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Contextualizing Melvin Gordon’s touchdowns

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Melvin Gordon has some eye popping touchdown numbers, but those are mainly a result of opportunity.

When the Melvin Gordon signing was announced, one of the key stats that I have continually seen brought up in regards to Gordon is his touchdown numbers. This is with good reason, as he ranks 5th in the entire league in total touchdowns among skill players since he entered the NFL in 2015.

While this is certainly an accomplishment to be lauded, it also requires a little bit of closer scrutiny and context, if we are going to use it as a measure of his skill or effectiveness as a back.

Disclosure before we jump into this, lest you think I’m just attempting to further my opinion or downplay the acquisition; I’m on the fence with the Gordon signing. I am not a fan of the amount of money he was given, and don’t think in general that spending large amounts of resources on running backs (draft or cap) is a wise team building strategy. Exceptions to this would be a guy like Christian McCaffrey who I would pay big bucks to, but that’s getting off topic.

However, I like that Gordon brings to Denver what they hoped Royce Freeman could be, a bellcow style back who will allow Phillip Lindsay to be a rotational/change of pace style guy to keep him fresh. I think Gordon could be the thunder to Lindsay’s lightning. With that, let’s dig into what some are hailing as Gordon’s biggest asset, his nose for the end zone.

Volume and Opportunity

The crux of the touchdown narrative that should always accompany any discussion or mention of Gordon’s massive total is his volume and opportunity.

We can see when looking across the league, that with few exceptions, the biggest indicator of scoring touchdowns for running backs is number of touches near the goal line, and just overall touches.

On that note, when looking across the top 10 players in total touchdowns in the league over the last five years we see this:

Todd Gurley - 70
Mark Ingram - 50
Ezekiel Elliott- 48
David Johnson - 48
Melvin Gordon - 47
Devonta Freeman - 41
Derrick Henry - 41
Christian McCaffrey - 39
Latavius Murray - 38
Alvin Kamara - 37

First off, holy cow Todd Gurley. Now, let’s look at the top players in touches over that same time frame.

Total touches since 2015

Player Total TDs Total Touches
Player Total TDs Total Touches
Todd Gurley 70 1483
Ezekiel Elliott 48 1358
Melvin Gordon 47 1283
Le'Veon Bell 27 1190
LeSean McCoy 35 1189
Mark Ingram 50 1142
Devonta Freeman 41 1113
Latavius Murray 38 1108
Carlos Hyde 31 1106
Adrian Peterson 26 1063
Lamar Miller 28 1049
David Johnson 48 989
Jordan Howard 32 979
Christian McCaffrey 39 926
Derrick Henry 41 861
LeGarrette Blount 33 822
DeMarco Murray 26 806
Tevin Coleman 36 778
Alvin Kamara 37 728
Jonathan Stewart 23 696
Marlon Mack 22 587
Aaron Jones 32 534
Jeremy Hill 21 527

A little bit of movement with guys like McCaffrey and David Johnson dropping down for some higher volume guys, but many of the same guys are in the top of touches that were leaders in touchdowns.

So now that we have those two vectors that are just volume stats, let’s look at the rate at which these guys are scoring compared to their touches. At the very top is Aaron Jones who scores TDs at a crazy clip compared to his total touches.

TD % of total touches

Player TD %
Player TD %
Aaron Jones 5.99%
Jeremy Hill 5.45%
Alvin Kamara 5.08%
David Johnson 4.85%
Derrick Henry 4.76%
Todd Gurley 4.72%
Tevin Coleman 4.63%
Mark Ingram 4.38%
Christian McCaffrey 4.21%
LeGarrette Blount 4.01%
Devonta Freeman 3.68%
Melvin Gordon 3.66%
Ezekiel Elliott 3.53%
Latavius Murray 3.43%
Jonathan Stewart 3.30%
Marlon Mack 3.30%
Jordan Howard 3.27%
DeMarco Murray 3.23%
LeSean McCoy 2.94%
Carlos Hyde 2.80%
Lamar Miller 2.67%
Adrian Peterson 2.45%
Le'Veon Bell 2.27%

As we can see here, Gordon ranks right around the middle of the pack from an efficiency stand point. Now, keeping in mind that rate stats will typically favor those with lower volume. It’s still telling that even high volume guys like Todd Gurley, Mark Ingram have been more efficient with their touches. Of course, it’s likely not a coincidence those guys also played for really strong offenses.

