Less is More for Melvin Gordon and the Broncos
For all of its fantasy promise, the AFC West has clearly identifiable fantasy stars and non-factors. In Kansas City, Patrick Mahomes funnels the bulk of his fantasy scoring through his top receivers — Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce — and top running back — now rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire with Damien Williams opting out of the 2020 season. The Raiders' Darren Waller is one of the league's few tight ends with a Kelce kind of target share, and Josh Jacobs is poised to expand on a 20-touch-per-game rookie season that already had him in the top 10 at his position. Even the Chargers' underused and overachieving back Austin Ekeler should see a bump in volume in his fourth season now that Melvin Gordon has left the team in free agency.
With a second-year, second-round quarterback in Drew Lock with just five career starts, the Broncos could never have matched their division rivals for fantasy certainty. But early in the offseason, they had a similarly established pecking order for their skill players. Courtland Sutton had emerged as a Pro Bowl receiver worthy of a heavy target volume. And Phillip Lindsay had eased the fears that his Pro Bowl rookie season was a fluke. In 2019, the undersized, undrafted back withstood a 259-touch sophomore season and again outpaced the league average with 4.5 yards per carry and a 1.9% rushing DVOA. Like Jacobs, Lindsay is one of an increasingly small number of credible workhorse running backs.
With more obvious holes to address at other positions, the Broncos did not seem a likely candidate to drop $13.5 guaranteed million on Gordon, especially after they had witnessed first-hand his holdout-delayed, unproductive start to last season — the first of his four October games with 32 or fewer yards came in a Chargers home loss to Denver. But the Broncos did pay Gordon that money and have since backed up its implication that he would become a major player in their backfield with a regular insistence that modern teams need two good running backs.
Those quotes are easy to read as lip service, especially with the perspective that Gordon's 3.8-yard-per-carry 2019 season provides. Perhaps one inefficient season could be explained by a holdout, but Gordon has now fallen short of a 4.0-yard average in four of his five professional seasons. With that context, his 5.2-yard-per-carry breakout in 2018 looks like a clear outlier, and his subsequent decline looks more like regression than circumstance. But while I think that latter point may be true, I also believe in the earnestness of those Broncos quotes. A deeper look into his efficiencies shows that Gordon is a much better player than his traditional statistics would lead one to believe. And, critically, he is better than Lindsay at the types of attempts that should make him the clear better fantasy option for 2020.
With the versatile Ekeler in his backfield, Gordon fell short of a three-down standard in recent seasons. In fact, he took just 6.2% of his carries in 2018-19 on third downs, a lower rate than Lindsay's 6.5%. But when their teams needed to convert in short-yardage situations, the Chargers relied more heavily on Gordon than the Broncos did on Lindsay. Gordon saw a higher percentage of his carries come in situations where his team needed 1, 2, 3, or 4 yards for a successful play than Lindsay did.
|Carry% by Yards Needed for Success, 2018-19|
|Yards for Success||Gordon||Lindsay|
Play success is the foundational concept of DVOA. The ability to gain a new first down every 10 yards shifts a team's motivations away from maximizing expected yardage every play. Sometimes, it is smarter to run a play with a lower ceiling and a higher floor, improving the odds of gaining at least the necessary yardage to convert a new first down or to make that an easier effort on the subsequent play. Success rate draws those benchmarks at 40% of the needed yardage on first downs, 60% of the needed yardage on second downs, and 100% of the needed yardage on third and fourth downs, with some subtle adjustments based on the game script in the fourth quarter. And those benchmarks hold up to scrutiny since the DVOA metric that is built from them better predicts wins than yards do.
