Melvin Gordon and the only NFL team he’s ever known are at an impasse. The two-time Pro Bowler is facing the final year of his contract with the Chargers, and talks for a new deal have sputtered out. Now the dynamic running back has issued an ultimatum; either pay me or prepare for a holdout.
Gordon’s demand isn’t unreasonable. He was one of the league’s best tailbacks in 2018, averaging a career high 5.1 yards per carry and more than 114 yards from scrimmage per game. Los Angeles went 8-4 with him in the lineup during the regular season, leading to the club’s first playoff appearance since 2013. He’s a valuable part of one of the league’s top offenses, and it looks like he and his agent are willing to negotiate in good faith with the franchise he’s called home the past four years.
Melvin Gordon’s agent, Damarius Bilbo, tells me there’s a “strong possibility” Gordon could sit out into the regular season, absent a new, market-value deal with #Chargers. “But we want to focus on getting something done before training camp. There’s a long way to go to Week 1.”— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) July 11, 2019
Working out a big money contract won’t be easy. The Chargers will only have about $10 million of wiggle room against the cap this summer once they make their final cuts. While that number expands to an estimated $39 million next spring, the lion’s share of that space will go toward re-signing Philip Rivers — another star whose contract expires after the season. Fitting the club’s starting quarterback and tailback into that space will be tricky, and could be the reason for the reticence to offer Gordon — a player with only one full 16-game season under his belt — an upper-tier contract.
Losing Gordon could stifle Los Angeles’ recent rise and throw a detour onto Rivers’ long road to a Super Bowl. Signing him at a hefty cost could derail the Chargers’ opportunities to plug holes and keep a contending team afloat in 2020 and beyond. So what should the team do with its star 26-year-old tailback?
Pay the man
The Chargers have plenty of problems to worry about, but their biggest issue in 2019 and beyond is keeping their franchise quarterback happy. Philip Rivers will turn 38 years old this fall, and the window of opportunity to push his team into the Super Bowl is closing faster than ever. Even so, he’s got a great opportunity to finish his career on a high note because he was able to put the cooked gunslinger of 2016 in his rear view and become a much more efficient passer the past two years. Gordon’s been a major part of that.
While Gordon’s faults are apparent — 2018 was the first year he’s averaged more than four yards per carry and 2017 was the only year he’s played in all 16 regular season games — the tailback’s value to the Los Angeles offense is immense. He’s played a larger and larger role in the team’s passing game every season as a pro, rising from 2.4 catches per game as a rookie to 4.2 in ‘18. Having him as a reliable checkdown option means Rivers hasn’t had to force the ball into bad situations downfield as much — and it shows in his numbers.
After throwing a league-high 21 interceptions in 2016, he’s had only 22 the past two years combined. In the first 12 games of the year last fall, Rivers threw six interceptions. With Gordon out of the lineup for the final four contests, Rivers threw six more. It’s a small sample size, but over the last two years Rivers has a 103.8 passer rating with his star tailback in the lineup. Take Gordon out of the equation and that rating drops to 75.3.
That’s a big difference! And while keeping Gordon in the fold will be tricky — especially when two of the team’s biggest cap-freeing cuts next fall would be left tackle Russell Okung and receiver Keenan Allen, two players who are also extremely important when it comes to Rivers’ health and happiness — it’s not impossible. In fact, Gordon’s history of injury could help squeeze him under the cap with room to spare next fall.
It’s important to note the language being used here by Gordon’s agent Damarius Bilbo. The pair isn’t looking to set a new contract record for tailbacks, just to be paid “market value.” That creates some wiggle room for negotiation. It’s not going to cost LA $17 million annually to keep Gordon in the fold; paying him like a top-five back could mean something in the $50-60 million range over five years. That’s not cheap, but it’s manageable.
The Chargers’ championship window is closing, and they owe Rivers every opportunity to chase a ring before he ages out of the game. Gordon gives him the flexibility to be the best version of his late-stage self. And if making that window a little bigger in 2019 and 2020 means sacrificing a chunk of cap space in 2021 and 2022, it’s a worthwhile deal for Los Angeles to make. — Christian D’Andrea
Let him walk
Before Gordon’s breakout 2018 season with 5.1 yards per carry, he started his career with three straight mediocre seasons. He hadn’t topped 4 yards per carry in any of those first three years. While he was the highest graded rusher on Pro Football Focus in 2018, Gordon hadn’t even cracked the top 20 in that category before.
But even ignoring the lack of consistency and difficulty staying healthy that should each raise alarms, should any running back get a costly extension?
We don’t yet know what kind of money Gordon is aiming for, but with two Pro Bowls under his belt, he probably wants to be paid like one of the position’s elite. Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, and David Johnson each have contracts that average at least $13 million per year, so that seems like a reasonable baseline. Is it worth it to pay any running back that much — let alone one who hasn’t shown he can play at that level year in and year out?
The Chargers may have the money to pay Gordon right now, but Philip Rivers, Melvin Ingram, Keenan Allen, and Joey Bosa are all scheduled to become free agents within the next two years. Those cogs are all probably harder to replace than Gordon. Hell, even second-year running back Justin Jackson may be ready to jump into Gordon’s shoes.
Gordon is under contract through the 2019 season and the Chargers will have the option to franchise him in 2020. It’d be in the team’s best interest to avoid paying premium money for Gordon, even if that means he sits out for a long time. — Adam Stites