Toby Gerhart is a wrecking ball, a 6'0", 231-pound implement of brute-force destruction.
The hype and anticipation surrounding him has been snowballing.
On May 31, Alfie Crow of Big Cat Country proclaimed Gerhart "the most important player" on the Jacksonville Jaguars offense. On June 18, Jim Corbett of USA Today quoted Gerhart as saying he hopes to be Jacksonville's version of Marshawn "Beast Mode" Lynch. On the same day, Bleacher Report Featured Columnist BJ Kissel told us to "expect big things" from Gerhart.
NFL Media's Daniel Jeremiah reported NFL executives around the league agree:
Here's a name that keeps coming up in my talks with personnel guys around the league: Toby Gerhart. High expectations for 2014.— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) June 25, 2014
On July 1, Marc Sessler of NFL.com's Around the League ranked Gerhart No. 8 in their series of players "Making the Leap," and NFL Media's LaDainian Tomlinson named Gerhart the No. 1 running back who switched teams this offseason.
Where did all this enthusiasm come from?
Gerhart is a 27-year-old career backup who's averaged 69 carries, 326 yards and 1.25 touchdowns per season during his four years in the NFL. He's a power back in a scatback league, a throwback when everyone's going cutting-edge—and he may not even get the lead-dog workload fantasy football players are counting on.
Ryan O'Halloran of the Florida Times-Union put the brakes on the runaway hype train when he told Keith McMillan of The Washington Post that Gerhart "projects as a guy who will get 12-15 carries a game."
That's not much of a leap.
Though the NFL is rife with college superstars who became mediocre pros, it's worth pointing out just how amazing Gerhart was at Stanford. According to Sessler, Gerhart led the FBS in carries (343), yardage (1,871) and touchdowns (28) as a senior—and he finished second in Heisman voting.
When Gerhart's gotten opportunities, though, he's produced.
Despite sitting behind the most talented, durable, productive back in the NFL, Gerhart has been a viable second option, averaging an impressive 4.7 yards per carry over his career to date. If his career stats (276 carries, 1,305 yards and five touchdowns) are a preview of what he'll do in one season as a starter, he'll be one of the most productive backs in the NFL.
Just how is he getting it done? By being incredibly hard to bring down, of course.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) tracks how many missed tackles each running back forces; Gerhart forced an incredible 14 missed tackles on just 36 carries, plus two missed tackles on 13 receptions. Gerhart didn't have nearly enough attempts to qualify, but his elusiveness rating of 123.4 was nearly double Peterson's league-leading 64.6.
Advanced Football Analysis credits Gerhart with a Win Probability Added of plus-0.42, ranked 21st among all backs. His 36 carries, 283 yards and two touchdowns did more to help the Vikings win football games than Eddie Lacy's 284 carries for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns.
That might sound crazy, but it means Gerhart's production came in high-leverage situations; his runs made a big impact on Minnesota's chances of winning. Gerhart also tied Shane Vereen for the NFL's seventh-highest success rate, which, as explained by Football Outsiders, is a way of measuring how consistently a player achieves down-to-down "success" (progress towards converting a first down, or converting on third or fourth down).
So he's hard to bring down, and he reliably gets the yards his offense needs to move the chains. That's not all an every-down back needs to do, though. A workhorse needs to force the defense to account for his big-play ability.
As a draft prospect, Gerhart's ability to do that was in doubt. NFL.com said he didn't "effectively attack the perimeter" or "kick it into another gear to hit home runs." Yet he did just that several times in 2013:
According to Pro Football Focus, Gerhart gained 47.7 percent of his yards on runs of 15 yards or longer. Qualifying league leader Andre Ellington earned 47.9 percent of his yardage on long runs—but Ellington ranked just 40th in success rate, per Advanced Football Analysis.
Can Gerhart really bring all of Ellington's boom without any bust?
Change of Scenery
So, Gerhart dominated in college, was a second-round draft choice and has produced like a quality starter every time he's been given a chance during four seasons in the NFL. What's the downside?
The downside, unfortunately, is the uniform he's wearing.
Don't get it twisted: I'm on record as a huge Gus Bradley fan. Bradley will make the Jags into winners sooner rather than later. But the Jaguars had the worst run-blocking line in the NFL in 2013—and, per Pro Football Focus, it wasn't even close. Their minus-80.8 team grade was almost twice as bad as the 31st-ranked New York Jets. Minnesota's line graded at plus-14.0, eighth-best in the NFL.
Ideally, the addition of guard Zane Beadles from the Denver Broncos will help shore up that line—but Beadles did not play like a stud last season, ranking 40th out of 81 qualifying guards in Pro Football Focus's run-block grades.
It's possible the Jaguars' top three draft picks (quarterback Blake Bortles and receivers Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson) will catalyze the passing game, opening up more room for Gerhart. Unless that happens, though, it's tough to see him approaching the same per-carry effectiveness he did in Minnesota—let alone multiply that production by four times the carries.
We also don't know if Gerhart can handle the same level of weekly punishment Peterson has.
Pump the Brakes
There's no question Gerhart's got talent, and there's little question he'll get the opportunity to show his stuff—even if O'Halloran is right about his initial workload.
Given the way Gerhart consistently moved the chains and broke off long runs in Minnesota, he could do even better than that, exploding much like fellow power back Michael Turner did when Turner left San Diego for Atlanta.
After averaging just 57 carries in his first four years, Turner pounded the rock an amazing 376 times in Atlanta for 1,699 yards, 17 touchdowns, a Pro Bowl berth and a first-team All-Pro nod his first season as a starter. That kind of production isn't impossible for Gerhart.
Yet given the state of the Jaguars offensive line—and a passing game featuring Chad Henne throwing to two rookies—it's more likely that Gerhart mixes solid, reliable utility with flashes of a little bit more.
Gerhart may be a wrecking ball, but he's not going to bowl over the AFC South just yet.