ATLANTA - Running back Todd Gurley was among the top prospects in the 2015 NFL draft after starring for Georgia.
That means he waited in the green room for his name to be called on the big day. The Falcons had the No. 8 pick, and moments before they were on the clock a “404” area code flashed on a call to Gurley’s mobile phone.
He was thinking what anyone would think.
“I’m like, ‘OK, OK,’” Gurley recalled Wednesday during Super Bowl interviews. “I pick it up. ... It’s one of my homeboys from back home! I’m like, ‘Don’t ever call my phone!’”
Clearly, Gurley’s friend made a mistake by calling him at the worst possible moment.
Did the Falcons err in not making that call to Gurley and instead drafting Clemson pass rusher Vic Beasley?
The answer seems obvious on its face. Of course the Falcons blundered.
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The Rams selected Gurley No. 10 overall and he’s become the best running back in football.
Beasley led the league in sacks in 2016 but he’s been so inconsistent that the Falcons likely will decline to pay his $12.8 million option for 2019 and try to bring him back on the cheap.
The Falcons needed a pass rusher in 2015. It seemed they also needed a running back because Steven Jackson was washed up. Besides, general manager Thomas Dimitroff’s stated goal was to draft the best player available. It turns out that was Gurley.
But, in the big picture, I don’t think the Falcons taking Beasley over Gurley has turned out to be as much of a misstep as it seems on the surface.
The Falcons deserve credit for recognizing what they already had in Devonta Freeman, one of their fourth-round picks in the 2014 draft. He’s been selected for two Pro Bowls, including a nod over Gurley in 2016. Gurley is the better running back, but it’s not by a landslide.
Gurley has accumulated 6,430 total yards (5.2 yards per touch) and 56 touchdowns in 58 games over four seasons. In four years as a starter Freeman has 4,921 yards (5.1 per touch) and 35 touchdowns in 47 games.
The total production might be closer if Freeman hadn’t missed 12 games because of injuries in 2018. You can’t fault the Falcons (or Freeman) for bad injury luck, but Gurley has about 20 pounds on Freeman. Bigger backs tend to be more durable backs, and Gurley had been that up until this season.
The money is where the Gurley vs. Beasley comparison starts evening our for the Falcons.
The Falcons have gotten great value out of Freeman while the Rams sacrificed a lot of their cap space for Gurley.
It’s an important consideration because the salary cap dictates so much with NFL roster building.
The Rams signed Gurley to a record extension last summer that will pay him $45 million guaranteed.
He’s set to make $49 million through the 2021 season, after which the Rams could cut him and take a cap hit of about $4 million.
A year before Gurley’s deal, the Falcons signed Freeman to an extension with $22 million guaranteed. He’ll make $28.5 million through the 2020 season, after which the Falcons could cut him and take a $3 million hit.
The comparison isn’t simply Gurley vs. Beasley. It’s Gurley vs. Beasley, Freeman, and the players the Falcons could sign because Freeman’s deal takes up about 45 percent less cap space than Gurley’s contract over four seasons.
Perhaps the Rams over-paid for Gurley, but he might have gotten a similar deal if he ever hit the free-agent market. Running back isn’t a marquee position but Gurley is considered a tier above the others.
The money is a big reason why, even in hindsight, I’d say the Falcons didn’t make a mistake by taking Beasley instead of Gurley.
Freeman has been good enough to help the Falcons reach the Super Bowl and earn a rich deal.
He wasn’t so good that the Falcons were boxed in to giving him a mega deal that would strain their cap with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones also on the roster.
No doubt, Gurley is a special player. He was the league’s offensive player of the year in 2017, his first with Sean McVay as Rams head coach. Gurley missed two games in 2018 but still had 1,831 total yards and 21 TDs.
Still, it’s risky to pay even a special running back big money because the positional value isn’t high and injuries always loom. We see that playing out now with the Rams.
Gurley missed the final two games of the regular season with a bum knee that had bothered him all season.
He played sparingly in the NFC championship game against the Saints and didn’t look himself when he got his chances.
With their superstar, workhorse running back looking ordinary and worn down, the Rams turned to C.J. Anderson, who had 16 carries for 44 yards against the Saints. In the divisional round against Dallas, Anderson had 23 carries for 123 yards and two touchdowns while Gurley had 16 carries for 115 yards and a touchdown.
That the Rams got that kind of production out of a journeyman running back in the playoffs is a point in favor of the interchangeable nature of the position.
That’s especially true for teams like the Rams who use a lot of outside-zone running plays to set up play-action.
That’s the same formula coordinator Kyle Shanahan brought to the the Falcons in 2015, when Freeman emerged as a star.
It’s a credit to Gurley’s toughness that he had a strong season playing on a bad knee. He insists the knee is fine now and that he’s not worried about his role in Sunday’s Super Bowl against the Patriots.
“Everything is about the team,” he said. “It’s all about winning in the playoffs.”
Chances are Gurley will be an MVP candidate again when he’s healthy. You wonder what Gurley would have done for the Falcons if they’d really made the call that Gurley thought they had for a brief moment.
You’d wonder even more if Freeman can’t regain his Pro Bowl form.
I still think the total picture so far shows the Falcons didn’t make a mistake passing on Gurley for Beasley.
This article was written by Michael Cunningham, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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