Running backs are under attack. Owners have shifted their focus to drafting wide receivers in the early rounds, fearing the limited shelf life of the workhorse back. The residual effect of this trend manifest itself in the second and third rounds of many drafts, where owners can find top flight starting running backs after the 24th pick. Two players whose owners are likely to find on the board in those slots are LeSean McCoy and Melvin Gordon, each the focal point of teams looking to improve their ground game. Do you buy into the “3 Year Window” theory of running back longevity? If so, who would you select – McCoy, the established veteran with a track record of dominance, or Gordon, the heralded rookie looking for a spot among the league’s elite backs? Maurice explores if Gordon can handle being the lead back in the Chargers offense, while Nathan investigates if McCoy’s workload has diminished his dynamic abilities? It’s LeSean McCoy and Melvin Gordon, in a battle royal to determine your best choice for dynasty dominance.
First up, Mr. Miller will state his case for LeSean McCoy.
For many, the name LeSean “Shady” McCoy awakens images of the sure-footed running back scampering through clumsy defenders one snowy December day in Detroit. Stalled for much of the first half, McCoy came to life in the second and plowed his way through a heavy blanket of snow to over 200 yards rushing, scoring twice along the way and keeping the Philadelphia Eagles playoff hopes alive.
In a surprise move last March, Chip Kelly made the first of many puzzling off-season decisions announcing the Eagles were sending McCoy to Buffalo for linebacker Kiko Alonso. McCoy, a Pennsylvania native who has played in the Keystone State his entire life, was less than thrilled with the news and has spent much of the off-season communicating that.
In Buffalo, McCoy will resume his bell cow back role. While perennial overachiever Fred Jackson poses a threat to steal touchdowns from time-to-time, Jackson (like McCoy) is currently rubbing out a hamstring injury. Jackson turned 34 last February and a new regime in Buffalo brought rumors of his roster spot being in jeopardy even before the injury.
Behind Jackson, rookie Karlos Williams, veteran Anthony Dixon and former Eagle Bryce Brown are also experiencing medical issues. There’s a wide gap in talent after McCoy and his value as a three-down back cements his spot on the field once healthy.
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The Bills are going to run the ball…a lot. In his six years as a head coach in New York, the lowest the Jets finished in rushing attempts was 16th – that was in 2011 when LaDainian Tomlinson was a walking corpse and Shonn Greene was a lead back. That’s right, that really happened. Throw out 2011 and a Rex Ryan offense has only sunk to sixth overall in rush attempts per year.
How will new offensive coordinator Greg Roman affect this? He won’t. In the last four years, the average rushing attempt ranking for Roman-led offenses was fifth. Throw in a dumpster fire at the quarterback position and you not only have a team that WANTS to run the ball, but a team that NEEDS to run the ball. With a solid defense to back things up, it’s hard to argue with this formula.
So what does all this mean for Shady’s production? In the ten seasons Ryan and Roman were involved in game plan, their teams averaged 504 rush attempts per season – that would’ve placed them as the fifth most run-heavy team in 2014.
In his five seasons as a starting back, McCoy has been involved in 58% of his team’s rush attempts. A conservative approach would be to assign him an equal percentage of the Bills’ forecasted rush attempts, slotting McCoy for 292 rush attempts this season. Any season McCoy has surpassed 270 rush attempts, he has consequently also had over 1,300 yards rushing alone (and we haven’t even begun to discuss receptions/receiving yards).
If you’re not a “why should I do this?” person and tend to gravitate more towards the “why shouldn’t I do this?” side of the road, let’s take a brief look at why Melvin Gordon shouldn’t be your pick over LeSean McCoy.
Dynasty is a different cat and the allure of the “new car smell” places a significant premium on rookies. DLF’s own Jeff Miller wrote a ridiculously detailed piece on rookie draft strategy back in May and the results are quite alarming. For the moment, focus on the fact that as a starter, LeSean McCoy has only finished outside of the top 12 running backs in fantasy points (standard scoring) once – when he missed four games due to a concussion in 2012. Additionally, during his five years as a lead back, he has finished with the second highest fantasy points on two occasions.
Diving deeper into Jeff’s investigation into hit rates for rookie running backs, we find Gordon (rookie ADP of 1.04) placed solidly into the 1.04-1.06 range. Following Jeff’s insight, running backs selected with those picks have become top 12 performers 14.3% of the seasons in which they have contributed from 2009-2014. Going one step further, Jeff discovered running backs taken in the first round as a whole had a reduced chance of top 12 performance to 11% during that span.
Adding insult to injury are scouting concerns of Gordon instinctively attempting to bounce many routes outside and failing to trust or identify inside cuts to pound the middle of the line. Gordon also registered an abysmal 19% of his collegiate runs resulting in no gain or a loss. “Yay!”
