Todd Gurley’s Upside Isn’t Adrian Peterson… It’s Jamaal Charles

RotoDoc recently wrote an excellent breakdown of why he will be and why you should be fading Todd Gurley in redraft this year. For the reasons included, and because I am a Zero RB disciple, I agree with him.

That being said, I think he is also selling Gurley short. Gurley may prove himself to be an excellent receiving running back in the NFL, which wouldn’t make Adrian Peterson his upside. It would make someone like Jamaal Charles his upside.

That’s a crucial difference. When Charles caught 70 passes during the 2013 season, he scored 25.5 PPR fantasy points per game. When Peterson almost broke the rushing yard during the 2012 season, he scored just 21.8 PPR FPPG. Those seasons are both extreme examples, but it illustrates my point; an almost record-breaking rushing season is significantly worse than a strong receiving season that is complimented with good rushing numbers. Using less extreme examples, Charles outscored Peterson by 4.3 PPR FPPG last season.

I’m not contesting that Gurley was sparsely used in the passing game last season. He was only targeted seven percent of the time, which is just a smidgen higher than Chris Ivory, who nobody has ever mistaken for a prolific receiving back. But there is reason to believe that Gurley is a good receiver, and he will be more involved in the future.

First, let’s consider Gurley’s college receiving production. Gurley had 65 career receptions for 615 receiving yards, six TDs, and 9.5 yards per reception average. Contrast that with someone like Peterson, who had only 24 receptions in his college career despite seeing 238 more carries than Gurley. When Shawn Siegele put Gurley through the RB Prospect Lab last offseason, he came out with an incredible score. One of the inputs? Final year receptions per game. Kevin Cole’s RB projection model gave Gurley the most favorable prediction of any RB from the 2014 and 2015 classes. One of the inputs? Final year receptions. Given Gurley’s strong raw receiving production, and his favorable projections from models that incorporate receiving, there is more than enough reason to believe he has the potential to be a heavily utilized receiving RB in the future.

But again, he wasn’t used much last year. But that doesn’t mean that he was bad. On the contrary, Gurley was actually very good when he was used last year. He averaged 9.0 yards per reception. More impressively, he averaged 7.23 yards per target. That ranked 22nd out of all fullbacks and RBs who saw at least 10 targets last season.1 Many of the RBs ahead of him are widely regarded as excellent receiving RBs, RBs like Joique Bell, Travaris Cadet, Lance Dunbar, Arian Foster, David Johnson, Charles Sims, DeAngelo Williams, Dion Lewis, and Pierre Thomas. He ranks just ahead of RBs like Duke Johnson, Giovani Bernard, Danny Woodhead, and Theo Riddick. But what really makes his efficiency impressive is the team he played on. The Rams only averaged 6.2 yards per pass attempt, meaning Rams QBs were more efficient by a full yard per pass attempt when they targeted Gurley. For additional context, the Rams were the least efficient passing team on a per attempt basis in the NFL last season.

So what kind of scoring could we expect from Gurley if he were more heavily utilized in the passing game? We can use the RB Sim Score App to focus on the games where Gurley was utilized as a receiver, and then get projections for his 2016 season based solely on those games. If we remove all the games where Gurley had less than three receptions, we get these projections:

Screen shot 2016-05-22 at 5.54.22 PM

If we include the games where Gurley had two receptions, we get these projections:

Screen shot 2016-05-22 at 5.56.11 PM

Note that these projections are based on cherry-picked samples, and are inherently less likely to be accurate than his default projections. Note I’m ignoring the “low” projections since the whole point of this exercise is to get a better gauge of what Gurley’s upside could be. That upside would seem to be considerably higher than his default “high” projection of 17.7 PPR FPPG suggests, though again it is also less likely.

In closing, I still intend to mostly fade Gurley. Even if I assumed he would take the leap and become more involved in the passing game, I probably still wouldn’t get a ton of exposure because I typically use a Zero RB draft strategy, never mind the fact that would be a large and risky assumption to begin with. But I think it’s important to have a clear idea of what his upside is when you’re making the decision about whether or not to draft him, and that upside is higher than an Adrian Peterson comp suggests.

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  1. Per Pro Football Reference, though note that the linked page also includes WRs and TEs.  (back)
By Justin Winn | @TheHumanHuman | Archive

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  1. Gurley had a grand total of 12 receptions for 57 (4.8 ave/rec) yards in his last season in college, so I fail to see how his final year receptions per game helped his prospect score. I'll acknowledge his 2013 season was much better but it seems the receiving ability of college running backs is based more on perception than results. Ezekiel Elliot is being sold as great receiving back and his senior year was 27 receptions for 206 yards. That is not bad, but it seems like a mighty fine line between a being hailed as great receiving RB out of the backfield, to being a guy who can't catch like Melvin Gordon who had 8 less receptions and 53 less yards (though 3 more TDs) his final college season.

    I appreciated the article and its worth thinking about come draft time, but I think I'm leaning to the article where it looked at a scoring regression.

  2. He only played in six games in his final season. Two receptions per game is actually quite a bit in college.

    As for Zeke v. Gordon: Gordon had about one reception for every 29 college carries. Zeke had one for about every 10 carries. Neither were studs by that measure, but it's still a pretty big difference. (That being said, I'm pretty firmly in the camp of they just didn't pass to Gordon and there were a lot of times they should have but didn't.)

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