Should the Rams Increase Todd Gurley’s Role in the Passing Game?

Depending on whom you listen to, you should expect the Rams to either increase or lessen the extent to which they use Todd Gurley in the passing game. At Rams minicamp, NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal witnessed Gurley seeing a lot of targets and often appearing to be the primary read. While others see the addition of receiving back Lance Dunbar and new head coach Todd McVay’s heavy passing-game usage of Chris Thompson in Washington logically leading to Gurley seeing fewer passes.

Gurley’s role in the passing game this season will also be highly dependent on his ability, in addition to the Rams’ personnel and passing scheme. Gurley saw decent, but not spectacular passing usage in college, and has carried that forward to the NFL.

A look at Gurley, Dunbar and league-wide efficiency

Here’s a closer look at how Gurley compares to the rest of the league – including Dunbar – in terms of passing volume and efficiency.

Yards per target – like a lot of efficiency measures – isn’t the stickiest statistic. But it’s one of the best ways to look back at how much value has been gained by throwing to a particular receiver.

You can see that Gurley was right in the middle of NFL running backs, averaging 6.1 yards per target. Dunbar averaged more targets per game in a limited role, and he was highly efficiency over the past two years at 7.2 yards per target. Only David JohnsonCharles Sims, and a group of lower-volume, hyper-efficient receivers gained more yards per target. Like I mentioned before, receiving yards per target is a high standard deviation and volatile stats, so we should take these results with a grain of salt. But there’s also a clear, though slight, trend upwards in efficiency as target volume rises towards the top NFL receiving backs, like Johnson, Devonta FreemanDanny Woodhead and Theo Riddick.

Interestingly, Le’Veon Bell was far less efficient than other top receiving backs. One of the reasons I believe Johnson, not Bell, is the top back in the NFL.

Adjusting for awful quarterback play

One of the complaints Gurley defenders will have with this analysis is the fact that is doesn’t account for how bad the Rams passing offense has been the last two years. In 2016 and 2015, the Rams were dead last and second-to-last, respectively, in yards per pass attempt.

Gurley gets a huge bump in team-adjusted receiving efficiency. He ends up one of only four qualifying running backs who raised the efficiency of the overall passing game when targeted. Dunbar’s efficiency falls in the analysis playing with one of the league’s top passing games in 2016.

Conclusion

I was a bit surprised to see that Gurley – a back without much of a reputation as a receiver – has been decently efficient catching the ball, especially considering how the Rams have struggled throwing the ball generally. It’s likely that incorporating Gurley further into the Rams passing game, at least, shouldn’t hurt passing efficiency.

I normally advocate for splitting the rushing and receiving duties among multiple backs, who specialize in either function and bring corresponding efficiency to their respective specialties. But I’m not saying that it’s worse to have a running back who can do it all, like David Johnson or Le’Veon Bell. The main benefit of splitting the running back role is to mitigate the position’s overall cost in draft capital and salary cap expense. Using the 10th overall pick on Gurley in 2015 is now a sunk cost, and shouldn’t prevent the Rams from using him in all facets of the offense.

But the important point to remember when considering how much to use running backs in the passing game is that even the best receiving backs usually don’t exceed overall passing efficiency. A great receiving back can add incremental passing efficiency serving as an enhanced second, third or fourth option, but shouldn’t be the focal point of the passing game.

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