Why Melvin Gordon Will Be the Next Great NFL Running Back

Melvin Gordon had a senior season for the ages. Can he translate his success in college to an extraordinary rookie season in the NFL?

When assessing a rookie's potential in the NFL, a number of factors must be taken into account. At the NFL Combine, we get a sense of a player's raw athletic talent and ability (measurables), but we must also explore whether this player can translate these numbers into on-field skills (eye test). The NFL is also a different beast from the college game, so we need to also assess whether this player has developed the prerequisite skills required for this level of play and whether this player has the mindset and ability to adjust to the pro game (readiness). Finally, we have to look at his collegiate record to assess the factors responsible for his success, or lack thereof, and how this translates into this player's prospects for the NFL (track record).

For Melvin Gordon, when all these factors are taken into account, a strong argument can be made that he has a very bright future ahead of him in the NFL.

Measurables and Eye Test

To begin my analysis on Melvin Gordon, I've broken down his recent combine numbers into three categories:

1. Build (height and weight)
2. Speed and Agility (40-yard dash, 3 cone drill, and 20-yard shuttle)
3. Power and Explosiveness (bench press, vertical, and broad jump)

To compare Gordon's measurables in each category to past NFL players, I took all 619 running backs that have participated in the NFL combine from 1999-2015 and looked at the range of performances for each event (minus a few extreme outliers on the lower end of the scales). From this range, I identified players whose metrics fall within either 15% above or below Gordon's marks for a given category (the exact ranges used are listed in the proceeding table):

EventM. GordonRange (low end)Range (high end)
Height (inches)7371.874.2
Weight (pounds)215203.6226.4
40 yard dash (secs)4.524.4064.634
3 Cone Drill (secs)7.046.87057.2095
20 yard shuttle (secs)4.073.93354.2065
Bench Press (reps)1915.422.6
Vertical (inches)3532.337.7
Broad Jump (inches)126120.9131.1

What follows are the lists of notable players sharing metrics similar to Melvin Gordon for each category, along with the on-field implications for these similarities.

1. Build: Height and Weight
There were a total of 87 out of 619 players falling within Melvin Gordon's height and weight, with notable players listed below:

YearNamePosHghtWght40 ydBnchVertBroad3Cone20 ss
2015Melvin GordonRB6' 1"2154.521935"126"7.044.07
1999Edgerrin JamesRB6' 1"2164.38    3.88
2005Ryan GrantRB6' 1"2154.431733½"115" 4.14
2011DeMarco MurrayRB6' 1"2134.372134½"130" 4.18
2012Bernard PierceRB6' 0"2184.491736"123"7.074.28
2009Chris OgbonnayaRB6' 1"2204.571935"111" 4.29
2010Ryan MathewsRB6' 1"2184.371936"121" 4.33
2007Adrian PetersonRB6' 2"2174.4 38½"127"7.094.4
2001Deuce McAllisterRB6' 1"2224.412037½"   
2005Marion BarberRB6' 0"2214.532040"   
2015Todd GurleyRB6' 1"222 17    
2009Arian FosterRB6' 1"2264.6823    
2014Marion GriceRB6' 0"208     

What's encouraging from these comparisons is that Gordon fits the physical mold of the prototypical every-down back, and has a similar build to many workhorse running backs including Arian Foster, Edgerrin James, and Adrian Peterson. This is particularly important as it suggests he has the prerequisite size required both for pass protection as well as for short yardage and goal-line duties.

2. Speed and Agility: 40-yard Dash, 3-Cone Drill, and 20-yard Shuttle
The 40-yard dash has been the gold standard for assessing a player's speed, while the 3-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle measures a player's ability to elude tacklers through a capacity to suddenly change direction while maintaining speed. Of the 108 players that participated in all three of these drills, Gordon finds himself in good company in terms of speed and agility, with the 12 players falling within 15-percent of Gordon's marks for all three of these events listed below:

YearNamePosHghtWght40 ydBnchVertBroad3Cone20 ss
2015Melvin GordonRB6' 1"2154.521935"126"7.044.07
2015Jay AjayiRB6' 0"2214.571939"121"7.14.1
2012LaMichael JamesRB5' 8"1944.451535"123"6.884.12
2013Giovani BernardRB5' 8"2024.531933½"122"6.914.12
2012David WilsonRB5' 10"2064.49 41"132"7.094.12
2013C.J. AndersonRB5' 8"2244.61732"119"7.154.12
2014Henry JoseyRB5' 8"1944.432034½"118"7.074.13
2015B.J. CatalonRB5' 7"1864.57 36"114"6.94.15
2013Kerwynn WilliamsRB5' 8"1954.481735"118"7.154.15
2015Mike DavisRB5' 9"2174.611734"116"74.18
2013Kenjon BarnerRB5' 9"1964.522035½"122"6.874.2
2014James WhiteRB5' 9"2044.572332"114"7.054.2
2012Chris PolkRB5' 11"2154.57 31"111"7.134.21

Gordon finds himself amongst the likes of Giovanni Bernard, LaMichael James, and David Wilson -- players that have been known for their elusiveness and ability to force missed tackles from defenders. What is even more impressive is Gordon is the biggest back to record these type of "elusiveness" numbers, as the other 12 players on this list fall between 5'8" and 6'0" in height and have an average weight of 204 pounds.

