Is Melvin Gordon Really as Bad as It Seems?

After a rough start to his rookie season, do the numbers indicate that Melvin Gordon is struggling as much as it seems?

I still remember my first trip to Disney World vividly. 

I was eight-years-old, and I couldn't sleep the night before. My brain kept racing with visions of all the fun I was going to have on this magical adventure, and the trip certainly didn't disappoint! From Splash Mountain to Space Mountain to cotton candy and these little hand-held fans that allowed you to spray mist in your face, the park thoroughly engaged all of my senses and was truly the "Happiest Place on Earth!"

Fast forward 20 years to last summer, and I was excited to take my wife to the park and share that magic with her. Sure, I wasn't a kid anymore and it was June in Florida, but how could a trip to Disney be anything but magical? So while I did sleep a bit better the night before this time, there was still anticipation as I looked forward to enjoying a park designed to bring joy to kids and adults alike!  

Perhaps I'm simply more cynical and less imaginative in my old age, but I'm not sure anyone over the age of 13 is really having a good time at Disney in June. It's brutally hot, you spend hours in line and just seconds on a ride that was probably designed in the 1980's, you spend 20 dollars on food that you could buy for 5 dollars anywhere else in the world, and you are surrounded wildly entertained and hyper children completely unaware that the entire park is just one big con designed to steal their parents' money.

For most sane adults, especially the weird ones like me who go without kids, there is very little magic to be found at Disney World in June. 

Similar to my Disney World experience, when the NFL draft roles around and a highly regarded running back is selected early, there is immense anticipation for the theme park style adventure that is likely to follow.

Sure, recent busts like Trent Richardson, Bishop Sankey, and Montee Ball should cause us to root our expectations in reality, but we get caught up in the joy of the shiny, new toy! 

So when the San Diego Chargers traded up in the first round to nab highly touted Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon 15th overall, the anticipation began to build. Unfortunately, the results through four games are more like Disney World in June than the joyful experience many expected this to be. A complete letdown is just a mild way to say it. 

The disaster started in the preseason, with Gordon looking tentative and struggling to gain positive yardage on a majority of his carries. Through the first three games of the regular season, his poor performances were explained away by things like poor game scripts, a touchdown run that was called back on a bad call, poor blocking and a lack of usage that was surely to change against the woeful Cleveland Browns in Week 4. 

Yet against one of the worst run defenses in the NFL to date, Gordon could muster only 38 yards on 12 carries in a game where neither team led by more than 8 points at any time. The game script was perfect, the opponent was bad, yet Gordon failed to produce.

While everyone is quite aware that the results from Gordon are far from what the fantasy community (or probably the Chargers) expected, do the numbers and metrics reinforce the idea that the former Wisconsin Badger is really struggling?

Inside the Numbers

It doesn't take a statistics major to recognize that Gordon's start to the season has been disappointing at best, both as a fantasy producer and based on the metrics.

Through four games Gordon has averaged 15.5 touches and 65.5 yards per game, scoring no touchdowns and being used sparingly in the passing game (just 6 receptions). Worse yet, he is consistently replaced by Danny Woodhead in third down situations as well as the two minute drill, and splits time with him in the red zone and at the goal line.

And while Gordon has the elite athletic traits and the draft pedigree, Woodhead is outperforming him in every Net Expected Points (NEP) metric we measure at numberFire. For those unfamiliar with NEP, it is our signature metric that is used to quantify whether or not a player helped or hurt their team’s chances of scoring on any given play. A positive score means the player exceeded expectations, while a negative score mean they hurt their team’s chances. To read more about NEP, visit our  glossary.

Side by side, you can see the disparity between the backs.

Name Rushes Rush NEP Rush NEP/P Success Rate Rec Rec NEP Total NEP
Melvin Gordon 56 -9.45 -0.16 0.37 6 1.86 -7.58
Danny Woodhead 32 3.76 0.11 0.53 17 10.86 14.62

Looking at the numbers, Gordon is a negative contributor in the running game both in total and on a per play basis and is far less effective than Woodhead as both a runner and a receiver. Only C.J. Anderson (-12.59) is performing worse in Rushing NEP and Rushing NEP per rush (-0.29) for backs with more than 40 carries. As a receiver he's tough to grade due to his limited work, but he is nonetheless being outperformed by his backfield counterpart.

On the bright side, based on our metrics Gordon is having a similar season to star running back Marshawn Lynch. Of course, Lynch is also having a terrible season to this point.

There are still plays where Gordon is able to flash his elite initial burst, exploding through a hole and into the second level. Unfortunately, those plays are few and far between as this Chargers offensive line is nowhere close to opening up holes like Gordon saw at the University of Wisconsin (they rank 23rd in run blocking  according to Pro Football Focus).

There are hundreds of running backs who can effectively run behind amazing blocking, and while many don't have the athleticism and talent that Gordon has at the second level, what separates average backs from great backs is the ability to overcome ineffective offensive line play and still produce. Gordon has yet to demonstrate he has the ability to do that.

Another problematic element hindering Gordon's success is his predictable usage on offense. While Woodhead is used effectively both as a runner and receiver, Gordon has only five targets on the season. While his hands are fine, his understanding of and comfort level with the nuances of the passing game are still light years behind Woodhead, leaving him in a two down role that defenses can key on.

When the rookie is in, expect run. When Woodhead is in, anything can happen, keeping defenses on their heels.

That "tipping of the hand" is simply not helping open things up for Gordon as defenses can focus on stopping the run when he enters the game. And without a significant injury to Woodhead, his usage in the passing game just doesn't figure to change anytime soon.

Moving Forward

Melvin Gordon is going to make some jaw-dropping plays this season. His combination of burst and balance is simply elite, and defenses will be hard-pressed to keep that under wraps for 16 games.

But this is still a limited offensive player being outperformed as both a runner and a receiver by a backup running back that both the coaches and the quarterback trust more in every in game situation. And with Gordon limited to a predictable two-down role, the opportunities for him to earn a significant amount of touches appear likely to be few and far between.

Yes, the Chargers invested quite a bit in Gordon and would love to see him be more successful, but with Woodhead continuing to excel in the offense, the team has no reason to force feed Gordon the ball with the hope of "getting him going." Until the rookie either improves his efficiency or ability in the passing game significantly, it's difficult to tell a story where his usage and production spike at any point this season (barring injury).

So while there will surely be good moments along the way, predicting those will be incredibly difficult for fantasy owners this season. Heck, if he can't produce in a close game against the Browns, who do you feel comfortable starting him against? 

And that's just the new expectation of being a Melvin Gordon owner.