Could Melvin Gordon be Your Ticket to a Title?

A detailed look at Melvin Gordon's 2020 fantasy prospects, and why popular opinion is way off on his upside.

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WHY MELVIN GORDON COULD BE YOUR TICKET TO A TITLE:

The fantasy community is missing a trick when it comes to Melvin Gordon III, Denver's new weapon of choice. When the case for Gordon is analyzed, it is clear he represents a huge value and a potential to swing league titles in your favor:

  1. Money talks - and the Broncos paid him handsomely compared to his fellow backs.
  2. New offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur has made a career of feeding the obvious RB1 talent and has an impressive track record in this regard.
  3. Gordon has been the model of efficiency in the red zone and inside the 10-yard line, consistently finding pay dirt and converting on high leverage opportunities.
  4. The inside-zone scheme that the Broncos use is an ideal fit for Gordon, who has experience with it going back to his Wisconsin days.
  5. The retooled Denver offense will give defenses fits and present cleaner pictures at the line of scrimmage for the de facto RB1.

MELVIN THE BELL COW?

The prevailing wisdom among the fantasy football cognoscenti in this offseason of much off-field chatter, but very little on-field football activities, is that the signing of Melvin Gordon III does not necessarily spell the end of fan-favorite and try-hard runner Phillip Lindsay. Indeed, Gordon was signed to a two-year deal worth $16m which, if you follow the money, is a statement of intent by the Broncos that this is Gordon’s job, not Lindsay’s.

DENVER'S BACKFIELD STABLE BY THE NUMBERS

Player
Cap Dollars
Percentage of Denver's Cap
7,000,000
3.27%
1,081,255
0.51%
755,000
0.35%

Gordon commented to the Denver Post after inking the deal that he envisaged a ‘great one-two punch’ with Lindsay, but the numbers say otherwise. The fantasy community appears to have been lulled into this trap; that Gordon’s advancing years and lack of production mean he can be nothing more than a subpar RB3 with RB2 upside.

Indeed, this is reflected in the ADP data for the month of June, with the former Chargers back going off the board in standard 12-team PPR leagues at 3.06, wedged between the likes of malcontent Leonard Fournette, an aging Le'Veon Bell and the oft-injured David Johnson. Gordon appears to be a victim of recency bias, a trend that has relegated former fantasy heroes to afterthoughts year after year, only for the player to rise from the ashes and, to borrow a phrase from Kurt Warner, shock the world.

The Broncos are sending a clear message to the fantasy community; it is just that nobody has been listening.

THE PAT SHURMUR EFFECT

Gordon is the bell cow back that new offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur intends to lean on. Such workhorse backs are difficult to find – especially in the third round of drafts. When dissecting the potential of a player to rebound, we must consider the changing scenery and the personnel, particularly the coaching staff.

Shurmur has a strong record of feeding his RB1 the lion’s share of touches, eschewing a committee approach, especially in circumstances where he has a true star on his hands. While Gordon can no longer be considered among the league’s top backs, his skill set is such that he can do a fine impression of one.

KEY RUNNING BACKS UNDER SHURMUR'S WATCH

Team (Year)
RB1
% of Touches for RB1 and End-of-Season Ranking
St Louis Rams (2009)
Steven Jackson
83% and finished as RB10
St Louis Rams (2010)
Steven Jackson
81% and finished as RB14
Cleveland Browns (2012)
Trent Richardson
76% and finished as RB9
Philadelphia Eagles (2013)
77% and finished as RB2
New York Giants (2018)
88% and finished as RB2
New York Giants (2019)
75% and finished as RB10

The path is there for Gordon to assume this high workload status for Shurmur, while the presence of Mike Munchak, the veteran offensive line guru who joined Denver last season, should provide a further boost in turning a subpar offensive line into a competent one.

The NFL has changed to a league that emphasizes one-two punch approaches to running the ball, so many might wonder whether Lindsay is simply too talented to put on the bench. Based on the Shurmur usage model above, it appears he is not.

But if Gordon is the slam dunk that he appears to be, why has the fantasy community been reticent to welcome him back with open arms as a massive upside player at a knockdown price?

THE RED FLAG IN MILE HIGH

Alas, the fly in the ointment for Gordon lies not in his innate talents, but his injury history. A quick perusal of his record is enough to give even the hardiest Gordon supporter pause (courtesy: Sports Injury Predictor).

Date
Injury
Details
November 25, 2018
Knee MCL Sprain Grade 2
Sprained right MCL in Week 12; missed three games
October 14, 2018
Thigh Hamstring Sprain/Pull Unspecified Grade 1
Missed Week 7 with an unspecified hamstring injury
December 11, 2016
Inguinal Hip Sprain
Went down in Week 14; missed final three games
December 11, 2016
Knee PCL Sprain Grade 2
Same as previous
December 20, 2015
Knee Tear
Tore knee cartilage in Week 15; placed on IR
August 13, 2015
Pedal Ankle Sprain/Pull Unspecified Grade 1
Sat out Week 2 of preseason; handled 17 touches in regular-season debut

This laundry list of unfortunate ailments puts Gordon in the medium injury risk category, according to Sports Injury Predictor. Indeed, Gordon has only played 16 games once in his five-year career (2017) and has handled over 200 carries only twice (2016 & 2017). Last season’s holdout could have prevented another 16-game season, but we will never know.

