he was fourth in the league in percentage of first downs converted on 3rd-and-short runs (“short” defined as 3 yards or less). Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, and Lamar Jackson were the only players in the NFL who were more effective on 3rd-and-short.
67.5 PFF Pass Blocking Grade: 15th among RBs
89 pass blocking snaps in 2019 - 5th among RBs
70.4 PFF Pass Blocking Grade: 11th among RBs
114 pass blocking snaps in 2019 - 1st among RBs
As we know, a running back’s ability to pass protect in today’s NFL is especially critical. It doesn’t matter how good of a runner you are if you have to be replaced on every third down because you can’t pick up a blitz.
Both Freeman and Gurley were very good at this in 2019, with Gurley having a slight advantage. For how much Atlanta likes to pass the ball, it’s comforting to know that there shouldn’t be a drop off in pass protection from the running back spot going into 2020.
Advanced Grades (PFF)
57.0 PFF Rushing Grade - 59th among RBs (minimum 20% of team’s rushing attempts)
37.0 PFF Elusive Grade - 48th among RBs (minimum 20% of team’s rushing attempts)
69.5 PFF Receiving Grade - 15th among RBs (minimum 20% of team’s receiving targets)
1.7% drop percentage - 3rd among RBs
1.22 yards per route run - 26th among RBs
79.1 PFF Rushing Grade - 8th among RBs (minimum 20% of team’s rushing attempts)
51.4 PFF Elusive Grade - 28th among RBs (minimum 20% of team’s rushing attempts)
34.8 PFF Receiving Grade - Last (46th) among RBs (min. 20% of team’s receiving targets)
16.2% drop percentage - Last (46th) among RBs
0.53 yards per route run - Last (46th) among RBs
A deeper dive into the advanced metrics confirms the raw rushing and receiving numbers we looked at earlier in this article — Gurley was the much better player on the ground while Freeman was far and away better as far as pass catching is concerned.
PFF cites the following as its methodology for calculating its rushing grade:
“Rushing success is often determined by a rusher’s run blocking, play calling, and the quality of the defense, so there are plenty of times where a player’s grade will not match up perfectly with his statistics. Our goal is to isolate the running back’s contribution to that production, and the runners with the highest grades are those who produce above expectation and outside what the run blocking or scheme allows.”
Gurley was a victim of a terrible offensive line (we’ll take a look at that in a second) and a below average quarterback who limited the overall offense. Despite the injury limitation, TG3 was still able to put up decent numbers on the ground. PFF actively looks to avoid punishing a runner for circumstances out of his control and they still had Gurley among the ranks of the 10 best pure runners in the league last year as a result.
Freeman on the other hand wasn’t even at replacement level as a pure runner according to the methodology, ranking behind ineffective RBs such as Kalen Ballage, Peyton Barber, and Ty Johnson. Teammate Brian Hill finished ahead of Freeman in run grade with a 66.8 mark.
Where Freeman made ground up against Gurley was in the pass catching department, where PFF ranked TG3 last in its major metrics.
The chasm in yards per route run can partially be explained by looking at the difference in each team’s QB and in how they utilized each RB in the passing game, but what Gurley has to improve on going into 2020 is the drops. Being first among all RBs in drops and drop percentage completely tanked his receiving grade.
Freeman, meanwhile, was a steady receiving option for Matt Ryan on checkdowns — rarely ever dropping the ball and registering a very solid receiving grade among RBs.
63.9 PFF Run Blocking Grade: 11th in the NFL
Los Angeles Rams:
53.0 PFF Run Blocking Grade: 26th in the NFL
This is something I wanted to highlight specifically, and this is where you may start getting a bit more excited about Todd Gurley replacing Freeman as Atlanta’s primary running back.
For as much flak as we gave the Atlanta offensive line for being so bad at run blocking last year the Rams were much worse. Injuries and general underperformance gave Gurley nearly no avenues to run through, yet he still came away with a pretty good season all things considered.
Andrew Whitworth, LA’s starting left tackle who accounted for the most run blocking snaps on the team, was the only player along the Rams’ offensive line to start all 16 games. His run blocking grade of 55.3 ranked 143rd out of 213 offensive lineman who played at least 20% of their team’s snaps in 2019.
Austin Blythe, LA’s starting center/guard who was second on the team in run blocking snaps and who started 15 games, was even worse. His run blocking grade of 47.5 was 190th among all offensive lineman who played at least 20% of their team’s snaps in 2019.
The Rams did not have a single offensive lineman on their team who was in the top 40 in run blocking grade among lineman who played at least 20% of their team’s snaps. Outside of starting center Brian Allen (who played in only nine games), no Rams lineman was in the top 70 in run blocking grade (among lineman who played at least 20% of their team’s snaps).
Rob Havenstein, Austin Corbett, Bobby Evans, and Joseph Noteboom — Rams lineman who played enough snaps to qualify for the minimum 20% threshold — all ranked outside of the top 150 in run blocking grade. Evans and Noteboom each ranked outside of the top 200, with Noteboom being graded as the worst run blocking offensive lineman in all of football last year.
Gurley will be trading that in for a Falcons offensive line which looked like world-beaters in comparison.
Alex Mack was 27th among offensive lineman — seventh among all centers — in run blocking grade. Chris Lindstrom ranked 47th in the league and he was just about as good as Brian Allen, who was LA’s best run blocking lineman.
Don’t get me wrong, the Falcons’ line was by no means without its faults in the run blocking department — most notably in the form of starting left guard James Carpenter and starting right tackle Kaleb McGary, who ranked 198th and 153rd in the league — but the bad wasn’t nearly as prevalent as it was in Los Angeles.
Moreover, Atlanta is banking on organic growth for both Lindstrom and McGary going into next season. They were both rookies still trying to get accustomed to the NFL in 2019, and as first round picks both are expected to take a big step as offensive lineman going into 2020.
As far as run blocking from skill position players is concerned, Atlanta beat the Rams out in that category as well. Julio Jones ranked in the top 5 among wide receivers in run blocking while Jaeden Graham also registered a higher run blocking grade than any of LA’s skill position players.
Sean McVay is a far more creative and better offensive play caller in LA than Dirk Koetter is in Atlanta, but none of that matters if the offensive line doesn’t do its job (and we saw that in 2019). Gurley should see a massive upgrade as far within his O-Line is concerned in 2020.
Gurley is a superior runner who produced more on the ground than Freeman despite being in a far more limited situation. The improvement to his offensive line should put TG3 in line for a 1,000-yard rushing season given good health.
The Falcons will hope that Gurley can re-find himself as a wide receiver after a brutal 2019 season in that department. Nobody should feasibly expect a repeat of the 2017 season when he had an elite 91.1 receiving grade and was arguably the best RB in football, but something closer to his 67.3 grade in 2018 isn’t outside the realm of possibility.
However, none of this will matter if Gurley can’t stay healthy. The arthritis in his knees is very prevalent and keeping the former University of Georgia standout on the field should be a top priority. This should be done by way of a snap count and ultimately trusting the team’s running back depth (Ito Smith, Brian Hill, Quadree Ollison) to help keep Gurley fresh.
After diving into all of the numbers, advanced metrics, and team circumstances, I would hypothesize that Todd Gurley will be an upgrade over Devonta Freeman at RB for the Falcons if he can stay healthy. Health is the major question mark here. But without that question mark Gurley wouldn’t be in Atlanta in the first place.