Sullivan has the utmost respect for both running backs. Although he played alongside Peterson longer and witnessed his miraculous return from an ACL tear, that doesn’t diminish Sullivan’s thoughts about the type of player Gurley was and still is.
“He’s one of if not the best skill-position player I’ve ever played with in my career," said Sullivan, a Rams teammate of Gurley’s during the 2017 and 2018 seasons. “He’s a different running back than Adrian was -- but on that same level. Todd is a Hall of Fame-type talent. The Falcons are lucky to have him."
That’s rather high praise for Gurley, a player who comes to Atlanta with lofty expectations from the fans and lingering questions about the health of his left knee. The two-time All-Pro signed a one-year, $5.5 million deal that remains contingent on his passing a physical once teams are allowed to conduct physicals again. Gurley expressed no worries about passing the physical, citing that he played in all but one game last season and had surgery to repair a torn ACL nearly six years ago.
His former teammates appear behind him as critics question whether the 25-year-old's knee will allow him to be an effective piece of the Falcons’ offense.
“Todd is one of the toughest, hardest-working teammates I’ve ever had," said retired safety Eric Weddle, who played alongside Gurley last season with the Rams. “It was never about him, always about the team. [He] never made excuses. He can do it all: run it, catch it and blocks like no other. I expect him to have a great year. He will bring some veteran leadership and a voice that will help Matt Ryan out."
Sullivan, the Rams' starting center for 31 games, watched Gurley at his best during the 2017 season, when Gurley led the league with 2,093 yards from scrimmage and 19 total touchdowns on 343 touches.
“You can basically put on any game in 2017," Sullivan said. "Put on the Tennessee game in 2017, or put on the second Seattle game in 2017, and you’ll see what Todd can do. He’s a monster."
Gurley had six total touchdowns, 456 yards from scrimmage and 19 first downs on 56 touches in those two games.
Sullivan was also there when Gurley’s knee became a major storyline after Week 15 of the 2018 season. Still, the Rams made it to the Super Bowl.
“Look, we were getting ready to make a run," Sullivan said. “That [knee] talk started coming late in the season. Then I remember him having a pretty long touchdown run a few weeks later in the playoffs against Dallas. Personally, I didn't pay any attention to that [talk]. We just kept playing. And he kept producing."
One longtime NFL defensive coach who faced Gurley multiple times the past few seasons offered a measured assessment of Gurley’s progression as a player.
“The Todd Gurley I saw in 2018 was a little bit different player than the previous year," the coach said. “I also think the Rams just weren’t as good offensively as they were before, which had an effect on him. Can he hit the open field and make you miss sometimes? Yes. But he’s more of a zone, one-cut, downhill guy. If you get enough people in there to stop his feet, you’ll do a good job against him in the run game.
“I still think he’s a good football player. But with the [knee], I don’t think he’s necessarily the same guy."
ESPN injury analyst Stephania Bell pointed to how the Rams managed Gurley’s workload last season, noting that could be an effective way for the Falcons to approach their new running back. Gurley joked that “everyone" is in load management right now due to the coronavirus pandemic. He also said any discussion about his workload would occur once team facilities reopen.
The Falcons don’t anticipate making Gurley shoulder the whole load anyway. They have Ito Smith and Qadree Ollison returning, and Brian Hill should be back after he signs his one-year, restricted free-agent tender worth $2.133 million. Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff didn’t rule out adding a "speed" back to the mix via the draft, and that could lead to a parting of ways with one of the other backs. The Falcons and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter have been more of a pass-oriented team with Ryan having wide receivers Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley as his primary targets.
Provided that Gurley passes his physical and is in the Falcons' 2020 lineup, he should at least be a red zone threat, with 64 career red zone touchdowns, including all 14 of his scores last season.
Sullivan is certain that Gurley will make an impact off the field as well.
“He’s an awesome guy, and he’s a great teammate," Sullivan said. “Just a great all-around player and person."