What Is the Fantasy Football Impact of Melvin Gordon's Holdout?
NFL experts tend to agree that running backs are rather replaceable and aren't super valuable to the success of a team. In fantasy football, though, it's a completely different story.
Melvin Gordon's holdout, which began a couple weeks ago, was a surprise to many in the NFL world and shook the running back landscape.
With the Chargers exercising Gordon's fifth-year option, he was slated to make $5.6 million this year, but he wants much more. Though Los Angeles has reportedly offered him around $10 million per year, Gordon wants to be closer to $13 million per year, in line with some of the top backs in the game. Based on his performance the past couple years, he has a strong case to make that much, but the Chargers' front office doesn't seem to want to budge.
In the meantime, Gordon's holdout leaves fantasy owners without much guidance on how to approach the Chargers' backfield. Until he returns, here's some direction on how to view the Chargers' running backs.
When Will Gordon Show Up?
The semantics of Gordon's holdout are important to understand for anyone trying to project when -- of if -- he'll return. Though that may be a fruitless labor, we can make some inferences based on prior scenarios and other information we have.
First of all, for each day that Gordon misses training camp, he incurs up to a $30,000 fine. On top of that, for every preseason game he misses, the Chargers can fine him the value of a regular season game check, which would be over $300,000. While he's missed only about two weeks of training camp so far, it doesn't seem like these fines will be enough of an incentive for him to show up before the season starts.
Many initially compared Gordon's holdout situation to that of Le'Veon Bell, but in reality, the two are drastically different. Bell was able to sit out the entire year and become a free agent in 2019, which isn't the case for Gordon. Since Bell was "offered" a contract under the franchise tag, which he declined to sign, the Steelers could not fine him.
Gordon is currently under contract since the Chargers exercised the fifth-year option of his deal. Furthermore, if Gordon does hold out through the entire regular season, it would cause the contract to "toll." This would give the Chargers the ability to exercise the fifth-year option again in 2020, with his 2019 year esentially not counting as a year served.
The problem we face is that it's fairly unclear how many games Gordon would have to play to accrue an entire season to become a free agent. Our JJ Zachariason, among others, has researched the situation, but not many people seem to have a true sense of what Gordon needs to do to avoid tolling.
Appreciate @corryjoel's insight on this. From what I've gathered, Melvin Gordon doesn't have much leverage. If he sits out this season, his contract is tolled. He'll play under the fifth-year option in 2020. We just don't know how long the holdout can last before that happens.
— JJ Zachariason (@LateRoundQB) July 24, 2019
The only scenario similar to this was with Joey Galloway's holdout in 1999 in which he avoided contract tolling by being active for eight games. The arbitrator, in this case, didn't give a clear standard on how many games were needed to avoid tolling, but it would be safe for Gordon to show up when Galloway did.
We know that Gordon has to show up at some point in order to become a free agent in 2020, but unfortunately, we don't know how many total games he has to play. If he followed Galloway's path, he'd be active for about half the season, ideally including the stretch of games that includes the fantasy football playoffs.
The Chargers appear to have most of the leverage in this standoff, so it will likely be up to Gordon to make the first move. Continue to keep an eye on what both parties are saying to see if there may be any status change on either side.
Austin Ekeler or Justin Jackson?
The biggest question from a fantasy football perspective surrounding Gordon's holdout -- outside of when Gordon will come back -- is who will take over the backfield work in his absence: Austin Ekeler or Justin Jackson. In the three games that Gordon missed due to injury in 2018, the Chargers clearly favored using Ekeler as his replacement. Below is a breakdown of how each player performed in Gordon's absence.
|Player||Carries||Rush Yards||YPC||Targets||Receptions||Receiving Yards||Yards Per Reception||Total TDs|
What may indicate that the Chargers don't want to feature Ekeler like they do Gordon is the fact that his snap count went from 35 per game with Gordon on the field to only 44 snaps per game with Gordon off the field. This isn't a huge bump for a guy who many expected would get the bulk of the work sans Gordon. On the other hand, Jackson went from getting virtually no work (an average of two snaps per game) when Gordon was in to averaging 24 snaps per game when he was out.
Although Jackson made the most of his touches when Gordon was out, Ekeler was one of the most efficient running backs over the course of the year. Among backs with at least 100 carries in 2018, Ekeler ranked 16th in Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per carry with a clip of 0.07. For reference, that number was significantly better than the league average of 0.00. And Ekeler's Rushing Success Rate -- or the percentage of his carries that increased LA's expected point total -- of 46.23% ranked 10th among that same subset.
It's not just our numbers that liked him. Per Pro Football Focus, Ekeler ranked seventh among backs in elusive rating (67.6), sixth in yards per carry average (5.23), and seventh in yards per target average (7.62).
Since the Gordon holdout was announced on July 11th, the average draft position (per Fantasy Football Calculator) for both Ekeler and Jackson has spiked precipitously in half-PPR formats. Ekeler has gone from a mid-ninth round pick up to a mid-seventh round pick. Meanwhile, Jackson has gone from being completely undrafted to a late 11th-round pick and continues to climb each day that goes by.
As it stands, we're expecting Ekeler to be the lead man in this backfield. Based on our projections, we have Ekeler currently ranked as RB35 with Jackson further down the list at RB51. While it's tough to make projections without fully knowing how many games Gordon will miss, Ekeler is the favorite to take the majority of the work out of the backfield.
Who Else Stands to Benefit?
With Gordon's absence, the Chargers have an additional 66 targets to spread around. Not only that, but among those looks, LA has 13 red zone targets and 25 red zone carries to distribute. Surely, some of this work will go to the running backs we just talked about, but others on the team could also benefit.
In four games that Gordon missed, star wideout Keenan Allen averaged just under 11 targets per game, a bump of nearly three targets per game over his average in the games that Gordon played in. Second-year breakout Mike Williams didn't see any bump in targets in the split as he averaged about four targets per game regardless of whether Gordon was or wasn't in the lineup.
Over the past two seasons, Philip Rivers' favorite red zone target has been Allen. In 2017, Allen was second in the league in red zone targets with 24, so it's fair to think that a good chunk of the red zone targets would be filtered his way. Williams finished with only one fewer red zone target than Allen in 2018, but with the return of Hunter Henry, there may not be much room for growth for either receiver.
Gordon's 2019 Fantasy Outlook
As is the case with Ekeler and Jackson, it's tough to truly project how Gordon's season will go without knowing how many games he will miss. That said, we currently have Gordon projected as our RB8, but that will likely go up if he returns to the team before Week 1.
One final item to note is that durability has also been a concern in the first four years of Gordon's career -- he has played all 16 games in just one of his three seasons (2017) -- so it's not a lock that he plays all 16 games even if he returns during the preseason. Gordon is currently being drafted as the RB13 toward the end of the second round, so he could provide immense value if he shows up on time. But it's buyer beware for now.