Los Angeles cut Todd Gurley on Thursday, bringing a stunning end to the Rams career of a player who was considered a viable MVP candidate as recently as December 2017. His story is a cautionary tale for teams that want to believe their stars are exceptions to what we know about player value and a reminder of how teams that ignore the economics of the NFL often end up paying for their mistakes down the line. It's also a reminder of just how hard it is to be a running back in the NFL in 2020. (Update: Gurley signed a one-year deal with the Falcons on Friday morning.)
To understand why the Rams cut Gurley, you have to start with the terms of the four-year, $57.5 million extension he signed in July 2018. The deal paid him a $21 million signing bonus, but to keep his 2018 and 2019 cap numbers low, the team inserted a series of player-friendly guarantees for both base salaries and roster bonuses in Year 3 of the contract. Gurley's cap hit was $7.2 million in 2018 and $9.2 million in 2019, but it was set to nearly double and spike to $17.3 million this offseason.
By keeping him on the roster in 2019, the Rams triggered his $7.55 million roster bonus in the 2020 season. They've already paid that bonus. This sort of bonus structure makes it more likely that a team will keep a player around; if you're guaranteeing next year's money a year in advance, chances are that a team is going to keep that player around to actually play out that year.
Why Thursday was critical for a decision on Gurley
If the Rams didn't cut or trade him by 4 p.m. ET, his $5.5 million base salary for 2020 and his $5 million roster bonus for 2021 were both going to fully guarantee. The Rams would have been on the hook for that $17.2 million cap hit in 2020 and would have owed him at least that $5 million in 2021. Instead, the Rams will owe $20.2 million in dead money on their cap for 2015 first-round pick. They will designate the 25-year-old as a post-June 1 release and spread that over two years, with $11.8 million in 2020 and $8.4 million next year, but this is a colossal amount of dead money for a team up against the cap.
If you want to understand why no team wanted to trade for Gurley, well, look at those guarantees. That team would have been on the hook for either a one-year, $10.5 million deal or a two-year, $14.5 million pact. Gurley averaged 3.8 yards per carry last season, didn't produce a single play longer than 25 yards and was the subject of bizarre weekly quotes from Sean McVay in which the Rams would insist Gurley was totally healthy and then use him on a part-time basis. It's clear that something is not right with Gurley's knee, and without the ability to give him a full medical on short notice in light of the coronavirus outbreak, teams weren't going to run the risk of assuming significant guarantees.
What has to be frustrating from the perspective of Rams fans is that this team didn't need to hand out this extension at all. Since the league went to its current draft structure in the 2011 CBA, the Rams have been extremely aggressive in giving out extensions to their first-round picks after three seasons. Most teams wait to give out extensions to first-round picks until their young players have finished their fourth season in the pros. The Rams have now given five of their first-rounders extensions after Year 3: pass-rusher Robert Quinn, wide receiver Tavon Austin, linebacker Alec Ogletree, Gurley and, most recently, quarterback Jared Goff. The first four moves turned out to be disappointments, and Goff isn't off to a hot start.
As I wrote about in July 2018, the Rams had Gurley under contract for one more year with a base salary of $2.3 million. They also had a fifth-year option available at $9.6 million, which was guaranteed for injury that summer and would have been guaranteed for skill the following year. They would have owed just under $12 million for two years of Gurley without having to make any longer-term commitment after that time. If the Rams had gone year-to-year and decided he wasn't worth a longer-term investment, they could have moved on from him this offseason with zero dead money.
Instead, the Rams gave him an extension that paid him $26.95 million over those first two seasons. When you include the $7.5 million roster bonus that guaranteed last year, they paid Gurley $34.5 million for two seasons, nearly triple what they could have paid going year to year. They'll also incur all of that dead money, which will hurt their chances of adding valuable players to a top-heavy roster over the next two seasons.
When teams typically hand out extensions to first-round picks after three years, the goal is to try to spread the value of the new deal over the two remaining seasons on their current deal and the four new seasons to keep the cap hits low. In the process, their contracts are cheaper than the new money might seem. Take Carson Wentz's four-year, $128 million extension; while it looks like $32 million per season, when you factor in the two existing seasons on his rookie deal, Wentz is actually on a six-year, $154.8 million contract. That's $25.8 million per season, which is well below Russell Wilson's total average of $31.4 million per season at the top of the market.
The problem with the Gurley deal is that the Rams didn't extract any discount. They gave him a raise well before they needed to do so and they paid him a top-of-the-market deal. His extension left him with six years and $71.5 million to go on his contract, an average of just under $12 million per season. No other active deal when he signed that contract was in the same stratosphere; the closest contract was LeSean McCoy's five-year, $40 million pact with the Bills from 2015, which averaged $8 million.
