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Is Melvin Gordon worth starting in his first week back?

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Gordon returns to the Chargers in Week 5, but history suggests he won’t be a real factor quite yet.

Getty Images/Pete Rogers Illustrations

Let’s take a moment of silence for all those who own Austin Ekeler.

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Alright, we can start now. Melvin Gordon was back last weekend in Miami, he was active, yet he saw no snaps in the Chargers’ trouncing of the Dolphins. In Week 5, though, the DNPs will be over and Denver will be the lucky franchise to experience Gordon’s comeback for the first time in 2019.

After holding out for weeks, and missing the first four games of the season, the RB8 of 2018 is back in business. Yes, you read it right. We’re talking about an elite talent here. Maybe you had forgotten about him, even more with the aforementioned Ekeler’s ridiculous start to the season. But Gordon has been a fantasy-grail for quite some time now.

Let’s cut to the most pressing question for Gordon owners in Week 5—what can we expect from him this weekend?—and assess it a step at a time.

Austin Ekeler will eat from Gordon’s workload

Allow me to propose you to play a stupid game: Player A averaged 23 fantasy points per game in 2018, and he’s averaging zero in 2019. Player B averaged 12 fantasy points per game in 2018, and he’s averaging 27 in 2019. You have to start one player and sit the other one. Which one would you play?

Indeed, you’d play Player B aka Austin Ekeler. Yes, Gordon has an extensive track record, the more sustainable production, and was always the leading back of the Chargers. But Ekeler has performed at Christian McCaffrey-levels through four weeks. It’s been insane, and I doubt Los Angeles will force Gordon into a massive workload fading Ekeler as if he had done nothing this season.

Head coach Anthony Lynn himself has declared that Gordon will be limited this week, and that “he likes” what Ekeler has done so far. How can you not!? The Chargers have thrown the ball 147 times and rushed it 97. That makes for a 60/40 split in favor of the passing game, and amounts to an average of 24 rushing attempts per game. Even with Melvin Gordon in the team now, Ekeler’s workload might not change this weekend if Gordon is eased slowly into the game.

Los Angeles Chargers RBs Weekly Usage

Week Player Rush Att Usage
Week Player Rush Att Usage
1 Austin Ekeler 12 67%
Justin Jackson 6 33%
2 Austin Ekeler 17 71%
Justin Jackson 7 29%
3 Austin Ekeler 9 64%
Justin Jackson 5 36%
4 Austin Ekeler 18 64%
Troymaine Pope 10 36%

It makes sense for Ekeler to feature on 65 to 70 percent of rushing attempts this week. It has been his workload all season long, and it would still allow Gordon to carry the ball around eight times, not bad for his first game back from a 64-day absence. Gordon never ran fewer than nine times last season (nine against Buffalo in Week 2), so it makes sense to give him eight carries this weekend and still expect production from him considering how bad Denver has been at stopping running backs (the Broncos are giving up 27 fantasy points per game to the position, sixth-worst in the league).

What does history tell about running back performances after a holdout?

This might not make much sense in the grand scheme of things, but I still wanted to know about it. Melvin Gordon is coming back from an extended holdout, and he’s not the first running back to do it. There have been multiple cases in the NFL before, so I wanted to see how those players performed the season prior to holding out, and how they fared in their first game back in action. As I said, each of those players’ situations was different and therefore we should take this information with a grain of salt, but still.

I considered the following list of players: Jamal Anderson (1999), Marshall Faulk (1999), Corey Dillon (2000), Larry Johnson (2007), Steven Jackson (2008), Chris Johnson (2011), Maurice Jones-Drew (2012), Le’Veon Bell (2019), Ezekiel Elliott (2019).

The following table shows each player’s averages during the season prior to holding out, and in the next row the outcome of their first game once they were back following their holdouts:

RB Performances After Holding Out

Player Rush Att Yards TD
Player Rush Att Yards TD
1998 Jamal Anderson 25,6 115,4 0,9
1999 First Game Back 16 50 0
1998 Marshall Faulk 20,3 82,4 0,4
1999 FGB 19 54 0
1999 Corey Dillon 17,5 80 0,3
2000 FGB 12 41 0
2006 Larry Johnson 26 111,8 1,1
2007 FGB 10 43 0
2007 Steven Jackson 19,8 83,5 0,4
2008 FGB 14 40 0
2010 Chris Johnson 19,8 85,3 0,7
2011 FGB 9 24 0
2011 Maurice JD 21,4 100,4 0,5
2012 FGB 19 77 0
2017 Le'Veon Bell 21,4 86,1 0,6
2019 FGB 17 60 0
2018 Ezekiel Elliott 20,3 95,6 0,4
2019 FGB 13 53 1

Don’t get too caught up in the data and how messy it might look. Again, each player had his own reasons to hold out and the situations, comebacks, etc. were all different. The main takeaways, though, are the following:

  • Only Ezekiel Elliott was able to score a touchdown in his first game back from holding out. He did it this season, though, so maybe that means good news for Gordon?
  • Every player was “eased in” after coming back. Comparing the rushing attempts per game each of them averaged the season just before holding out, each of them carried the ball fewer times in their first game back than they did on average on year—or more—earlier.
  • Same as with the rushing attempts, no player was able to reach their yardage average in his first game back. Le’Veon Bell, again in 2019, was the only one to compe close to his average posting up 60 yards in his debut with the Jets after averaging 86.1 yards per game in 2017 when he was still in Pittsburgh.

Should you start Melvin Gordon in Week 5?

The matchup says yes, the situation and history say no.

Denver is just bad at defending the rushing game, as I’ve already written a few paragraphs above. Los Angeles is the favorite entering the contest, and they could easily take the lead early and run the clock on the ground. That should definitely favor Melvin Gordon in his comeback.

The problem, as already stated too, is the presence of über-fantasy-star Austin Ekeler in the team. Ekeler won’t surrender carries to Gordon this week at least, so you can’t expect more than six-to-eight rushing attempts from Gordon against Denver. Ekeler will carry the heavy load at least one more time.

And if we look at the history of running back holdouts, things don’t look good for Gordon either. No player has put on a great game (to his last-seen standards and averages) in their first match back from holding out. Looking at past numbers—those in the table above this section—and the takeaways we can get from them, I predict Melvin Gordon to finish this weekend’s game with around eight rushing attempts, 35 yards and no touchdowns (why would Los Angeles award him any easy end zone carry-for-TD after screwing them for a quarter of the season?).

Fantasy Recommendation: Keep Melvin Gordon sitting in your bench at least for another week.