Failed Breakout: Melvin Gordon

Matt Price

Every season, there are players who fail to live up to the expectations we had for them. However, just looking at disappointing year-end numbers doesn’t come close to telling the whole story. With Melvin Gordon, I firmly believe that to be the case. Looking at just the numbers tells a sad story. 184 carries for 641 yards (3.5 ypc) and no touchdowns isn’t something you get excited about, but in my opinion, watching the tape tells a different story. After watching every single one of Gordon’s 2015 snaps, I believe him to be an excellent buy low candidate this off-season.

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Gordon came into the league with high expectations based on what he did at Wisconsin, but also because of the situation he was entering with the San Diego Chargers. San Diego gave San Francisco their 2015 fourth round pick and their 2016 fifth round pick to move up two spots from 17 to 15 so they could select their running back of the future. Fantasy owners took notice, and he was the consensus RB2 in nearly every rookie draft behind only Todd Gurley. Some that were concerned about Gurley’s knee injury even took Gordon ahead of Gurley in early rookie drafts. The fantasy community largely saw immediate opportunity for Gordon as the lead back for the Chargers

I like to keep things positive so before we look at what went wrong with Gordon’s rookie season, let’s take a longer look at what went right.

The Good

Gordon does many things really well. His short area quickness and agility really stand out to me on tape. In week two against the Bengals, Gordon sets up Reggie Nelson with an inside move that got the defender off balance and allowed him to blow right through Nelson’s arm tackle to the outside.

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These are great assets for Gordon to have, as he often faced a defender in the backfield shortly after receiving the handoff. His tackle-breaking agility often allowed him to create positive yardage on plays that would have otherwise been for negative yardage.

On this particular play from the same game, Pat Sims is in the backfield just as Gordon takes the handoff. Gordon is able to evade him and turn a three yard loss into a five yard gain.

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Gordon possesses great burst and showed it at all levels of the field during his rookie season. Both the agility and burst really shine in his transition from inside to outside as there is little if any loss of speed.

One of Gordon’s strengths that does not get talked about enough is his incredible balance and ability to stay on his feet. In week one against the Lions at 1:17 left in the first quarter, Gordon takes the handoff, spins off a defender in the backfield, spins off another tackle where he uses his left hand on the ground to keep him on his feet and runs for the touchdown. Unfortunately, it was called back due to his forearm grazing the ground on the second spin move, but for me, it was an eye-opening demonstration of the ability Gordon possesses. Unfortunately the play doesn’t translate well through still images, but I urge you go watch this play if you have Game Pass or another way to do so.

Another example of his outstanding balance came in week 12. Gordon is greeted in the backfield by Telvin Smith directly after the handoff. Joe Barksdale is late to his block and when finally in a position to help, Gordon is already in a pile. He is able to push the pile with leg drive, eventually, get skinny enough to emerge from the other side, and run for several more yards before being brought down.

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One last thing I want to point out about Melvin Gordon is his receiving ability. That was one of my major concerns for fantasy purposes with him entering the league. It turns out that he is actually a very good receiver (on a small sample size) out of the backfield and Wisconsin just didn’t use him that way. Gordon caught 33/37 targets (89% catch rate) his rookie year, including 7/9 in week five, 5/6 in week eight, 5/5 week 12, and 4/4 week 14. He had more receptions in his rookie season than in his entire collegiate career.

At this point, you are probably thinking to yourself “ok, ok I get it. You like Melvin Gordon, but why didn’t he break out?”. Yea… let’s get to that.

The Bad

Look, I’m not going to blame all of Gordon’s struggles on the offensive line, but let’s be honest here. Between injuries, inexperience, and inconsistency, the Chargers 2015 offensive line was putrid. In week three they lost three of their five starters (King Dunlap, Orlando Franklin, and Chris Watt). Dunlap only ended up playing seven games in 2015 and D.J. Fluker, perhaps the team’s’ best run blocker, missed four games.

