The running back position is one of the most controversial topics across the NFL landscape. Their value is in a constant state of inquiry, and plenty of drama is arising because of it.
Le’Veon Bell sat out an entire season because Pittsburgh wouldn’t give him the money he desired, and it seems as if Melvin Gordon may do the same.
It’s actually smart for tailbacks to do this. They know they have become devalued, and they need to garner all the money they can get before they’re inevitably forgotten about. Running backs tend to have a short shelf-life; most are lucky to play past age 30. Melvin Gordon knows he doesn’t have a lot of time to make his money.
Conversely, the Chargers are smart to be hesitant to pay Gordon, but why? He’s undoubtedly a good player, and high-quality players deserve high-quality money, right? It’s just the nature of the running back position.
2018 Did Not Help Running Back Value
Last season, Le’Veon Bell, arguably the best halfback in the league at the time, notably sat out the entire year. It became the biggest talking point of the entire offseason, but the Pittsburgh offense was the perfect anecdote. James Conner slid right into the lead role, and the offense did not lose a beat.
Kareem Hunt was suspended and released from the Kansas City Chiefs, and people were expecting a drop off from the offense. Damien Williams, a player not many people outside of Kansas City and Miami knew, slid right in and it was tough to notice a difference.
The same type of situation occurred for the Super Bowl runner-up. Todd Gurley was, at certain points of the season, viewed as an MVP candidate. It was probably unwarranted, but his gaudy numbers had many fans in awe. He became clearly hampered by injury in the tail end of the season, and many thought it would derail the Rams’ offense. C.J. Anderson came in off the couch, visibly out of shape, and produced comparably.
Le’Veon Bell, Kareem Hunt, and Todd Gurley are all better players than James Conner, Damien Williams, and C.J. Anderson. That’s the whole idea behind it though; an average-level running back can produce nearly the same output as a fantastic rusher.
Just Tough Luck for Melvin Gordon
Melvin Gordon deserves credit for a fantastic 2018 campaign. Over 900 yards and 12 touchdowns are impressive box-score numbers, but that’s not all. According to PFF, Gordon ranked seventh in forced missed tackles per attempt, as well as fifth in percentage of runs that picked up a first down or touchdown. Not only does Gordon have the volume, but he does it efficiently as well.
The problem for Gordon is this: rushing production is largely predicated on a variety of other factors within the game. To name a few, the run blocking up front, the strength of the opposing run defense, the number of defenders in the box, and the offensive scheme are all more important than the actual talent of the rusher.
The place where running backs are truly able to add differential value lies within the passing game. It’s why a lot of modern football analytics find players like Alvin Kamara, Saquon Barkley and Christian McCaffrey to be more valuable than someone like Ezekiel Elliott.
It Won’t Take Much to Replace Him
With the exception of a small group of running backs, their production in the passing game isn’t much different than others. Gordon is effective as a receiver, but his backup Austin Ekeler is arguably better.
On the subject of Ekeler, he is more than enough to replace Gordon, if he were to leave. He was actually more efficient than Gordon, averaging more yards per carry and yards per reception than his counterpart. They’re extremely similar in their effectiveness, but the difference is that Ekeler is about to be a lot cheaper.
The biggest stat? Los Angeles went 4-0 without Melvin Gordon in the lineup in 2018.
The Chargers have a lot of young talent on their team, at more important positions. Philip Rivers is going to need a new contract soon, as will receiving threats Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, and Hunter Henry. Defenders Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, Derwin James, Casey Hayward, and Desmond King are all fantastic players at premium positions, and each one will demand a new contract in the relatively near future.
All of those players are more valuable to the Los Angeles Chargers than Gordon. Giving their running back $15 million will strongly hurt their chances of resigning most of those players.
It’s not Gordon’s fault that the nature of his position doesn’t generate a lot of value. He’s a great player who will likely remain a great lead back, it’s just out of his control. The bottom line is that the likes of Austin Ekeler or a running back-by-committee approach will generate roughly equal value, at a fraction of the price.
Hopefully, Gordon doesn’t sit out the season, because he’s a fantastic player and makes the game more enjoyable to watch. He shouldn’t expect to get paid what he desires, though. It’s just the nature of the business.