The lingering doubts surrounding Gordon’s 2020 upside, therefore, are couched firmly in his niggling injuries. He will be just 27 years old when the season kicks off, however, so the age factor is not as much of a concern as it would be, say, for an Adrian Peterson type. It comes down to risk tolerance.

An examination of Gordon’s light workload over the past two seasons is also encouraging:

Year
Team
Games
Rushes
RuYds
Y/R
RuTD
Trgts
Recs
ReYds
ReTD
2019
LAC
12
162
612
3.8
8
55
42
296
1
2018
LAC
12
175
885
5.1
10
66
50
490
4

Ultimately, each fantasy GM must be cognisant of the injury risk of any player they commit to and adjust their boards accordingly. Gordon has not taken the pounding of comparable backs in his ADP range (Fournette and Bell especially), so the risk of re-injury remains a minor, albeit real, concern. Building a redraft strategy that allows you to nab Gordon and cover him with a couple of quality high-floor backs in the subsequent rounds could be a winning approach.

Bottom line: injuries are difficult to predict, but if the past is any indication of future occurrences of problems, having a backup plan if Gordon is on your roster is the wise play. Think of it as a ‘Gordon + RB’ approach, where drafting the Broncos back is a trigger to ensure you secure the services of Lindsay or another back you are high on.

All in all, there are more upsides than downsides to Gordon. It is not the volume, after all, but the types of touches running backs get that can determine their value – and turn them from an afterthought to a weekly difference-maker.

HIGH LEVERAGE TOUCHES

Over the past three seasons, interrupted as they were by holdouts and injuries, Gordon has proved that he can cash in when the field gets shorter. The numbers do not lie: he thrives when the offense creeps inside the red zone and inside the opposition 10-yard line. Conversely, he has been shy of scorching defenses for long touchdown runs.

Take 2019 for example. Gordon scored eight touchdowns inside the red zone, with seven coming inside the 10. He recorded 11 first downs on red zone carries, with nine coming inside the 10. However, when Gordon was further away from smelling pay dirt, he produced no touchdowns whatsoever.

A deep dive into 2018 and the pattern re-emerges, apart from the exception of the opposition 49-20 range, where Gordon, bucking a trend over the past three seasons, scored three touchdowns and produced an impressive 5.3 yards per attempt clip. Once more, the red zone and inside the 10 are the areas he can punctuate drives, with seven touchdowns inside the red zone, five of which came inside the 10. These touches – and the ability to capitalize on them – are gold dust for fantasy owners.

In 2017, Gordon’s lone injury-free campaign and his personal high point numbers-wise, only one touchdown came outside the red zone and inside the 10. Again, we see seven touchdowns inside the red zone, with six inside the opposition 10.

GORDON'S PAY DIRT BONANZA

Year
Field Pos
Atts
RuYds
Y/A
RuTD
1stD
Tgts
Recs
ReYds
Y/R
ReTD
1stD
Catch%
Y/Tgt
2017
Red Zone
46
104
2.3
7
10
10
8
62
7.8
4
6
80.0
6.2
Opp 1-10
27
36
1.3
6
7
5
4
26
6.5
3
3
80.0
5.2
2018
Red Zone
24
115
4.8
7
11
13
8
33
4.1
3
3
61.5
2.5
Opp 1-10
10
39
3.9
5
6
8
6
33
5.5
3
3
75.0
4.1
2019
Red Zone
30
73
2.4
8
11
5
4
12
3.0
1
2
80.0
2.4
Opp 1-10
20
32
1.6
7
9
2
2
7
3.5
1
1
100.0
3.5

The percentile ranks on Gordon’s 2019 numbers support this (among running backs with more than 50 fantasy points). He recorded approximately a 92nd percentile number for rushing touchdowns, with his fantasy points from red zone, goal line and third and fourth down percentiles all ranking in the 90+ percentile range:

  • Rushing touchdowns - 92nd percentile
  • Fantasy points from red zone - 95th percentile
  • Fantasy points from goal line - 95th percentile
  • Fantasy points on 3rd and 4th down - 90th percentile

Of course, Gordon is no slouch in the passing game. Here are the numbers for his first five seasons:

  • 298 targets
  • 224 receptions
  • 1,873 yards
  • 11 touchdowns
  • 3.3 receptions per game
  • 75.2% catch rate
  • 28 receiving yards per game average

While he will never reach the lofty heights of former Chargers teammate Austin Ekeler or Christian McCaffrey, the Broncos will – if they intend to use him as the bell cow – feed him the ball as a receiving option. Even 3.3 receptions per game is valuable in PPR formats.

