Melvin Gordon – The Broncos New RB1

By The Hudsonian, Joshua Hudson

RIP Royce Freeman.

For clarification, no, Freeman didn’t die. But the moment the Denver Broncos ventured into free agency and plucked Melvin Gordon from their division rival Los Angeles Chargers, Freeman’s time in Denver has essentially flat-lined. Maybe another team will take the Rolls Royce out of the garage and give it the TLC it deserves, but until then — RIP.

However, we’re not here to talk about Freeman (sadly). We’re here to discuss the impact of Gordon in Denver. The presence of Phillip Lindsay in the backfield has people writing off Gordon like he’s never teamed with a second running back before. Gordon just turned 27 and signed a two-year deal this off-season. He’s in the prime of his career and has shown the ability to handle heavy workloads, despite only playing one full season over his five years in the league. So what can we really expect from Gordon heading into 2020? Let’s find out.

First, it’s important to look at coaching. Not only is Gordon changing systems while moving from the Chargers to the Broncos, but the Broncos parted ways with last year’s Offensive Coordinator Rich Scangarello and hired former Giants Head Coach Pat Shurmur to be their new play caller. Shurmur’s experience as a play caller is extensive, with stops in St. Louis (Rams), Cleveland, Philadelphia, Minnesota, and New York (Giants).

When looking at Shurmur’s history as a play caller, he likes to lean on one running back to handle a bulk of the touches. He had Steven Jackson in St. Louis (over 300 carries, 60 targets, and 45 receptions each year); Trent Richardson in Cleveland (267 carries, 70 targets, and 51 receptions in 2012); LeSean McCoy (314 carries, 64 targets, and 52 receptions in 2013 and over 300 carries again in 2014) in Philadelphia; and Saquon Barkley in New York (averaged over 16 carries per game and over 20 touches per game the last two seasons).

That being said, he’s also had experience with split backfields. I’m hard pressed to believe this was a preference, but he showed an ability to adapt when needed. Cleveland in 2011 saw Peyton Hillis, Montario Hardesty, and Chris Ogbonnaya combine for 322 carries, 86 targets, and 59 receptions. (It should be noted that Hillis only played 10 games that year and averaged 16.1 carries/game.) Philadelphia in 2014 saw DeMarco Murray, Ryan Mathews, and Darren Sproles combine for 382 carries, 166 targets, and 119 receptions. (Sproles led the passing game with 83 targets and 55 receptions, while Murray carried the load on the ground with 193 rushes.)

During his time in Minnesota, Shurmur dealt with split backfields due to injury in back-to-back seasons — 2016 and 2017. In 2016, Adrian Peterson suffered an injury that kept him out most of the year, and Shurmur had to rely on Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon. Those two combined for 280 carries, 91 targets, and 75 receptions. In 2017, the Vikings drafted Dalvin Cook in the second round. He only played in four games and the load then fell in the hands of Latavius Murray and McKinnon. Those two combined for 366 carries, 85 targets, and 66 receptions. (It should be noted that Cook averaged 18.5 carries per game over the first four games.)

If we just focus on Weeks 5-17, when Murray and McKinnon were the lead backs, their 16-game pace falls in line with some of Shurmur’s best work as a play caller — 456 carries, 95 targets, and 74 receptions.

The biggest debate when looking at this data is whether we view Gordon as a workhorse in the Jackson/McCoy/Barkley mold or we look at Gordon in tandem with Lindsay in a running-back-by-committee split. Let’s start by looking at Gordon’s career touches per game:

Year Games Played Rushes Rushes/Game Targets Targets/Game Recs Rec/

Game

Touches/Game Fantasy PPG (Weeks 1-17)
2015 14 184 13.1 37 2.6 33 2.4 15.5 7.7
2016 13 254 19.5 57 4.4 41 3.2 22.7 19.3
2017 16 284 17.8 83 5.2 58 3.6 21.4 18.0
2018 12 175 14.6 66 5.5 50 4.2 18.8 23.0
2019 12 162 13.5 55 4.6 42 3.5 17.0 15.1

Here’s a look at the running backs Gordon has been paired with over the first five years of his career:

Year RB2 Games Played Rushes Rushes/Game Targets Targets/Game Recs Rec/

Game

Touches/Game Fantasy PPG (Weeks 1-17)
2015 Danny Woodhead 16 98 6.1 106 6.6 80 5.0 11.1 15.3
2016 Kenneth Farrow 13 60 4.6 16 1.2 13 1.0 5.6 3.4
2017 Austin Ekeler 16 47 2.9 35 2.2 27 1.7 4.6 7.6
2018 Austin Ekeler 14 106 7.6 53 3.8 39 2.8 10.4 12.1
2019 Austin Ekeler 16 132 8.3 108 6.8 92 5.8 14.0 19.3

We’ll give Gordon a mulligan for his rookie year. The last four years, he’s topped 15 fantasy points per game. The last two years, that’s co-existed with Ekeler topping 12 fantasy points per game. Gordon’s 15+ PPG came with him averaging 17 or more touches per game. Suffice to say, he’s been in more of a committee the last two years and has still been an effective and useful fantasy running back.

