The addition of a fullback also seems to point to San Diego running the football more. Hardwick: “(They) used sixth pick of the draft on Melvin Gordon’s college fullback, Derek Watt! Using a draft pick on a pure FB is a big deal. I think it’s a statement, in fact. This almost declares intent. And who knows, maybe Watt isn’t the guy. Maybe it ends up being Chris Swain, from Navy. As an aside, I got a chance to watch Navy play USF when the Chargers played Baltimore last year. This kid excited the tar out of me, as he really stood out head and shoulders above the other athletes on the field. He’s like a wrecking ball with vision. I’m tickled to see how that battle plays out. But the commitment seems to be there to run the ball this year … at least from the management.” My take: Chargers GM Tom Telesco said at the end of last season that running the football would be a point of emphasis during the offseason, and that seems to be playing out so far this spring. However, as Hardwick states in his story, the Chargers need to remain committed to running the ball during training camp and the regular season.
It’s tough to know how much stock to put in what a team wants to do, versus what the team will have to do when confronted with the reality of having to stay competitive in an NFL game. Remember that last off-season there was buzz that the Saints were planning on emphasizing the run in 2015. They ended up throwing the ball 667 times.
But the Chargers were pass happy last year, so the combination of mean reversion and the return of Ken Whisenhunt as offensive coordinator bodes well for the running game. I estimate that the Chargers play calling was about five percent more pass heavy than you would expect given their game script in 2015. Meanwhile I have Ken Whisenhunt offenses as essentially league average in terms of run/pass mix (when adjusted for game script) from 2013-2015. That difference in tendency might be good for about 30 more running plays in 2016.
If you start with about 425 running plays and then give 100 of them to Danny Woodhead, that leaves another 325 for Melvin Gordon, Branden Oliver, and whoever else the team digs up. If those 325 runs were divided 80 percent to Gordon and 20 percent to Oliver et al, that would be 255 for Gordon. He could have a 1,000 yard season by just averaging 3.92 yards per carry.
For what it’s worth I don’t actually think the workload would be split in that way if Gordon is averaging 3.9 yards per carry. If that’s what the team is getting from Gordon then I doubt he would get 80 percent of the non-Woodhead runs. So I think this is a situation where the range of outcomes are probably bimodal. Either Gordon will improve on his efficiency from 2015, and will capture a large share of runs in the offense, or he’ll continue to yield few yards on his carries and the team will give additional chances to Oliver and Woodhead, hoping to get something out of their running game.
So that 1,000 yards on 255 carries scenario might not be a very likely outcome. Instead what you might see is either Gordon getting 255 carries at a more efficient average, or he doesn’t improve in efficiency and gets stuck down in the 200 carry range. So while I estimate that there is a reasonable chance that Melvin Gordon could get nearly 1,100 rushing yards this year just because he has a lot of potential for efficiency improvement, I also think the odds that he ends up closer to 700 yards are very real. My thoughts here are also largely driven by the idea that the team recently spent a first round pick on Gordon so he’ll be given the chance to make that efficiency improvement.
For further reading see Ben Gretch’s breakdown of the AFC West coaching trends, as well as his piece on Danny Woodhead’s age. Then check out Charles Kleinheksel’s profile of Meh-lvin Gordon, and my own thoughts on Gordon’s knee.