Fantasy Football: Will Melvin Gordon Regress in 2017?

Gordon has experienced both ends of the fantasy spectrum through two seasons in the NFL. After his 2016 breakout, is he doomed to regress this year?

Bon courage: how interesting that a French phrase meaning “good luck” would seem to literally translate to “take heart” or “good bravery.”

I’m very interested in words and language (surprising for a writer, right?), and what a language suggests about the cultures that created or use it. I was reading about the origins of the well-wish “good luck,” and found many languages that literally translate the phrase, but French has this beautiful idiom that equates luck with courage, or inner strength.

When we talk about surprising performances in the National Football League, we often chalk them up to luck and expect them to regress negatively to our expectations. Sometimes, though, we need to adjust our expectations and assume that that “luck” was actually strength – courage.

Such is the case of Los Angeles Chargers running back Melvin Gordon, who showed up and showed out last year in his sophomore season, posting 1,416 yards from scrimmage (rushing plus receiving) and 12 total touchdowns. Gordon improved his total production and his rate production, but no one expected it; he was drafted as just RB21 in fantasy football after a rough rookie season.

Will he regress in 2017, or will fantasy owners’ brave faith in Gordon be rewarded?


The 2015 season was a tough start for Gordon.

After running behind the hogs on Wisconsin's offensive line in college, he was greeted with the San Diego Chargers’ Swiss cheese blocking scheme in the pros. By Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards metric, the Chargers were the second-worst run-blocking team in the 2015 season, which left Gordon completely on an island -- he had to make magic out of mud, and it unsurprisingly didn’t go well.

We can examine how poorly Gordon did in his first go-round by using numberFire’s Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. NEP is a metric that describes the contribution a play (or player) makes to their team’s chances of scoring. By adding down-and-distance value to the box score, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

The table below shows Gordon’s rushing production in 2015 both in terms of traditional rate stats (yards per attempt, touchdown rate, etc.) and per-play Rushing NEP. The ranking listed is Gordon’s rank among the 44 running backs to attempt at least 100 carries in 2015, and Rushing Success Rate is a measure of consistency that shows the percentage of his carries which positively impacted NEP.

Year Rushing NEP/P Rank Success Rate Rank Rush Yd/Att Rush TD%
2015 -0.19 43rd 36.96% 30th 3.48 0.00%

Gordon’s 3.48 rushing yards per attempt was the second-worst among running backs in 2015, the same rank as his -0.19 Rushing NEP per attempt. The fact that he scored no touchdowns only added insult to injury in his rookie season. His low 36.96 percent Rushing Success Rate helped further underscore how futile of a year it was for the first-round pick -- he consistently got nothing going.

He hardly did better in the air either as his 0.13 Reception NEP per target was sixth-worst among these running backs, and only two running backs since 2000 have had as low Reception NEP per target rates and Receiving Success Rates as Gordon while catching more than 85 percent of their targets.

Gordon’s bizarre and frustrating debut seemed to herald an impending first-round running back bust, but all that changed when the calendar turned.

Change of Heart

Gordon followed up on his disappointing debut with just under 1,000 yards rushing and 10 rushing touchdowns. After microfracture surgery threatened to derail his season, he dazzled fantasy owners and defenses alike, posting the eighth-most standard-league fantasy points among running backs.

But was it legit?

The table below shows Gordon’s per-play analytics and traditional rate stats among the 42 running backs to top 100 carries for 2016. Was his breakout sophomore season sustainable, or was it a fluke?

Year Rushing NEP/P Rank Success Rate Rank Rush Yd/Att Rush TD%
2016 -0.03 26th 36.22% 33rd 3.93 3.94%

Gordon’s Rushing NEP per attempt was significantly improved by the value and the ranking, slotting him solidly in the middle of the pack last year.

However, his Rushing Success Rate tells a different story. The simultaneous drop in his Rushing Success Rate and increase in his Rushing NEP per attempt indicates that his successful rushing attempts were simply bigger or more valuable than in 2015; his play didn’t become more consistent -- it became more impactful. With his rushing touchdown rate swelling from 0.00 percent to 3.94 percent, it’s easy to tell where those more valuable plays came from.

In addition, while 3.93 rushing yards per attempt was an improvement for Gordon, it still wasn’t a good mark by any means, and we can likely credit a large portion of Gordon's efficiency struggles to the Chargers’ 23rd-best line by Adjusted Line Yards. The 3.18 mark from 2015 saw a 25 percent improvement in 2016, so it’s no surprise that Gordon’s rushing yards per attempt made a sizable improvement, as well.

The one sustainable-seeming improvement Gordon made was in the passing game, where he turned in a much better 0.55 Reception NEP per target and 73.17 percent Success Rate. Even this comes with a slight caveat, however; both receiving specialist Danny Woodhead and change-of-pace back Branden Oliver were injured for most of the year, thus affording Gordon little to no competition for touches.

Last season was a perfect storm of both personal and situational improvement for Melvin Gordon. Can he sustain those improvements in 2017?

Total Eclipse

The answer to that question is complicated.

The drafting of offensive guards Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney in the second and third rounds indicated that the Chargers knew they needed to plug holes in the middle of the offensive line so that Gordon’s runs wouldn’t get plugged. However, Lamp suffered a torn ACL in training camp and will miss his entire rookie year. Feeney is also losing a preseason battle to former undrafted free agent Kenny Wiggins, a swing tackle by trade.

Matt Slauson and Spencer Pulley will fill the other two interior spots, but they led Gordon to a 3.33 yards per attempt on 158 rushes in the three middle rushing zones in 2016 (per Pro Football Reference) – not great.

Yet, despite another likely shoddy offensive line, the biggest quality Gordon has working in his favor is the fact that his 2017 understudies – Oliver and Kenneth Farrow – are no threat to his workload whatsoever while Woodhead is out of town. Our models project Gordon for over 1,500 yards from scrimmage and double-digit total touchdowns on more than 320 carries this year, for a spot as the sixth-best standard-league running back in fantasy football this year.

While Gordon's surroundings likely limit him from first-tier fantasy value, he should still remain solidly in the second grouping due to elite volume and the barren wasteland behind him in the running back fantasy landscape. It might take a little luck, a healthy dose of courage, and an understanding that it could be ugly, but outside of injury, there’s little standing in the way of Gordon and a solid RB1 fantasy finish in 2017.