Why Melvin Gordon's Rookie Season Wasn't as Bad as It Seemed
Do you remember those ads promoting the NFL Draft discussing expectations for Melvin Gordon?
One included a voiceover of ESPN's Mel Kiper discussing how -- because no running back had been selected in the first round since 2012 -- there would be additional pressure on Gordon in his rookie season. Let the hype start to build.
Then the San Diego Chargers traded up to the 15th overall pick to select Gordon. More hype.
Gordon was handed the reins to the offense from the get go, and the train was a pumping, my friends. If the expectations weren't high for Gordon before, they certainly were now.
Fast forward to the end of the season, and Gordon is the first running back since Michael Pittman in 2003 to record at least 180 rushing attempts without finding the end zone.
This -- not shockingly -- has had a profound effect on Gordon's perception in the fantasy realm, seeing him go as low as the eighth round in early 10-team mocks. And can you blame people for being so down on him? With fantasy football's dependence on touchdowns for scoring, it would make sense that someone who dry heaves at the thought of reaching a goal line would be viewed in a negative light.
At the same time, our perception of things isn't always a true representation of how they actually went. Before assuming Gordon actually is beyond repair, we should at least give him a further look to make sure we're not dismissing him too quickly.
In order to investigate this, let's use numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP). This is the metric we use to measure the efficiency of both teams and players, with the team totals being adjusted based on strength of schedule.
With Gordon, we'll mostly be using Rushing NEP and Success Rate. Rushing NEP tracks the expected points added (or, in Gordon's case, mostly subtracted) on each run throughout the season. If he picks up three yards on 3rd-and-2, that will increase the team's expected points on the drive. If he picks up three yards on 3rd-and-4, the expected points will go down, and the NEP will follow. Success Rate is the percentage of rushes on which the player increases the team's expected points.
Using these tools, let's dive into Gordon's rookie season. Was it as bad as we think it was? Or does he still have hope for the future?
A Deeper Look at Gordon's Numbers
Even when we look at Gordon's more advanced numbers, I can assure you that things are not pretty. However, we do still need to do it, so let's hold our noses and check them out.
There were 44 running backs this year who had at least 100 attempts. Only one of them had a worse Rushing NEP per carry than Gordon, and that was fellow Washington rookie Matt Jones. We're not off to a good start here.
Gordon also doesn't grade out positively when put up against his own teammates. Danny Woodhead fell short of the 100-carry threshold, but he would have finished 34th had he done so. Woodhead didn't set the world on fire with his rushing skills, either, but he was a significant amount better than Gordon.
A huge part of this for Gordon was issues with holding onto the ball. He coughed up six fumbles, losing four, costing the team 16.09 NEP. That's an issue he'll have to amend moving forward if he wants to hold down a steady job.
At the same time, we don't want all of our numbers to be weighed down by four carries in which he had a grotesquely negative Rushing NEP. There were 180 other carries on which we could judge him to see whether or not there's reason for hope in the future.
This is where we bring in Success Rate. If Gordon was good enough on his other carries, maybe we can have some degree of optimism.
Although Gordon wasn't great here, either, things do start to look a lot better. He finished the season with a 36.96 Success Rate, ranking 30th of the 44 backs with at least 100 carries. This put him ahead of fellow rookies Todd Gurley and T.J. Yeldon, neither of whom has taken as big of a hit to their reputation as Gordon.
This isn't to say -- by any means -- that we should expect Gordon to post Gurley-esque numbers next year. Gurley didn't have a great Success Rate, but his big-play ability allowed him to finish fifth in Rushing NEP per carry. That's a valuable asset, even if he isn't the most consistent runner.
What the Success Rate does mean, however, is that we should expect some regression from Gordon. He was consistent enough to at least pass as a running back in the NFL, even if he was still below average. Maybe he's not a lost cause after all.
The Success Rate isn't the only reason to have at least some mild hope for Gordon. He also faced some difficult circumstances that made success an uphill battle.
Offensive Line Injuries
Believe it or not, there was actually a time when Gordon wasn't the biggest pariah of the fantasy world. That time was entering Week 4's matchup with the Cleveland Browns.
The Browns finished the year ranked 28th in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play, and they had just allowed Latavius Murray -- who also had a lower Success Rate than Gordon -- to rush for 139 yards the previous week. It was game time.
Gordon promptly went out and totaled 12 carries for 38 yards. Sad trombone to the max.
How did this happen? Gordon was seeing the volume, he had a perfect matchup, and the Chargers were at home. If he can't succeed then, why should we expect him to do so any time in the future?
That was the week the crumbling of the Chargers' offensive line hit full stride. Left tackle King Dunlop missed the game with a concussion. Left guard Orlando Franklin was forced out with an ankle injury. Let us not forget center Chris Watt, who was inactive due to a groin injury. Right guard D.J. Fluker was able to play but only after being listed as questionable with an ankle injury. Additionally, Fluker won that job in part because fellow guard Johnnie Troutman broke his arm in the preseason and was placed on injured reserve.
The only player on the Chargers' offensive line who didn't miss a game was tackle Joe Barksdale. Their opening-day starters up front missed a total of 30 games due to injury, and that doesn't count Troutman. Good luck posting quality numbers behind the team's sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth best options.
The Reason for Continued Skepticism
So far, we've established that Gordon likely isn't as bad as his perception and that the offensive line injuries made things more difficult. Things are looking bright and shiny, right?
Let's hold up on that just for a second. There are still a few reasons not to buy into Gordon fully as a bonafide bounce-back candidate for next year.
First, Woodhead dealt with the same restrictions that Gordon did. However, he bested Gordon in both Rushing NEP per carry and Success Rate. Gordon had a better Success Rate than Donald Brown, but he's still Donald Brown, so that's not saying much. Gordon should have been able to at least equal Woodhead's numbers given equal conditions, but that didn't happen.
Second, Woodhead's presence in the red zone could put a restriction on Gordon's ceiling. Woodhead out-touched Gordon, 30 to 13, with the team inside the 20. As mentioned at the top, touchdowns are important, and it's hard to tally a large total if you aren't getting those opportunities. If Woodhead maintains his role, that puts a serious damper on all Gordon hype.
Overall, Gordon appears to be a guy you should be buying this offseason. His rookie numbers were bad, though not irreparably so, and the offensive line will have time to get back to a halfway normal level of health. He's far from a lost cause, and if his price stays anywhere near it is now, he could end up as a steal.
Additionally, Gordon should see plenty of volume moving forward. The team just spent a first-round pick on him last year, and -- even with his ineffectiveness -- they continued to feed Gordon, giving him at least 13 touches in each game from Week 8 until his season-ending injury. A good floor of volume isn't easy to find at his depressed price.
At the same time, you do need to temper expectations. Unless something changes in the red zone, it will be hard to get high-upside days out of Gordon. This is why you'll need to monitor where Gordon is going throughout the offseason to see if the hype train starts gaining steam again. Given the current thoughts on him, though, that seems unlikely.
Yes, Gordon's rookie season was a flaming pile of donkey doo. There haven't been many seasons worse than the one that he had in 2015, and the public has reacted appropriately. That doesn't mean Gordon is without reasons for optimism. His advanced metrics showed that things weren't as bad as they appeared on the surface, and he could bring you acceptable production at little cost if you buy while the disappointment is still fresh.