Now let’s look at Lindsay the last couple of years:

Year Games Played Rushes Rushes/Game Targets Targets/Game Recs Rec/

Game

Touches/Game Fantasy PPG (Weeks 1-17)
2018 15 192 12.8 47 3.1 35 2.3 15.1 14.9
2019 16 224 14 48 3.0 35 2.2 16.2 12.4

Gordon’s last two seasons with Ekeler, the two of them combined for 29.2 and 31.0 touches per game. Lindsay the last two years has topped 15 touches per game. When looking at Shurmur’s history with running two or more backs, it’s not out of the realm that Gordon and Lindsay can combine for 30+ touches per game, with Gordon and Linsday fairly even in rushes and Gordon outpacing Lindsay in the receiving game, where Lindsay is an average at best pass catcher (and pass blocker).

We as fantasy managers know that what can make or break a fantasy campaign is touchdowns. If you need further evidence, just look at Gordon’s rookie season when he scored all of ZERO TOUCHDOWNS. Big gross. Lindsay has averaged 8.5 total touchdowns over his first two seasons. Gordon has averaged 11.75 total touchdowns over the last four years. Both have actually been viable options in the red zone as well:

Melvin Gordon Red Zone rushes
Year Team 10-zone Rushes Gordon 10-zone rushes % of Team attempts Team 10-zone TDs Gordon 10-zone TDs Team TDs inside the 5 Gordon TDs inside 5
2016 35 29 0.83 10 10 9 9
2017 37 27 0.73 6 6 5 5
2018 27 10 0.37 9 5 6 3
2019 36 20 0.56 11 7 9 6
Phillip Lindsay Red Zone rushes
Year Team 10-zone Rushes Lindsay 10-zone rushes % of Team attempts Team 10-zone TDs Lindsay 10-zone TDs Team TDs inside 5 Lindsay TDs inside 5
2018 27 15 0.56 12 6 10 5
2019 29 12 0.41 9 5 9 5

It’s clear to see that both have a nose for the end zone. So how will Shurmur work these two in the red zone? Here is how he operated in the red zone when calling rushing plays:

Pat Shurmur Red Zone Rushes
Year Team 10-zone Rushes RB1 10-zone rushes % of Team attempts Team 10-zone TDs RB1 10-zone TDs Team TDs inside the 5 RB1 TDs inside 5
2016 44 29 0.66 9 6 7 5
2017 40 22 0.55 13 7 10 6
2018 40 30 0.75 8 6 7 5
2019 30 16 0.53 8 3 4 1

Shurmur likes to run the ball when he gets close. The touchdown numbers suggest he’s willing to use more than one guy to run the ball so there should be plenty of TDs for both.

What will help Shurmur’s cause is the offensive line. Coming from New York, it’s no secret the Giants have had a shoddy offensive line the last two years (PFF ranked the Giants with the 17th best line in 2019, up from 21st in 2018). The Broncos themselves made a big jump from 2018 to 2019 as well, climbing from 24th in 2018 up to 12th in 2019. RT Ja’Wuan James, who missed all of 2019 due to injury, will return and Denver signed G Graham Glasgow (a top 10 guard in 2019, per PFF) to bolster the interior of the line.

When I did my initial projections, I had Gordon as RB9 and Lindsay as RB36. A lot of that is on Gordon’s ability to find the end zone — I have Gordon scoring 13 TDs (3 receiving) and Lindsay with 6 TDs (2 receiving) — because he’s only topped 4 yards per carry once in his five-year career. With a better line in Denver, Gordon should be able to sneak past that mark, but I don’t believe he’s blowing it out of the water.

When I tweak my rankings as the summer progresses, I think Gordon’s share of the carries will decrease. I have him at 234 and Lindsay at 144. I won’t be surprised to see Lindsay top 160 where Gordon could be closer to 215 as he’s only played a full 16 games once in five years. At 15 carries a game, Gordon would be at 240. Gordon averages 13.4 games played per season, so 15 carries a game puts him down to 201.

Shurmur’s red zone offense gives Gordon upside based on his current ADP (RB17 via FantasyPros). Lindsay’s ADP of RB41 just screams value with what he can bring to the table via volume and TDs. If your plan on draft day is to load up at running back, Gordon is a value in the 3rd/4th round because of his potential upside. Or, just sit back and wait to scoop up Lindsay because he will undoubtedly outplay his ADP.

One thing is for certain though– you won’t have to worry about Royce Freeman. Sad face.