Melvin Gordon would be harder to replace than most people realize

Los Angeles Chargers, NFL

Melvin Gordon seems to have very little leverage with the Chargers, and that might be true, but he’d be harder to replace than what you might think.

It’s easy to laugh at Melvin Gordon’s most recent demands.

When news leaked that Gordon, the star running back for the Los Angeles Chargers, was prepared to hold out from training camp and demand a trade if the team would not pony up a new extension worthy of his production, the collective gasp had nothing to do with Bolts faithful worried about drama with Gordon. Instead it was sheer surprise that the running back would even try to pull a stunt like this.

That’s not to say that Gordon is a dime-a-dozen back. He is not. Just last season, Gordon missed four games last season—mostly due to a strained knee—yet still made the Pro Bowl. It was his second such appearance after also making it his sophomore season in 2016. Each and every year has yielded serious improvement on the part of Gordon, and there’s every reason to believe he could close in on a 2,000-yard season on the ground and through the air.

Ever since he was held without a single touchdown during his rookie campaign, Gordon has averaged nearly 13 scores per season in the following three seasons. Last year was the first time he’d averaged more than 4.0 yards/carry and he shattered that ceiling with an impressive 5.1 mark. He’s also markedly better as a pass-catching back now than he was when he first entered the NFL. His 75% catch rate in 2018 came on 66 targets, showing a remarkable efficiency out of the backfield (and that quarterback Philip Rivers could lean on Gordon much more if he liked).

What is clear: Gordon is a quality running back who deserves to be mentioned among the upper-tier of players who start from week to week. Here’s what is also clear, at least on the surface: Gordon picked an unexpected battle at an even more surprising time.

From Gordon’s perspective, he’s frustrated to still be on his rookie contract in his fifth season in the league. He’s scheduled to hit free agency next year, and the Chargers have yet to show their appreciation for him in the way that matters most—financially. He’s making more than ever via the fifth-year player option at $5.605 million in 2019, but Gordon is without a safety net after this season and he’s ready to be paid as a top-tier back.

The immediate pushback against the news that Gordon would sit out of training camp and/or demand a trade comes for a few primary reasons:

  1. Giving a running back a major payday hardly ever works out well for all parties involved. There’s no way the L.A. Rams would pay Todd Gurley as early as they did if given a mulligan, and there are myriad reasons why Le’Veon Bell didn’t get his major extension with the team that drafted him. There’s no easier position to replace in the NFL than running back. That’s not a slight against Gordon; it’s the reality of the position he plays.
  2. In the four games that Gordon missed in 2018, the Chargers went 4-0. If a player has the sort of pull to move a front office to action with his leaked demands, he should also have the same pull on the field to carry that same team. Instead, it seems like the Chargers are good with or without their starting running back.
  3. Going back to the first point, the Chargers have enjoyed some nice production behind Gordon over the last year. Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson remain on the depth chart behind Gordon heading into the 2019 season, and the pair averaged 5.2 and 4.5 yards per carry, respectively, last season for the Bolts.

At this point, it seems like an open-and-shut case to not pay Gordon. That may very well be true, but the idea that the Chargers can simply move on due to a quick hit list of stats fails to tell the whole story. Gordon might not be worth the money in the end, but it doesn’t mean he wouldn’t be missed if/when he ever leaves Southern California.

Austin Ekeler is the presumed starter should Gordon decide to skip a game (or if the team traded him). On the surface, it looks as if the Bolts might not miss Gordon much at all. However, Ekeler had a chance to showcase what he could do last year in three starts for L.A. and the results weren’t all that great.

In Week 7 against the Tennessee Titans, Ekeler rushed 12 times for 42 yards (3.5 yards/carry) and caught 5 passes for 26 yards. In Week 12 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Ekeler hit a low point with only 21 rushing yards on 13 carries despite the Chargers walking away with a 33-30 win late in the season. That’s a pitiful 1.6 yards/carry average, and his five catches for 22 yards didn’t help that much more through the air.

In Ekeler’s next start in Week 13, he experienced more success against the Cincinnati Bengals with 66 rushing yards on 15 carries (4.4 yards/carry) to go with 2 catches for 28 yards. Yet even this pales in comparison with Gordon’s average of 115 yards from scrimmage per game.

The same can be said for Justin Jackson’s lone start last season. The former seventh round pick certainly hasn’t been given the sort of chance to blossom as others, but in his lone start in 2018 (against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 14), Jackson had 16 carries for 58 yards (3.6 yards/carry) and 3 catches for 27 yards.

The numbers look even worse for both Ekeler and Jackson in the playoffs last season. Even though both were very productive spelling Gordon at times during the regular season, Ekeler and Jackson combined for a 2.71 yards/rushing average in two postseason appearances (38 rushing yards on 14 carries).

Look, these takes are a bit unfair to Ekeler and Jackson since neither has been given the starter’s role for any real length of time. These sample sizes are way too short to assume too much about their future production and both players are likely to get better with more familiarity in the driver’s seat. These are both young promising backs who might be able to do Gordon-esque damage if given the chance.

However it’s also true that these sample sizes cannot be so easily applied on the positive side to explain why Gordon would be so easily replaced. Ekeler looks good in spurts behind a Pro Bowl back. On his own, the numbers don’t look so hot. Jackson is a nice depth piece, but again there’s nothing there to really impress upon a general manager that he should go ahead and trade his star back because the rest of the depth chart is ready to handle the load.

Ekeler and Jackson both might have bright futures in the NFL and even with the Chargers, but right now, it’s hard to argue with the fact that holding on to Melvin Gordon is in the Chargers best interest at this point.

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