Melvin Gordon Will Exceed Expectations in Fantasy Football This Year
Holdout season notwithstanding, we're used to seeing Gordon in the top ten running backs drafted on a yearly basis. This season, Gordon is going 27th overall, according to Bestball10's ADP -- the 16th back off the board.
By landing in Denver, Gordon lands with a team that has generated a fair amount of enthusiasm. Drew Lock may or may not be the answer, but he played well enough to provide some hope for this offense. That hope was bolstered by the draft picks of wideouts Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler, as well as the signings of guard Graham Glasnow and Gordon himself.
Despite optimism for the mile-high offense, some question exactly what Gordon's role will be, in large part because of the presence of Phillip Lindsay. It's hard not to root for the 5'8", 190-pound undrafted free agent who has rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons and has done nothing but exceed expectations at every turn. Despite this, Lindsay is unlikely to serve as the kind of roadblock that many fear.
Gordon's contract and skillset speak to a larger role. We'll look at that and what it means for his fantasy value and draft position.
According to Over The Cap, Gordon has a cap number of exactly $7 million in 2020. That corresponds to 3.5% of the overall salary cap. Seeing that number may not overwhelm initially, but for a running back, it is a substantial commitment.
Gordon is only the ninth-highest-paid running back, but that's in large part due to some bigger contracts that are finally catching up to the teams that dished that out. In 2019, that 3.5% salary cap number would have made him the eighth-highest paid running back relative to the league's salary cap. In 2018, it would have been the fifth-highest such figure. While the contract was likely a disappointment for Gordon, it still indicates that he is viewed highly.
Gordon's contract also speaks to the mindset of the Denver front office. Were they truly happy with Lindsay, that valuable cap space could have gone towards other needs.
Typically, teams would be happy with a Pro Bowl back who has rushed for 1,000 yards in his first two professional seasons, but Lindsay is fundamentally different from most NFL running backs.
The Threat of Phillip Lindsay
Despite an excellent career as a member of the Colorado Buffaloes, posting an 87th percentile college dominator and a 93rd percentile college target share (via Player Profiler), Lindsay entered the league as an undrafted free agent. The reasoning is not quite that mysterious -- it's because he's small.
Those same height and weight concerns are also probably what led to the Broncos signing Gordon.
In many cases, undersized backs who were productive in college transition to satellite backs in the NFL. As was mentioned, Lindsay excelled in that facet of the game in college, but for whatever reason, he has struggled to catch passes in the NFL. In fact, Lindsay's been a lot closer to a two-down grinder than a satellite back, being out-targeted by Devontae Booker and Royce Freeman, respectively, in each of his first two seasons.
In 2019, among backs with at least 40 targets, Lindsay ranked 29th in Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) per reception, 28th in Target NEP per target, 29th in Reception NEP per target, and 31st in both Reception and Target Success Rate (i.e., the percentage of receptions and targets leading to increases in NEP).
All of that bodes well for Gordon -- who fared better in each of those categories the last two seasons -- seeing work as a receiver.
If Lindsay can't outproduce Booker and Freeman in the passing game, he certainly won't outproduce Gordon. In Gordon's lone 16-game season, he garnered 83 targets. Despite playing just 12 games each in 2018 and 2019, Gordon was targeted 55 and 66 times, respectively. He's also been more efficient than Lindsay with 0.35 Reception NEP per reception in 2019 and 0.57 in 2018 (compared to 0.26 and 0.33 for Lindsay, respectively). While there's certainly some team-dependence here, Gordon is clearly the superior pass-catcher.
Gordon struggled as a rookie in terms of Rushing NEP per carry, but has either been near league average or exceeded it in every season since. While Gordon fared better than Lindsay in that category in 2018 (0.15 to 0.12), Lindsay had the edge in 2019 (0.03 to -0.05). Of course, Rushing NEP is even more team-dependent than Receiving NEP.
Whether the Denver offensive line will help or hurt Gordon's case remains to be seen.
The Broncos lost Ron Leary and Connor McGovern from this group but gained Glasgow via free agency, as well as Lloyd Cushenberry and Netane Muti through the draft. Internally, Ja'Wuan James should be healthier, and Dalton Risner enters his second year. It wouldn't be a shock to see this become a top ten unit, but there are question marks, especially at center.
Gordon recently turned 27, which puts him past the age running backs typically peak, but not by much. Drafting a 27-year-old back is not much of a gamble in the 3rd round.
Also notable, despite the fact that Lindsay entered the league three years after Gordon, he's less than a year and a half younger. In drafts, Gordon's also going in a spot filled with veteran backs like Le'Veon Bell and David Johnson, so you're not necessarily passing on younger backs to draft him.
Role and Projection
Gordon has largely been a three-down back throughout his career, and to some degree, he'll be that again in 2020. If he's his usual effective self, that can go a long way in helping the Broncos going over their projected win total of 7.5.
Gordon's salary dictates that he'll be the main runner, and unless Lindsay regains some pass-catching magic, he'll be the primary receiver among running backs as well.
Our projections place Gordon as the RB22 -- pegging him for 1191.1 total yards, 31.4 receptions, and 8.82 scores. That line would have made him the RB17 last year.
For what it’s worth, I’m more bullish than that. Be that as it may, Gordon is neither a steal or overpriced. However, if he stays healthy for the full season, it’s easy to see how he outperforms his draft cost.
He’s not a player you’re likely to target so much as a player you’ll just kind of end up with, but when you do end up with him, you shouldn’t feel at all bad about it. Because he’s in one of the best spots possible for an RB2.