Melvin Gordon Will Regress, But So What?
Given his well-noted absence from the end zone as a rookie in 2015, it’s certainly a surprise to see him atop the leaderboard this late in the season.
Fantasy football owners have to be pleased with their return on investment with Gordon, who was -- on average -- drafted outside the top 20 running backs and often near now-injured teammate Danny Woodhead.
But is this the time to sell, or should owners hang on?
Producing on the Ground
Impressively, Gordon's worst weekly finish to date was 15th. Here are his weekly stat lines thus far.
While it’s great to see the volume and touchdowns, the yards and yards-per-carry columns are a potential cause for concern.
Gordon averaged just 3.5 yards per carry last year, and he’s managed a measly 3.2 this year. Yards per carry is flawed, though, so let’s take a look at his Net Expected Points (NEP) numbers from the two seasons.
|Year||Rushes||Rank||Rush NEP||Rank||Rush NEP/P||Rank||Success Rate||Rank|
Gordon finished dead last in Rushing NEP in 2015 and was neck-and-neck with Matt Jones for the honor of having the worst Rushing NEP per play. This year, he’s clearly been better on a per-play basis and is now more “below-average” than “downright atrocious.”
That gets into the question of whether this “improvement” is just due to touchdown variance. Because NEP is based on how a play improves a team’s scoring chances, touchdowns obviously rate very well.
Removing the six scoring plays from Gordon’s 2016 sample, we find Gordon has rushed 67 times for -13.05 Rushing NEP (-0.19 per play). It’s actually slightly worse than his rookie numbers.
But is removing touchdowns really fair? Gordon might be overachieving now, but he underachieved last season. We know the deserved number of touchdowns is somewhere in between.
All six of Gordon’s touchdowns are from six yards in or closer, and he has a positive Rushing NEP on non-touchdown runs inside the 10-yard line, meaning he is still helping.
As it turns out, Gordon has been solid in short-range situations. Here are his numbers with 1 to 4 yards to go, excluding touchdowns.
|Year||Rush Att||Rush NEP||Rush NEP/P||Rush Success Rate|
Gordon has been remarkably better in short-yardage spots, which means he could be able to sustain some of the touchdowns if he keeps getting that volume at the goal-line.
One doesn't have to look hard to see that Gordon found success against weak defenses. All four of the San Diego Chargers' 2016 opponents currently rank in the bottom quarter of defenses against the run, according to schedule-adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play.
Three of the four also rate as some of the NFL's worst teams overall, per nERD, our power-ranking stat.
Here's how Gordon's first four matchups compare to his remaining 12.
|Home/Road||Opponent||Adj. D RNEP/P||Rank||nERD||Rank|
|Away||Kansas City Chiefs||0.05||26||0.42||15|
|Home||New Orleans Saints||0.12||32||-2.68||22|
|Home||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||-0.07||9||-4.08||24|
|Home||Kansas City Chiefs||0.05||26||0.42||15|
The Chargers are ranked 17th in our power rankings with a -0.46 nERD. Six of their remaining opponents rank above, and the other six rank below. So while Gordon's game script might not be as ideal as it has been in the first four weeks, it's not damning.
This also sees the exclusion of the Denver Broncos, who might not be the 27th-ranked rush defense all season. However, the Oakland Raiders (twice), Atlanta Falcons, Cleveland Browns, and Kansas City Chiefs are all appealing opponents from a rushing perspective.
It remains unclear just how easy or tough Gordon's rest-of-season schedule is. However, it is clear that it will be worse than the four-week cakewalk from which he is emerging.
Melvin Gordon has been on the better side of touchdown variance against just about the easiest schedule imaginable. If someone in your league values him as a top-five back and you can help your team by trading him, go ahead.
But a lot of fantasy players will look beyond the gaudy touchdown numbers to see Gordon's lackluster yards per carry or just how bad his opponents were. You probably aren't able to sell Gordon for well above his true value. But don't panic sell just because you know regression is coming.
Gordon has seemed to improve as a player. His schedule is decent. And more importantly, he is capturing a lion's share of volume due to the Woodhead injury and the Chargers' trust in him.
We project Gordon as the 10th-best running back from here on out, with 245.26 carries for 896.03 yards and 6.41 touchdowns, with 45.22 (!) catches for 333.56 yards and 0.34 receiving touchdowns.