So that’s the volume portion, from a pure touch perspective, but there’s another aspect to look at as well when it comes to running backs. As anyone who has played fantasy football know, for most backs the majority of their TD production comes from not only a high volume of touches in general, but a high volume of touches on the goal line.

Let’s see how these backs shake out in that area. As we saw above, no running backs over the last five years have touched the ball more than Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, and Melvin Gordon. The same is true inside the 10 as well.

The top five backs with the most touches inside the are:

Todd Gurley - 140
Mark Ingram - 111
Ezekiel Elliott - 106
Melvin Gordon - 104
Latavius Murray - 93

The follow up to this then is what these guys did inside the 10 with those touches, so let take a look at how efficient they were down on the goal line with their opportunities.

TD rate inside the 10 yard line

Player Touches TD Rate/Touches
Player Touches TD Rate/Touches
Ronald Jones 12 58%
Aaron Jones 35 57%
Damien Williams 31 48%
Zach Zenner 15 47%
Mike Gillislee 25 44%
Jamaal Williams 28 43%
Jeremy Langford 23 43%
DeAngelo Williams 36 42%
James Conner 32 41%
Kenyan Drake 27 41%
David Johnson 83 40%
Robert Turbin 25 40%
Alex Collins 28 39%
Kareem Hunt 47 38%
Ryan Mathews 37 38%
Rex Burkhead 26 38%
Todd Gurley 140 37%
Jordan Howard 65 37%
Phillip Lindsay 30 37%
Lamar Miller 58 36%
Derrick Henry 71 35%
Le'Veon Bell 65 35%
Chris Carson 52 35%
Royce Freeman 23 35%
Melvin Gordon 104 34%
Christian McCaffrey 82 33%
Jeremy Hill 51 33%
Marlon Mack 48 33%
Lamar Jackson 24 33%
Mark Ingram 111 32%
Carlos Hyde 82 32%
Tevin Coleman 68 32%
DeMarco Murray 65 32%
Jonathan Stewart 64 31%
Latavius Murray 93 30%
LeGarrette Blount 91 30%
Adrian Peterson 61 30%
Dalvin Cook 46 30%
Devonta Freeman 93 29%
Alvin Kamara 75 29%
Leonard Fournette 59 29%
Spencer Ware 42 29%
Javorius Allen 42 29%
Marshawn Lynch 38 29%
Robert Kelley 31 29%
Tim Hightower 28 29%
Ezekiel Elliott 106 28%
Matt Forte 48 27%
LeSean McCoy 84 25%
Joe Mixon 71 25%
Doug Martin 59 25%
Peyton Barber 56 25%
Frank Gore 68 24%
Isaiah Crowell 60 23%
Chris Ivory 53 23%
Dion Lewis 47 23%
Saquon Barkley 51 22%
C.J. Anderson 43 21%
Sony Michel 54 20%
Jay Ajayi 36 19%
Nick Chubb 51 18%

Like I mentioned before, you’ll notice the guys with the highest rates have a pretty small sample size of snaps, but when you focus in on the higher volume guys you’ll notice it usually hangs between the ~30% range.

This is why it’s helpful to look at efficiency because what we can essentially discern from the numbers, that given the same number of opportunities at the goal line as Gordon, 20-30 other backs would have similar, if not better, touch down numbers, including Phillip Lindsay.

