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A Rational Conversation About Todd Gurley’s Fantasy Prospects

The most dominant player in the past two seasons poses the highest risk and highest reward due to questions about his health and his workload in 2019

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Fantasy football is an exercise in decision-making. One must weigh the costs and benefits of every draft pick, every free-agent acquisition, and every lineup adjustment. This season poses the most difficult decision in recent memory: What should you do about Todd Gurley? To help settle the question, The Ringer’s Riley McAtee and Danny Heifetz debated the risks and rewards Gurley poses in 2019.

Riley McAtee: Gurley has been the most dominant player in fantasy football for the past two seasons, leading all running backs in points per game during that span. If you owned him in either of the past two seasons, there’s a good chance you won your championship. Ten months ago, he was in the MVP conversation.

On the other hand: Gurley suffered a knee injury toward the end of the 2018 season that lingered through the postseason. Despite repeated assurances from Sean McVay that Gurley was healthy, the team sat him for the final two games of the season and brought in C.J. Anderson off the street to lighten Gurley’s load in the playoffs. He was a virtual no-show in the NFC championship and the Super Bowl. There’s no telling how Gurley’s reportedly-arthritic knee will hold up in 2019.

So what should fantasy owners do?

We’re here to try to figure out what the acceptable level of investment is for Gurley in 2019. But before we dive in, let’s lay out some context: No one is here to say that Gurley should be the no. 1 overall pick in fantasy drafts. In The Ringer’s fantasy football rankings, I have Gurley as a mid-second-round pick (14th in standard, 15th in PPR). Danny, you have him as a late third-rounder (30th in standard, 32nd in PPR). Given that his average draft position currently sits at the top of the second round, fantasy players must either take a chance on him with their second pick or pass on him entirely.

That feels like an acceptable risk to me, but full disclosure: I’m a Rams fan. Still, I’m wildly competitive about fantasy, and I believe you won’t find many guys in the second round who have a “best player in fantasy” ceiling. But, Danny, what am I missing here? Why should fantasy owners skip on the reigning fantasy MVP?

Danny Heifetz: My phone autocorrects “Gurley” to “gurney,” which tells you everything you need to know. Players help you only when they are on the field. This isn’t just about whether Gurley misses games in 2019 (obviously a concern). It’s also about what his role will be in the games he plays. Every indication is that his injury will be managed, not healed, in 2019. Don’t take it from me. Take it from his trainer, Travelle Gaines, who told CBS’s Dave Richard as much in June (bold emphasis is mine).

“Everybody knew when Todd came out of Georgia that there would be some kind of arthritic component to his knee, which is part of every surgery whether it’s a shoulder, a knee, an ankle. He’s now at the year-five mark, all we’re doing is managing that. If we can pound him less in the offseason while keeping his weight down, working on his strength, working on his agility in short areas, that’s going to give him a better chance to be healthy Weeks 14 through 17 when they really count.”

If you’re wondering what managing his workload will look like during the season, we already know. Before Gurley got hurt last year, he played 14 regular-season games, and in those games, he was on the field for 86 percent of the Rams’ snaps, which would have been second in the league last year across a full season. After the injury, when Gurley returned for three playoff games, he played 56 percent of the Rams’ snaps, which is less than Jordan Howard got for the Bears last season.

It’s not just that he’s an injury risk, which you want to avoid in the first few rounds. It’s also that the role we saw him play in the playoffs looked like the Ghost of Christmas Future.

McAtee: Let’s stick with Gurley’s trainer for a minute. Gaines continued: “It’s never been told to me that there’s a plan to decrease his workload come Week 1 ... If you watched the games last year, Todd typically sat out two to three series last year. I don’t see anything changing with that.”

Gurley has been prepping for this season like he’s still the bell cow back in the Rams backfield, and that backfield is the most fantasy-lucrative place for a player to be. Even if Gurley’s volume declines some—and McVay has sent mixed signals about that this offseason—he’s still a great bet to pile on fantasy points in 2019. As Pro Football Focus’s Scott Barrett pointed out, Gurley only needs to be on the field for a little over 50 percent of snaps (coincidentally very close to the number you cite for Jordan Howard) to deliver on his current ADP:

This is a useful reminder that good offenses are crucial for fantasy performance. Fantasy owners should be investing in Rams players, not avoiding them, which is why I’d also recommend that anyone who drafts Gurley also draft Darrell Henderson, the Rams’ third-round pick out of Memphis. The Rams reportedly view Henderson as a complementary piece in their offense, meaning he’s not just a Gurley handcuff and could return value even if Gurley is perfectly healthy. Henderson is currently going 86th overall as the RB37. Grab both, and you’ll have a stranglehold on the most valuable piece of fantasy real estate available.

Heifetz: Ah, yes, you got me. Gurley’s trainer said, “[it has] never been told to me that there’s a plan to decrease his workload.”

I forgot that when McVay decides his gameplans, the first thing he does is tell a player’s personal trainer. Obviously, McVay informs Gurley’s trainer of all his personnel decisions. If he doesn’t know, it must not be happening!

