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Signs point to fewer catches, better season for Rams' Todd Gurley

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THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Todd Gurley was one of the most disappointing fantasy running backs -- not to mention actual running backs -- amid the Los Angeles Rams' 4-12 season in 2016. ESPN ranked Gurley fifth in its preseason rankings last September, behind only Adrian Peterson and three premier receivers -- Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr. and Julio Jones. But by the end of the season, Gurley didn't even finish within the top 65 in standard scoring leagues.

Gurley did, at least, recoup some value in points-per-reception leagues by more than doubling his catch total from his rookie season.

Fantasy players might not be able to count on that in 2017.

The Rams, under a new offensive-minded head coach in Sean McVay, are determined to help Gurley recapture his big-play ability. But they might not count on him to be as much of a factor in the passing game. They have replaced Benny Cunningham, a more traditional backup running back who saw a lot of third-down snaps, with Lance Dunbar, who, when healthy, can be a major pass-catching threat out of the backfield.

The Rams want Dunbar to establish himself in a role similar to that of Chris Thompson, who totaled 84 receptions for McVay's offenses in Washington the past two seasons.

That should mean less catches for Gurley, who saw his targets rise from 26 in 2015 to 58 in 2016.

Last week, Gurley was asked if he expects to catch more passes in 2017.

"We'll see," he said.

Would he like to?

"Yeah, I would. But we’ll see what happens."

The Rams just want Gurley to be a force on the ground again. Because he was recovering from a torn ACL, Gurley waited until the Rams' fourth game to make his first start in 2015. But he still finished with 1,106 rushing yards, third-most in the NFL. He was named Offensive Rookie of the Year, and conventional wisdom presumed that he would get even better if given an additional year of learning the league and recovering from a major injury.

But the Rams' offensive line was a disaster, their passing game was ineffective and Gurley didn't do a good enough job hitting what few holes presented themselves. He started all 16 games in 2016, but he gained only 885 yards on the ground, the fewest in history for a running back with at least 275 carries. Gurley compensated somewhat with 43 catches for 327 yards through the air. But he totaled only six touchdowns, four fewer than what he amassed in 12 starts the prior season.

With Andrew Whitworth now at left tackle and quarterback Jared Goff taking the proverbial step forward in his second season, the Rams expect Gurley to have more room to run in 2017.

Last season, with defenses stacking the box on nearly every play, Gurley averaged only 1.59 yards before first contact, ranking 41st among 42 qualified running backs. He was on the field for 90 third-down snaps, 12 fewer than Cunningham and ranked 26th at his position. And he received 10 carries within five yards of the end zone, a workload topped by 15 players.

All of those numbers should improve, even if the receiving numbers decline.

"I like it," Gurley said when asked for his sense of how he fits into the new offense. "It’s not the same. But mostly every offense is the same, [just] kind of different schemes. The coaches have just been doing a great job of coaching us up and making sure we’re focused [on] the details and the little things."