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The NFL’s Running Back Value Debate Is Over. Can Melvin Gordon Get Paid Anyway?

The Chargers rusher has reportedly demanded a trade or a new contract, but he may find the latter hard to come by

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Melvin Gordon is the latest running back to try to swim upstream. The Chargers’ 2015 first-round pick is entering the final year of his contract and won’t report to training camp until he gets either a new deal or a new team, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Later Thursday morning, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that Gordon may be willing to extend his holdout into the season and miss games, like Le’Veon Bell did in Pittsburgh last season.

A new deal will be hard to come by. Teams have mostly turned off the money faucet for running backs, who earn less on average than every position except kickers and punters. The last team to significantly shell out for a running back was the Rams, who may already have buyer’s remorse thanks to Todd Gurley’s reportedly arthritic knee. The Chargers must be looking at their crosstown rivals as a cautionary tale for paying Gordon, who has pre-existing knee issues himself. Now Gordon has sent a distress signal to the other 31 teams in the hope that someone will throw him a life raft, but that will be hard to find considering the tides against the running back position are stronger than ever.

The Great Running Back Debate was settled for good in 2018. The nerds won. Even in a year when teams averaged 4.4 yards per rush attempt, the highest mark in NFL history, teams averaged 6.4 net yards per pass attempt. If there were any lingering doubts that passing was more efficient than rushing, last season was the final nail in the coffin.

In 2018, teams also highlighted the cold reality that running backs are cheap and abundant, making even the best ones replaceable. James Conner stepped in for Bell in Pittsburgh and the Steelers run game barely missed a beat. Damien Williams did the same for Kareem Hunt in Kansas City. Even C.J. Anderson, who was signed off of his couch and admitted he was out of shape because he put on “man pregnancy weight,” was an excellent fill-in for Gurley in December and January. Not only are running backs replaceable, but those replacements are cheap. Three players in their early 20s cost less than one well-paid player in his mid-20s. Gurley’s $9.2 million cap hit this year is roughly four times more than Alvin Kamara, Phillip Lindsay, and James Conner combined.

If running back operated like any other position, the Chargers would look at Gurley’s contract, give Gordon slightly more money, and both sides would call it a day. But it doesn’t, so paying Gordon is a risky proposition to begin with. It’s even riskier when you consider that Gurley may have an arthritic knee that changes the course of his career before his $45 million guaranteed contract extension kicks in and his cap hit rises to $17.3 million in 2020. The Chargers are surely looking at the Gurley situation and wondering whether it’s wise to pay Gordon, who suffered an MCL sprain in November and left the team’s first-round playoff game with an injury. (Gordon also tore his meniscus as a rookie in 2015.)

Gordon, who is set to earn $5.6 million this year, is likely seeking a figure north of $11 million annually. Considering how well backup Austin Ekeler (2019 cap hit: $646,668) fared in Gordon’s absence, the Chargers will probably be content to lowball Gordon. That gap may be irreconcilable, which is likely why Gordon’s agent told Schefter that Gordon was discouraged by negotiations thus far. If the Chargers won’t pay Gordon, he needs to find someone else who will, but getting to free agency could be hard for him. Gordon is under contract this year and could be given the franchise tag in 2020, which would pay him roughly double his 2019 salary but offer no long-term security at a position with the shortest average career length. It’s such a raw deal that Bell sat out all of 2018 rather than go through it for a second time. (Gordon, unlike Bell last year, can be fined by the Chargers for missing training camp because he’s under contract; Bell was not last year because he never signed his franchise tender.)

While the Chargers were looking at the other football teams in Los Angeles, Gordon may have been watching L.A.’s Lakers and Clippers. Basketball players wishing to take control of their destinies have increasingly turned to “pre-agency,” or the art of stirring trade talks in the years before hitting free agency. Players like Anthony Davis, Paul George, Kyrie Irving, and Kristaps Porzingis have told teams they want a trade despite having one or even two seasons left on their contracts. Football players do not have anywhere near as much power as NBA players, but they make up for it in desperation. Gordon seems prepared to risk his 2019 earnings to preserve his health for future years. We just saw this play out with Bell, who sat out the 2018 season when the Steelers refused to offer him the guaranteed money he wanted in a new contract.

“I just want to be valued where I’m at,” Bell told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler in January 2018. “If I am playing this game, I want to set standards for all the other running backs behind me, like Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott, Melvin Gordon, guys like that. I’m a guy they can kind of look at. I feel I can do that. I’m in a position where I can do that, and I’m going to do it.”

Bell, who signed with the Jets in March, did not earn a market-altering contract for himself, but he did chart a new course for running backs to seek bolder ways to carve out their value. Now Gordon will try to follow him, but it takes a lot of stamina to go against the tide.