What We Can Expect From Melvin Gordon in 2016

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The naysayers are quick to gather around the opinion that Chargers RB Melvin Gordon is a bust and destined for fantasy failure in 2016. The recent news that he underwent microfracture surgery in January compounds the popular pessimism into something approaching fact. In redraft and MFL10, his current value is so low (64 overall, 27th RB) and could continue to dip, that he could be a steal. However, in order to get value out of a late pick, the player must actually produce above expectations. Can Gordon do that? Will he have enough opportunity? Is he a bust? What went wrong in 2015? We will examine the statistical evidence, explore our instincts and hopefully preview the next chapter of Gordon’s NFL journey.

Once a player has spent a full season in the NFL, I mostly ignore their college tape. We have enough evidence over the years to tell us that NCAA success and becoming a high draft pick does not necessarily translate into tremendous NFL success; Reggie Bush, Trent Richardson, and Ron Dayne jump out as reminders that a big man on campus may become nothing more than a platoon player in the pros. It is difficult to place a value on a player in this manner. If we ignored college tape and NFL draft status entirely, Gordon’s ADP would be much lower than 64th right now. Statistical evidence will provide us a rough sketch, but it does not paint the whole picture. That is where tape evaluation and good old-fashioned gut feelings take over.

Here is a short list of elite college players and a snapshot of their successful rookie NFL season statistics:

Group 1
[lptw_table id=”20707″ style=”default”]

*2nd year following injured rookie season

As you can see, all of these players either achieved or surpassed their Value Based Drafting (VBD) and with the slight exception of Reggie Bush, all surpassed their Average Draft Position (ADP).

Now we will examine a short list of elite college players and a snapshot of their less than successful rookie NFL season statistics:

Group 2
[lptw_table id=”20721″ style=”default”]

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Here are Gordon’s stats from his rookie year:

Melvin Gordon
[lptw_table id=”20735″ style=”default”]

Group 1 is our control group proving that a successful rookie year does not always translate to sustained fantasy success in the future, as none of those players continued to live up to the expectations fantasy owners had for them. This doesn’t do much in the argument for Gordon, but it does show that a successful rookie year is not a guarantor of future success.

Group 2 is our control group proving that a sub-par rookie year does not always translate to below average seasons to follow. This is what gives us hope for Gordon to turn it around, as early as 2016. Freeman is our most recent example of a player who did not impress as a rookie, then helped faithful fantasy owners dominate their leagues, the following season. He was one of the biggest steals in the 2015 fantasy season. Ingram is more an argument for Gordon in a dynasty sense. His success did not come immediately following his rookie campaign, but patient owners have finally reaped the benefits of sticking with him.

Examples from both the recent and distant past prove that Gordon should not be written off as a bust…yet.

Gordon had a solid catch rate (89.2%) and his ZERO TDs would lead any statistician to believe his TDs are coming. That is, if you believe in regression to the mean, of course. Pro Football Focus awarded Gordon with 34 broken tackles on his 184 carries, ninth most among running backs that took at least 50 percent of his team’s carries. The one piece of statistical evidence I cannot bend in Gordon’s favor is his paltry 3.5 YPC. It is very telling that as a whole, Group 1 had a much lower YPC than Group 2. This helps to prove the anomaly of Group 1 essentially going from “Good” to “Bad”. The inverse is true for Group 2 as they did not have overly productive seasons, but competent YPC averages showed signs of a quick turnaround. Gordon had a bad rookie season, exacerbated by a poor YPC. Again, I cannot support an argument for Gordon based on YPC and what the evidence shows us.

With the few exceptions noted above, analytics do not shine a kind light on Gordon’s prospects as a relevant fantasy asset. Immeasurable data and instincts, however, may provide the hope that Gordon owners and supporters are looking for:

Opportunity.  Money talks.  Especially in the NFL.  When an NFL team invests a first round pick (15th overall) on a player, they are going to take every opportunity to find out what that player can do. The Chargers clearly like Danny Woodhead and Branden Oliver, but they want Gordon to take over as the workhorse. Woodhead would be much better served as a pass catcher and/or change of pace back with Gordon leading the team in carries by a wide margin. The team did not add any RBs in the off-season, so opportunity should not be an issue for Gordon.

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O-Line improvement? According to Pro Football Focus, the Chargers had the 32nd ranked OL (31st in run blocking) in 2015. It was inconsistent, injured and almost historically bad. It got uglier after Keenan Allen was injured in Week 8, followed by a season-ending Malcom Floyd injury in week 9. Chargers opponents had little reason to respect the pass and were able to put even more pressure on the OL. They did not make massive investments on the OL in the off-season, but the return of many injured players, hopeful improvements by former first rounder DJ Fluker, the addition of 3rd round pick Max Tuerk out of USC and journeyman free agent Matt Slauson should, in theory, improve upon the league’s worst-performing unit from 2015. Gordon was accustomed to big holes at the University of Wisconsin and was able to shake second level defenders easily with his elite, short area quickness.  His game is not solely predicated on top-end straight-line speed as evidenced by his good but not great 4.52 40 time.  With just a few extra cracks and creases from an inevitably improved OL, Gordon should have the opportunity to once again show off his quick feet and burst.

Game plan. Philip Rivers is no spring chicken. He is, however, as gritty and competitive as any QB in the league and the team knows the clock is ticking on the “window” created by having a franchise QB line up under center. In order to keep Rivers healthy, they will need to protect him by throwing less and shortening games. Solid front 7 additions Joey Bosa and Brandon Mebane will help slow down opposing offenses, potentially resulting in less playing from behind scenarios in which Rivers is often forced into attempting far too many passes. He attempted a league high 662 throws in 2015, 35 more than next highest QB, Drew Brees. The sneaky addition of Wisconsin FB, Derek Watt, coupled with OC Ken Whisenhunt’s propensity to utilize a fullback, point toward the Chargers emphasizing the run in 2016. Gordon proved much more confident in a two back set as he had at Wisconsin rather than the single back method used by the Chargers in 2015.

Health? The Chargers have said they expect a full recovery by Gordon from his surgery in time for training camp this year. I wouldn’t expect them to say anything else. Microfracture surgery, however, is anything but a guaranteed procedure. Figures like 70% chance of full recovery have been thrown around.  The bottom line regarding his December knee injury and resulting surgery is that we do not know how it will affect him, if at all. It will be a looming issue for the foreseeable future.

The analytics lean heavily against believing in Gordon in 2016.  However, my four instinctual arguments laid out above make me feel that it may not be time to write Gordon off. As damning as the analytics from 2015 is, the putrid play of his OL can’t be understated. Furthermore, not many players around Gordon’s current ADP will have the opportunities he will. Assuming a full recovery, it would not surprise me to see Gordon end the year in the top 10 of RB touches. What will he do with all of these potential touches?  That is up to you to decide.

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