Calculated another way, NFL teams use a player's compensation over the first three years to value contracts, since players don't often have guarantees after that third season and will often either be cut or sign a new deal. With a franchise tag, the Rams could have paid Gurley around $23 million for three seasons. The top of the market at that time was McCoy at $27.3 million over three years. The Gurley extension paid him $40 million over three years and triggered an additional guarantee in Year 4 to make it $45 million. This was an enormous bet by the Rams.
The arguments for and against paying Gurley in 2018
I've read two arguments for why the Rams needed to pay him in 2018, and neither works. One was that he would have held out, which isn't the case. He said in April 2018 that he had no intention of holding out. He might have tried to hold out in 2019, but with his knee clearly becoming a problem by the end of the 2018 season, he wouldn't have had much leverage. The Rams only used Gurley in a part-time role for most of 2019, so a big extension wouldn't have been likely.
Others have suggested the Rams wouldn't have made it to the Super Bowl in 2018 if it weren't for a healthy Gurley. Again, this seems unlikely given that we saw the Rams move the ball just as effectively that year with street free agent C.J. Anderson while Gurley sat out injured in December. When Gurley returned, the Rams continued to give Anderson the majority of their carries throughout the NFC playoffs until the Super Bowl, when Gurley took over as the primary back and the Rams scored three points.
L.A. had a couple of arguments for paying Gurley like it did. One was the idea that he was a transcendent back whose ability to absorb an every-down workload and serve as a significant receiving threat made him the exception to the rules that running backs were fungible and replaceable. Anderson's success and Gurley's struggles over the past year (alongside those of backs like David Johnson, Devonta Freeman and Le'Veon Bell, each of whom signed significant extensions) seem to put that idea to rest.
The other was that general manager Les Snead's argument that Gurley was a human being who deserved to be compensated, which is true but also doesn't reflect the reality of how the NFL works. The Rams, as an example, didn't give star defensive tackle Aaron Donald an extension until after the fourth year of his rookie deal, even though Donald outproduced the likes of Austin, Goff and even Gurley before getting paid. The Rams are now cutting Gurley even though I'm sure he's just as nice and worthy of a human being as he was yesterday or two years ago.
Where could Gurley land now, and what's next for RBs?
Gurley is going to sign a new deal elsewhere, but there aren't a lot of teams that need help at running back, and it's telling that some of the teams that did have holes at that position chose to make another move as opposed to waiting out the Rams. The Texans traded for Johnson in the DeAndre Hopkins fiasco. The Dolphins signed Jordan Howard to a two-year deal. I'd argue that even a compromised Gurley is a better player and will be on a better contract than either of those two, and both teams should have known Gurley was going to come available one way or another by Thursday afternoon.
The two most obvious landing points for Gurley now loom in the NFC South. The Falcons cut Freeman after signing him to an ill-advised extension in the afterglow of two years spent with Kyle Shanahan. Gurley, of course, starred in college at Georgia. The Buccaneers have also struggled to get their running game going with Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones over the past two seasons; with Tom Brady now in the fold, Tampa Bay is an extremely interesting opportunity and a great fit for Gurley's skill set. Even if the Bucs wouldn't use Gurley as a bell-cow runner, he could be valuable as a pass-catcher in Bruce Arians' offense and as a pass-protecting back for Brady. (Update: Gurley signed a one-year deal with the Falcons on Friday morning.)
And naturally, with so many running back extensions going catastrophically wrong, every team that has a back coming due for a deal is going to look at what happened with Gurley and wonder. The Steelers got lucky when Bell turned down their offers, and the Chargers have to feel the same way about Melvin Gordon, but there are plenty of backs to come. The Titans are weighing the same arguments right now about Derrick Henry, who is supposed to transcend the typical running back conundrum by virtue of his size and speed. Maybe he will, but is it worth writing an enormous check to find out?
The 2017 draft class also delivered one of the most impressive collections of backs we've ever seen, and they're all now eligible for extensions. My colleagues recently weighed in on whether the Panthers should trade Christian McCaffrey, but he's not the only difficult decision to make. The shortlist of guys who have earned extensions with their play from that class includes McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, Alvin Kamara, James Conner, Marlon Mack, Aaron Jones and Chris Carson. Every one of those backs can rightfully say that they've earned a new deal, and at the same time, history tells us it would probably be foolish to pay most of them anything north of $8 million per season.
I don't envy those backs or the teams who have to make tough decisions about paying them or letting them leave. While my thoughts on the Rams' decision at the time were clear in what I wrote in 2018 -- and you can take issue with the specifics of the deal the Rams handed out -- not many people were critical of the decision to extend Gurley at the time. I can't fault the Rams for wanting to keep Gurley around for as long as possible. Unfortunately for all parties involved, though, two years is a long time in the life of an NFL running back.