Why Todd Gurley Is Due for a Bounce-Back Season in 2017

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystJuly 11, 2017

Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurly (30) takes a handoff from quarterback Jared Goff (16) in the third quarter of a game against the Atlanta Falcons played at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Sunday, December 11, 2016. (AP Photo/John Cordes)
John Cordes/Associated Press

Before Dallas Cowboys rookie Ezekiel Elliott dismissed the notion running backs are devalued, Todd Gurley of the Los Angeles Rams became the poster boy for the position's resurgence.  

After no team spent a first-round pick on a running back in two straight drafts—something which hadn't happened across the previous 50 years—the Rams selected Gurley with the 10th overall pick in 2015, less than six months removed from him tearing the ACL in his left knee.

Once fully recovered, the Georgia product took the NFL by storm. He finished third league-wide with 1,106 rushing yards as a rookie in only 13 games. It appeared as though his future couldn't be brighter. 

A funny thing happened between his rookie year and what looked like a surefire Hall of Fame career, though. Gurley faltered in his second season, running for 221 fewer yards despite 49 more carries. 

The Rams drafted Gurley to be the focal point of their offense. A year later, they traded up in the first round to select quarterback Jared Goff with the No. 1 overall pick. Both should be ecstatic Jeff Fisher is no longer their head coach, as the offensive-minded Sean McVay has taken over the reins. 

Can Gurley return to his rookie-year form? With a new head coach, revamped offensive line and natural improvement from the skill positions, there are plenty of reasons for optimism. 

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Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay
Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVayKirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

McVay's presence will be the biggest factor in any potential turnaround. Los Angeles finished 32nd overall in total offense and was the only NFL team not to average 300 yards last season. In fact, no team since the 2011 Jacksonville Jaguars averaged fewer total yards per game than the 2016 Rams. 

In Washington, meanwhile, McVay guided the NFL's third-best offense in 2016. The 31-year-old wunderkind also helped develop quarterback Kirk Cousins into a franchise signal-caller. 

To help bolster the Rams' lackluster offense, McVay needs to reestablish and maximize's Gurley's presence in the backfield. While his primary job will be to turn Goff into a viable starting quarterback, a bolstered run game would take pressure off the young signal-caller as he continues to mature. 

During a recent interview with Zig Fracassi on SiriusXM NFL Radio, Gurley said he's "definitely been loving" McVay's offense during OTAs and minicamps (via NFL.com's Jeremy Bergman). 

To utilize Gurley to his fullest, the Rams shouldn't use him exclusively as a runner. He caught 43 passes last season and can be a legitimate weapon in the passing attack, too. 

According to NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal, McVay and offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur moved Gurley all over the formation at the onset of minicamp. As a threat out of the backfield, defenses must account for the 22-year-old back at all times. This allows the coaching staff to become more creative. 

Gurley may never develop into the next Roger Craig, Marshall Faulk or David Johnson as a true dual-threat running back, but expanding his responsibilities will help the offense become more unpredictable. 

Even so, his explosive running ability still sets the table. Gurley must improve here as well. His talent speaks for itself, but his instincts weren't on point last season. 

"A lot of times you could see where it just seemed like we were on different pages," offensive lineman Jamon Brown said in January, per ESPN.com's Alden Gonzalez. "I don't know if that's being coached differently. How it's being conveyed in each room, we don't know. The big thing is we have to get back on the same page, because when we're on the same page, we're pretty damn good."

While L.A.'s offensive line wasn't at fault for all of last year's offensive woes, the unit underwent a major overhaul this offseason. 

Left tackle Andrew Whitworth during his first minicamp with the Los Angeles Rams
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth during his first minicamp with the Los Angeles RamsKirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Rams signed left tackle Andrew Whitworth to a three-year, $33.75 million contract, which will create a ripple effect throughout the entire offense. The former Cincinnati Bengal ranked first in pass-blocking efficiency in 2016, per Pro Football Focus, whereas the Rams ranked 24th league-wide. He's no slouch in the run game, either, as Cincinnati finished in the top half of the NFL in each of the past three seasons. 

After upgrading the blind side and subsequently trading former second overall pick Greg Robinson, the Rams now have a veteran left side with Whitworth and Rodger Saffold (as long as the latter remains healthy). Another experienced option, John Sullivan, should take over as the starting center. On the right side, Rob Havenstein will settle in at guard while Brown takes over at tackle. 

Even if the offensive line doesn't operate at optimal efficiency, Gurley is capable of creating yardage when none is available. He ranked among the top backs in yards after contact last season, per PFF: 

Pro Football Focus @PFF

A whopping 68.5% of Todd Gurley's rushing yards in 2016 came after contact. https://t.co/abJNguRQbQ

The X-factor for the upcoming Rams season will be Goff. How the quarterback responds after a poor rookie campaign will determine how successful Gurley and the entire team will be. 

While Gurley's effectiveness can open up the passing game and vice versa, Goff needs to perform much better in McVay's system. Last year, the 2016 No. 1 overall pick completed only 54.6 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and seven interceptions in seven starts. 

The coaching staff and Gurley have been impressed by his progress, though. 

"Oh, he's been getting better," the running back said during his interview with Fracassi. "Obviously, he didn't go No. 1 for no reason. He has the talent, and he's just been getting better. He definitely had a great OTAs, great minicamp." 

Too many outside the Rams organization already want to give up on Goff even though he wasn't as bad last season as the statistics indicate. L.A.'s skill position performers didn't help Goff's cause, per PFF: 

Pro Football Focus @PFF

Jared Goff suffered from one of the highest drop rates in the NFL last year as his receivers dropped 16 on 128 catchable passes https://t.co/09GPYfXKzl

Since last year's performers disappointed, the Rams made a concerted effort to improve at wide receiver and tight end. While Kenny Britt, Brian Quick and Lance Kendricks left in free agency, the team signed Buffalo Bills leading receiver Robert Woods and drafted Cooper Kupp and Josh Reynolds to revamp the wide receiver corps. L.A. also used its top pick in the second round to acquire an athletic tight end in Gerald Everett. 

Gurley needs a confluence of factors to live up to his potential and become a dominant back. So far, it looks like the Rams took the necessary steps to put him back on the right path.

New coaching staff? Check. 

New offensive scheme? Check.

Improved offensive line? Check.

Improved skill positions? Check.

Improved quarterback play? We'll see. 

As long as all of this comes together, Gurley will regain his place among the NFL's running back elite. 

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.

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