Lastly, notice that the percentage touchdowns per touch rises from 4-5% to closer to 30% in at the goal line. This makes intuitive sense, obviously - that it’s easier to score touchdowns when you touch the ball near the goal line more frequently.

Thus, we could be so bold as to say that a back with a high percentage of goal line touchdowns, perhaps doesn’t have as many quality TDs.

% of total TDs inside the 10

Player % of Goal Line TDs vs Total TDs Inside the 10
Player % of Goal Line TDs vs Total TDs Inside the 10
Chris Carson 100.00% 18
Leonard Fournette 89.47% 17
Royce Freeman 88.89% 8
Jonathan Stewart 86.96% 20
Joe Mixon 85.71% 18
Le'Veon Bell 85.19% 23
Sony Michel 84.62% 11
Carlos Hyde 83.87% 26
Dalvin Cook 82.35% 14
LeGarrette Blount 81.82% 27
Jeremy Hill 80.95% 17
DeMarco Murray 80.77% 21
Jordan Howard 75.00% 24
Lamar Miller 75.00% 21
Melvin Gordon 74.47% 35
Todd Gurley 74.29% 52
Latavius Murray 73.68% 28
Marlon Mack 72.73% 16
Frank Gore 72.73% 16
Mark Ingram 70.00% 35
Christian McCaffrey 69.23% 27
Adrian Peterson 69.23% 18
David Johnson 68.75% 33
Devonta Freeman 65.85% 27
Phillip Lindsay 64.71% 11
Kareem Hunt 64.29% 18
Aaron Jones 62.50% 20
Ezekiel Elliott 62.50% 30
Tevin Coleman 61.11% 22
Derrick Henry 60.98% 25
LeSean McCoy 60.00% 21
Alvin Kamara 59.46% 22
C.J. Anderson 52.94% 9
Nick Chubb 50.00% 9
Saquon Barkley 47.83% 11

We can see it break down into almost three tiers. Guys who make their living at the goal line, guys who see a good chunk of their production at the goal line, and guys who’s touchdowns are a little higher quality, or at least more difficult to attain.

The epitome of this of course lies in the extreme, with Saquon Barkley who incredulously has less than half of his TD production coming from the “easier” to score area. Back to Gordon, we can see from here that he had 75% of his 47 touchdowns come from the goal line, and is a function of having one of the highest touch rates in the NFL inside the 10.

In summary, this is not an attempt to discredit what Gordon has done throughout his career as there is a reason not many backs have the production that he does. There’s value in his durability and his ability to consistently produce while carrying a large chunk of his team’s offense on his shoulders, so I’m certainly not here to say that isn’t important.

However, we just need to be careful when we talk about raw statistics, that we are putting them in proper context.

Lastly, I have to thank Joe Mahoney for his help in getting everything set up in Pro Football Reference to be able to pull this data together. He’s the man.

Joe Rowles and I discuss this in more depth on this week’s episode of Cover 2 Broncos if you want to check it out, here.

Also, here’s the full data if you want to dig more into the numbers and take a look.

