While Melvin Gordon has been a good, sometimes great running back for the LA Chargers, it simply doesn’t make much financial or analytical sense to re-sign him to a long term deal.
The Chargers face a lot of tough decisions coming into 2020. The decision on unrestricted free agent Melvin Gordon may be at the top of the list. Gordon’s coming off of a bad year, but previous good seasons like 2018 have teams all across the league wondering what exactly to make of him.
One of the explanations for Gordon’s poor 2019 was his holdout. This is something he’s said himself. While 2019 was bad, it didn’t really put much of a dent in Gordon’s market value for his next contract. Spotrac’s calculations put Gordon’s next contract at approximately $11.7 million in average annual value.
$11.7 million pretty much puts Gordon in the top tier of running back contracts. Ezekiel Elliott leads the pack at $15 million in average annual value with Todd Gurley and David Johnson not far behind. A realistic contract for Gordon puts him at $12 million, and it simply doesn’t make sense to pay that much for one running back, as the position has proved to be replaceable.
To me, that’s the key point.
Not re-signing Gordon isn’t so much an anti-Gordon stance for me as it is a stance against paying running backs top dollar. While Elliott is still an OK deal for the Dallas Cowboys in its early stages, look at how the deals for Gurley and Johnson have aged.
Both the Los Angeles Rams and Arizona Cardinals find themselves desperately trying to get out of those contracts after the decline of both. Gurley dropped off by a whole yard on average from 4.9 yards per carry to 3.8. Johnson at his peak averaged 4.6 yards per carry, but now he’s been dealing with injuries and has dropped to 3.7.
Gordon had his peak in 2018, when he averaged 5.1 yards per carry. Other than that, it’s been a struggle for Gordon to break 4.0 yards per carry in every other season. And that hasn’t been all his fault.
The offensive line is a work in progress, as anyone who follows the Chargers knows. But if this is Gordon’s prime, what does his decline in one or two years look like?
In the immediate future, there are just better ways to spend money on running backs. After a first or second-round tender, Austin Ekeler will make somewhere between $2-4 million in 2020. Justin Jackson is still on a cheap rookie deal.
After a great year in Philadelphia, he’s proven he could play a role in a running-back-by-committee system with Ekeler and Jackson. Goal-line and red zone carries would be a great role for him. He also doesn’t cost $12 million per season.
Look at the teams who benefited from not paying running backs elite money in 2020, Damien Williams made about $2.5 million this year for the Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs. Derrick Henry spurned the Tennessee Titans’ playoff run while making $1.3 million. Aaron Jones didn’t even make a million on his contract for the Green Bay Packers this year.
Before you even get to the San Francisco 49ers’ running-back-by-committee system where their running backs didn’t have much of a cap hit, there’s a pretty obvious pattern to be seen here.
A common retort might be that after a potential career year in 2020, Ekeler will cost the same or more next year. And that’s absolutely true. In that hypothetical situation, a cap hit that’s too big for the position’s value shouldn’t happen either.
The Chargers have proven their ability to develop nice, affordable running back talent like Ekeler and Jackson. Again, other than quarterbacks on a rookie contract, cheap, developed running back talent is probably one of the best market inefficiencies to have in a team’s favor.
Going back to that $12 million dollar cap hit, it just seems like there’s more effective ways the Chargers can use that money. The Jack Conklin sweepstakes are about to get under way, and there’s a much larger need at tackle for the team than running back.
The Chargers will be looking for key positions in free agency across the board, such as offensive tackle, wide receiver, interior offensive line, and interior defensive line.
Potentially picking up free agents like Conklin, Emmanuel Sanders, Michael Brockers, Damon “Snacks” Harrison, Brandon Scherff, and many others makes a bigger impact at more important positions of need for around the same monetary value as Gordon.
Spending $10+ million in average annual value is wise for positions that put you over the top right now, and that position simply isn’t running back for the Chargers with the current structure.
All things considered, Gordon is a good running back in a league where the team value for being a good running back has depreciated analytically. The position, despite some record-breaking contracts, has proven to be more replaceable than others, especially when looking at contending teams.
The idea of going with Ekeler, Jackson, and a vet signing seems much more appealing to me than shelling out $12 million to lose Ekeler next year and be left with a Gordon on the decline in a few years.
In addition, the Chargers simply have bigger positions of need in free agency. If the Chargers were a running back away, it might be a different story. But the offensive line, defensive interior, and wide receivers need some serious upgrade.
The value of paying a running back is simply down in the league, while the value of developing a cheap back couldn’t be higher.