It was pretty shocking that the Chargers missed the playoffs in 2017.  They seemingly had it all:  Melvin Gordon as their true workhorse running back that they could lean on when they got ahead.  Philip Rivers as a fringe-elite quarterback.  Stud wide receiver Keenan Allen finally put together a healthy season.  They had a nasty duo of young elite pass rushers.  And they even had three top-10 cornerbacks according to Pro Football Focus (and that isn’t counting former Pro Bowler Jason Verrett coming off of injury).

For 2018, the Chargers opted to improve their offensive line, which might have been their only weakness.  2017’s second-round pick, Forrest Lamp, is returning from a knee injury that cost him his rookie season.  They also signed center Mike Pouncey to add some stability to the middle of the unit.  These guys should give Rivers extra protection and help improve Gordon’s efficiency.

Discounted Bell-Cow

Why Melvin Gordon Will Finish the Season as a Top 3 RB (fantasy football)People are willing to give up an arm and a leg for a bell-cow back this season.  Many fantasy analysts are touting the importance of a top-5 pick in redraft leagues, as you can get one of the signature bell-cows and then have two value picks in rounds 2/3.  But many are forgetting that Melvin Gordon, who is available at the end of the first round, was third in carries, seventh in targets, and third in red zone touches last season.

The biggest knock on Gordon was his efficiency.  He has yet to average 4.0 yards per carry in a season.  But I think most of that is simply from the Chargers misusing him.

Misunderstood Usage

According to data from Warren Sharp’s 2018 Football Preview, the Chargers used multiple tight ends to run the ball on 45 percent of Gordon’s rushes.  This was largely due to the Chargers felt obligated to play Antonio Gates in his final season, and they also couldn’t keep Hunter Henry’s talent hidden on the bench.  In these multiple tight end sets, Gordon averaged 3.05 yards per carry.  When they ran out of 11 personnel (1RB, 1TE, 3WR), Gordon’s yards per carry spiked to 5.3.

For whatever reason, the Chargers only ran Gordon out of 11 personnel on 39 percent of his carries.  Gordon is clearly better when the defense is spread out with extra defensive backs to account for the three receivers in the formation.  When everything is compressed with multiple tight ends, Gordon can’t use his elusiveness to generate extra yards.  That should change now that Gates is retired and Henry is out for the season, not to mention their incredibly deep wide receiver depth chart.  This should force the Chargers into running out of 11 personnel more, benefitting Gordon’s efficiency.

Backfield Competition?

Why Melvin Gordon Will Finish the Season as a Top 3 RB (fantasy football)Some may be concerned about the emergence of Austin Ekeler last season.  In week 10 against Jacksonville, Ekeler exploded for 119 total yards and two touchdowns on 15 touches.  The Chargers thought Ekeler was so good in that game that they gave him six touches per game in his final five games, while Melvin Gordon received 22.8 touches per game over the rest of the season.  In other words, the 5’9″, 199-pound Ekeler poses no threat to Gordon’s workload.

Receiving Prowess

Gordon is already an accomplished receiver, commanding 140 targets in 29 games over the last few seasons (nearly five per game).  To Gordon’s dismay, most of these are screens and check-downs, but his role could shift with Hunter Henry’s injury.

Eric D. Williams of ESPN reported that Gordon wants to diversity his routes this upcoming season.  He has also been working on his route running with Chargers legend LaDainian Tomlinson, who caught 530 passes in his career with the team.  If Gordon can incorporate more downfield routes into his workload, we could see a Todd Gurley-like receiving explosion this season.

Positive Game Scripts

The Chargers also expect to see the third-easiest schedule, according to Warren Sharp’s 2018 Football Preview.  This will give Gordon positive game scripts all season long, which will lead to more carries and scoring opportunities.

Why Melvin Gordon Will Finish the Season as a Top 3 RB (fantasy football)Speaking of scoring opportunities, Gordon was already third among running backs in red zone touches with 57.  Of his 49 red zone carries, 14 of them came from inside the 5-yard line, tied for third in the NFLHunter Henry and Antonio Gates also vacated 23 red zone targets, which will likely be spread between Keenan Allen and Melvin Gordon (targets and carries).

If the Chargers improve their offensive efficiency from their easy schedule even slightly, Gordon’s immense scoring upside will only grow.  Gordon should be in line for a massive workload, which he has already proved he can handle in the NFL and throughout his college career.

Our rankings at GoingFor2 have Gordon as the consensus ninth running back and 17th player overall.  If I’m drafting towards the end of the first round/early second, I’ll happily take him as a discount bell-cow.

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