It didn’t take long for the Todd Gurley contract to look like a disaster. That happened less than six months into the deal, when the Rams had to pump the brakes on Gurley’s usage down the stretch of the 2018 season as the running back dealt with a chronic knee issue and the team’s cap outlook slowly grew more and more bleak. On Thursday, it went from a disaster to a catastrophe:
We have released Todd Gurley.— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) March 19, 2020
The Rams released Gurley, eating more than $20 million in dead cap just to be rid of the former All-Pro running back. They reportedly tried to seek a trade for the back, but Bill O’Brien already dealt for a washed running back and no one else came calling. By cutting Gurley, the Rams avoided paying him more than $10 million in roster bonuses that would have become guaranteed had they kept him on the roster past 1 p.m. PT. The team opened up $5.5 million in cap space with the move, and will be able to spread the dead cap across the next two seasons.
The Rams must have also known this would be an unpopular move with the team. Here’s Aaron Donald’s reaction:
— AD_99 (@AaronDonald97) March 19, 2020
Yet they flipped the switch and cut one of the team’s most recognizable stars. That’s just how bad this deal had soured. Gurley had arguably his worst year as a pro last season, with a career low in rushing yards (857) and total yards (1,064). 2019 was just his fifth pro season, but the knee issue made him look years older, as he moved with less burst and agility than he’d had when he won Offensive Player of the Year in 2017. Running backs have short careers, but Gurley is only 25 and the Rams—and the rest of the NFL, based on his lack of trade market—are treating him like he’s 35.
No one needs much more proof that big-money contracts for running backs are mistakes at this point, but Gurley’s disastrous deal with the Rams will likely have a ripple effect around the league, at least for the few teams that are considering handing star running backs a big deal. Gurley’s knee issue made this a DEFCON-1 type of scenario for the Rams, but the other big contracts signed recently—Devonta Freeman and David Johnson come to mind—don’t look great in hindsight. Right now, any team would rather be the Chargers or the Steelers, who refused to give big-money deals to their backs, than the Rams. When Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, and Alvin Kamara come up for new deals soon, their respective teams may think twice before handing over a contract with a bunch of zeros on the end.
This week, the Titans hit Derrick Henry with a franchise tag instead of signing him to a long-term deal even after Henry posted one of the greatest postseason performances ever. Tennessee will probably have to rip the Band-Aid off next season and figure out whether they let a star player walk or hand Henry a deal they’re likely to regret. And can you imagine being Jonathan Taylor, J.K. Dobbins, or another top running back draft prospect right now? They might get picked in the first round, but their chances of getting a second contract could be more difficult. The position no longer has much value, and the limited shelf life of running backs makes a big-market deal reckless.
Gurley will likely find a home somewhere, but it won’t be as the centerpiece of an offense. If his knee can hold up, he still has the talent to make a difference. Someone will want to kick the tires on him—just don’t kick too hard or what cartilage he has left may disintegrate.
The Rams, meanwhile, are in a complete free fall. They’ve lost a number of key contributors this season. Before Gurley was cut, the team let pass-rusher Dante Fowler sign a three-year deal with the Falcons, corner Nickell Robey-Coleman become a free agent, defensive end Michael Brockers sign a three-year deal with the Ravens, and linebacker Cory Littleton sign a three-year deal with the Raiders. The team also released outside linebacker Clay Matthews on Thursday, and is reportedly considering moving on from wide receiver Brandin Cooks, whom they traded a first-round pick for in April 2018. He’ll be tough to deal though, as he carries cap hits north of $16 million for the next four seasons, putting him in the top 10 of the highest-paid wideouts in the league. Oh, and Cooper Kupp is set to be paid less than $1 million in 2020 before hitting free agency next offseason. The team’s leading receiver surely isn’t too pleased with his current deal, and will need a pay bump soon.
This is what happens when a team puts a combined $155 million in guaranteed money on quarterback Jared Goff and Gurley. Those big contracts also don’t include Jalen Ramsey, whom the Rams traded back-to-back first-rounders for during the 2019 season. Ramsey is a free agent after this year and will likely command a record-breaking extension before the season begins. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald also has a megadeal, and while that contract is easy to defend, there just isn’t enough money to go around.
There’s no new infusion of talent coming, either. The Rams haven’t had a first-round pick since they took Jared Goff no. 1 overall in 2016. They gave up their 2020 and 2021 first-rounders for Ramsey, so that’ll be six straight years without a first-rounder. Meanwhile the Rams netted only a fifth-rounder for corner Marcus Peters, who proceeded to make the All-Pro team after being dealt to the Ravens. The roster is riding on empty; it’s bleak.
This isn’t NFL Blitz—you can’t just pay a handful of stars and expect the rest of the roster to figure itself out. The Rams have lacked depth for a couple seasons now, and they’ll enter 2020 as a husk of the team that went to the Super Bowl following the 2018 season.
Apropos of nothing: The Rams’ new stadium opens this season.