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Player Spotlight: Melvin Gordon

A detailed tour through the 2017 fantasy outlook for Melvin Gordon

Pros

He stakes claim to an absolute stranglehold on the Chargers backfield. The Chargers feature no proven or even intriguing options behind Gordon on the depth chart, so his path to massive touches looks unimpeded.

He boasts a three-down skillset that produces mightily in all formats. There’s no longer a Danny Woodhead on roster to man passing downs and steal touches. Gordon has proven himself a reliable and sometimes dynamic receiver, and he’s produced well in the passing game in both his NFL seasons.

He’s a goal-line beast, one who should again threaten the league lead in short-yardage rushes and touchdowns. Few NFL players are given a workload like Gordon sees near the end zone, so it’s unlikely his 12 touchdowns (across just 12 full games) from 2016 were fluky.

Cons

He hasn’t been particularly efficient as an NFL runner. Through two years, Gordon’s 3.74 yards per rush look boring at best and ineffective at worst. Much of that can be attributed to the Chargers’ awful line play, though, which was addressed heavly in the offseason.

He’s lost all or most of 6-of-32 NFL games to injury. I’m not interested in trying to predict NFL injuries, but my eye will always catch a high-usage back who routinely misses time. Gordon doesn’t have any chronic concerns, but has suffered a handful of small lower-body injuries.

His 2016 workload may have bordered on “unsustainable” territory. Over his 12 full 2016 games, Gordon averaged 24.3 touches; that extrapolates to 389 over a full season. The Chargers’ depth cupboard is bare, but considering Gordon’s moderate injury history, they may look to temper his usage a bit.

Exactly how good is Gordon?

Off the bat, let’s bask in the fact that Gordon was among the most productive runners in college football history. You probably recall the awesomeness of his raw numbers: 155.4 rushing yards per game over his 2 high-volume seasons at Wisconsin, and a stunning 7.8 yards per rush over his career there. He amassed 49 all-purpose touchdowns on just 653 touches, a nose-for-the-end-zone trend that’s carried over nicely into the NFL.

As a physical prospect, Gordon was good-not-great. His combine featured an above-average speed score of 103.02; not elite by any means, but right in line with those of several other recent, productive draftees. What stood out at the combine were his agility measurements: His 4.07 short shuttle time and 10’6” broad jump were both second-best in the 2015 class. All told, his measurables jibed rather closely with his fantastic college tape. He was one of the best open-field runners in recent college memory, and his combine work seemed to confirm that.

The question, then, is why we haven’t seen that manifest through two NFL seasons. Among 48 backs to amass 200+ total rushes since 2015, Gordon ranks an ugly 43rd in yards per rush. He’s just 20th in rushes of 10+ yards, too, though much of that can be explained away by time lost to injuries and rest. As a result, though, we’ve yet to see real fireworks from the guy.

But there are plenty of indications that an uptick is on the horizon. Gordon fared well metrically as a featured back in 2016, and much of his production inconsistency has stemmed largely from running behind a horrendous front. He’s doing just fine in the open field: According to Pro Football Focus, he forced 34 missed tackles across last year’s 254 carries (13.4%), a truly elite rate that bested that of rookie phenom Ezekiel Elliott (11.2%). Gordon lost most or all of 4 games to injury, but still churned out the fourth-most breakaway runs (15+ yards) in football, more than even David Johnson managed. He scored on 45% of his rushes from inside the 5-yard line, and he posted the fifth-highest yards-per-catch rate of the 53 backs to draw 25+ targets. It’s hard to look at his 2016 success and pin much of it on chance; he worked quite well with the blocking he was given, producing near the top of the league across the board.

And just as importantly, there’s reason for optimism on the front line. The Chargers have prioritized it tremendously; in March, they signed Russell Okung, who’s slipped as a pass blocker but remains a strong running-game presence, to man the left tackle spot. They then added two interior linemen within the top 71 picks of the draft: consensus top prospect Forrest Lamp and zone-experienced technician guard Dan Feeney. Lamp was lost in camp to a torn ACL, but there have still been real improvements made. And if Gordon was a semi-dynamic fantasy RB1 on the back of atrocious line play, what can he accomplish with competent blocking up front?

