It may be hard to remember, but not so long ago, running back Todd Gurley II was one of the most feared players in the NFL.
In 2015, he was the Offensive Rookie of the Year. Two years later, he was the Offensive Player of the Year. He drew comparisons to Eric Dickerson and Jim Brown. Defensive coaches lost sleep while game-planning for him. Linebackers tasked with stopping him made sure their helmet straps were on tight, their shoulders pads were nice and secure and their jockstraps were in place.
Gurley is a three-time Pro Bowler, a two-time first-team All-Pro, led the league in rushing touchdowns twice and was respected throughout the league—so much so that in 2018, the Rams gave him a four-year, $57.5 million extension that included $45 million in guarantees.
Now, that player is gone.
The Rams released Gurley on Thursday—one day before they would have had to pay him $10.5 million in bonus and injury guarantees.
There was a time when paying $10.5 million in bonuses for Todd Freaking Gurley wouldn't have been an issue. That's why it was in the contract. Then everything changed.
Sources from several teams told B/R that the Rams have been covertly talking to teams about Gurley for months. They also confirmed what NFL Network's Mike Silver reported several days ago, that the Rams stepped up their trade efforts when the new league year began this week.
That should shock no one.
Editor's Note: According to ESPN's Jordan Schultz, Gurley has reportedly agreed to a one-year contract with the Atlanta Falcons.
What is shocking, if you take a moment to digest it, is Gurley's downfall.
How fast it happened. How obvious it was. And how far it went.
Is Gurley's career over? Of course not. He's only 25 years old.
But is it in trouble?
Yes, it is.
This may be the steepest decline we've seen in recent history. Not just for a running back, but for any player.
In 2017 and 2018, Gurley combined for 2,556 rushing yards and 30 rushing touchdowns. In 2017 alone, he had 2,093 yards from scrimmage and 19 total touchdowns. One year after that, he had 21 total touchdowns.
Last season, Gurley had career lows in rushing yards (857) and total yards (1,064). And now the Rams are willing to take a $20.15 million dead-cap hit (spread over two seasons, per ESPN’s Field Yates) hit just to get rid of him.
The issue is that Gurley's left knee is likely far worse than he and the Rams have publicly admitted.
Gurley tore his left ACL in 2014 while at the University of Georgia. His left knee became an issue late in the 2018 season and again last year. In June, Gurley's trainer told CBS Sports' Dave Richard that Gurley was dealing with an "arthritic component to his knee."
The knee, one team official explained, is why the Rams were unable to trade Gurley. Teams are extremely suspicious that it's problematic.
Teams can now sign him to a more team-friendly deal than they would have inherited in a trade, which should spark the market somewhat. But sources around the league aren't sure how much.
There will be interest in Gurley at some point, because teams will get desperate and will think back to a few years ago when he dominated the league. But right now, the interest is minimal.
That's in part because Gurley presents a problem with the NFL's rules regarding physical exams. Players aren't allowed into team facilities at least until March 31 due to the coronavirus pandemic, and team doctors aren't allowed to travel to free agents. All physical exams must be done by an independent physician, and since most franchises only trust their doctors, physicals have slowed to a crawl.
It's also a buyer's market for running backs.
Many franchises that need a back are content to wait for April's draft to get one. And even among the free-agent crop, Melvin Gordon III, Devonta Freeman and Carlos Hyde were already available.
The market right now for backs is so depressed that Gordon isn't getting close to the $10 million per year that the Los Angeles Chargers offered him last summer, according to NFL Network's Mike Garafolo (via Pro Football Talk).
It isn't that NFL teams have decided running backs shouldn't get big money. It's that teams are deciding only a certain few deserve huge paydays.
To a lot of teams—and they say this privately—Gurley is a cautionary tale of what happens when you award huge deals to a running back.
That's completely unfair, though.
Gurley was dominating when he signed his extension, and there wasn't a hint of his potential knee issues. He was one of the league's most devastating weapons. The 2018 season was one of the best of his career, and the Rams went 13-3 en route to Super Bowl LIII.
It was a risk, but one the Rams should have taken. Some good risks just don't work out in the long run.
The question now is where Gurley goes from here. It's possible that he'll enter training camp on another team as a backup, at least initially.
That's how far one of the best offensive players of the past five years has fallen.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.
All contract numbers via Spotrac.