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Can Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, and David Johnson Rejoin the NFL’s Elite?

All three players switched teams this offseason. Whether each can bounce back in 2020 will show how premiere backs can breathe new life into their careers.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Remember when we all thought the Browns were the NFL’s next dominant team? Or that Carson Wentz was a no-brainer future MVP? Or that Sean McVay was the league’s next great mastermind? Some of the NFL’s teams, players, and coaches who were in the spotlight the past few seasons enter 2020 with tempered expectations—but that doesn’t mean we should count them out. Welcome to The Ringer’s Post-Hype Week, when we revisit some of the league’s biggest story lines from seasons past that aren’t getting as much love ahead of this campaign.

The career of a typical NFL running back isn’t very long, so once a player starts going downhill, the chances of him resuscitating his career are slim. According to a 2018 Statista study, the average NFL career lasts 3.3 years. Running backs average just 2.57 years. A 2011 Brown University study found that running backs take the hardest hits of any position. So, while running back is a high-volume position with plenty of opportunities to touch the football, score, and become a star, it comes with the price of a limited time in the spotlight.

Teams know to weigh these factors too, and for the past few seasons, many have invested fewer and fewer resources into the position. But in July 2018, hope for the running back market boomed. The Rams signed Todd Gurley to a four-year, $57.5 million contract extension that included $45 million in guarantees. Gurley’s deal changed the market and set the table for All-Pro tailback David Johnson, whom the Cardinals signed to a three-year, $39 million extension (including $24.7 million guaranteed at signing) a few months later. Two years later, those backs find themselves on different rosters entirely. The Rams, two years into the Gurley extension, released the back, who signed with the Falcons. The Cardinals, also two years into Johnson’s extension, traded Johnson to the Texans.

Another premiere back who finds himself in a similar boat is Melvin Gordon, the other first-round tailback drafted alongside Gurley in 2015. The Charger had just rushed for a career-high 1,105 yards in 2017, but he didn’t get to cash a big extension while with Los Angeles. He tried to get a new deal in 2019, but couldn’t reach an agreement. The Chargers didn’t re-sign Gordon this offseason, either, and he joined the Broncos.

All three backs will now open the year on new teams, not entirely by their own choices. That’s created a rare opportunity for the running backs to revive their careers after they supposedly peaked. The question facing each: How? Below, we take a look at how each player arrived at their current teams and what needs to happen in order for them to rejoin the league’s elite running backs.

Todd Gurley, Atlanta Falcons

Age: 26
Last season: 857 yards (rushing), 12 touchdowns (rushing), 31 receptions, 207 yards (receiving), two touchdowns (receiving)

Gurley earned All-Pro honors in 2017 and 2018, leading the league in total touchdowns during each campaign. In 2017, he became the third player in NFL history to record 2,000 scrimmage yards, 10 rushing touchdowns, and six receiving touchdowns. As Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has said, “When healthy, you can argue Todd Gurley is the best back in the game.”

The problem throughout the past few years is that Gurley hasn’t been healthy. Late in the 2018 season, Gurley suffered a knee injury that forced him to miss Los Angeles’s final two regular-season games and limited him to just 30 total carries during the Rams’ run to the Super Bowl. The nature of Gurley’s knee condition was never clear, but it was reported during the 2019 offseason that Gurley’s limited playoff usage was a result of arthritis, a common symptom for those who undergo surgery for a torn ACL—the surgery Gurley underwent in 2014 for his left knee while at Georgia. An NFL source told The Athletic’s Jeff Schultz in March that Gurley’s knee is “very bad.”

The Rams came to terms with this reality this offseason, releasing Gurley and rolling with a backfield headed by second-round rookie Cam Akers, veteran Malcolm Brown, and second-year pro Darrell Henderson. But the Falcons—who discarded star veteran tailback Devonta Freeman earlier this year—snatched Gurley just one day after Los Angeles cut ties. Atlanta and Gurley reached a low-risk, one-year pact worth $5.5 million in guarantees. The next step for both sides is maximizing the deal.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn has considered limiting Gurley’s workload during training camp. Giving Gurley a restricted rep count throughout the year could possibly keep him fresh once the season gets going. Gurley averaged a career-low 17 total touches per game (14.9 rush attempts, 2.1 receptions) last year. Speaking with William McFadden of the Falcons’ team site, Koetter suggested that he’s not inclined to give one ball carrier a heavy amount of touches. “I just think the days of a running back carrying it 30 times in a game, I just don’t see it happening much anymore,” Koetter said. So Gurley could see a timeshare in the backfield with fourth-year pro Brian Hill and veteran backup Ito Smith. What’s also key to Gurley potentially recapturing form is the play of the Falcons’ offensive line, which ranked 24th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards and 27th in Stuff Rate last year; Atlanta ranked 24th in ALY and 31st in Stuff Rate in 2018. With right guard Chris Lindstrom and right tackle Kaleb McGary entering their second NFL seasons, perhaps there could be greater improvement in both categories this season.

