Fantasy Football: Melvin Gordon Has a Chance to Explode

Melvin Gordon has a huge opportunity in 2016 thanks to Danny Woodhead's injury. What is he capable of producing?

I came of age in the late '90s when movies like Can't Hardly Wait and American Pie filled the cinemas with post-pubescent teenagers hoping to impress on their first dates. Another one of those late '90s classics was She's All That, which chronicled a popular jock named Zach Siler, who accepts a bet to take a nerdy girl named Laney Boggs to the prom and turn her into the prom queen.

Unbeknownst to anyone in the school at the time, lurking underneath Laney's nerdy façade was a stone cold fox. But Siler's initial bet was based on the potential he saw in her in the first place. And he was rewarded when he and Laney became an item as the movie ended.

Those fantasy footballers who kept the faith in Melvin Gordon are starting to feel a little bit like Zach Siler. And with Danny Woodhead's season-ending ACL tear, many are wondering what Gordon’s potential for 2016 looks like.

Let's take a look to see if Gordon can continue with the full Laney Boggs makeover.

Rookie Woes

Gordon was cast away by so many because he was the ultimate victim of the expectations game. As a first-round draft pick who his team traded up to obtain, everyone thought Gordon was a no-brainer for immediate production last season.

Not only did that not happen, but he pulled a 180 on us and was horrific. Looking at our signature in-house metric, Net Expected Points (NEP), we can quantify just how far below expectation Gordon performed. NEP uses down-and-distance data and historical performances in similar in-game situations to provide additional context that traditional box score statistics can't. You can learn more about NEP here in our glossary.

Rushing NEP Rushing NEP per Rush Success Rate Reception NEP per Target Success Rate Catch Rate
-34.19 -0.19 36.96% 0.13 51.52% 89.19%

Gordon's -0.19 Rushing NEP per carry was dead last in the league among rushers with more than 150 carries last season. And his sub-par 36.96% rushing Success Rate -- the percentage of rushes resulting in positive NEP -- was well below the league average of 39.03%.

Though his 89% catch rate was second-highest in the league among backs with at least 25 targets, his 0.13 Reception NEP per target was far below the league average for running backs (0.36 Reception NEP per target), meaning he wasn't very productive with his targets, either.

But Gordon was essentially running behind a second-string offensive line last season. Even Woodhead fell victim to ineffectiveness in 2015, posting a -0.07 Rushing NEP per rush, the lowest of his career. While that's much better than what Gordon put up, it does speak to the difficulties Gordon faced finding space to run in 2015. And Gordon's numbers were heavily weighed down by his six fumbles as well, a sin he (knock on wood) hasn't committed in 2016 yet.

The (Brief) Panic

When Keenan Allen went down in Week 1, there was a panic that Gordon's breakout would be stalled. He only played 23 snaps out of 73 and barely saw the field once Allen was carted off. The theory was that we'd have a 2015 season all over again, where the team would constantly be playing in catch-up mode, requiring the superior receiver in Woodhead to remain on the field more than Gordon.

But this season is a bit different than last. A healthy offensive line provides Rivers with more time to throw and keeps defenses in check, which should be helpful for Gordon. And the additions of Travis Benjamin and Tyrell Williams as capable replacements for Keenan Allen means the team may be better positioned to keep games close and not have to abandon the run wholesale.

Even if Woodhead had not suffered his own ACL tear the following week, the initial panic may have been premature. In Week 1, Woodhead and Gordon each got three carries in the red zone, and within 10 yards of the goal line, Gordon had two and Woodhead had none. So Gordon was continuing to get scoring opportunities.

A New Offense

There's no question that Woodhead's injury offers a prime opportunity for Gordon to shine, though, particularly under offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt.

There's a strong correlation between Whisenhunt's lead back's efficiency and the total number of carries they get in a season. Gordon's rookie season would have placed him right around that dot all the way to the left, represented by LaRod Stephens-Howling.

But it’s encouraging that, of the 11 rushers depicted above, Whisenhunt was able to extract volume and above-average efficiency out of seven of them. In fact, one of those backs was Ryan Mathews, who got 285 carries while posting a 0.02 Rushing NEP per rush in 2013.

Through two games, Gordon's sporting a 0.11 Rushing NEP per rush, good for third in the NFL among backs with at least 20 carries. If that kind of efficiency continues, a 275-carry season isn't totally out of the question. At the 4.2 yards per carry he's currently averaging, that'd extrapolate out to 1,155 rushing yards.

And while the recent signing of Dexter McCluster will likely eat into Gordon's production through the air, Gordon should still get a fair amount of action in the passing game, too. Mathews saw 33 targets in 2013 when Woodhead got 87. Woodhead's 0.57 Reception NEP per target that season is far higher than McCluster’s career high of 0.46 Reception NEP per target.

And Mathews’ 0.37 Reception NEP per target in 2013 is slightly lower than Gordon’s (0.39) after two games this season. So don't expect Gordon to serve as only a two-down bruiser. If he remains slightly more effective than Mathews was via the air in 2013, and McCluster is less effective than Woodhead was, a 40-target season is not out of the question, either.

At his current 6.0 yards per catch average and his 89.19% catch rate from 2015, that'd equal about 36 catches for 216 yards.

So it doesn't take too much imagination to envision Gordon reaching 1,400 total scrimmage yards in 2016.

Laney Boggs Wins Prom Queen

Since 2011, there have been 19 individual seasons among running backs who accrued at least 275 carries and 40 targets in a single season. In each one of those seasons, the back finished as a top-10 PPR running back in that respective season. And 14 of those seasons represented top-5 PPR running back seasons.

To be clear, none of the backs who put up those numbers had just come off a season as bad as Gordon's 2015. But the tape and the numbers show Gordon is running like a new man. What's more, the circumstances surrounding him are undoubtedly improved. If he can continue his early season successes, Gordon's about to have a really big year.