Countdown to camp: Todd Gurley should be an upgrade at running back

Here's a quick by the numbers look at the NFL career of former UGA running back Todd Gurley.

Editor’s note: Leading to the start of NFL training camp, we’ll take a look at the Falcons. Rookies reported July 21. QBs and injured veterans reported Thursday and the rest of the veterans Tuesday. Today: Running backs.

The Falcons upgraded their rushing attack when they released Devonta Freeman and signed former NFL offensive player of the year Todd Gurley.

The Falcons passed on Gurley in the 2015 draft and selected Vic Beasley with the eighth overall pick. The Rams snapped up Gurley two picks later.

With a second opportunity to get Gurley, the Falcons move swiftly to sign him to a modest one-year, make-good, $5.5 million contract.

Gurley, who turns 26 on Monday, was off to a great start in his NFL career before he was slowed by a left knee injury during the Rams march to the Super Bowl back in the 2018 season.

Gurley passed his physical with the Falcons and believes he can return to All-Pro form.

During an appearance on SiriusXM NFL Radio with hosts Bill Lekas and Charlie Weis, Gurley pronounced himself fit for the season.

“I’m fine,” Gurley said Monday. “Obviously, I played in 15 out of 16 games. I was able to start every one. Can’t say that a lot of guys can finish a season off being able to play 15 games, whether it’s 300 carries or a 100 carries. So, I’m just blessed to be able to play last year and be able to play this year as well.”

Gurley spent most of the offseason in the Los Angeles area working out.

“Been able to have a good offseason,” Gurley said. “Been able to train and I’m just really just going to approach of this year, just come into Atlanta ready to play. Whatever they need me to do, I’ll be there. Just bring some excitement and energy to the team.”

Weis, the former New England offensive coordinator and Notre Dame head coach, believes how the Falcons elect to use Gurley will be key to the season.

“You’ve got a lot of weapons on that offense,” Weis said. “That’s what makes it kind of exciting. Watching the Rams when they were at their best, is when they started with their offensive basically giving the ball to (Gurley) and then letting everyone else make plays. I think if Atlanta can get anything near that out of you, OK, the Falcons could be a team to sneak up on a whole bunch of people.”

Gurley concurred, but acknowledged there is work to do.

“Obviously, we look good on paper,” Gurley said. “A lot of stuff looks good on paper. We have to be able to put it together and make it work on game day.”

With Gurley on board, the Falcons have the 16th ranked backfield in the NFL entering training camp, according to analytics website Pro Football Focus.

With Gurley, the Falcons are hoping to run the ball better with their wide-zone blocking scheme. He has been one of the top zone running backs in the league over the past three seasons.

“The Falcons’ coaching staff will be looking to reclaim the old Gurley, one of the league’s best zone runners and a legitimate passing-game threat at his peak with the Rams,” according to PFF. “The former first-rounder has earned a 90.4 rushing grade on zone runs over the last three years, eighth-best among 145 qualifying running backs over that period.”

The Falcons’ issue is the offensive line and whether they open enough room for Gurley to run.

“Freeman saw his production drop off in accordance with the Falcons’ offensive line regression last season, and that’s a familiar scene for Gurley, whose rushing production was directly correlated to the quality of his run blocking during his time with the Rams,” according to PFF.

The Falcons, because of the chronic left knee, will have to use Gurley as part of a committee. He likely could handle a 15 to 20 touches a game as his work load will have to managed.

The elusive Ito Smith and the hard-charging Brian Hill are strong backups. Qadree Ollison showed promise in short-yardage situations last season.

Fullback Keith Smith, who blocked for Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott earlier in his career, is a strong lead blocker. Smith will have to hold off a challenge from undrafted rookie Mikey Daniel, who finished his career at South Dakota State with 1,728 yards rushing and 29 touchdowns on 364 carries.

Smith was placed on the NFL’s reserve/COVID-19 list on Wednesday.

“After Gurley, Hill is next in line for carries, and he does a fine job of running through contact,” according to PFF. “He’s averaged 3.0 yards after contact per rush in his three seasons in the NFL. Ito Smith is also in the mix after showing some elusiveness with 24 missed tackles forced on only 112 attempts, 17th-best in the league over the last two years.”

Gurley reported Tuesday for the coronavirus testing. Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter will get a better assessment of his health and how much of the work load he can handle once camp starts.

“He has had an unbelievable career and is a heck of a player,” Koetter said. “I think it’s also really fortunate for us that he’s coming from a really similar offensive system, terminology-wise. The run game is very similar conceptually to what they were doing in L.A.”

FALCONS RUNNING BACK DEPTH CHART

RB 21 Todd Gurley, 25 Ito Smith, 30 Qadree Ollison, 23 Brian Hill, 42 Craig Reynolds

FB 40 Keith Smith, 44 Mikey Daniel

COUNTDOWN TO TRAINING CAMP 2020

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Countdown to Camp: Special teams need major overhaul

Countdown to Camp: Terrell, Neal are major question marks in Falcons secondary

Countdown to Camp: Deion Jones needs to take leadership mantel

Countdown to Camp: Can Takk McKinley turn into a player?

Countdown to Camp: Activist Ryan ready to lead change on and off the field

Countdown to Camp: Falcons looking for depth at wide receiver

Countdown to Camp: Can Hayden Hurst replace Austin Hooper at tight end?

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