The Case for Melvin Gordon as a Top-5 Fantasy Football Running Back
In fantasy football drafts, you get a lot more wiggle room in the later rounds than you do at the top. You can draft a player you like a full round ahead of his average draft position (ADP) without incurring much of an opportunity cost. With players spread across more rounds, there's also more room for players to be significantly under- and over-priced.
In the first couple of rounds, though, margins are thin. The difference between the fifth running back on the board and the ninth is only 5.6 spots. If you want to guarantee that you land one of these elite backs, you have to be willing to spend your first round pick on them.
The top group of backs this season is fairly well-defined. Todd Gurley, Le'Veon Bell, David Johnson and Ezekiel Elliott are strong, proven fantasy studs, and they form a tier of their own, going on average as the first four players off the board. After that is when things start to get interesting, with 5 other backs going in the top 12 picks. That tier involves many more question marks and includes Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, Saquon Barkley, Leonard Fournette and Melvin Gordon.
Gordon is going at the end of that group, with an ADP around the 12th overall pick (1.12), but he's the most proven of the five, the rest of whom are rookies or second-year guy, and he looks an awful lot like one of those top-tier backs. As such, there's reason to believe that he should be the first one off the board, not the fifth.
Volume Over Everything
Volume is king in fantasy football. That might be the sentence I've typed the most in my four years writing about the game, and it continues to hold true.
Volume is no more crucial for any one position than it is for running backs. This is particularly true of volume in the passing game, as our own JJ Zachariason outlined a couple of years ago, as backs average well over twice as many fantasy points on a target than they do on a rush attempt.
Raw volume numbers are one thing, but thanks to the lack of correlation between the number of plays a team runs year-over-year (with an r-squared value below 0.03 for both rush and pass plays year-over-year since 2013), we look at volume through the eyes of market share. That is, the percentage of a team's total touches that a player sees.
For rush attempt market share (Rush%), we look at attempts by running backs on the team. This includes the same subset for targets (RB Target%) while also looking at the share among all skill players on the team (Target%). Opportunity share (Opp%) is again just looking at a player's share of the opportunities (targets + rush attempts) among the team's running backs. Snap share (Snap%) is the percentage of a team's offensive snaps that a player was on the field.
Over the last three years, Gordon has seen a clear and convincing increase in each of the five categories. Even if you're not projecting that growth to continue, he has already reached workhorse status, and simply maintaining this volume would rank him among the top backs in the NFL, as it did in 2017:
There were only five backs who had an opportunity market share north of 70% in 2017, and only five saw at least 60% of both their team's running back carries and targets.
Gordon's combination of rushing and passing game volume put him in particularly exclusive company, as his target market share ranked third among backs that saw at least a 60% rushing market share. Spun the other direction, his rushing market share ranked fourth among backs with a target share above 60%.
Even his 60.9% opportunity market share from 2016 would have been good for a top-10 mark in 2017. Only six backs have market shares north of 60% in each of the last two seasons, and Gordon looks to be locked in as a workhorse for the Los Angeles Chargers.
What About Efficiency?
Gordon's fantasy efficiency was absolutely abysmal in his rookie season. In addition to having a limited workload, he averaged an egregious 0.49 fantasy points per opportunity. Whether you want to attribute his progression in that area to improvement as a player or variance (I'd strongly lean towards the latter), things have turned around for him in a big way.
In 2016, he averaged 0.81 fantasy points per opportunity, and in 2017 that mark stayed consistent at 0.79. Those aren't elite marks, but if we look at the 18 backs that saw an opportunity market share of at least 50% last year, Gordon ranks in the middle of the pack at 7th in fantasy efficiency.
Thanks to the heavy variance that those numbers are prone to, efficiency stats' value tends to come only in the extremes. If a player produces at an extreme (high or low) for an extended period of multiple seasons, there could be something to their numbers. If they produce at an extreme over a short sample (like Gordon's rookie year), the value in those stats comes in identifying the likely variance, allowing you to account for a player regressing.
With moderate numbers like Gordon's, trying to dig into whether you believe he is more likely to average 0.85 or 0.75 points per opportunity in 2018 isn't a meaningful task, as you're going to get bogged down with a ton of noise. For example, Todd Gurley averaged 0.82 as a rookie, then only 0.60 in 2016 before his absurd 1.05 clip made him the RB1 last season.
Gordon is the only back in that second tier that has finished as a top-10 fantasy back more than once, with finishes of RB7 and RB5 over the last two years. That consistency, along with what appear to be sustainable efficiency numbers, gives us a strong indicator that we can expect more of the same from him this season.
Rookies (like Saquon Barkley) are fun, and guys coming off stellar rookie seasons are exciting (Alvin Kamara). But in the long run, nothing beats volume, and the Chargers have shown how likely they are to feature Gordon heavily in all facets of their offense.
Beyond the first four rushers, Gordon's proven track record makes him a strong pick as the best fantasy football back among the rest.