Melvin Gordon’s Good and Bad Neighbors
I’ve read and heard a lot about Melvin Gordon in the weeks leading up to the NFL draft and the week since, and much of it has seemed to discourage fantasy owners. “Gordon played for a university in Wisconsin that has had previous backs become busts in the NFL, most recently Montee Ball.” “Gordon is not as talented as fellow first-round back Todd Gurley.” “San Diego overpaid to move up two spots in the draft to take Gordon.”
The thing about most of the criticisms of Gordon is they do not speak to what he actually is as a player. So rather than rely on those indirect comparisons, I wanted to use the data we do have on Gordon to draw some direct comparisons to him.
With Gordon’s draft status and basic measurables, we can make a fair estimate of his talent and style of play. To create the comparisons, I used a method called K-Nearest Neighbors (KNN). The idea behind KNN is simple. It uses a group of characteristics to rank how similar or different each item in a data set is to the item in question and then selects the K most similar items to average into a projection. Specific to the task at hand, I relied on a data set of rookie running backs drafted between 2008 and 2014. I used four characteristics of those players to create my model: draft slot, height, weight, and 40-yard dash time. In total, I had complete data on 108 backs, which is my sample.
When I ran Gordon through the model, I found that five of his 10 nearest neighbors gave me optimism for his transition to the NFL.
|Melvin Gordon’s Good Neighbors, 2008-2014|
You can’t do much better than a best-fit comparison to the presumed No. 1 pick in fantasy in 2015, Eddie Lacy. However, Gordon’s specific tendencies as a player seem to make Lacy the least like Gordon of the five. Specifically, Gordon frequently bounced his runs to the outside rather than trust the holes provided by his interior linemen when he was in school.
Independent of the algorithm, I feel like Gordon’s best comparable of the five might be his predecessor in San Diego, Ryan Mathews. Of the group, he was the only player taken in the first round. He is very similar in size to Gordon, and I think their two speeds play more similarly on the field than they tested. Finally, I think both players have showed the potential to be productive pass catchers but have limitations there that create a low floor. Mathews, for instance, had a 12 percent drop rate and a poor 86.3 pass block efficiency as a rookie, but he still did record a 50-catch sophomore season when the team lacked alternatives to help on third downs. With some of the specialized players on the current Chargers roster, I think it is more likely that Gordon will cede that work to Danny Woodhead and Branden Oliver, but Gordon is capable of 30 catches even on early-down work.
|Melvin Gordon’s Bad Neighbors, 2008-2014|
The other five of Gordon’s 10 nearest neighbors were less positive. Both Bernard Pierce and Toby Gerhart were drafted into clear backup roles, but neither player has excelled in their opportunities to play since then. Charles Sims is in a similar situation in Tampa Bay, and he has not yet had the clear opportunity to prove himself one way or another.
The other two runners entered more similar situations as rookies to what Gordon has now, but injuries had major impacts on both players’ careers. Mikel Leshoure tore his Achilles tendon before he could even play his first game as a rookie, and while he provided some meager production once he returned, he never came close to his early promise. Knowshon Moreno has actually enjoyed two very productive periods in his career, but he had lost his starting job to veteran Willis McGahee in his third season even before a torn ACL and fumbling problems rendered him irrelevant for the next year and a half.
Leshoure and Moreno demonstrate Gordon’s potential downside, but their illustrated risk is one that applies to all backs. Just because they were similar players to Gordon does not convince me that they make a meaningful predictor of Gordon’s career health more so than the general injury risk that I’d apply to all rookie backs. As such, it’s hard not to look at Gordon’s comparable players and, when accounting for situation, become optimistic. The healthy players most like Gordon have pretty much all become productive players.
The composite projection the KNN algorithm creates for Gordon based on his 10 comparables rounds to 166 attempts for 658 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns, and then 28 catches for 220 receiving yards and one receiving touchdown. Based on the unrounded totals, that is 120 fantasy points, which would have placed him as the No. 24 back in standard scoring in 2014 just behind Jonathan Stewart and Tre Mason and just ahead of Ahmad Bradshaw, Fred Jackson, and Isaiah Crowell. If anything, I think that’s somewhat pessimistic because of his favorable situation. In fact, I think it’s totally reasonable to draft Gordon as a top-20 back this season. Dynasty owners can reasonably be concerned about his career workload and other factors, but his forecasted short-term success is good enough to justify his selection in the first three or four rounds of a startup draft.
Scott Spratt is a Sloan Analytics Conference Research Paper Competition and Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. He also writes for RotoGraphs and contributes to ESPN Insider as a research analyst for Baseball Info Solutions. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @PFF_ScottSpratt