The complicating factor here is, of course, Lindsay. The popular opinion among casual observers of the Broncos would be that Lindsay, owing to his stature and quickness, would be a capable passing game option. The numbers are not supportive of that hypothesis, however, as he has recorded consecutive 35-reception seasons since joining the team as an undrafted free agent in 2018.

There is little doubt that Lindsay, in a prolific offense, has the upside to do more. However, he had the second-highest drop rate in the league last season, allowing 10% of the passes tossed his way fall out of his hands. The Gordon addition, when viewed in this context, suddenly starts to make even more sense.

Gordon’s detractors may lean on the convenient argument that Lindsay is the superior pass catcher, but the data speaks volumes – and the Broncos are betting on that data, and Gordon, to seize control of the lion’s share of the high leverage touches, including in the passing game.

BOX CLEVER: DENVER'S RETOOLED OFFENSE

My colleague Dan Hindery wrote a fantastic in-depth piece on the potential of Denver’s offense in 2020. It is a unit completely transformed at the skill positions and, at least on paper, capable of giving opponents fits. The prospect of Denver lining up in an 11 personnel formation (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs) featuring the following foursome will be a massive advantage for Gordon:

Indeed, Denver’s new back admitted this offseason that the system he will be in is a much better fit for him:

“I think it's a great system for backs," Gordon said of the Broncos offense. You know, to really be the guy and go out there, they run a lot of inside zone. That's what I did a lot. I did a lot at Wisconsin. It helps me get back into the feel for what I do best. I'm an inside-zone runner."

Gordon went on to comment on the shotgun-heavy offense the Chargers ran:

“When I came to the Chargers, I did a lot of stuff out of the gun. I struggled with it because you have to be so detailed with everything. And obviously, it helped make me a better player just all around with the passing game and everything. But it really didn't play to my strengths, especially the first couple years there. I kind of just had to adjust and make it work. It kind of wasn't a system built for me."

Gordon is an efficient processor of information at the line of scrimmage, and with Denver’s offense as hulked up as it could possibly be, he should have a clear picture to pickpocket defenses and truly establish himself as a potential RB1 again. Clearly, Gordon is more comfortable in his current situation and has a point to prove. With lighter boxes to contend with and assuming the primary role in a system he has a long history with, he could return to RB1 levels.

PROJECTIONS

Projector
Games
Rushes
RuYards
RuTDs
Recs
ReYards
ReTDs
FumLost
14.9
185
746
7.2
48.0
341
1.8
2.1
15.0
195
825
7.5
50.0
380
2.0
2.0
14.0
190
775
8.0
45.0
340
2.0
1.0
16.0
191
770
6.4
55.3
383
1.4
2.7

FINAL THOUGHTS

Melvin Gordon III may be an afterthought at this point, but the career numbers in key areas and the Broncos' commitment in cold, hard cash to him as their undisputed RB1 say he should be firmly at the front of our minds. Tarnished by the injury bug, he has been summarily dismissed all too soon. The Broncos offense will suit him as a presumptive pass-heavy approach will open up lanes and the inside-zone running scheme will allow him to think less and hit holes more. Sometimes a change of scenery can be transformative for a player; this is very much the case for Gordon, who has a clear path to being the top back in Denver under an offensive coordinator in Pat Shurmur who has made a career of feeding his top back early and often. Gordon doesn't belong in the same breath as ADP bedfellows Leonard Fournette, David Johnson, and, yes, even Le'Veon Bell. He should be a priority in the third round - and perhaps even before that.


OTHER PERSPECTIVES

CBS Sports believe that, while the backfield may be shared, Gordon will get the highest value touches:

“Gordon should be the lead back in Denver, even with Lindsay there. The commitment to Gordon isn't steep with a two-year deal worth $16 million, including $13.5 million guaranteed. But Gordon is expected to handle the lead role over Lindsay for the Broncos, especially at the goal line and in passing situations.”

FantasyPros analyst Kyle Yates admits to a Gordon-Lindsay split, but errs on the side of optimism:

“Gordon's going to be splitting time with Phillip Lindsay this season, but Gordon should be the lead back in this offense. The Broncos are going to want to run the ball and Gordon should easily see over 210 carries this year. He's a solid RB2 option for your fantasy rosters.”

Jacob Wayne of Lineups.com highlights Gordon’s efficiency despite limited snaps last year:

“Gordon is more of a grinder at the running back position and benefits from a positive game script – something he didn’t see much of last season. It’s important to note that he was able to produce for fantasy even while splitting time with Austin Ekeler in the backfield. Gordon only played on about 55% of snaps for the Chargers and still was a borderline top-12 guy in per-game fantasy scoring.”

Like this article? Check out more from Dave Larkin here.

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