This speed and elusiveness is readily apparent when we look at his film from college. He makes sharp lateral moves to beat defenders to the edge, and his speed allows him to easily bounce runs to the outside, as seen here, here, here, and here.

Gordon also displays excellent footwork, and can make quick decisive cuts upfield to get through holes whenever they develop, as you can see here, here, and here

This ability to swiftly change direction combined with his patience also allows him to make plays when blocking is slower to develop and hole's don't appear immediately, as shown here and here

Along with great burst and short area speed, Gordon also has great long speed to outrun defenders in the open field as well, seen here and here.

Already we see that Gordon is a scary mix of size, speed, and elusiveness: he possesses the size of a prototypical three-down back like DeMarco Murray, but also has the change-of-direction ability and short area speed of a "scatback" type player like Gio Bernard.

3. Power and Explosiveness: Bench Press, Vertical, and Broad Jump
One interesting thing to note is that Gordon's similarities to "scatback" type players ends once we start look at the metrics measuring power and explosiveness (bench press, vertical, and broad jump). Indeed, when we look back at all 619 eligible players for those possessing similar marks to Gordon in the "power and explosiveness" category, we identify 43 running backs with overall metrics comparable to his. But rather than be associated with scatback style running games, a large majority of these players have instead been associated with power back style running games:

YearNamePosHghtWght40 ydBnchVertBroad3Cone20 ss
2015Melvin GordonRB6' 1"2154.521935"126"7.044.07
2011DeMarco MurrayRB6' 1"2134.372134½"130" 4.18
2014Charles SimsRB6' 0"2144.481737½"126"7.164.3
2007Marshawn LynchRB5' 11"2154.462035½"125" 4.58
2013Latavius MurrayRB6' 2½"2234.382236"124"6.814.36
2012Bernard PierceRB6' 0"2184.491736"123"7.074.28
2012LaMichael JamesRB5' 8"1944.451535"123"6.884.12
2011Mikel LeshoureRB6' 1"2274.562138"122" 4.4
2006Jerious NorwoodRB6' 1"2104.41536½"122" 4.26
2013Giovani BernardRB5' 8"2024.531933½"122"6.914.12
2008Danny WoodheadRB5' 7½"1974.382038"121"7.034.2

Melvin Gordon finds himself amongst players renowned for their tackle-breaking ability, most notably Marshawn Lynch, DeMarco Murray, and Mikel Leshoure. Indeed, when we look at Gordon's on-field production we see that the Wisconsin Badger has a little "Beast Mode" in him as well and routinely uses his explosiveness to pick up considerable yards after contact.

He's demonstrated an ability to maintain or regain his balance when hit with arm tackles, and can continue to run with power despite taking contact, as seen here, here, here, here, and here.

Beyond this, he often keeps his legs churning to break tackles and to fight his way through a crowd, like on this play.

The Total Package
Taking all these factors into account, Gordon seems to possess a rare combination of size, speed, and power that combined with his instincts and vision could make him a very formidable NFL running back. While our analysis so far has broken down his comparables to players of similar metrics in individual categories, this leads one to ask: which NFL players is he most similar to when we consider all three categories at once?

As a testament to the rarity of Gordon's collection of skills, no other NFL running back for which we have combine data from the past 15 years falls within the ranges I set forth earlier for all eight aforementioned categories. However, when we look through the 87 players of similar build to Gordon and look for those with the closest matches to Gordon's metrics (players displaying similar metrics to Gordon in at least four of the remaining six categories), some very notable names emerge:

YearNamePosHghtWght40 ydBnchVertBroad3Cone20 ss
2015Melvin GordonRB6' 1"2154.521935"126"7.044.07
2011DeMarco MurrayRB6' 1"2134.372134½"130" 4.18
2007Adrian PetersonRB6' 2"2174.4 38½"127"7.094.4
2007Marshawn LynchRB5' 11"2154.462035½"125" 4.58
2006Jerious NorwoodRB6' 1"2104.41536½"122" 4.26
2005Ryan GrantRB6' 1"2154.431733½"115" 4.14
2008Jalen ParmeleRB6' 1"2244.471934"125" 4.29
2014Charles SimsRB6' 0"2144.481737½"126"7.164.3
2014George AtkinsonRB6' 1"2184.481938"121"7.074.46
2014Tim CornettRB6' 0"2094.48 34½"125"7.014.26
2012Bernard PierceRB6' 0"2184.491736"123"7.074.28