Two more concerns remain for the Gordon crowd – 1) If you’ve seen a Chargers game in the last year, you’ve also probably noticed a super powered leprechaun that frequents their backfield and enjoys “stealin’ yer gohld” (red zone touches/targets). Danny Woodhead has excelled as a third down and goal line back, and both will hurt Gordon’s value. 2) Receptions. If you’re in a PPR league, this argument was over before it started. To this day, Gordon has 22 receptions to his name. McCoy has 300 in his professional career alone (and had 65 before entering the league). Averaging 50 receptions a season, McCoy is the football gods gift to incompetency at quarterback.
POTENTIAL ROAD BLOCKS
The most obvious issue for McCoy at this point is his injury. At the time I started writing this, he was healthy as a horse. His recently pulled hamstring fortunately passed MRI assessment and confirmed no significant damage. He is expected to start week one after giving the injury four weeks to heal.
Many will point to Greg Roman’s lack of running back usage in the passing game as a downside. Note that nearly all the points I make above are taking a look at non-ppr scoring and McCoy’s still very relevant role. I still feel strongly that Roman tweaks his approach, possibly at the behest of Rex Ryan and due to the incompetence at quarterback, providing for an increase in targets over Roman’s historical numbers.
On paper the Buffalo offensive line didn’t improve much this offseason, and will likely land in the bottom third of the league in run blocking. While the San Diego line isn’t much prettier to look at, they did make more notable improvements.
Finally, McCoy’s move to the AFC East can easily be seen as a downgrade to the rush defenses he faced in Philly. That being said, although the matchups will be tougher, both New England and New York are not top tier rush defenses, especially after Vince Wilfork left for Texas. Miami made a noticeable upgrade this offseason with the signing of Ndamukong Suh, which will significantly upgrade their run-stopping potential.
Simply put, you’re rolling the dice with Gordon on numerous levels. Bishop Sankey, Carlos Hyde, Devonta Freeman and Tre Mason were the likely running backs taken in the first round of rookie drafts last off-season in standard 12 team leagues. Which one (if any) of them will have four top 12 performances after five years starting? There are some cloudy futures for many of those highly touted talents. Three of those first round backs have newbie running backs in the fold this season that many are expecting to take their place. Will Gordon find himself in similar territory after a downtrodden rookie campaign?
Say what you will about McCoy, but he’s shown up in a big way multiple seasons and will have four years to play through his age 30 season. I believe talent always rises and McCoy is in a situation where he can shine.
2015 Projection – 1,328 yards rushing/receiving, 37 receptions, eight touchdowns
And now, Mr.Brewington’s rebuttal in defense of Melvin Gordon
It’s fitting Melvin Gordon should break the NCAA single game rushing record at the expense of former record holder LaDanian Tomlinson. It took LT 46 carries and four quarters to gain his 406 yard achievement. The 408 yards needed to surpass the former champ took Gordon only 25 attempts in just three quarters to amass. The Wisconsin-Nebraska game was billed as a showdown between Gordon and fellow Big-10 standout Ameer Abdullah. In the end, Abdullah’s name will rarely, if ever, be mentioned as the game is eulogized in years to come. A Nebraska defense ranked 20th in the nation fell all the way to 75th after the debacle. Entering the contest, the ‘Huskers had only surrendered three runs of over 35 yards or more all season. Gordon had five on the day.
It was a statement game. A coming out party for a player who would have earned a top ten pick in previous decades. It lasted all of one week. The following Saturday, the record was eclipsed by Samaje Perine, an Oklahoma freshman, who ran for 427 yards in a game against Kansas. Still, Gordon had demonstrated his ability as a game changing back and the football world took notice. In particular, LaDainian Tomlinson’s old team, the San Diego Chargers.
The Chargers possess a formidable passing attack and a collection of change of pace runners, an ideal situation as Gordon. None of those backs bring Gordon’s combination of size, speed or explosiveness to the table. Scatback Danny Woodhead is an excellent receiver, who’s also averaged 4.5 yards per carry over his career. Back-up Branden Oliver flashed momentarily in 2014, but hasn’t proved he’s more than a reserve – he’ll battle veteran Donald Brown for the third string role. Only the departed Ryan Mathews managed more than 4.5 yards per carry last season. While Woodhead could eat into Gordon’s PPR output, the rookie is the only option in town if San Diego hopes to establish a formidable ground game. A floor around 200 carries should give Gordon the opportunity to be a RB2. It’s the PPR numbers that will make or break his RB1 status.
