Melvin Gordon Isn't Playing as Well as You Might Think
So much of fantasy football is about opportunity and touchdowns.
Touchdowns are how Devonta Freeman can have 3 more standard-league points than Ezekiel Elliott in Week 8 despite the fact that Zeke had 90 more total yards. Opportunity is how Jacquizz Rodgers was a consensus top-10 back for Week 8 and the reason why Tim Hightower and Charcandrick West were top waiver adds this week.
No player has benefitted from opportunity and touchdowns this season quite like Melvin Gordon has. They are precisely what have made him a fantasy stud and the overall RB3 in standard leagues. The reason I say that is because Gordon is still the same inefficient running back he was as a rookie. All that's changed this year are -- you can probably guess what's next -- opportunity and touchdowns.
As great as fantasy football is, sometimes it skews what we think of a player. For example, Blake Bortles' quality fantasy season in 2015 hoodwinked a lot of people into thinking he was a franchise quarterback on the rise. A similar type of thing is happening this year with Gordon.
Gordon has improved some, but he's still one of the worst running backs in football. Let's let the numbers do the talking.
The More Things Change
Here at numberFire, we have an in-house metric -- Net Expected Points (NEP) -- that allows us to see past traditional box-score mumbo jumbo and tells us how a player is truly performing, better tracking a player's efficiency. There's a big difference between a 3-yard run on 3rd-and-2 and that same 3-yard scamper on 3rd-and-5. NEP helps flesh that out by tracking the expected points a player adds to or subtracts from his team's total on a given play. Success Rate, then, is the percentage of runs that result in positive NEP.
Let's use NEP, along with some other stats, to compare Gordon's 2016 numbers to a nameless player who was extremely inefficient and a fantasy plague last season.
|Player||Att||Yards||TD||Yards/Carry||Rushing NEP/Play||Success Rate|
You probably already picked up on it -- the touchdowns were a big hint -- but both players are Melvin Gordon, with Player A the rookie year version.
As you can see, per his efficiency metrics, Gordon is performing similarly to the way he did in 2015. He's been slightly better, but he's still been pretty poor. As a rookie, among the 44 backs with at least 100 carries, Gordon finished 43rd in Rushing NEP per carry. This season, among the 39 runners with at least 50 attempts, Gordon sits 32nd in Rushing NEP per carry.
For reference, the league average Rushing NEP per play for running backs is -0.01 this season. So Gordon is quite a bit worse than the average NFL back, and he's costing his team 0.07 points, on average, when he takes a handoff. Gordon has actually been a slightly worse version of LeGarrette Blount, and not many people are drinking the Blount Kool-Aid.
The glaring difference in Gordon's two seasons, obviously, is how many times he has crossed the goal line with the ball in his hands, which is precisely how Gordon has gone from a fantasy nightmare to a fantasy savior.
The Only Option
The biggest reason for Gordon's increased usage is the loss of Danny Woodhead. A pass-catching monster, Woodhead capped Gordon's ceiling a year ago. In fact, it was Woodhead who was the fantasy star, finishing as RB3 in PPR leagues.
When Woodhead went down early in Week 2 with an ACL injury, the door swung open for Gordon to see a lot more touches -- namely, he started staying on the field in passing situations, as well. Gordon saw just 15 touches in Week 1 -- a game during which the San Diego Chargers led for a majority of the contest -- while Woodhead got 21 touches. Woodhead massively outplayed him, too, totaling 121 yards (89 rushing) to Gordon's 57.
Without Woodhead in the equation, Gordon hasn't seen fewer than 17 touches in a game after Week 1, posting five games of at least 20 touches. His 78.54% market share of his team's carries leads all running backs, and his 11.76% market share of targets checks in ninth. Overall, 39.47% of the Chargers' plays -- runs and passes -- have either resulted in a Gordon target or carry, which trails only DeMarco Murray's rate among running backs.
Simply put: dude is getting fed. As a result, his fantasy value skyrocketed.
Regression Is Coming
No player is a better example of how difficult it is to predict opportunity and touchdowns than Gordon is.
As we've seen, Gordon is a slightly-better of himself from last season, but his fantasy numbers are so much better. Currently the RB3, Gordon ranked outside the top 50 running backs last season -- worse than something called Antonio Andrews.
At the risk of being redundant, the fantasy improvement is pretty much solely based on Gordon's increase in both opportunity and touchdowns, with one helping lead to the other.
There would be nothing to worry about if Gordon could maintain this pace, but while his 10 total touchdowns -- 8 rushing and 2 receiving -- are already in the bank, there is some regression heading his way. Per our own JJ Zachariason, running backs in 2015 averaged a rushing touchdown for every 159.8 rushing yards. Gordon is notching a rushing score every 71.5 yards.
That screams regression.
Seeing how he's getting a rushing touchdown every 71.5 yards, Gordon isn't going to sustain his pace of more than one touchdown per game -- because no one can consistently do that. The great Adrian Peterson had one season of 16-plus scores (2009). Fantasy saint Ladainian Tomlinson is the only player who saw significant action and ended his career averaging nearly a touchdown per game -- 162 scores in 170 games -- but he is pretty much the perfect fantasy running back and a massive outlier in the recent history of the NFL.
Focusing on just single-season rushing production, there have only been two seasons of at least 16 rushing touchdowns since 2010 -- LeSean McCoy did it in 2011 and Arian Foster in 2010. There hasn't been a season of 16-plus rushing touchdowns in four years. That's because it's incredibly difficult to do and because the NFL keeps passing more. Over the last three years, the rushing-touchdown leader has scored an average of 12 touchdowns.
Statistical oddities like Gordon's current touchdown rate are more likely to occur in small samples. Because an NFL season is just 16 season games, Gordon could conceivably continue this fluky run for the rest of 2016. But the odds -- and history -- certainly are against him.
Fantasy Football Implications
In terms of fantasy, Gordon is going to be a valuable commodity for as long as he keeps dominating the touches in the Chargers' backfield. In other words, he's going to be a top-tier fantasy running backs as long as he stays healthy and his usage continues at this clip.
However, as we can clearly see, some touchdown regression is heading Gordon's way.
In redraft leagues, Gordon is a sell-high candidate if someone is willing to give you an elite player in return, and he's most definitely going to be a sell-high option this offseason in dynasty formats -- assuming all goes well with Woodhead's rehab. But even if Gordon gets the bulk of the work in San Diego's backfield again in 2017 -- a best-case scenario for dynasty owners -- he's unlikely to have the same favorable touchdown luck as he's having right now.
Regardless of what his fantasy stats say, Gordon isn't a significantly better player this year than he was last year. As the numbers show us, he's still an inefficient back like he was in 2015, when he was death to fantasy teams. He's been incredibly fortunate with some insane touchdown luck, and regression is coming.