If you've watched football, then you likely understand play success even if you've never had the vocabulary to explain it. But even regular Football Outsiders readers can struggle to connect the dots of the concept to its impact on traditional efficiency metrics. For those low needed success benchmarks, Gordon has taken just 1-3% more carries than Lindsay has in recent seasons. That doesn't seem too different until you realize that carries for the lowest benchmarks on average produce 1-2 fewer yards per attempt than carries for the highest benchmarks.
|YPA by Yards Needed for Success, 2018-19|
|Yards for Success||YPA|
Lindsay enjoys enough small benefits for the relative ease of the carries that he takes that it starts to add up into a big advantage in his overall yards-per-attempt average. Reframed around success rate, Gordon outproduces or at least ties Lindsay on the three sets of plays with the shortest yards needed for a success. And Gordon beats him substantially as the benchmark for success approaches 3 yards.
|Success Rate by Yards Needed for Success, 2018-19|
|Yards for Success||Gordon||Lindsay|
Fantasy players don't think in terms of play success, but they should. It neatly captures many of the seemingly disparate elements of a back's fantasy prospects, such as his usage near the goal line when touchdowns are most likely and his usage on third downs when quarterbacks most often target their backs with passes. And whatever their yard-per-attempt averages, there really isn't any doubt which of Gordon or Lindsay should be the Broncos' preferred choice on those richest of fantasy opportunities. While Lindsay has fallen short of the average running back success rate (38.4%) on his third downs, Gordon has bested it by 23.5%.
|Success Surplus by Down, 2018-19|
And Gordon's success isn't carried by his apparent outlier 2018 season, either. Yes, he produced better success rates on all three downs in that career year, but he also finished right at league average on first and second downs and finished 18.7% ahead of league average on third downs in 2019 when his 3.8-yard-per-carry average would on its own suggest he was radically worse than a typical back.
|Success Surplus by Down, 2018-19|
Gordon and Lindsay are fundamentally different players. Twenty-five pounds bigger and 0.13-seconds slower — based on their respective 4.52-second combine and 4.39-second pro-day 40 times — Gordon tends to find and hit holes on a typical schedule for an NFL back but then pushes the pile. His 2.1 average yards before contact is right at league average, but his 2.4 average yards after contact is 0.2 yards better than league average.
Lindsay would seem to make up for the minus of his lower 1.7 average yards after contact with a bigger plus of a 3.2 average yards before contact. But in practice, that advantage only manifests on certain types of plays. Inside the tackles, Lindsay's speed helps him gain half a yard to a full yard before contact more than a typical back. But he frequently then squanders that advantage with below-average yards after contact, especially on the right side of the line, away from left tackle Garrett Bolles and left guard Dalton Risner who blew just 10 total run blocks in 32 combined starts in 2019.
|Lindsay's Yards Before and After Contact Surplus by Direction, 2018-19|
|Yards After Contact||-1.3||+0.2||0.0||+0.1||-0.6||-1.2||-0.9|
|Yards Before Contact||+2.5||+0.8||+0.6||+1.1||+0.8||+1.0||+1.0|
Lindsay is at his best running toward the sideline, where his speed helps him outrace linebackers and turn the corner. So far in his career, he's doubled up on the NFL average with an outrageous 5.0-yards-before-contact average on runs beyond the left end. He's also produced some incredible highlights on those runs, including a 65-yard touchdown in Week 13 of 2018 that on its own should convince you he belongs in this league.
Really, it shouldn't be a surprise. Lindsay may show more extreme tendencies, but he follows the typical pattern of the league's fastest backs. In recent seasons, the running backs with sub-4.40 speed — as measured by the 40-yard dash at the combine plus Lindsay's dash at his pro-day — enjoy smaller advantages over slower backs in their yards before contact on inside runs but much bigger advantages on outside runs.
|Yards Before Contact by Direction by RB Speed|
|4.60 or More||2.2||2.0||1.9||1.8||2.1||1.8||2.1|
|4.50 - 4.59||2.4||2.1||2.0||1.9||1.9||2.3||2.2|
|4.40 - 4.49||2.6||2.0||2.0||2.0||2.5||2.2||2.1|
|4.39 or Less||3.6||2.1||2.5||2.5||2.3||2.3||3.1|
For the smaller backs those speedy players tend to be, that recipe works in general but makes them poor fits for the plays where their teams only need a few yards to convert a new first down or a touchdown. With 1 yard to gain, Lindsay can beat his defenders to the marker. But with 2 and especially 3 yards to gain, his lesser strength prevents him from pushing the pile on the inside runs that have the highest floors for their conversion. Gordon is the better choice for those plays and should see more touchdowns and receptions because of it. That makes him our choice to be the better fantasy value, even if his lesser yards-per-carry average and by proxy reputation make that a surprising development for the casual fan.