Running back enthusiasts, rejoice.
Todd Gurley became the latest running back to reset the market with his four-year, $60 million extension from the Los Angeles Rams.
Running backs signing long-term deals have become a rare event in the landscape of today’s NFL. With the explosion of the passing game and the shocking revelation that throwing the ball is much easier than running it, it’s become increasingly difficult for running backs to sign second contracts for big money.
Gurley has become a bit of an anomaly with his extension that’ll pay him roughly $15 million per year once his rookie contract expires, but Gurley is an anomaly of a running back himself.
Todd the Godd is very, very good at the football
He isn't like your traditional bellcow backs that resemble Adrian Peterson or Eric Dickerson that churn out yards against heavy defensive boxes. Gurley is able to create explosive plays through the air while providing a steady presence on the ground.
In 2017, Gurley had more receiving yards (788) than he did in his first two years combined (515). He also scored the first six receiving touchdowns of his career in 2017. Perhaps there’s some wary with the Rams buying high off Gurley’s best season, but it’s hard to complain with just how productive Gurley was in the most important facet of the game.
Being an efficient runner is not enough anymore. Running backs have to be positive contributors in the passing game to see these big deals. Gurley has always been a capable pass catcher, but he really exploded as a receiver in 2017.
Among all players with at least 50 targets last season, Gurley ranked 19th out of 100 with a staggering 9.06 yards per target. The only running back with a higher mark was Washington’s Chris Thompson, who averaged 9.44 yards per target and had more receiving yards than rushing yards before his season ending injury in Week 11. Gurley, however, was nearly as efficient as a back who essentially specialized in receiving. That’s extremely impressive when you pair that with Gurley’s volume as a rusher (273 carries).
Manufacturing efficient touches for running backs is difficult to do. Most of their touches come from behind the line of scrimmage or in the immediate vicinity of the line of scrimmage.
Take this play against the Cowboys for example. Gurley’s explosiveness, flexibility, hands, and vision in the open field allow him to get down the field in the hurry before exploding for a touchdown. The schematic advantage Gurley brings is huge, too. Since most of his routes are beginning in the backfield, he often gets matched up on linebackers. Most linebackers don’t have a chance to run with Gurley in coverage.
When teams go to dime looks with extra defensive backs on the field to cover the passing threat of Gurley, the Rams can simply audible to a run and allow Gurley to pound the ball into lighter boxes.
Gurley’s versatility creates another subtle chess match within the larger schematic battle of football.
When teams find a back that can make plays down the field like a receiver, it’s difficult to let those guys hit free agency. Running backs like Gurley allow offensive coordinators to expand their palette. He’s an effective runner, can win in the screen game, the intermediate game, and he can win deep down the field. He’s the new prototype of the bellcow back.
Will other backs follow in Gurley’s footsteps?
Plenty of running backs receive touches through the air, but very few are able to maximize their targets in the same way that Gurley did. For example, Le'Veon Bell only averaged 6.18 yards per target compared to Gurley's 9.06. Bell has more total yards than Gurley, but Gurley was far more efficient with his touches. Gurley’s efficiency was a large reason why the Rams were able to finish first in points per play for the NFL season.
Compare Gurley to his fellow 2015 first-round running back, Melvin Gordon. While Gurley is locked up for the foreseeable future with the Rams, Gordon is going to have to scratch and claw to see than second contract money from the Rams. This isn’t even a slight to Gordon, who’s had his ups and downs, it’s more of a reflection on the type of game-breaking, elite talent running backs have to be to see that second contract.
The only running back in the league right now that can match Gurley’s volume and efficiency via the run and pass is Arizona’s David Johnson, who is likely to see an extension from Arizona.
Players who can be efficient with the ball in their hands are hard to find. Players who can be efficient over a large number of touches are even harder to find. Finding a player who be efficient running and receiving while receiving a large workload is damn near impossible.
Paying running backs can be a hard pill to swallow in the NFL today. However, when you have one that makes life easy as a play-caller and difficult for a defense in every facet of the game, that’s a player that simply must be kept.
Throw in the fact that Gurley is only 23 years old (24 on Aug. 3) and still very much an ascending player, his contract makes all the sense in the world for the Rams.
Gurley’s deal should be a beacon of hope for other running backs looking to cash in, but it isn’t good news for all running backs. Unlike the barriers for other positions, like quarterback, running backs have to be elite, ascending players to see their big time contracts.