Is Melvin Gordon Locked in as a Top-Five Fantasy Football Running Back?

Is Melvin Gordon Locked in as a Top-Five Fantasy Football Running Back? article feature image

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Los Angeles Chargers running back Melvin Gordon (28).

  • When Healthy, Melvin Gordon is one of the NFL's most versatile and effective running backs.
  • Ian Hartitz discusses how soon he should be taken in your upcoming fantasy drafts.

We’re in the thick of the NFL offseason and it’s officially time to start fantasy football prep. I’ll be answering the biggest questions heading into the 2019 season; this is part of that series.

The Chargers’ 12-4 campaign in 2018 marked their first season with double-digit wins since 2009. Philip Rivers and the defense’s dominant pass rush deserve plenty of credit, but a large portion of the offense’s early success was due to their stud running back.

Melvin Gordon was well on his way to recording the single-best season of his career in 2018 before suffering a sprained MCL in Week 12. He managed to return for the Chargers’ playoff run, but clearly wasn’t the same back that had taken the league by storm during the first three months of the season.

What follows is a breakdown on just how talented Gordon is as a three-down back along with an analysis on his fantasy football value in 2019.

Gordon can do everything you need a running back to do

The former Wisconsin Badger and Heisman finalist has a history of being banged up, as Gordon has missed a total of nine games in four seasons, since joining the league in 2015.

Gordon wasn’t at 100% for much of 2018 — he missed Week 7 with a sprained hamstring — but still managed to function as a top-five fantasy football back during the Chargers’ first 11 games:

  • Carries: 153 (Tied for No. 10 among all running backs)
  • Rush yards: 802 (No. 6)
  • Targets: 60 (No. 9)
  • Receiving yards: 453 (No. 7)
  • Touches: 197 (No. 10)
  • Total yards: 1,255 (Tied for No. 6)
  • Touchdowns: 13 (No. 4)
  • PPR: RB5

This has largely been the story of Gordon’s career: All the guy does is rack up fantasy points as long as he’s healthy enough to suit up.

However, the fifth-year back took a step forward in 2018, setting career-high marks in both yards per rush (5.1) and yards per target (7.4) behind the team’s best offensive line in years.

Gordon is, at times, unfairly discussed as a running back who simply benefited from immense volume during the early parts of his career, but this antiquated take just doesn’t hold up.

There are few players in the NFL that have been tougher to tackle in recent history:

Most forced missed tackles among all players since 2016 (PFF):

1. Melvin Gordon (163) 👀

2. Todd Gurley (140)
3. LeSean McCoy (132)
4. Kareem Hunt (130)
5. Ezekiel Elliott (125)

— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) March 25, 2019

Gordon was one of just seven running backs to rack up at least 50 broken tackles in 2018 despite his injury-shortened campaign. His combination of size (6-foot-1 and 215-pound) and athleticism (78th-percentile SPARQ-x score) makes him one of the league’s most worthy running backs of a three-down role.

Fortunately for past and future fantasy owners: another workhorse role appears to be on the horizon for Gordon in 2019.

The Chargers appear to be fully committed to Gordon

2017 is the only season of Gordon’s career that he’s managed to stay healthy for all 16 games. He played a whopping 70% of the Chargers’ snaps that season before doing so again in 2018 whenever he wasn’t directly dealing with an injury.

  • Week 1: 76% snap rate
  • Week 2: 64%
  • Week 3: 77%
  • Week 4: 72%
  • Week 5: 70%
  • Week 6: 63%
  • Week 7: Out (hamstring)
  • Week 8: Bye
  • Week 9: 88%
  • Week 10: 80%
  • Week 11: 83%
  • Week 12: 38% (injured)
  • Weeks 13-15: Out (knee)
  • Week 16: 67%
  • Week 17: 54%
  • Wild Card: 44%
  • Divisional Round: 49%

Gordon joins Le’Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley, Saquon Barkley and Leonard Fournette as the only running backs who have averaged at least 20 touches per game since 2017.

The only concern is that Gordon’s absence and limited usage down the stretch allowed the team to get a long look at their other options on the depth chart — specifically Austin Ekeler who the Chargers nabbed as an undrafted free agent in 2017.

The 5-foot-9 and 199-pound running back possessed solid speed (4.48-second 40-yard dash) and receiving ability for the position, but he hadn’t exactly faced a fearsome level of competition at Western Colorado University.

All Ekeler has done with his NFL opportunity is work as one of the NFL’s most efficient overall backs.

Austin Ekeler since entering the league in 2017:

Yards per rush: 5.3 (No. 3 among 60 RBs with 150+ rushes)
Yards per target: 7.8 (No. 3 among 55 RBs with 50+ targets)
Yards per touch: 6.8 (No. 2 among 62 RBs with 200+ touches)

Snap % in three games without MGIII: 78%, 68%, 95%

— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) June 20, 2019

Ekeler probably won’t ever be a back who receives double-digit carries into the teeth of a defense on a game-by-game basis, but his ability to function as a pure receiver at a high level gives the Chargers enhanced scheme flexibility.

It makes sense that Gordon’s saw fewer snaps later in the season, as he ultimately played the Chargers’ Divisional Round matchup against the Patriots with a pair of sprained knees along with an ankle issue. Still, Ekeler demonstrated more than enough ability to warrant a higher weekly role in 2019, which could also help the team keep Gordon healthier for another playoff run.

Gordon has a case as fantasy football’s RB5 in 2019

The gap in projected workload between Gordon and fantasy football’s additional top running backs is simply too high for me to feel comfortable taking him inside of the top-three selections.

Here are my current top-three picks in fantasy drafts of all shapes and sizes:

  1. Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey
  2. Giants running back Saquon Barkley
  3. Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott

Additionally, Alvin Kamara is a safer pick considering both his better injury history along with the Saints’ longer track record of success on offense.

This leaves the following backs as Gordon’s prime competition:

Gordon is currently the PPR RB5 in average draft position. He represents the best of the second-tier of fantasy football backs: lead backs with three-down ability that are expected to function on an above-average offense. I’d take my chances with both Gordon and Johnson after the top-four running backs before considering any wide receivers.

Gun to my head though, I’d take D.J. over Gordon.

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