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Mr. Most Improved

Less than a year removed from a bleak rookie season and microfracture surgery, San Diego’s Melvin Gordon has become one of the best running backs in the NFL

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After one season in the NFL, Melvin Gordon looked like a bust.

The Chargers traded up two spots to select the former Wisconsin Badger 15th overall in 2015 and quickly named him their starting tailback. But he failed to produce as a rookie, rushing for just 641 yards on 184 carries (3.5 yards per carry); he was inconsistent and turnover prone (four lost fumbles), and failed to find the end zone even one time all season. It certainly didn’t help that Gordon’s fellow first-round back Todd Gurley (taken 10th overall) went off for the Rams en route to earning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, and the Chargers faithful widely lamented San Diego’s missed opportunity to acquire elite pass rush, offensive line, or cornerback talent. After offseason microfracture surgery on his knee — a tricky procedure to recover from — there was little reason to believe Gordon would ever live up to his draft spot.

Instead, nine weeks into this season, Gordon has become one of the most explosive and productive backs in the league. The memories of a tentative, ineffective rookie have quickly faded. They’ve been replaced with a tackle-breaking, big-play-making, touchdown-scoring lead back and foundational piece of the Chargers offense. No one in the NFL has shown more improvement from this time last season than the San Diego tailback.

At Wisconsin, Gordon was an extremely productive runner, finishing as the runner-up to Marcus Mariota for the Heisman award in 2014 after rushing for 2,587 yards, just 41 short of the all-time record that Barry Sanders set for Oklahoma State in 1988. At 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, Gordon chewed up yardage with smooth, easy speed; once he got past the line of scrimmage, he was a beast in the open field, breaking tackles and running away from defenders, racking up 40 runs of 15-plus yards his final season at Wisconsin.

Gordon was clearly an elite athlete, but one worry about him prior to the draft was that he was a bit “high-cut,” meaning long-legged and short-torsoed. This generally gives runners longer strides and a higher top speed but leaves them with less agility and short-area burst, and with less power and torque to run between the tackles. (There’s a reason many of the best running backs in the league are short and squat.) Gordon had the tendency to dance around and look to bounce a run outside instead of just lowering his pads and picking up the tough yard or two. All of that showed up in his rookie year with the Chargers; he was frequently indecisive with his first few steps, chopping his feet instead of sticking one in the ground to get downhill. Adding to this, he frequently showed a poor feel for choosing which gap to attack. He was thinking instead of reacting.

This year he’s been much more decisive with his steps, and his improvement behind his blockers has allowed him to more consistently get beyond the line of scrimmage, where he’s at his best. Take these two runs, the first against the Titans in Week 9 and the second against the Broncos in Week 8, where Gordon’s first steps show an almost instantaneous reaction to the blocking in front of him. There’s no hesitation after receiving the handoff; there’s no dancing, no wasted movement, as Gordon finds the gap, lowers his pads, and heads downhill to pick up positive yardage.

As quarterback Philip Rivers pointed out this week, the improvement Gordon has made from last season to this one has been most apparent in the cuts he’s been making: “You can just tell in his feet that he knows what he’s seeing, and he’s making quick decisions.”

When Gordon doesn’t hesitate, his impact grows exponentially. Since he’s getting downhill more quickly, it means that the offensive line doesn’t have to maintain its blocks and seals for quite as long. This may seem marginal, but there’s a fine line, maybe half a second, between a good-enough block and a totally missed block that blows up a run play.

When the offensive line gets Gordon into the second level, he has run-around-you and run-away-from-you speed:

But he’s also shown an ability to pack some punch — I like to think of this as “running back density.” When defenders square him up, it looks like they’re getting hit with a wrecking ball. Gordon has also done a great job of keeping his feet churning to pick up those tough yards once he’s been wrapped up.

While Gordon has taken advantage of the holes his offensive line opens up for him, sometimes those creases don’t show up, and it’s the job of the running back to create yards of his own. Through nine weeks, Gordon leads the NFL with 398 yards after contact, already well ahead of his number from last year (310) on just nine more carries. He’s consistently turned what look like short gains into huge runs.

His two most important broken tackles this year may have come last week against the Titans, when, as the Chargers were trying to run down the clock and preserve their 43–35 lead with 2:37 left in fourth quarter, he got loose on third-and-7, picking up 47 yards to maintain possession and seal the victory. The Chargers would take a knee and run out the clock a few plays later.

Gordon’s newfound confidence has also shown up in short-yardage and goal-line duties, where he’s been very reliable for the Chargers. On third- or fourth-and-short (2 yards or less), Gordon has converted eight of 12 carries for first downs (in addition to one touchdown). Here, against the Falcons in Week 7, in a key third-and-1 situation with San Diego trailing 30–27 with under a minute left, he is stuffed behind the line, but bounces it outside for a big gain and a first down. This play set up the game-tying field goal, and the Chargers went on to win in overtime.

After last season’s goose egg, Gordon has nine rushing touchdowns in 2016, and seven of them have come in goal-to-go situations inside the 3-yard line.

Gordon hasn’t been valuable as only a ballcarrier, either. After Danny Woodhead was lost for the season with a torn ACL in Week 2, Gordon stepped into the role of third-down back and pass catcher out of the backfield. He’s flourished there as well, catching 28 passes for 284 yards and two touchdowns. Seemingly overnight, he’s turned into a complete, three-down back.

So, is he the real deal? The yardage (he’s second in all-purpose yardage) and touchdowns (his 11 total scores lead the NFL this year), both on the ground and through the air, certainly speak for themselves, but we’ve seen plenty of mediocre running backs put up big numbers because they play in advantageous systems. San Diego has some talent on its offensive line with D.J. Fluker and Orlando Franklin, but Gordon is creating his own yards with a potent combination of power behind his pads and quickness in his feet. By becoming more decisive behind the line, he tapped into his immense physical skill set and shouldn’t be slowing down anytime soon.