Opportunity & Usage

The bright spot on that ho-hum efficiency is that, frankly speaking, it doesn’t seem to matter. Gordon doesn’t need to be that efficient to churn out easy RB1 numbers; his workload is just that elite.

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That’s a ton of green for Gordon. Only Bell and Johnson could compete with Gordon’s stranglehold on their teams’ backfields, and ultimately only Bell carved out a heftier stake of their overall offenses. As a result, Gordon soaked up a massive 25.6 looks (targets plus rushes) per game – third-highest in the league.

Gordon’s high 2016 receiving production (41 receptions, 419 yards, 2 touchdowns across just 12 games) was both outstanding and unexpected. He averaged a studly 10.2 yards per catch last year, and through 2 NFL seasons he boasts a sterling 78.7% catch rate (ninth-best out of 50 backs to draw 50+ targets over that span). The fact that he wasn’t much of a receiver until his final year of college prompts doubters to assume these are fluky numbers, destined to drop to some degree going forward. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that, as a 2015 rookie, Gordon caught 33 passes in 14 games – all while passing-game extraordinaire Danny Woodhead played the entire season. Over those 14 appearances, Chargers backs drew a whopping 143 targets, and rookie Gordon managed to wrest 26% of them away from Woodhead and the reserves. Clearly, the team doesn’t want to minimize his role in the passing game; rather, they weave it specifically and voluminously into the game plan. He’s a ball-dominant, three-down producer in the purest sense of the term.

And there’s no tangible reason to expect any of this to change for 2017. The Chargers “boast” the kind of bare cupboard that teams typically try to upgrade in the offseason, but they’ve made no substantive changes. Gordon will enter camp backed by the following names:

-   Branden Oliver, undrafted in 2014, who saw heavy touches as a rookie after a rash of Chargers injuries but produced very poorly (3.6 yards per rush)

-   Kenneth Farrow, undrafted in 2016, who averaged just 3.2 yards per rush before hitting injured reserve

-   Kenjon Barner, a sixth-round pick of Carolina in 2013, who’s on his third roster; he’s never dressed for more than 10 games nor amassed more than 37 touches in a season

-   Andre Williams, a fourth-round pick of the Giants in 2014, who “boasts” a career 3.3 per-rush average and has caught 1 pass since his rookie year

Simply put, this is a depth chart packed to the gills with ineffective career backups and camp-body types. If a restructuring of the backfield was in the Chargers’ plans, they almost certainly would’ve addressed it in the draft and/or free agency. There’s not a single option here with an intriguing track record, nor is there one with any passing-game resume that threatens to cut into Gordon’s three-down role.

There’s a lot of hand-wringing in the fantasy community over that workload, which was especially high in 2016, and many consider it almost certain to lighten. And that’s a fair concern, as Gordon finished his 2016 on a pace of 389 touches. From 2005-2015, 10 running backs took 389+ touches over a single season, and their ensuing seasons’ workloads almost invariably decreased. Among those 10 backs, 8 saw fewer touches the following year, averaging 18% fewer on a per-game basis. Still, that’s a relatively small dip, considering the ultra-high bar this group had set with 389+ touches. And it’s worth noting that Gordon doesn’t have much tread on his tires yet, nor does he have any chronic health concerns that we know about. Considering the state of the Chargers’ backfield, Gordon looks to be positioned better than most of that list in terms of next-year expectations. Ultimately, I’d be shocked to see him finish a full 2017 with fewer than 350 touches.

It’s a Touchdown Thing

Touchdowns, of course, represent the most dynamic aspect of fantasy scoring. Poor fantasy seasons can be resurrected by high touchdown totals, and great all-around producers can see their value sag with a lack of scoring opportunity or acumen. When projecting touchdown marks, we have to take a handful of factors into account – and the good news for Gordon’s value is that he hits the checkmarks pretty hard.

Opportunity – Does the offense reach the red zone often, thus providing its players with chances to cross the goal line? The Chargers aren’t exactly the Patriots or Saints, offensive juggernauts that annually dominate the NFL’s red zone stats. But they’re not far off: last year, only 5 teams took more snaps from inside the 20 than their 179. They also snapped the seventh-most plays (49) from inside the 5, which of course bodes extremely well for their do-it-all runner.

