THE PLAYER: Melvin Gordon, RB, Chargers
The SI rank—Beller: No. 14 RB, No. 32 overall | Fitz: No. 36 RB, No. 105 overall
The consensus rank: No. 27 RB, No. 73 overall
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Nothing went right for Melvin Gordon during his rookie season. Few running backs in NFL history have been selected in the first round, played 14 games as a rookie, and failed to score a touchdown. Gordon was just the seventh player ever saddled with the ignominious feat, and none of the other six had more than 99 carries as a rookie. Gordon had 184, as well as 33 receptions, without hitting paydirt.
Still, labeling Gordon a bust after that would be misguided, and would eliminate all context from the 2015 Chargers season. Thanks to injuries, the team’s projected starting offensive line—King Dunlap, Orlando Franklin, Chris Watt, D.J. Fluker and Joe Barksdale—played just a handful of snaps together. Only Barksdale started all 16 games, and the Chargers used 11 players and 24 different line combinations last season. It’s going to be hard for any running back, let alone a rookie, to find success in that environment.
All that turmoil along the line goes a long way toward explaining Gordon’s lackluster rookie season. He had just 641 yards on 184 carries, which comes out to a paltry 3.5 yards per carry. How much of that was on Gordon, though? When you look at the things he can control—missed tackles and long runs, for instance—you start to see a much different picture.
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Gordon forced 0.18 missed tackles per attempt, according to Pro Football Focus. That had him ranked eighth in the league. He was among the league leaders in yards gained after contact per carry all season, ending the season with 2.2 yards per carry after a defender first contacted him. That shows just how much of the work he was doing entirely on his own when he was only averaging 3.5 yards on an average tote. Gordon also had six runs of at least 20 yards, tied for 10th in the league, and nine more that went for a minimum of 10 yards. He had more 20-yard scampers than Jonathan Stewart and Matt Forte, and as many as Devonta Freeman and LeSean McCoy, despite fewer carries and a worse line than all of them.
One knock on Gordon coming out of college was his apparent inability to catch the ball, a criticism I find laughable. Still, it stuck to Gordon, largely because he had a total of 22 receptions in his four-year career at Wisconsin. What that criticism conveniently ignored, however, is the nature of the Wisconsin offense. Traditionally one of the best running programs in the country that routinely features an elite offensive line, the Badgers don’t throw to their backs very often, and prefer to line up and ram it down their opponents’ throats. Gordon’s put that ground dominance on full display with his 1,609 yards as a junior and 2,587 yards as a senior.
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Gordon quickly proved the skeptics wrong about his catching abilities when he got into the NFL, hauling in 33 of his 37 targets for 192 yards. While those aren’t gaudy numbers, his reliability in the passing game could garner him more targets this season, and there’s no doubting what Gordon can do when he gets the ball in space.
Danny Woodhead is still doing his thing in San Diego, and Gordon isn’t going to push him out of the gameplan any time soon. Even that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. Woodhead annoyingly vultured a few rushing touchdowns taking delayed handoffs out of shotgun formations near the goal line, but he had all of 98 carries last season. He and Gordon bring such different skill sets to the table, that their collective production is not a zero-sum game. Rarely have two backfield mates been built so perfectly to stay out of each other’s way on the stat sheet. The only other competition for Gordon is Branden Oliver, and he’s nothing more than a change-of-pace back. This is, without question, Gordon’s show.
Woodhead’s role on the team helps illustrate another feature of the San Diego offense that should help Gordon in year two. Opposing defenses are going to do what it takes to not let Philip Rivers beat them. Keenan Allen is fully healthy after missing eight games last year with a ruptured spleen. Antonio Gates is still going so strong that the Chargers decided to let Ladarius Green walk in free agency. In need of a deep threat, Tom Telesco went out and inked Travis Benjamin—who managed to haul in 68 passes for 966 yards and five touchdowns in that mess of a Cleveland offense last year—to a four-year, $24 million deal on the first official day of free agency. Gordon should see more than his fair share of base fronts, and that’s great news for a guy with a demonstrated ability to shake would-be tacklers and rip off huge chunks of yardage.
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The Chargers reinforced their offensive line during the offseason, most notably by bringing in versatile veteran Matt Slauson and using a third-round pick to grab center Max Tuerk out of Southern California. They also selected fullback Derek Watt, Gordon’s former Wisconsin teammate and J.J.’s younger brother, in the sixth round. It was Watt who led the way for most of Gordon’s 2,587 yards and 29 touchdowns in his final season with the Badgers. If you don’t think the Chargers drafted Watt to make Gordon more comfortable, you’re crazy.
Forget about Gordon’s first season in the league. It was systemic issues, not his inability to play at the NFL level, that were largely to blame for it. He underwent knee surgery in January, but the expectation is that he won’t be held back at all during training camp. He’s going to make the Chargers look good for trading up to get him in the 2015 draft. Follow their example and make sure the wildly undervalued back is starred on your cheat sheet.