A version of this article was published by the Detroit Free Press.
With the release of Reggie Bush last week, the Detroit Lions could be looking to revamp their running back corps. I wrote at the conclusion of the season that running back should be one of the top priorities this offseason. With Bush gone, there is now ample room for an upgrade. Joique Bell, Theo Riddick and George Winn remain in the fold, but the Lions desperately lack a true home run threat out of the backfield. They are likely to add another back before training camp, possibly through the 2015 NFL draft.
Each week, we’ll examine a running back from this year’s talented crop. Last week we looked at Todd Gurley. Next up is Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon.
Wisconsin running backs have not had their collegiate success translate to the NFL in recent years. The team has always had beefy, well-coached offensive lines to open cavernous running lanes for its ball carriers.
Since 1999, nine different Badger backs have produced a 1,400-yard rushing season: Ron Dayne, Michael Bennett, Anthony Davis, Brian Calhoun, P.J. Hill, John Clay, Montee Ball, James White and Melvin Gordon. Dayne was the 1999 Heisman Trophy winner and the 11th overall pick in the draft, but never broke 800 yards in a season and averaged just 3.8 yards per carry for his NFL career. Only Bennett has posted a 1,000-yard rushing season in the NFL, though the jury is still out on Ball and White.
There is one noticeable difference between Gordon and those eight backs that wore the cardinal and white before him. He averaged an astounding 7.8 yards per carry for his career; none of the others averaged more than 6.2 yards per tote. Sure he benefited from playing behind Wisconsin’s well-oiled run game, but he made plenty of plays himself with vision, quickness, fearlessness, and speed.
Gordon has good size at 6-1, 215 pounds, exceptional feet, lateral quickness, acceleration and durability. He has good speed, though his 4.52 40-yard dash at the combine was underwhelming.
Critics will say Gordon is just another Wisconsin product who was kept clean behind that offensive line. But Gordon’s 2014 campaign was more productive than any Badgers back in history and it wasn’t always because of the big boys battling in the trenches.
Let’s examine the game film to see if Gordon lives up to the hype.
Although Wisconsin lacked a productive passing game ranking 12th in the Big Ten, Gordon had one of the most prolific seasons in college football history. As a redshirt junior, he rushed for 2587 yards–41 yards short of Barry Sanders’ rushing record–29 touchdowns and set the FBS single-game rushing mark with 408 yards (in three quarters) against Nebraska. Gordon was the runner-up for the 2014 Heisman Trophy.
Gordon is not a power back but he has functional power. On a crucial third-and-one, Gordon is contacted about two yards from the first down marker, but is able to drive his legs and fall forward to move the chains.
Against Auburn in the Outback Bowl, Gordon keeps his legs churning and takes a few defenders with him in his drive into the end zone.
If defenders fail to wrap him up, he will keep moving forward but he is not a punishing runner.
Gordon displays solid vision and the ability to manipulate second level defenders. At times, he will bounce plays to the outside unnecessarily, trusting his speed and quickness. This run against LSU from the 2014 season opener showcases both Gordon’s vision and acceleration.
Gordon looks like will run off tackle, but at the last second, he identifies an alley and dips inside of his left tackle. This fools the safety and Gordon accelerates through the hole for 63 yards before Jalen Collins (a projected first round corner in the draft) tracks him down.
Gordon tends to lose steam near the end of long runs, but that is a mere footnote with his ability to burst through a running lane like he is shot out of a cannon. The holes are smaller and the game is faster in the NFL so it remains to be seen if Gordon can navigate the tiny creases at the next level.
With a spot in the Big Ten title game on the line against Minnesota, the Badgers were clinging to a three-point lead and looking to burn clock.
On second-and-short, the Gophers loaded nine defenders into the box, preparing to stuff the run game. The defense wins at the line of scrimmage and creates havoc in the backfield, yet Gordon keeps his balance while eluding multiple tacklers to pick up a crucial first down.
Gordon shows off his vision, footwork and elite agility on this run. Watch him chop his feet like he is going through a ladder drill in the summer.
With a lack of a passing game, defenses routinely placed eight or more defenders in the box. This tactic did not stop Gordon from making plays. Look at this juke on the safety against a 10-man box.
Watch Gordon make something out of nothing on this run during his record day. With no seams open on the inside, Gordon bounces outside, sticks his foot in the ground and leaves the defender grasping for air.
You know Bo Pelini was scratching his head after that run. Nebraska had the play bottled up perfectly and Gordon still shredded his defense. Gordon’s performance prompted an ESPN Sports Science profile on how his track background influences his running style.
Observe how Gordon sets up his blocks on this jet sweep. He leans inside, forcing the second level defenders to flow that way. This allows his blockers to pin the defense inside as Gordon suddenly jets around the edge for a chunk play.
He is a smooth runner with long-strides, which allows him to accelerate quickly once he spots an opening. His ability to not lose steam after a devastating cut is a special trait.
Gordon tends to lower his head and load up with his shoulder when blocking, instead of keeping his head up, extending his arms and punching. However, he is unafraid of contact and showed good effort throughout the games I watched. His awareness and physicality is demonstrated when he levels a blitzing LSU defensive back.
He will need to significantly improve his blocking technique and pass-catching ability if he wants to become a complete back. He is inexperienced as a receiver because he was not featured in the passing attack at Wisconsin. Last season, he tallied 19 receptions for 153 yards and three scores.
Gordon has ball security issues. He is loose with the rock at times when trying to evade defenders. He fumbled 12 times on 653 career offensive touches. Seven of those fumbles were in 2014–he lost two in the record-setting Nebraska game–which is a major concern. In the Big Ten championship game, he had the ball punched out and returned for a touchdown just before the half.
Gordon should have been aware that he needed to protect the ball as the Badgers ran out the clock.
NFL personnel executives and draft commentators have compared Gordon to Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles because of their linear running styles, shiftiness and speed. A track star at Texas, the 5-11 Charles is one of the fastest players in the league and has seen his game flourish in the NFL as a complete back. Gordon isn’t a natural pass catcher like Charles so he will need to improve in that area to become the type of playmaker Charles is at the next level.
It is easy to see why Gordon is so highly regarded among draftniks. His production even for a running back in Wisconsin’s system was off the charts.
Gordon has the work ethic and competitive drive you want in your workhorse back. He is comfortable running between the tackles and on the perimeter. He has the frame to add more muscle, the vision to find seams, and the athleticism to make big plays.
The question teams with a running back need have to answer is whether Gordon is significantly better than the other talented backs in this draft class. Is he worth the valuable resource of a first round selection? The answer will come on April 30th.
Credit to Draft Breakdown for the game film. All Illustrations and GIFs were created by Marlowe Alter for the purpose of reporting, commenting and critiquing.