To your point about Gurley being a good pick even if he gets fewer snaps: Your math isn’t wrong, it’s just deceiving (like McVay characterizing Gurley’s health last year!). What I said was that in a limited role, Gurley might be expected to play 56 percent of the Rams’ snaps this year in the games he plays. You’re saying that’s enough to be the 10th-best running back. But that’s only true if he plays all 16 games. Nobody can say they are confident Todd Gurley will play all 16 games.

We also have every reason to expect that his carries will not be evenly distributed. The Rams have made it clear they want Gurley healthy for the stretch run and the playoffs. There are strong odds they’ll give him fewer touches for the first half of the season, and will increase them as it wears on (if he can handle it). They have every incentive to ease him back into action, not rush him back to a big workload. Gurley’s health for the real playoffs in January helps the Rams, but it won’t help fantasy owners at Thanksgiving.

To your point about where Gurley is being drafted: In ESPN leagues, he is not the 10th running back being taken. He is the eighth player being taken overall. He’s going ahead of Davante Adams, Michael Thomas, Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr., Melvin Gordon, and James Conner, among others. Those are safe players. Then there is Gurley, who is not safe. To quote you from like two minutes ago, “There’s no telling how Gurley’s reportedly-arthritic knee will hold up in 2019.”

That’s not someone you invest a top pick in. Gurley is a real human being and I hate talking about his health so callously. I hope Gurley has an amazing, healthy season. But I’m not going to bet on it, and that’s what you’re doing in spending a first- or second-round pick on him. Your first pick is your biggest investment. Don’t expose that investment to unnecessary risk, especially when Davante Adams or Julio Jones is around. Drafting Darrell Henderson mitigates the risk of Gurley getting hurt, but it’s better to pair Darrell Henderson with Julio Jones than Todd Gurley.

McAtee: I don’t believe there are safe players in fantasy, really. Everyone carries risk. There’s a risk that Ezekiel Elliott and Gordon will miss games due to holdouts. There’s a risk that Barkley’s offense will sink him. There’s a risk that Dalvin Cook will suffer another injury. There’s a risk that Nick Chubb will lose his job to Kareem Hunt. There’s a risk that Jones will forget where the end zone is again.

Fantasy football is about figuring out when the reward is worth the risk. Gurley carries a massive amount of risk this season (and to your point, I wouldn’t draft him as high as he’s being drafted in ESPN leagues right now, either), but we’d be remiss not to discuss the massive potential reward he carries, too. Gurley has averaged 21.8 fantasy points per game over the past two seasons. That’s by far the highest in the league over that stretch—the next highest is Barkley with 18.4, and then Elliott with 17.2. If you get that version of Gurley in the second round, you should walk into the playoffs and have a great chance of winning your league.

In fact, it’s reminiscent of 2017, when Gurley had a late-second-round ADP but ended up being the top fantasy performer. He was the third-most-owned player on playoff rosters and ended up being the most owned on teams that won their league’s championship.

Think of it this way: If the Rams had lost their divisional playoff game against the Cowboys—a game in which Gurley touched the ball 18 times for 118 yards and a touchdown—we’d think less about his knee, and he’d be the no. 1 overall pick in fantasy. It wouldn’t even be close. But instead, we saw Gurley barely play against the Saints and struggle against the Pats, and now that player, who has reportedly looked good in camp, is falling to the second round in some projections.

I’ll admit I’m more comfortable than most with taking on risk in fantasy—probably to a fault. It’s why in one league I just took Gurley and Damien Williams and then drafted Kyler Murray and Lamar Jackson as my quarterbacks. I’m not playing for second or third place. I’m trying to win. My logic is that if I hit on one or two of these high-risk, high-reward type players, I have a chance to dominate my league. In the words of the immortal Ricky Bobby: If you’re not first, you’re last.

Heifetz: You’re right, nothing is safe. You can get hurt crossing the street. You can get hurt driving your car. You can get hurt walking outside during an earthquake to take videos on your phone, which, fun fact, you did in Los Angeles last month. But one of those is much riskier than the others.

Sometimes if you’re on the fence about a fantasy football decision and have exhausted all of the numbers, the best choice is the one that will make you feel less stupid if it goes wrong. Sure, Gurley could return to the last two years of fantasy glory, which was fueled by leading the league in snaps and touches, and he could do that despite aggravating a recurring knee injury that will need to be managed for the rest of his career. That is possible. It is also deeply unlikely based on the history of every great fantasy running back this side of Adrian Peterson. And if Gurley has a good season rather than a great one, you might regret drafting him. And if he misses any significant chunk of time, you might click the “draft recap” button on your league homepage, look at who you could have gotten instead, and feel mighty silly.

Final Verdict

McAtee: I’m not saying you should go into the casino and immediately put all your chips on red, but Gurley’s league-winning upside makes him worth a second-round pick.

Heifetz: Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. If you draft Gurley, be ready to take Henderson two rounds earlier than his ranking.