This list includes Pro Bowl running backs Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch and DeMarco Murray, three players who have translated their athletic abilities into on-field success. While Gordon fails to match the 40-yard dash times of AP, Lynch, and Murray, Gordon bests all three in the 20-yard shuttle, suggesting superior agility compared to these three lead backs. Even more flattering for Gordon from these comparisons is that when we look at the Net Expected Points per rush for these players, (when looking only at players with at least 200 rushing attempts) all three have fallen within the top 10 in this metric during their last full seasons in the NFL.

From this analysis, it becomes apparent that Gordon is physically capable of excelling at the pro level, as he possesses the same combination of athletic skills and abilities found in the elite, top-tier running backs of the league.


As mentioned in the previous section, Gordon has the size, speed, power, and vision necessary to succeed at the NFL level, and these talents will allow him to contribute significantly to any team in need of a starting running back as a rookie.

However, one knock on Gordon is his lack of experience in the passing game. In his first three seasons in Wisconsin, he averaged just one catch per season. In the offseason between his sophomore and junior years, Gordon approached his coach about wanting to work more on his passing game and asking to be more involved in this aspect. This led to 19 receptions his final year as a Badger, good for 8.1 yards per reception.

"It was real important," said Gordon, referring to his receiving. "Not just to boost my NFL stock but to help our team in a different way...I didn't get as many opportunities as other people. I know that. There's still some questions about me being able to catch the ball. I know that, too... But the opportunities I got, I did my best to show people that I can catch the ball and people can count on me in the passing game."

In terms of pass protection, it's also unclear whether Gordon can excel in this situation. At Wisconsin, he was subbed out at times on passing downs, limiting our body of work on him in this situation. But he does have the prerequisite size (6'1", 215 pounds) to succeed in this assignment. If Gordon does exhibit growing pains in this aspect of the game, however, it would not come as a surprise as most rookie running backs find pass protection the toughest part of the NFL playbook to master.

He has shown the ability to catch passes when thrown to him, with great hands and excellent body control to reel in passes away from his body. Even so, we do have a very small body of work to look at, and once he lands on an NFL team, potential Gordon fantasy owners will need to keep an eye on any news on his improvements in the passing game as he progresses through training camp.

Track Record

Gordon had an illustrious four year career at Wisconsin. Sitting behind Montee Ball and James White during his first two seasons, Gordon went on to run for 4,196 yards on 549 carries (7.6 yards per carry) and 41 touchdowns over his sophomore and junior years combined. In his final season at Wisconsin, he would fall just 41 yards short of Barry Sander’s collegiate single-season rushing record (2,628 yards) set in 1988. He would go on to be named one of three Heisman Trophy finalists and would win the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s best collegiate running back.

     Rushing   Receving   
CareerWisconsin   63149157.8452222810.44

Some critics will look at Gordon and dismiss him because he was a Badger, and running backs coming out of Wisconsin have historically flopped in the NFL. One only has to go as far back as Gordon’s former teammate, Montee Ball, to see proof of this: according to our metrics here at numberFIre, last season Ball had a per rush NEP of -0.15 for the Broncos, compared to a Rushing NEP per rush of 0.10 for teammate C.J. Anderson.

But when we compare Gordon’s collegiate numbers to Ball’s,we see that Gordon is far and away a better player and athlete. While Ball averaged a respectable 5.6 yards per carry as a Badger, Gordon averaged a full 2.2 yards above Ball at an insane 7.8 yards per tote. Gordon not only took advantage of the excellent blocking given to him by his offensive line as Ball did before him, but used his immense skills and talent to make the most of every run and break into and through the second level of the defense.

And as one NFL scout commented: “he makes NFL runs.” Unlike Ball, Gordon has the skills to succeed at the next level, whether or not he goes to a team with a great offensive line. Of course the better the offensive line, the better the prospects for Gordon (as DeMarco Murray can attest to), but as I’ve alluded to in sections above, it seems his success doesn't depend solely on the quality of the offensive lineman in front of him and that the factors driving his success in college will easily translate into the pros.


With Melvin Gordon receiving high marks in all phases of the aforementioned criteria, it appears that he's primed for a breakout rookie season. He possesses the physical abilities necessary to translate his collegiate success into productivity at the pro level and has the right mindset to continue to grow as a player once he makes the leap onto an NFL team. On that note, once his name is announced this upcoming draft, I’ll update this article to assess his fit with his new NFL team and system, so be on the lookout for this in April.