Head Coach Mike McCoy has expressed his desire to run the ball more efficiently. This should not be misconstrued as a call to run the ball more. It’s ‘coachspeak’ for “Keep the defense honest. Make them keep defenders in the box defending the run, making it easier for us to pass.” However, Offensive Coordinator Frank Reich seems to genuinely believe in Gordon’s workhorse ability. A recent Rotoworld story quotes Reich as saying, “I want to run it as much as we can. When you have a guy like Melvin, you want to run at least 25 times in a game.” That points to a massive workload. Those who attack the feasibility of Gordon receiving 400 carries a year are missing the point. Owners should focus on the implication that coaches want to feed Gordon as much as possible.
The Bolts passed on roughly 61% of their plays last season. They added Orlando Franklin via free agency to an already monstrous offensive line, which graded out third in run blocking last year, per PFF. With an aging quarterback, they’d be wise to even up the run/pass ratio. Losing Philip Rivers instantly ends any hope of a playoff push. With Rivers’ new four year contract extension establishing a four year championship window, now is the time to buy stock in Gordon. He’ll have every opportunity to be the workhorse the Bolts have lacked since Tomlinson jetted to New York in 2010.
While Gordon’s path to Fantasy relevance seems straight forward, there are mitigating factors which could limit his output. The biggest of which is Woodhead. Though undersized, he’s an adequate ball carrier, averaging 4.5 yards per carry for his career. In 2013, he caught 76 balls for 605 yards, with six touchdowns through the air, while rushing for 429 yards and two more touchdowns, finishing as RB19 in PPR. There’s no doubt Woodhead is an important piece in the Chargers attack and will get his touches, but that should not scare potential Gordon owners. The Bolts actually had three running backs finish as top 24 scorers in 2013. Back-up Donald Brown was the RB24, while lead back Ryan Mathews finished as the RB12, a standing most owners could live with at Gordon’s current ADP, pick 30.
Where the threat of Woodhead lowering Gordon’s ceiling comes in is as a pass blocker. Unsexy as it may be, fantasy owners must be cognizant of their running back’s pass blocking skills. Many talented runners have ridden the pine, watching lesser backs play key passing downs, because coaches don’t trust them to protect the quarterback. Despite his diminutive stature, Woodhead is an excellent pass blocker; consistently neutralizing blitzers, allowing Rivers time to deliver. If Gordon can master this skill, it will raise his ceiling. He’ll be a three down back who rarely comes off the field. If not, his snap count will be cut by 20-25%.
San Diego had 398 rushing attempts in 2014. If we project 100 attempts each to Woodhead, and the winner of the Oliver/ Brown race, I think it’s fair to assign around 225 carries to Gordon in 2015. Even with Woodhead in the mix, Melvin should finish with 30-35 receptions. Expect Gordon to struggle early, but find his groove as the season wears on. Finishing in the ball park of 1,000 yards would qualify as a successful year for a rookie given with a limited role while earning the trust of his coaches. Over the next four seasons, expect these totals to increase.
Free agency looms for Woodhead, who will be 32 when his contract expires after the 2016 season. By that time in Gordon’s career, the training wheels should be off and he should be ready to accept the brunt of the workload, approaching 300 carries per year, with 50+ receptions. Although I am tempering my expectations for 2015, I fully expect Gordon to be a perennial top ten running back, or better.
The odds of LeSean McCoy re-establishing his top three form in Buffalo are “shady” indeed. As dynamic as he’s been and despite his relative youth, he’s played a ton of football in his six-year career. The former Eagle exceeded 300 carries each of the previous two seasons, totaling 700+ touches in that span. Last year’s 1,300 yard effort was the product of sheer volume. He was not an efficient runner. In 2014, LeSean was “stuffed” at or behind the line on a staggering 13% of his runs, the highest percentage of any feature back in the NFL. His tendency to stutter step rather than attack holes and head north is perhaps the main reason Chip Kelly chose to move on. These negative plays lead to longer second and third down conversions, which cripple drives. On a team like the Bills who will struggle to convert third and longs, McCoy could end as many drives as he extends. It’s difficult to produce fantasy stats when the only thing your team does consistently is go three and out.
The Bills, with both unresolved offensive line and quarterback situations, will lean heavily on McCoy to generate offense as they struggle to make plays through the air. As inadequate as Philadelphia’s quarterbacks were in 2014, Mark Sanchez’ stats in eight games extrapolated over 16 weeks equate to 4,800 yards, and 28 touchdowns, numbers no quarterback currently employed by the Bills will come near. Defenses will stack the box, clogging the cutback lanes McCoy has exploited in years past. He will take a pounding and the ticking of his career clock will grow louder. “The Law of Diminishing Returns” is closing in on LeSean McCoy. He is simply not a player you want to burn valuable draft capital on in a dynasty league. Look toward the future, and lock up Melvin Gordon post-haste.
So. who would you rather have? LeSean McCoy or Melvin Gordon?