Chargers RB Melvin Gordon is set to make $5.6 million this season, making him the third-highest paid back in the league. For Gordon, this is not enough. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported yesterday that the Chargers star back plans to sit out of training camp and demand a trade if he is not given a new, long-term contract. Gordon is entering the final year of his rookie deal and is currently scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent following the 2019 season. Gordon’s agent later suggested that there is a “strong possibility” that his client will hold out into the regular season if his demands are not met.
Just last month, Gordon reported and took part in the team’s mandatory mini-camp. During that time, Gordon said, “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want a deal done, but that’s not going to stop me from coming out here and doing what I need to do.” Since that time, contract talks between the two sides have reportedly not gone well, obviously resulting in this ultimatum.
After a quiet rookie season in 2015, Gordon has finished as a top-eight fantasy scorer at his position in each of the past three seasons, eclipsing 1,300 total yards each year and averaging over a dozen touchdowns per season.
While Gordon has clearly been a key component in the Chargers’ success in recent seasons, the team is understandably being cautious about handing out a big deal to a running back. Fantasy players and NFL teams alike are still trying to determine how important running backs really are to ultimate team success. No better player exemplifies the current state of the running back position than Gordon’s fellow class of 2015 back Todd Gurley. After a strong start to his career, the Rams rewarded Gurley with a huge four-year, $57.5 million deal, locking him into Los Angeles through the 2023 season. That deal paid off, at least in the short term, as Gurley posted a dominant 2018 campaign.
That all changed when what seemed to be a minor late-season knee injury cost Gurley meaningful playing time and gave veteran RB C.J. Anderson a chance to shine. Following the Rams Super Bowl loss to the Patriots, more concerns emerged about Gurley’s injury and the long-term effects for the back and his team. This is doubly bad news for Gordon and other backs around the league as the injury alone could serve as a reminder of how dangerous it can be to heavily invest into the running back position. Also, the strong play of Anderson, signed off the street after being cut by the Panthers, shows that you don’t have to be an elite back to succeed in a strong system. As they take part in contract talks with Gordon, who turned 26 this spring, the Chargers are surely looking at the Rams as a cautionary tale.
Let’s assume for a moment that Gordon follows through with his threat and is either dealt away or continues his holdout into the regular season. The value of the running back position around the league is perhaps at an all-time low. That is due to the concern for the shelf-life of individual backs as well as the depth at the position. Looking at the five most recent trades involving veteran backs, the return was minimal. Prior to the recent NFL Draft, the Bears dealt their starting RB Jordan Howard for a conditional sixth-round pick. Howard gained over 1,000 total yards in both of his seasons in Chicago and is just 24 years old. A sixth-rounder.
It gets worse from there. The Packers dumped versatile RB Ty Montgomery for a seventh-rounder while the Browns were happy to take a fifth-round pick for RB Carlos Hyde. You have to go back to 2017 for other trades involving RBs when Jay Ajayi and Adrian Peterson were dealt during the season in exchange for day three draft picks. Despite Gordon’s high profile and massive fantasy value, it would be a challenge for the Chargers to get more than a third-round pick in exchange for their disgruntled star.
Which teams could be interested in trading for Gordon if he is made available? The profile would have to include a presumed contender with a clear need in the backfield and the necessary cap space to give Gordon the deal he is looking for, eliminating the majority of teams around the league. The Texans, Colts, Jaguars, and Buccaneers could each be options, but none check all three boxes.
Houston looks like a strong contender in the AFC despite a disastrous offseason, which resulted in the recent firing of their general manager and botched search for his replacement. Longtime starting RB Lamar Miller has been fine but is certainly not a game-changer like Gordon. Houston has the second-most cap space available, currently. The Colts are also a strong AFC contender but are in better shape in the backfield with Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines. While many fantasy players might suggest the team needs to upgrade over Mack, the decision-makers in Indy seem satisfied, for now. The Colts do have the most cap space in the league, though overpaying for a running back doesn’t fit their team-building style. Jacksonville fancies themselves as contenders with the Colts and Texans and spent an early pick on RB Leonard Fournette just two years ago. Things have not gone well and the talented back reportedly was nearly dumped after a strange end to the 2018 season. Finally, another Florida team might be making a call. The Tampa Bay Bucs made a big change this offseason with the hiring of HC Bruce Arians but their 2018 rookie RB Ronald Jones looks like a bust one year into his career. Tampa surprisingly made little effort to upgrade their backfield, so Gordon could make a major impact on that roster. Both the Jags and Bucs are in a tough spot with the salary cap though, so any trade and new contract would require some wizardry.
Back to the Chargers … if Gordon is out of the picture, they are left with RBs Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson. Ekeler, a former undrafted free agent, has been a pleasant surprise for the Chargers during his two seasons, offering playmaking ability, especially in the passing game. Ekeler excelled, especially early in the season, playing alongside Gordon. He routinely posted double-digit fantasy points and ultimately got his chance to start in Week Thirteen against the Steelers. Things did not go well. Ekeler was held to 21 rushing yards on 13 carries and was outplayed by the rookie Jackson. Like Ekeler, Jackson was more successful as a pass-catcher out of the backfield, not a traditional ball carrier.
When this news broke, Scott Barrett of Pro Football Focus shared a deeper statistical look at Ekeler’s 2018 season. Per Barrett and PFF, Ekeler ranked sixth among 61 RBs in PFF grades, seventh among 56 RBs in Elusive Rating, sixth among 56 in yards per carry and seventh among 31 RBs in yards per target. In each of these categories, Ekeler ranked ahead of the starter Gordon. The team at Player Profile also pointed out some of their data, where Ekeler ranked in the top ten in production premium, true yards per carry, yards per touch and breakaway run rate. Perhaps most importantly for the Chargers, Ekeler is due to make $645,000 in 2019.