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When did Melvin Gordon become the NFL’s most underrated running back?

The Chargers are getting Gordon the ball off-tackle, then watching him fly.

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Los Angeles Chargers v Cleveland Browns Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Melvin Gordon has always been underappreciated, even while setting records.

His college career at Wisconsin saw his NCAA-record 408 yard performance against Nebraska out-shined by Oklahoma (and now, Washington) tailback Samaje Perine just one week later. His status as a Badger legend shined brightly for two seasons, then got eclipsed when Jonathan Taylor burst onto the scene with the greatest freshman season any FBS runner’s ever had.

As a pro, he was the second running back selected in the 2015 NFL, behind Todd Gurley. He was forced to work in relative obscurity in a San Diego market that had its franchise ripped from it, then moved to Los Angeles. There, Gordon shared a city with the star tailback drafted in front of him. While Gurley got to play in the 93,000-seat Coliseum, Gordon was stuck hearing his own fans get drowned out by visitors at the 27,000-seat StubHub Center.

But while other players and teams were cutting in front of his spotlight, Gordon kept working. And now, in 2018, he may be the NFL’s most-overlooked star thanks to the Chargers’ newfound efforts to get him outside the tackles and let him loose on unsuspecting defenses.

Gordon is a major factor on one of the league’s most dangerous offenses

The fourth-year tailback is an often overlooked player on an often overlooked team. The Chargers are off to a 4-2 start and firmly in the playoff discussion, but even at nearly 30 points per game aren’t the most explosive offense in their own division. That honor goes to the Chiefs, who are nearly a full touchdown better.

But as we’ve fawned over Patrick Mahomes’ incredible start, Gordon has been the foundation that’s allowed Philip Rivers to build his own MVP-caliber season. The tailback has been the engine driving the Los Angeles offense, a jack-of-all-trades whose number has been called whenever his team needs a big play. He’s responsible for more than 40 percent of the Chargers’ total offensive touches and the team’s top option when it comes to boom-or-bust two-point conversions.

That’s actually a decrease from 2017, when he was responsible for 44 percent of his team’s touches. But while last year he sprang for a respectable 1,581 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns, he’s currently on pace for 1,986 yards and 24 touchdowns. Gordon is doing more with less this fall — but how?

Gordon is benefitting from an upgraded offensive philosophy and healthy receiving corps

Gordon’s talent has always been apparent, but a limited group of blockers in front of him left him struggling to find room on a consistent basis as a pro. The Wisconsin legend’s early career was defined by short runs into clogged space followed by one or two big breakaways to help buoy an underwhelming yards-per-carry average. As a result, more than 60 percent of his carries between 2015 and 2017 resulted in an inefficient three yards or fewer.

He’s chopped away at that number significantly in 2018 while upping his big run rate at the same time, leading to a career-high 5.1 yards per carry:

Melvin Gordon’s productive play rate is rising in 2018

Melvin Gordon runs <3 yards 4-9 yards 10+ yards
Melvin Gordon runs <3 yards 4-9 yards 10+ yards
2015 113 56 15
Percent: 61.41% 30.43% 8.15%
2016-2017 343 137 58
Percent: 63.75% 25.46% 10.78%
2018 45 29 17
Percent: 49.45% 31.87% 18.68%

There are several reasons for this improvement. Gordon is maturing into a game-strong tailback at age 25. Rivers is preventing defenses from creeping close to the line of scrimmage with an offense that’s averaged 8.5 yards per pass attempt this fall. A steady diet of jet sweeps and other gadget plays have keep opposing defenses off guard. Los Angeles has played a handful of opponents with struggling defenses to start its season.

But no one factor may play a bigger role than the way offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt has chosen to deploy Gordon behind a flawed-but-improving group of blockers. The interior of the Chargers’ offensive line has been in flux the past two seasons, with major changes coming last spring.

Below-average 2017 starting center Spencer Pulley was replaced by Mike Pouncey, who was a victim of the Dolphins’ inability to understand the league’s salary cap. Joe Barksdale’s presence allowed Michael Schofield to move inside, where he’s considerably more productive than he was along the edge last fall. 2017 sixth-round pick Sam Tevi’s replacement-level play in Barksdale’s absence has allowed him to stay there. Last year’s first-round pick Dan Feeney had a regrettable rookie campaign, and while he’s still bad, he’s showing flashes as an athletic pulling guard who can create space downfield.

And that’s important. While Los Angeles has struggled to create space for its runners up the middle, the team’s running game shines when it gets the speedy Gordon outside the hash marks. Getting those guards to pull and create space has created the gaps through which the fourth-year tailback can fly:

50 of Gordon’s 91 carries this fall have come off-tackle. He’s averaging 7 yards per carry on those plays. Five of those touches, like the one above, resulted in touchdowns.

When he’s running between his tackles? One rushing TD and 2.8 yards per carry. Gordon is running with more power in his legs than ever before:

But he’s very much a sideline flyer and not an inside bruiser when it comes to the Chargers’ run game.

It’s not just Gordon’s carries that are lifting the LA offense. The Chargers have elevated their tailback to a starring role in the team’s receiving game, plying him with a long list of screen passes, wheel routes, and sprints to the flat that have added an extra dimension to Rivers’ offense. The veteran quarterback has targeted him 42 times through six games, more than anyone else on the roster but Keenan Allen and more than all but three other tailbacks in the NFL.

The end result? 30 catches for 279 yards and three touchdowns. That 9.3 yard-per-catch average is more than Le’Veon Bell has averaged in any of his past three seasons and more than James White or Alvin Kamara are averaging in 2018. If he keeps this pace, he’ll finish the year with 80 receptions and nearly 750 receiving yards.

Gordon has come into his own as an NFL tailback, showing off the chops that made him one of the proudest links in Wisconsin’s great chain of runners. The talent was always there, but the 2018 Chargers had put together the perfect offense to complement his blend of speed and power — all the while unlocking a level of receiving out of the backfield he’d never displayed in the past. As a result, they’re getting the most out of the player they made the 15th pick of the 2015 NFL Draft — even if his greatness is being overshadowed in his own conference, in his own division, and even in the city the Chargers call home:

If Gordon can keep this pace, it won’t be long until the spotlight finds him.