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Melvin Gordon: Best RB Prospect Since Barry Sanders?
image via flickr/phil roeder
image via flickr/phil roeder

Melvin Gordon is the best RB prospect since Barry Sanders.

If that’s your affirmative thesis, the negative is pretty easy. You only need to understand that the utterly dominant Kentucky basketball program is just 34 percent to win the NCAA tournament to know you should always take the field. Of course, this is a slightly different type of question. But the negative remains pretty easy. Most pundits don’t even believe Gordon is the best prospect this year. That designation goes to Todd Gurley. In fact, the updated RB Prospect Rankings put Gordon in a tie for third with David Cobb. His score of 66 isn’t elite by any stretch.

If we have plenty of negative signs on Gordon, and most scouts also seem very skeptical of his superficially amazing 2014 season, then what is the argument in his favor?

Is Gordon a Profile 2 Star?

Frequent readers will know that I’ve proposed three draftable profiles for the RB position. All runners aren’t used in the same way, and they don’t accumulate fantasy points by the same methods. While Gordon’s 4.52 Combine forty was disappointing, his weigh-in at 215 pounds hasn’t been quite the focus it probably should be. At that weight his Agility Score of 11.11 becomes all the more impressive. In fact, it leaves him with a set of comps that is quite a bit more favorable than his RB Prospect Score.

Name Wt 40 Vert Agility RuAtt RuYds RuTDs Rec RecYds RecTDs YPC
Melvin Gordon 215 4.52 35 11.11 343 2587 29 19 153 3 7.5
Average 213 4.52 34.8 11.09 329 1884 21 20 189 0.8 5.8
Name Wt 40 Vert Agility RuAtt RuYds RuTDs Rec RecYds RecTDs YPC
Kevin Smith 217 4.53 32 11.23 450 2567 29 24 242 1 5.7
LaDainian Tomlinson 221 4.46 40.5 11.05 369 2158 22 10 40 0 5.8
Matt Forte 217 4.44 33 11.07 361 2127 23 32 282 0 5.9
Joique Bell 220 4.68 36.5 11.01 326 2084 29 23 293 3 6.4
Donald Brown 210 4.46 41.5 11.03 367 2083 18 21 125 0 5.7
Damien Anderson 211 4.56 33.5 10.95 293 1914 22 15 120 0 6.5
Bishop Sankey 209 4.49 35.5 10.75 327 1870 20 28 304 1 5.4
Montee Ball 214 4.66 32 11.28 356 1830 22 10 72 0 5.1
Ryan Mathews 218 4.37 36 11.33 276 1808 19 11 122 0 6.6
Ryan Moats 210 4.46 36 11.33 288 1774 18 15 116 1 6.2
Mikel Leshoure 227 4.56 38 11.22 281 1697 17 17 196 3 6
Javon Ringer 205 4.55 34 10.98 390 1637 22 28 190 0 4.2
Jamaal Charles 200 4.38 30.5 11.02 258 1619 18 17 199 0 6.3
Vai Taua 213 4.65 34.5 11.07 284 1610 19 18 226 3 5.7
LeSean McCoy 204 4.5 29 11 308 1488 21 32 305 0 4.8