The Rams dropped from no. 1 in ALY and no. 2 in Stuff Rate in 2018 to 19th and 26th in those categories, respectively, suggesting Gurley didn’t get much help last season. Regardless, Koetter suggested that there were flickers of the old Gurley that he noticed in 2019. “If you watch his tape last year, he has times where he looks as good as ever,” Koetter said. “The question will just be how often can he do it? How consistently can he do it?”

Melvin Gordon, Denver Broncos

Age: 27
Last season: 612 yards (rushing), eight touchdowns (rushing), 42 receptions, 296 yards (receiving), one touchdown (receiving)

Last offseason, coming off a year in which he averaged a career-high 5.1 yards per carry, Gordon waged a holdout that lasted four games into the regular season. Gordon reportedly wanted a contract worth $13 million annually, but Los Angeles sought to pay him a deal worth $10 million annually. “I want to end up with the Chargers,” Gordon said during a sports convention that summer. “... But like I said, it’s an opportunity right now where I know I need to take advantage of it. I want to get paid. And that’s just kind of what it is. Hopefully I end up a Charger, that’s the goal. I want to end as a Charger.”

So Gordon held out, and it played right into the Chargers’ hands. Austin Ekeler, a former undrafted free agent entering his contract season, opened the year as Los Angeles’s starter and registered 220 rushing yards, 270 receiving yards, and six total touchdowns (three rushing, three receiving) in the four games that Gordon missed. Gordon returned, but Ekeler remained a key playmaker within the Chargers offense, finishing the year with 557 rushing yards, 993 receiving yards, and 11 total touchdowns.

This offseason, Gordon didn’t budge at the negotiating table, so Los Angeles signed Ekeler to a four-year, $24.5 million deal, including $15 million guaranteed. Gordon hit the market and signed with the Broncos, netting a two-year, $16 million with $13.5 million guaranteed—the average annual salary of $8 million fell short of even the $10 million L.A. reportedly offered before the holdout.

Now, Gordon enters a situation where he’s competing against both a new environment and a crowded backfield. In addition to altitude, Gordon is battling Phillip Lindsay for lead back duties. So far, the two have virtually split first-team reps at training camp. They boast similar skill sets, as each are good pass catchers out of the backfield; Gordon has caught 224 receptions through his first five seasons and Lindsay has recorded 70 catches in two. Lindsay, an undrafted free agent, is coming off his second consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season, too.

Denver hired former Giants head coach Pat Shurmur as its offensive coordinator earlier this offseason. He called the notion that he “pounded the table” to sign Gordon “a false narrative” in June. “The fact that we have two running backs now that can be very explosive with the ball in their hands, whether you throw or run it, is a good thing,” Shurmur said. “I really do think you need more than one running back. … We’re gonna try to utilize both.”

David Johnson, Houston Texans

Age: 28
Last season: 345 yards (rushing), two touchdowns (rushing), 36 receptions, 370 yards (receiving), four touchdowns (receiving)

Unlike Gordon, Johnson directly benefited from Gurley’s 2018 extension. The 2015 third-round pick entered the league at 24 years old and broke through in 2016, when he earned All-Pro honors after recording 1,239 rushing yards, 879 receiving yards, and 20 total touchdowns. He became one of 10 players in league history to amass 2,000 scrimmage yards and 20 touchdowns in a single season. But Johnson’s encore season ended abruptly when he suffered a dislocated wrist in the season opener that forced him out for the rest of the season. Just ahead of the 2018 season, Johnson signed his three-year extension. He tallied 940 yards and seven rushing scores, plus 446 receiving yards and three touchdowns that season, but didn’t have near that success in 2019.

When the Cardinals hired coach Kliff Kingsbury, Johnson initially saw it as a prime opportunity to recapture his 2016 form. “I’ve heard that Kliff is really good at putting his guys in open space,” Johnson said. “Especially as running backs, and giving them open space to try to get the yards catching the ball.” Initially, that was the case, with Johnson ranking 11th in the league in scrimmage yards through Arizona’s first six games. But midway through the season, the Cardinals traded for Dolphins tailback Kenyan Drake. In eight games, Drake rushed for 643 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging 5.2 yards per attempt, and Johnson was relegated to backup duties.

With Drake having emerged as a playmaker within Arizona’s offense, Johnson became expendable—especially considering the cost of his contract. So, in the heist of the offseason, the Cardinals jettisoned Johnson to the Texans in exchange for All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins. It could be a nice change of scenery for Johnson as he joins forces with coach Bill O’Brien and quarterback Deshaun Watson. Johnson is versatile enough to still split out wide as a receiver, and O’Brien has said that he already envisions using Johnson on the field with fellow running back Duke Johnson at the same time. O’Brien even compared Johnson to former Texans great Arian Foster.

“Arian Foster was a great three-down back. He was an excellent receiver out of the backfield. He had good size, great vision in the running game,” O’Brien told Texans All Access. “Not trying to get into comparisons or anything like that, but since then, we really haven’t had that guy until now with David Johnson. We’ve got a three-down back that can run the football. He’s a really good receiver out of the backfield. Very smart, very professional. We think he’s gotten off to a great start.”

An earlier version of this piece misidentified Johnson’s current team.