Pull up video of the first few runs of Melvin Gordon’s NFL career and try your best to reconcile them with the disappointing year that followed in his rookie season with the San Diego Chargers.
There’s the springy jitterbug in Week 1, pinballing his way through the middle of the line for an apparent 21-yard touchdown run against the Detroit Lions that was reduced to a 7-yard gain after video review found his forearm touched the ground at the 14. There’s the track-star runner featured in Week 2, when he turned a shotgun, off-tackle run against the Cincinnati Bengals into his signature bend to the sideline for 27 yards.
The talent that made Gordon the 15th overall pick of the 2015 draft only emerged in early glimpses. The highlights are easily lost in all the pitfalls, which included 6 fumbles, zero touchdowns and 3.5 yards per carry. Gordon has himself and his crippled offensive line to blame for the most disappointing season of any 2015 first-round pick.
That type of performance is in stark contrast to Gordon’s play at Wisconsin, when he averaged 7.6 yards per carry over his final two seasons and broke 40 different runs for at least 15 yards. But that kind of running back play was never going to carry over into the pass-first NFL, which also is a league with much better defensive speed than what he saw in the Big Ten.
That was widely understood a year ago about Gordon, who flashed 4.52 40-yard dash speed and 4.07 20-yard shuttle quickness, both top-five marks for running backs at the NFL Scouting Combine. He was a polarizing pick because he was mostly a one-trick pony who did that one trick — run around and dodge defenders in the open field — about as well as any prospect did anything.
What the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Gordon needed was the right kind of scheme and offensive line to allow him to use that primary trait. A year after the Chargers traded up two spots to pick him, they’re all still searching for the right equation.
By displaying 24 different offensive line combinations and the second-worst line-generated rushing yards in the NFL last season, according to Football Outsiders, the Chargers failed to give Gordon many chances in the open field. In fact, they ranked dead last in the league in that kind of production.
Gordon took himself off the field at times by struggling in pass protection and in failing to hold onto the ball, forcing the Chargers to at times opt for a more reliable and better receiving running back in Danny Woodhead.
Gordon has made strides in the areas that don’t come naturally to him, even if they’ll never be his strengths. He has steadily developed as a receiver, hauling in 33 of 37 passes thrown his way last season. And he has added some bulk to his frame, although the Chargers gave him little opportunity to show it off.
San Diego only ran the ball 27 percent of the time last season, but 64 percent of those carries went between the guards, the fourth-highest concentration in the league, according to Football Outsiders. No team was less equipped to do that than the Chargers, however, with guards D.J. Fluker and Orlando Franklin playing just six games together.
An offensive line that doesn’t consistently play together has little chance of developing the type of cohesive run-blocking wall that a downhill runner such as Gordon needs. It’s why the Chargers brought back four of their starters. The one replacement is free agent Matt Slauson, a powerful player who moved from guard to center in emergency situations for the Chicago Bears last season and held their banged-up offensive line together enough to finish fifth in rushing DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average). He regularly held his fellow linemen accountable at practice and in the weight room, an approach that also can impact success in run blocking, which is based in part on effort.
The Bears ditched Slauson this offseason because, as a guard, he didn’t fit their move to an athletic zone-running scheme. Gordon and the Chargers need a similar schematic approach, which might explain the offseason hire of Joe D’Alessandris, the offensive line coach who helped design running plays for the elusive Adrian Peterson in Minnesota the past five years. At center, Slauson can fit zone principles just fine because he’ll already be shaded by a nose tackle in six divisional games against teams that all run elements of the 3-4 defense.
To reach his potential as an open-field runner, Gordon will need his offensive line blocking in unison, but the burden also falls on his shoulders. He first has to find ways to hold onto the ball without running in a way that sacrifices his blazing speed. For a player with 12 fumbles over his past 19 games, dating back to college, that maturation won’t be easy.
He also has to get better at diagnosing the crevices that do exist between the B-gaps, because even good offensive lines won’t open lanes nearly as wide as his Badgers buddies did. (Although the Chargers are hoping to recreate some of that college magic with the sixth-round selection of Gordon’s former fullback, Derek Watt.) Implementing more two-back sets would be a diversion for the Chargers, but it shows their commitment to making Gordon more productive.
Even so, they aren’t going to fully change who they have been under Philip Rivers. Their quarterback still gets the ball to the flats quicker than anyone else in the league, and Gordon, who can reach the flats in an instant, will be relied upon to start filling that role even more.
There’s a lot of moving parts, but the potential exists for Gordon to succeed in San Diego in ways he rarely did in a frustrating rookie season. Gordon became a top-15 pick through his ability to go from zero to 60 in an instant, and it’s the kind of progression the Chargers will be looking for out of him in Year 2.