Melvin Gordon's Fantasy Football Outlook With the Broncos Is Better Than You Think
In the game of free agency musical chairs, Melvin Gordon seemed in danger of winding up with no logical landing spot this offseason.
Teams that entered with needs at running back -- the Miami Dolphins, Houston Texans, and Atlanta Falcons -- had all filled their vacancies. And with the deals the free agent backs had been getting, it was clear that the market at the position was lackluster.
Now, Gordon's butt has found a cushion. It's just not one we were expecting.
Sources tell me Melvin Gordon is close to finalizing a deal with the Denver Broncos.
— Stephen Watson (@WISN_Watson) March 20, 2020
Gordon will join the Denver Broncos, adding to a backfield that already features Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman. It's a curious combo, to say the least. But that doesn't mean Gordon's fantasy value is gone.
Let's dig a bit more into this move to see how we should value Gordon and his stablemates moving forward in fantasy football. We're not going to have firm answers right away, but we can use some logic here to at least de-muddy things as much as we can.
An Organization's Actions Are Telling
We all have our opinions on individual players who we think are talented. But at the end of the day, our opinions don't matter. It's all about what the coaching staff believes.
In Denver, they clearly didn't think they were set moving forward with Lindsay and Freeman.
You could see the coaching staff sour on Freeman during the season last year. His role was pretty even with Lindsay's before their Week 10 bye. But coming out of the bye, the team said they would feature Lindsay more, and Freeman's volume shot down.
|Freeman in 2019||Carries Per Game||Targets Per Game|
Based on that usage, we should have been low on Freeman entering the offseason, regardless. This solidifies that and could even mean that Freeman gets shipped elsewhere.
As for Lindsay, the writing was on the wall for him, as well. When asked at the NFL combine about a new deal for Lindsay, general manager John Elway said they'd wait to see how things fell in free agency before proceeding forward. Now we know why they were waiting. And there had been buzz about the team adding in free agency, as well.
Broncos could look at running back position in free agency https://t.co/LBA1hhVf8H via @9NEWS #9sports
— Mike Klis (@MikeKlis) March 2, 2020
Lindsay will be a restricted free agent after this season. If they thought he was some sure-fire stud who needed boatloads of volume, they would likely be looking more into an extension, and they wouldn't be checking out guys like Gordon.
Lindsay has looked good his first two years in the league, and it's understandable that we'd dig him based on what he has done. But the team's actions have shown they're not quite as high on him, and it's their opinion that matters in fantasy football.
With Gordon in town, we need to lower expectations for Lindsay significantly. We'll touch more on that in a second.
One concern you may have about Gordon is his brutal numbers last year. He averaged just 3.8 yards per carry and got outclassed by Austin Ekeler.
The problem here is that yards per carry is a poor metric for evaluating running back talent in the NFL. Gordon was better than perception.
When looking at yards per carry, you're not accounting for context. If a running back is used often in short-yardage situations, they're not going to pop in that metric even if they actually are accomplishing what the team is asking them to do. That seemed to be the case for Gordon.
For the season, Gordon increased the team's expected points for the drive on 43.2% of his carries, per numberFire's metrics. That ranked 12th in the league out of 45 running backs with at least 100 carries. Lindsay was 20th by that metric, Ekeler was 22nd, and Freeman was 44th. Again, Royce be dust.
Those numbers for Gordon are good in a vacuum. He did what the team asked him to do more often than a lot of other backs in the league. He also did it behind a bad and banged up offensive line.
Left tackle Russell Okung missed the first part of the year due to a Pulmonary Embolism. By the time he came back, center Mike Pouncey had already hit injured reserve due to a neck injury. The two never played a game together, and Okung was limited to just six appearances due to additional injuries.
Gordon's numbers likely would have been much prettier had Okung been healthy. The team averaged 4.6 yards per rush when Okung was on the field compared to 3.7 with him off, according to The Quant Edge. He'll now go to a team that finished 10th in adjusted line yards, according to Football Outsiders.
Basically, Gordon was better than he's being billed, and the organization seems to value what he brings to the table. That's the recipe for volume, and that's what drives scoring in fantasy football.
Because Lindsay has been solid his first two years in the league, we should still expect some sort of a split between him and Gordon this year. Freeman's less likely to be a factor.
Once accounting for those sentiments, here's how numberFire's JJ Zachariason's projections see the backfield playing out.
Had the reception totals wrong here since it was too focused on Lindsay's season-long numbers from last year.
Gordon: 182.6 att, 810.7 yards, 6.0 TD, 40.1 rec, 272.8 yards, 1 TD
Lindsay: 151.5 att, 690.7 yards, 4.4 TD, 22.6 rec, 148.8 yards, 0.6 TD
Royce Freeman: Not great.
— JJ Zachariason (@LateRoundQB) March 20, 2020
JJ's projections favor Gordon by a bit in both rushing and receiving volume. That seems reasonable based on what we discussed above.
There's also upside for more out of Gordon here thanks to some other moves the Broncos have made this offseason. They've added A.J. Bouye and Jurrell Casey on defense, the Bouye move helping offset the departure of Chris Harris. If the defense can lock down (they ranked 10th by numberFire's schedule-adjusted metrics last year), it'll increase the odds the team has positive game script late in games. That would allow them to pound it more with Gordon.
The offense also has cause for hope. Drew Lock flashed as a rookie, though it's worth noting this came against an uber-soft schedule. Luckily for Lock, he's got talent around him in Courtland Sutton and Noah Fant, and the team owns the 15th overall pick in a draft loaded with pass-catchers. The Broncos also have a second- and three third-round picks to further bolster the offense. They should be primed to improve from their 25th-place ranking by numberFire's metrics there, as well.
With things as they stand now, we should feel good about Gordon for fantasy football. He's likely to work ahead of Lindsay, and the defense should allow them to run if they want. If the offense takes a step forward, there's a little upside with Gordon to boot.
If people are wary of Gordon because of the presence of Lindsay and Freeman, it may present us with a window to buy. There is risk that Gordon could lose passing-game work to Lindsay, and this will be Gordon's age-27 season, so we need to proceed with caution, but we want to exploit situations where perception differs from reality. There's a good chance that's the case here.
The Broncos weren't the landing spot we thought of first with Gordon, and there are a non-zero number of reasons for pessimism. Even with that noted, Gordon's production was solid last year, and his situation for 2020 seems decent at worst. Now's the time to buy into Gordon while the sentiment remains muted.