Rams still figuring out the right workload for RB Todd Gurley

IRVINE, Calif. -- Lance Dunbar's prolonged injury has helped rookie head coach Sean McVay realize something: Todd Gurley is a very talented receiver.

Gurley's skills were on display once again Tuesday afternoon during the Los Angeles Rams' first padded practice of training camp. Early into drill work, he lined up one-on-one against a cornerback out wide, beating him up the sideline on a fly route and connecting with Jared Goff. In an 11-on-11 red zone drill later on, Gurley came across the field before the snap, then ran toward the sideline and hauled in another catch for a touchdown.

The Rams signed Dunbar because they liked his pass-catching ability. They were hopeful he could mimic Chris Thompson's role in McVay's offense during his two-year stint in Washington. But a lingering knee issue has kept Dunbar from practicing, and there is no timetable for his return. His injury has the Rams wondering when Gurley will actually be able to take a break this season.

While they want to give him all the early-down carries, they also want to use him more frequently on third downs -- assuming he improves as a pass-blocker -- and now they really like him as a receiver.

Something has to give.

"When you have a special player like Todd, you want to continue to find ways to get him involved but also be mindful of, ‘What is that fine balance between him being at his best and not wearing him out?’" McVay said. "That is something that we’re continuing to find out."

Gurley struggled mightily last year, averaging 3.2 yards per carry and scoring only six touchdowns. But it wasn't for lack of opportunities. He earned 278 carries (fifth-most in the NFL) and was targeted 57 times as a receiver, which ranked 12th among running backs and more than doubled his targets from the year before. McVay is committed to striking a run-pass balance, but he is also open to letting the flow of a game dictate the dynamic.

"I trust in the coaches," Gurley said. "They've been doing a great job with putting in the offense, and then obviously you've seen Coach McVay’s work in Washington. I don’t understand why it wouldn’t be able to work here on this level."

Under McVay, the Redskins' offense excelled at throwing the football but ranked 20th in the NFL in rushing yards per attempt in 2015 and 2016. In that two-year stretch, however, McVay's offensive line coach Aaron Kromer oversaw a Bills unit that helped Buffalo lead the NFL in rushing in back-to-back seasons.

The league average in rushing yards per carry in 2015 and 2016 was 4.16. Gurley has fallen below that mark in 21 of his 28 starts. In other words, Gurley has been a below-average rusher for 75 percent of his career. He was the league's Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2015 but rushed for only 885 yards in 2016, the fewest ever for a running back with at least 275 carries. Gurley averaged 1.59 rushing yards before first contact that year, 41st among 42 qualified running backs.

The Rams have since reshuffled their offensive line, signing left tackle Andrew Whitworth and center John Sullivan, moving Rob Havenstein to right guard and -- for now, at least -- making Jamon Brown their new right tackle.

They need to establish better chemistry with Gurley.

"Once you’ve got everybody doing their job and what we have to do in this scheme, then it’ll fall into place," Brown said. "That’s all we have to focus on as individuals is making sure that we’re doing our one-eleventh. If everybody’s doing their one-eleventh, then we’ll have success. Just stay true to what you're doing. That’s it."

The Rams hope to eventually establish some depth behind Gurley by drawing from outside the organization. For now, though, Malcolm Brown is the favorite to become Gurley's backup. McVay acknowledges that Dunbar's injury -- however long it may linger -- changes the way Gurley fits into this offense, giving him more chances as a receiver. But he's hoping it doesn't increase his workload too much.

"Regardless of whether Lance is available or not, we always knew that Todd would be the lead dog," McVay said. "And it's just kind of us figuring out what is that fine line between him being at his best, while making sure that he gets his touches necessary, and then also being mindful of having somebody that can spell him so that when the fourth quarter rolls around, and to finish the game, he feels good.”