Full Data

Player Tgt Rec Rec TD Att Rushing TD Touches TD Rate/Touches TDs Inside the 10 Total TDs % of Goal Line TDs vs Total
Player Tgt Rec Rec TD Att Rushing TD Touches TD Rate/Touches TDs Inside the 10 Total TDs % of Goal Line TDs vs Total
Todd Gurley 15 7 4 133 48 140 37% 52 70 74.29%
Mark Ingram 12 10 5 101 30 111 32% 35 50 70.00%
Ezekiel Elliott 12 9 2 97 28 106 28% 30 48 62.50%
Melvin Gordon 17 13 7 91 28 104 34% 35 47 74.47%
Latavius Murray 2 1 0 92 28 93 30% 28 38 73.68%
Devonta Freeman 18 11 5 82 22 93 29% 27 41 65.85%
LeGarrette Blount 1 1 1 90 26 91 30% 27 33 81.82%
LeSean McCoy 14 7 3 77 18 84 25% 21 35 60.00%
David Johnson 20 12 6 71 27 83 40% 33 48 68.75%
Christian McCaffrey 20 16 9 66 18 82 33% 27 39 69.23%
Carlos Hyde 5 3 1 79 25 82 32% 26 31 83.87%
Alvin Kamara 17 14 3 61 19 75 29% 22 37 59.46%
Derrick Henry 0 0 0 71 25 71 35% 25 41 60.98%
Joe Mixon 9 7 3 64 15 71 25% 18 21 85.71%
Tevin Coleman 14 11 8 57 14 68 32% 22 36 61.11%
Frank Gore 8 6 4 62 12 68 24% 16 22 72.73%
Jordan Howard 6 1 0 64 24 65 37% 24 32 75.00%
Le'Veon Bell 13 8 3 57 20 65 35% 23 27 85.19%
DeMarco Murray 11 8 5 57 16 65 32% 21 26 80.77%
Jonathan Stewart 2 1 1 63 19 64 31% 20 23 86.96%
Adrian Peterson 4 3 1 58 17 61 30% 18 26 69.23%
Isaiah Crowell 7 4 0 56 14 60 23% 14
Leonard Fournette 6 5 2 54 15 59 29% 17 19 89.47%
Doug Martin 5 2 1 57 14 59 25% 15
Lamar Miller 10 7 5 51 16 58 36% 21 28 75.00%
Peyton Barber 4 4 2 52 12 56 25% 14
Sony Michel 2 0 0 54 11 54 20% 11 13 84.62%
Chris Ivory 5 4 1 49 11 53 23% 12
Chris Carson 4 3 3 49 15 52 35% 18 18 100.00%
Jeremy Hill 1 1 0 50 17 51 33% 17 21 80.95%
Saquon Barkley 10 5 2 46 9 51 22% 11 23 47.83%
Nick Chubb 2 1 0 50 9 51 18% 9 18 50.00%
Marlon Mack 2 2 0 46 16 48 33% 16 22 72.73%
Matt Forte 10 4 2 44 11 48 27% 13
Kareem Hunt 8 5 4 42 14 47 38% 18 28 64.29%
Dion Lewis 7 5 2 42 9 47 23% 11
Dalvin Cook 3 2 1 44 13 46 30% 14 17 82.35%
C.J. Anderson 4 4 0 39 9 43 21% 9 17 52.94%
Spencer Ware 3 3 1 39 11 42 29% 12
Javorius Allen 8 5 3 37 9 42 29% 12
Marshawn Lynch 5 3 0 35 11 38 29% 11
Ryan Mathews 2 2 1 35 13 37 38% 14
DeAngelo Williams 4 2 1 34 14 36 42% 15
Jay Ajayi 2 0 0 36 7 36 19% 7
Aaron Jones 5 4 1 31 19 35 57% 20 32 62.50%
James Conner 3 2 1 30 12 32 41% 13
Damien Williams 12 10 6 21 9 31 48% 15
Robert Kelley 2 2 1 29 8 31 29% 9
Phillip Lindsay 4 3 0 27 11 30 37% 11 17 64.71%
Jamaal Williams 8 7 4 21 8 28 43% 12
Alex Collins 3 2 1 26 10 28 39% 11
Tim Hightower 4 1 0 27 8 28 29% 8
Kenyan Drake 5 3 2 24 9 27 41% 11
Rex Burkhead 7 4 2 22 8 26 38% 10
Mike Gillislee 1 0 0 25 11 25 44% 11
Robert Turbin 3 2 1 23 9 25 40% 10
Lamar Jackson 0 0 0 24 8 24 33% 8
Jeremy Langford 4 2 0 21 10 23 43% 10
Royce Freeman 1 1 1 22 7 23 35% 8 9 88.89%
Zach Zenner 0 0 0 15 7 15 47% 7
Ronald Jones 0 0 0 12 7 12 58% 7