At the NFL Combine, news broke that the Denver Broncos and their Denver Broncos director of Football Analytics would mutually part ways. Last Friday, John Elway made it clear that he does not subscribe to the countless research on running back value when he decided to sign former Charger Melvin Gordon to a 2-year, $16,000,000 contract with $13,500,000 guaranteed. His $8 million average ranks 6th in the league for all running backs.
So with Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman on the roster, what did the signing do for the Broncos, exactly? Why did they make the move in the first place? How does Gordon fit the Pat Shurmur offense? I dove into the film to try and find out.
What does Melvin Gordon add to the offense?
I believe it’s fair to say that if the coaching staff and Elway were happy with where Royce Freeman was at in his career, they would not have brought Gordon in. I also believe that Pat Shurmur’s offense is a big part of why Gordon became a priority, as he prefers a true workhorse running back.
Right or wrong, there appeared to be hesitation in making Phillip Lindsay that guy in 2019. The Broncos only ever gave their undrafted Pro Bowler 25 touches in a game once, and he only hit 20 touches three times all year. Compare that to Saquon Barkley, who did so 21 times in 29 games under Shurmur. Over the 67 games Gordon played with the Chargers, he averaged 19 touches a game. He hit 20 totes early and often.
Gordon’s pay and Shurmur’s history suggests he will now become the Broncos’ RB1 and Lindsay will become a clear backup and relief pitcher. Consider this: his primary running back averaged more than four times the carries his next back did over his tenure with the New York Giants. When Shurmur was Offensive Coordinator with the Minnesota Vikings in 2017, Dalvin Cook had 55 more carries than his backups combined for at the time of his season-ending injury.
What are his strengths?
Beyond Gordon’s ability to soak up touches, he also has solid athletic ability. Standing at 6’ and 215 lbs, he meets the desired size most teams have for a running back with quick feet and strong legs and core. His lateral mobility stands out, even if he isn’t the kind of slalom runner Lindsay is.
The 6th year veteran brings very good play strength to the position, due in no small part to his contact balance. Tacklers who come in too high or don’t properly wrap him off will find it harder to bring him down, and he brings this physicality to his blocking responsibilities.
Gordon’s vision is good. He does a nice job of manipulating defenders with his intentions, which gives the blocking a chance to get into optimal position. This is most evident on Anthony Lynn’s pin and pull sweeps, but also shows up on stretch plays, Duo, and a number of other concepts.
Beyond his ability to see the hole, what really stands out about Gordon as a running back is how well he gets through trash. He does a nice job of high stepping over limbs and fallen bodies. He will shake arm tackles. More than once I’ve seen him make something out of nothing in the hole to maximize his carry. He’s a violent runner who’s going to engage opponents and can be tough to take down once he builds up a head of steam.
As a receiver, Gordon is solid. He shows good hands with an ability to track and catch the ball behind him and beneath his waist. He’s quick to tuck the ball and prevent opportunities to bat it out of his possession. After making the reception, he immediately turns into a runner to maximize the play.
One area where the former Charger does represent a big upgrade for Denver is as a pass protector. He has all the makings of a very good pass blocker. He’s physical in how he’ll engage with a blitzer down the pipe, and he’s got the feel for how to chip an edge rusher so as to help his tackle rather than disrupt the initial block.
What are his weaknesses?
Over the course of Melvin Gordon’s career, he’s battled an alarming number of lower body injuries. It’s noteworthy that the veteran running back has only ever played in a full season once in his five year career. Even discounting 2019 because he missed time due to a contract dispute instead of injury, he’s missed 9 games over the first four years of his career and played hurt through others, which had a notable impact on his game to game consistency. Worse yet, this does not seem like something that will improve as he continues to accumulate mileage.
Like the vast majority of running backs, Gordon is very dependent on his offensive line for his production. Quick penetration can stop him dead in his tracks if he doesn’t have any momentum built up and because he’s an adequate accelerator from a stop this shows up time and again. It is really noticeable on runs between the tackles and plays a part in the fact that only once during his career with the Chargers he had better than 4 yards per carry over a season.
Gordon is adequate in the open field. He is not a true home run threat defenses will have to account for. There is some concern over whether it was the holdout or knee injury late in 2018 that slowed him down last year. He was 5th in yards after contact in 2018 and broke tackles on a higher percentage than all but 3 other players. Last year he fell back to 14th.
Since Pat Shurmur’s hire, there has been some misconceptions about the Broncos running game, with some believing it would change to a “Power Gap” system.
In 2019, Denver ran a hybrid zone/gap scheme, and with the retention of Mike Munchak, they should continue to do so. Melvin Gordon is a solid zone runner but he’s at his best on gap runs to the outside where he can get out into space. The Broncos were already using Dalton Risner on plays like Counter O/F and what Madden players would recognize as HB Base.
Adding Graham Glasgow to the offensive line should open up the ability to pull and lead with guards in either direction, which should only help accentuate Gordon’s strengths as an outside runner.
As far as the passing game, while the conventional narrative paints him as a special receiver, Gordon is a functional route runner, not a special one. Anthony Lynn did split him out on occasion as a decoy, but in the film I watched, the vast majority of his receptions came as a result of check downs by Philip Rivers, a quarterback notorious for his use of running backs in the passing game. It should be telling that in 2019 the Chargers treated as the third running back in their two minute offense, behind both Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson.
If you listened to my and Jeffrey Essary’s episode of Cover 2 Broncos where we covered the Pat Shurmur offense, you’ll know that this isn’t necessarily damning. Outside of a few vertical concepts with Saquon Barkley, Shurmur rarely asked more of his running backs in the passing game than your run of the mill NFL offense.
I do believe there is reason to see Gordon as a solid addition to the roster so long as he can maintain some degree of health in 2020. He’s an upgrade over Royce Freeman in the Munchak offense and does offer more to the passing game than Lindsay did previously.