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Fan Engagement, Fantasy, Team Performance

Assessing the Stock Value of Running Backs on the Move

Stats Perform continues its NFL Offseason Series leading up to the NFL draft.

By: Taylor Bechtold

It wasn’t all that long ago when Todd Gurley was an unstoppable workhorse, on top of the football world as the NFL’s highest-paid running back.

The former St. Louis-Los Angeles Rams star earned it by leading the league with an average of 135.3 yards from scrimmage and 40 touchdowns from 2017-18 while being named ’17 AP Offensive Player of the Year. He also set a franchise record by reaching the end zone in 13 consecutive contests.

But Gurley fell out of favor with head coach Sean McVay during the team’s run to the Super Bowl at the end of the 2018 season. The Rams released him last month following a lackluster ’19 in which he rushed for a career-low 857 yards on just 3.8 per carry in 15 games.

Knee inflammation caused Gurley to miss the final two games of the 2018 regular season, and that same left knee in which he suffered an ACL tear in college has been at the center of the speculation surrounding why he hasn’t been the same dynamic playmaker. It’s revealing that before last season, Gurley’s personal trainer told CBS Sports that his client has “an arthritic component to his knee.”

Now looking for a fresh start with the Atlanta Falcons, Gurley is one of the running backs we’re analyzing as we continue our data-driven NFL offseason series. For what it’s worth, the Falcons said they’re “very comfortable” with Gurley’s health after signing him earlier this month.

Former Rams running back Todd Gurley runs in Los Angeles on Dec. 29, 2019.

Atlanta inks Todd Gurley to a one-year, $6 million contract

Now that we’ve dissected the backstory, let’s dig into evidence that suggests that Gurley could resurrect his career back in Georgia where he played college ball.

Though the Falcons could add another running back in next week’s draft, there’s little doubt they expect Gurley to carry the load after parting ways with former lead back Devonta Freeman (184 rushing attempts in 2019).

Stats Perform’s Broken Tackle Percentage (BT%) reveals that Gurley was able to break a tackle or cause a missed one only 14.2% of the time after doing so at a 16.2% clip between 2017-18. For reference, the league average was 15.1 from ’17-18 before rising to 16.9 a year ago. And Josh Jacobs of the rechristened Las Vegas Raiders led the NFL last season among those with at least 200 touches at 28.6.

Gurley, however, may not need to break as many tackles while running behind what should be a more effective offensive line in Atlanta. While his former team in Los Angeles is projected to be a woeful 29th in Stats Perform’s Disruptions Allowed, the Falcons are ranked in the middle of the pack, at 17th heading into this season.

Disruptions Allowed takes Stats Perform’s Run Disruption metric, which measures any action that causes a running play to be stopped or re-directed, and flips it to determine how well offensive linemen stop that action and succeed on their assignments.

Gurley also appears to be a decent fit for the Atlanta offense. Last season he was most productive on inside zone runs (4.15 yards per carry) and gap runs with no pulling linemen (4.04) — two of the rushing plays the Falcons like to call most.

Stock: Up

Denver signs Melvin Gordon to a two-year, $16 million deal

Gordon rushed for a career-high 1,105 yards and eight touchdowns in 2017 and 885 yards and 10 TDs in ’18 despite missing four games due to injury. But last season he staged a holdout over the first four games as he sought a new contract.

Melvin Gordon (25) makes a catch in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019.

The holdout backfired when third-year backup Austin Ekeler took advantage of his time to shine, helping the Los Angeles Chargers realize they could afford to move on from Gordon.

Gordon’s move to the Broncos appears to be a two-sided coin. While he joins what figures to be a crowded backfield, Gordon is likely to see the most snaps, carries and possibly targets in a committee that currently has Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman still in the mix behind second-year quarterback Drew Lock.

Gordon could also benefit from a major upgrade up front. Given the addition of ex-Lions guard Graham Glasgow, we project Denver to have the third-best run-blocking line in the NFL —  assuming that Ja’Wuan James remains healthy. That could help Gordon improve his yards per carry on inside zone runs (2.69) and gap pulls (3.32), and he’s consistently remained above league average in BT% at 17.7 over the past three years.

Stock: Up

Houston acquires David Johnson, a 2020 second-round draft pick, a 2021 fourth-round selection to Arizona for DeAndre Hopkins, a 2020 second-round pick

Like Gurley and Gordon, Johnson is a running back heading to a new team with something to prove.

Since an All-Pro 2016 campaign in which he led the NFL with 2,118 total yards and 20 touchdowns and tied a league record by gaining at least 100 yards from scrimmage in 15 straight games, Johnson has totaled 1,308 yards and nine scores over the past three years. He missed all but one game in ’17 due to wrist surgery.

David Johnson in Glendale, Ariz. on Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019.

The 28-year-old was also slowed by back and ankle injuries while finishing with just 345 rushing yards on 3.7 per carry in 13 games a year ago. But at Houston, Johnson is set to get an opportunity to rejuvenate his career as the top back in a tandem with Duke Johnson.

The data, however, doesn’t point to a rebound in Texas. That’s because Johnson could struggle to find holes behind an offensive line that is projected to have the second-worst run blocking in the league this season. That doesn’t bode well for the sixth-year back, who has posted a 10.8 BT% — well below-average — over the past three years.

Johnson may still be able to produce in the passing game. He stayed in the backfield to help in protection on 20.6% of Arizona’s pass plays last season, but Houston kept its running back in to pass block just 13.3% of the time. That means he’ll probably run a few more routes per game instead of staying in the pocket for extra pass protection.

Stock: Down

Miami, Jordan Howard agree on a two-year, $10 million contract

Howard insists he’s completely recovered after a shoulder injury caused him to miss all but one snap of the Philadelphia Eagles’ last eight games last season, including a Wild Card loss to Seattle.

Jordan Howard runs on his former team, the Bears, Nov. 3, 2019.

The Dolphins are counting on it after signing the veteran back, who led the Bears in rushing in each of his three seasons with the team (2016‒18). Howard is expected to become the No. 1 option for a ground attack that ranked last in the NFL with 72.3 rushing yards per game last season, led by a 37-year-old quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, with 243 yards. That was the lowest total by any team rushing leader in NFL history over a 16-game schedule.

The problem? Howard is going from one of the top run-blocking offensive lines in the league in Philadelphia to a Miami front that is projected to be the fourth worst, according to Stats Perform’s Disruptions Allowed. Making matters worse, the two-time 1,000-yard rusher has been abysmal in BT% at just 7.3 in 2017-18 before improving slightly to 11.6 a year ago. It doesn’t help that he’s never been much of a difference-maker in the passing game. His reception total has declined each season, from an unremarkable 29 as a rookie to just 10 a year ago.

Stock: Down

Advanced analytics and data analysis provided by Stats Perform’s Kyle Cunningham-Rhoads.