  • This list includes superstars like LaDainian Tomlinson and Jamaal Charles and slightly lesser stars like Matt Forte and LeSean McCoy.
  • The list also includes also-rans like Vai Taua, Javon Ringer, Ryan Moats, and Damien Anderson, as well as injury busts like Kevin Smith and Mikel Leshoure.
  • Vertical leap can often be overrated for backs with incredible foot quickness like Charles (30.5), McCoy (29), and Forte (33). Good explosion numbers are more important for Profile 1 backs, and this is one of the many reasons I think it makes sense to view potentially successful RB profiles as not being one-size-fits-all.
  • While McCoy and Forte both caught quite a few passes in college, Tomlinson and Charles did not. Yet NFL receiving numbers are a big part of the fantasy package for both players. This is one of the reasons why Agility Score can be an important component in projecting receiving ability at the professional level. The scheme a player is drafted into will make a difference in receiving usage, but backs with good lateral quickness frequently break out as receiving backs in the NFL.
  • Even though it’s obvious that Gordon’s comps will trail someone who finished with the second most single-season yards in college football history, the gap is stunning when you consider that production was a critical criterion for showing up on the list. The group trailed Gordon by 700 rushing yards and 10 total touchdowns. That’s despite the fact that they only trailed by 14 carries.
  • The only back within a full yard of Gordon in terms of YPC was Ryan Mathews. Barry Sanders averaged 7.6 yards per carry in his final college season. In the last 15 years, only four players have carried 250 times and averaged at least 7.0 yards per carry. Those players are Gordon, Tevin Coleman, Larry Johnson, and J.J. Arrington.1

Is Gordon One of the Most Explosive Backs Ever?

One possible reason NFL teams struggle in their attempts to locate a foundation back is the preference for runners who churn out “NFL style runs.” This is usually meant to indicate that a player such as T.J. Yeldon or Jeremy Langford shouldn’t be criticized for their three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust performances since that’s what the NFL is like. I’m probably thinking about this wrong, but this doesn’t track for me. Shouldn’t players with elite abilities make college-style runs when they’re playing against college players? If your running style makes college defenders look like NFL starters, I don’t think that’s a good sign. Put me down as preferring “run to daylight” over “always falls forward.”

There were two reasons Jamaal Charles was the ninth RB selected in the 2008 NFL Draft. The first was simply that the class was absolutely stacked at the RB position. The second was that Charles didn’t make NFL-style runs. Whenever I hear that a player with a good production/athleticism profile sports stylistic red flags, I try to add that runner relentlessly in drafts.

Back to the question of Melvin Gordon’s explosiveness. Gordon and Gurley each averaged north of 7.0 yards per carry last season, but we have plenty of evidence to suggest the Wisconsin product is more elusive and electric in space. Over the last two years he’s averaged 8.4 highlight yards per opportunity, while Gurley is down at 6.2. (You can see all of the numbers in the RB Explosiveness Rankings. Gordon did not finish No. 1.) The numbers back up the highlight reels. Gordon is one of the best open field runners we’ve ever seen in the college game.

What would Gordon have done in the SEC?

We can’t really answer that question, but we can buy a couple of tickets to the local Small Sample Size Theater and at least watch the previews.

Over the last two seasons, Gordon has faced three SEC opponents. In those games, he averaged 25 carries for 178 yards, or good for a 7.1 clip. During that same time period, Gurley faced nine SEC opponents and averaged 20 carries for 122 yards, or a 6.1 clip.

This probably doesn’t mean anything, but we certainly don’t see anything suggesting Gordon’s numbers are the result of facing inferior defenses. Gordon faced South Carolina, LSU, and Auburn, while Gurley’s slate included Kentucky (No. 97 in FO’s rush defense rankings) and Vanderbilt (78).

Where Should You Select Gordon?

I recently projected Gordon at 1.05 in my post-combine mock. ADP data at DLF suggests he may go at 1.04, one spot before the significantly underrated Devante Parker. Either spot feels fairly safe. While my preference in rookie drafts is to take a Zero RB approach, Gordon should at least be considered at No. 1 overall if you play in a RB-heavy league or need a star runner to round out an otherwise loaded squad. Plenty of evidence suggests Gurley is the back to own, but I’ll side with the player who was more prolific, more explosive, and more durable. If Gordon develops as a receiver in the same vein as Tomlinson or Charles,2 then he could quickly find himself behind only Le’Veon Bell in the dynasty pecking order.

  1. Arrington’s failure remains one of the most surprising of any recent back, although injuries may have contributed.  (back)
  2. Ryan Mathews is another player from the list who caught 19 passes during his three years in college and then caught 50 during his second year in the NFL.  (back)

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