Short-Yardage Share – Does the player draw a hefty percentage of those team opportunities? This is a resounding “yes” for Gordon, one that cements his year-to-year upside as a threat to lead the NFL in touchdowns. Last year, the Chargers snapped 41 plays from inside the 5 over Gordon’s 12 full games – and he was given the ball or targeted on 22 of them (54%) – the best rate in the league. His 20 rushes from inside the 5-yard line landed third in the NFL, a mark made even more impressive by the fact that he lost (essentially) 4 games to injury. And it was crystal-clear to see that that volume was strategic and Gordon-specific. While he sat the final four games, the team immediately skewed its short-yardage offense back toward the passing game.

Short-Yardage Ability – Does the player tend to convert short-yardage opportunities at a high rate? Unfortunately, red zone success isn’t a very consistent metric to project. We like to assume that the bigger backs and receivers carry the strongest odds of achieving high touchdown totals, and to an extent, that’s shrewd. Bigger runners and targets do tend to convert touchdowns at a (variably) higher rate than smaller ones. But the fact is that, for most players, success rates tend to yo-yo from season to season. That’s why it’s actually encouraging that Gordon’s 2016 didn’t feature a wildly high short-yardage touchdown rate. If he’d converted at some amazing clip, it would suggest to us that he benefited from a lot of luck – that we should expect serious regression toward the mean, and that his nine short touchdowns were fluky. But Gordon’s actual rate (45%, sixth-best in football) was strong yet sustainable; there’s no reason to project his success rate to fall going forward. It appears that Gordon’s 2016 success was quite legitimate, and that we can expect similar success with whatever diet he’s fed in 2017.

Conclusion

Gordon isn’t the sexiest pick here in June, residing in a somewhat murky area of the draft board. He can’t stake much of a claim to the top tier of his position, where David Johnson, LeVeon Bell, and Ezekiel Elliott are all clearly superior targets. And from an ADP standpoint, he’s shuffled in with the cream of the receiver crop, with most early drafters opting for the security of Antonio Brown or Odell Beckham Jr. instead. But considering the drop-off in outlook from Gordon to the next tier of backs, he looks like a fairly clear play in most formats once the top 3-5 guys are off the board. Those chasing a rock-solid floor and a healthy ceiling would be wise to look Gordon’s way in the mid-first round. Barring injury, he carries a volume/usage outlook right on the cusp of the truly elite, and his role is as secure as just about anyone’s. In a powerful offense that rides its bell cow back tirelessly, Gordon’s 2017 outlook, assuming his health, is a solid notch above what popular perception seems to be right now.

Projections

ProjectorGPRushRushYdRushTDRecRecYdRecTD
Justin Howe 16 296 1186 11 55 487 2
David Dodds 15 280 1114 9 49 451 2
Maurile Tremblay 16 322 1289 10 61 607 2
Bob Henry 15 260 1025 9 48 415 2
Jason Wood 16 288 1200 9 45 405 2

Other Viewpoints

Our Jason Wood seems just about as gushy over Gordon as I am:

“It was just a year ago no one thought Gordon could score touchdowns. Now he’s the young, workhorse centerpiece of an offense that got a massive infusion of talent on the offensive line in the April draft.”

And Yahoo’s Brad Evans joins us in our excitement:

“He’s a quality talent fixed in an every-down role, and, according to LA head honcho Anthony Lynn, is ‘growing like a weed.’ The coaching staff as a whole steadfastly believes they can launch Gordon’s game to the next level. In a high-octane Chargers offense, which includes a reinforced offensive line, that wish will undoubtedly become a reality… To be fair, it’s unlikely he’ll repeat his near TD per game average, however, volume is king in fantasy and Gordon dons a jeweled crown. If he holds up physically over 16 games, he finishes near 1,800 combined yards with 11-14 TDs.”

Though Liz Loza expressed her doubts in the counterpiece:

“Here’s why I’m not buying… before going down with ankle and hip injuries in Week 14, Gordon was on pace to carry the ball 336 times. For reference, no back has tallied that many totes since DeMarco Murray’s epic 2014 season… Furthermore, a large part of Gordon’s success had to do with the injuries that befell the rest of the offense. With so few receiving options, the Chargers were forced to run and rely on Gordon as a pass-catching weapon out of the backfield. But even with an RB specialist like Lynn at the helm, there’s no way this offense won’t attempt a more balanced look in 2017.”