The Atlanta Falcons released veteran running back Devonta Freeman this offseason, three years after he signed a five-year contract extension that made him the highest-paid running back in the NFL at the time. In an interesting twist, they opted to sign Todd Gurley, another player released early from a massive contract, to a one-year, six-million-dollar contract as Freeman’s replacement. On the surface, this move might seem like an upgrade, but with Gurley’s injury history lingering over him, you have to wonder if there weren’t better options.
Gurley does not make the Falcons better at running back than last season
Cutting Freeman makes sense from the Falcons’ perspective. He’s 28, missed almost the entire 2018 season with a sports hernia, and more importantly, his release gave Atlanta an additional $3.5 million in cap space going into free agency. However, their replacement of choice seems less logical. It’s true that, just a few short years ago, Gurley was the best running back in the NFL and the fulcrum of the league’s best offense. But arthritis in his left knee derailed the LA Rams 2018 Super Bowl run and saw a dramatic decrease in his production the following year.
The statistical difference from 2018 to 2019 was so stark that it isn’t too unreasonable to argue that Freeman was the better player last season. He only managed six total touchdowns in comparison to Gurley’s 14, but both players totaled more than 1,000 all-purpose yards even though Gurley had more than 100 additional combined carries and targets. If Gurley’s signing does upgrade the Falcons running back situation, the difference is relatively minor.
Freeman and Gurley both had subpar OSM grades
The two running backs also had very similar PFN Offensive Share Metric (OSM) grades. The metric measures how responsible a player was for the statistics they produced by taking into account how they played and the situations they faced. As such, the fact that Freeman and Gurley had similar statistics does not necessarily imply that their OSM grades were the same as well. In this particular case, however, the pattern held true.
Both players received low grades, with Gurley receiving a grade of 13.16, and Freeman a grade of 12.5. Among qualifying running backs, those grades ranked 28th and 30th in the NFL. The upshot here is that the two players had an almost identical level of impact on their own rushing production, and that impact was relatively low when compared to the rest of the NFL. Their statistics were more influenced by the situations they were in than by their own skill. Once again, the evidence seems to show that the Falcons failed to improve at running back by signing Gurley.
As a caveat, the OSM only measures how a running back performed while running the ball; their receiving statistics aren’t taken into account. Since a higher percentage of Freeman’s statistics came in the passing game than Gurley’s did, using the OSM as the sole metric of comparison to the two players might be doing him a disservice.
Why Freeman and Gurley’s grades were so low
The most notable feature dragging Freeman and Gurley’s grades down was the fact that they were two of the least efficient running backs in the NFL last season. In this case, “efficiency” refers to a specific metric, which measures the number of yards a running back ran for each statistical yard they gained. A higher rating indicates that the player was less efficient because they needed to run further to gain each yard. Of the two running backs, Freeman fared the worst on this metric; his efficiency rating of 4.59 was the highest in the NFL last season. However, Gurley was only slightly better; his rating of 4.43 was third-worst. In both cases, it took them more than four yards of running to gain a single yard on the field, a remarkably inefficient average to have maintained over the course of an entire season.
The only reason their grades aren’t even worse than they already are is that both players were in relatively unfavorable situations a high percentage of the time. Both Gurley and Freeman faced eight or more defenders in the box more than 20% of their snaps. Those are far from the highest percentages in the NFL, but they are still above the average. Being constantly under pressure from the defense helps to explain why they were so inefficient, although it doesn’t excuse it.
Examining other options for the Falcons at running back
All those statistics tell a similar story: that Freeman and Gurley were on roughly even footing statistically. Since Gurley is cheaper and has performed at a higher level in the past, it might seem like this was a great signing by Atlanta. However, the elephant in the room is Gurley’s arthritic knee. Although, in truth, “elephant” might be underselling the situation.
By all accounts, his injury is severe, putting his long-term NFL prospects in serious jeopardy. Atlanta is undoubtedly taking a risk by signing him. Maybe you think the risk is worth the potential reward, but it’s important to remember that the Falcons had other options. After all, Gurley wasn’t the only free agent available. Melvin Gordon was the highest-profile alternative, although he would have been more expensive (he’s making $16 million over two years in Denver). It’s possible that Atlanta didn’t feel he was worth the money.
Then again, if they were looking for a cheaper option, Jordan Howard was available. He had a solid first half of the season in Philadelphia and signed a two-year deal worth under $7 million with the Miami Dolphins. Again, there are caveats here; both Gordon and Howard have their own injury concerns. However, that is often unavoidable when discussing free agent running backs. Besides, neither of their prognoses are as serious as Gurley’s. There was also a myriad of veteran running backs on the market, such as Carlos Hyde. Hyde is almost 30, but he outgained Gurley on the ground by more than 200 yards, mostly because he was able to play in all 16 games. He doesn’t have the same potential that Gurley does, but he’s also less risky.
If none of those options appeal to them, the upcoming draft also happens to be full of talented running backs. Between D’Andre Swift, Johnathan Taylor, Cam Akers, and many others, surely Atlanta could have found a player they liked. The Falcons do have other needs in the draft, and since they don’t have that many picks overall, they might feel that they can’t afford to spend one of them on a running back. To be fair, they could always draft a running back anyway, in order to mitigate the risks of signing Gurley. But if that’s their plan, I don’t know why they spent money on him at all.
The Falcons might need Gurley to be successful
There probably isn’t a perfect solution for the Falcons at running back. You could make solid arguments against any of the alternatives I suggested above. However, that doesn’t mean signing Gurley was the right choice. Based on his production last season, he won’t be a significant upgrade over Freeman, and his knee could throw a serious wrench in the Falcons’ plans. Of course, it’s always possible that Gurley returns to form, at least for long enough for Atlanta to squeeze all the value they can out of him before inevitably moving on at the end of next season. The Falcons presumably did their research, so maybe they think this is actually the most likely outcome.
But a worst-case scenario is also possible, one in which Gurley barely plays at all, and the Falcons wasted six million dollars (admittedly a small amount by NFL standards). More importantly, they will be without a starting running back in a season that needs to be successful. Remember, this is a team that, on many levels, is running out of time. Matt Ryan will turn 35 in about a month, and Julio Jones is 31.
If their best years aren’t already behind them, then they are rapidly coming to an end. Head coach Dan Quinn might be on his last legs as well. After a 1-7 start in 2019, rumors abounded that he would be let go. A third consecutive losing season might push ownership to pull the trigger. If Gurley goes down, and Atlanta hasn’t drafted a backup, they will be left with a motley crew of no-name replacements. That’s not an ideal situation for a team that needs to start winning now.