It wasn’t just the offensive line that struggled with injuries. The passing game suffered as well. Keenan Allen was lost for the season in week eight with a lacerated kidney, Antonio Gates missed five games, and Stevie Johnson missed six. Without a healthy offensive line and passing offense, defenses were able to key in on the Gordon and the running game. Just by virtue of multiple starters returning healthy, the Chargers offense as a whole should be better in 2016 and that should give Gordon a better opportunity to succeed. If they can add a significant piece like Laremy Tunsil in the draft with the third overall pick in the upcoming NFL draft then the offensive line has a chance to be at least mediocre, which at this point would be a huge upgrade from 2015.

With all that said, there are some issues that Gordon needs to correct this off-season. One thing that sticks out like a sore thumb on tape is his tendency to dance too much behind the line. He hesitates too much which leads to poor decision making on his part. When he just goes and plays with instinct it can be a beautiful thing to watch, but he is much too inconsistent at this point and needs to learn to be more decisive and confident in the backfield. In week three against the Vikings, this stood out. On this play, which is actually pretty well blocked, Gordon decides to not take the massive hole open at the B gap (red arrow) and attempts to use the A gap which ends up shifting and closing too fast for him to pick up any real yardage.

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Anyone that watched Melvin Gordon during the season probably saw him run into the back of an offensive lineman at least once. There was a glaring example of that in week eight against the Ravens when he completely missed the cutback lane (red arrow) in the A gap, choosing to follow the center and LG first, cuts back too late and as a result has to side-step to get around center Trevor Robinson, which causes him to lose speed.

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I think that a big part of his hesitation and decision making in the backfield has something to do with his lack of trust in the line in front of him. That, of course, is completely my own opinion that developed from watching him, but if that’s the case then it should be easily correctable with another off-season of work with healthy starters.

Another issue is Gordon’s predilection for bouncing runs outside instead of taking what’s there on a given play. In college, he was able to beat everyone to the corner on a regular basis, but as he found out this season, everyone is faster in the pros. On this play in week 15, there is plenty of room for a productive run up the A gap (red arrow) but Gordon elects to bounce it outside for a one yard loss instead.

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Coincidentally, this is also the play that ended Gordon’s 2015 season, placing him on IR with a knee injury.

I believe this to be a fixable problem as well. Gordon during his rookie season reminds me of a young Jamaal Charles before the lights went on and he learned to be more of an inside-out runner instead of thinking he could take everything to the outside and beat everyone to the corner store with his speed and athleticism alone. Gordon showed that he can do this on several occasions but it wasn’t consistent. I think his rookie season was a rude awakening for him in this respect, and he will get it corrected for 2016 and beyond.

The Ugly

A big concern for many with Gordon coming out of his inaugural season is ball security. He had six fumbles and lost four which was second in the league behind only Doug Martin who lost five. One of the biggest reasons for his troubles early in the season was not getting two hands on the ball and wrapping up through trash at the line. This allowed the ball to be punched out, especially in weeks five and six against the Steelers and Packers.

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Towards the end of the season, there was evidence that he was keeping two hands on the ball in traffic. Earlier in this article when I was discussing his balance, take a look at the pictures from the week 12 game against Jacksonville. When he emerged from that pile he clearly has two hands on the ball.

Personally, I am not as concerned with the fumbling issue as others seem to be. There is a long list of great NFL running backs that had fumbling issues at some point in their careers and I’m sure getting that cleaned up will be a point of emphasis for Gordon and the team this off-season.


You can’t rely only on the box scores when evaluating a player and holds true for Melvin Gordon and his rookie season. Even if you wanted to do that, none of the other San Diego running backs fared well on the ground either which to me points to that offensive line again.. For all the good that Danny Woodhead did in 2015, he only managed a 3.4 ypc (0.1 less than Gordon on 86 fewer carries).

In my opinion, Gordon flashed just a glimpse of what he is capable of on the football field and the negatives aren’t anything that can’t be corrected with off-season work and more experience. For fantasy purposes, I wasn’t sky high on him coming out of school mostly due to his lack of pass catching at Wisconsin. I like my fantasy running backs to provide some PPR upside, so that in weeks they don’t get in the end zone, they can still provide a relatively safe floor as well as the upside that comes with those extra opportunities. Gordon showed us that he can catch the ball and do it with an impressive catch rate. For me, he is a definite buy low candidate and will be a target for me to acquire this off-season. Given the projected weakness of the incoming draft class, I have no problem giving up a mid to late first round pick if I was hurting at the running back position.


matt price