About a year ago, I stated a few times that I thought Branden Oliver was good enough to be the starting Running Back for the San Diego Chargers. Even after the team traded 4th & 5th round picks to move up in the 1st round and select Melvin Gordon out of Wisconsin, I said that I thought Gordon should be brought in on a rotation instead of anointed as the starting RB on day 1.
Since then, Melvin Gordon has mostly been a disappointment. Despite starting 13 games and getting 217 touches, the rookie finished with 833 yards from scrimmage, zero touchdowns, and 6 fumbles. He finished the season on the Injured Reserve list and underwent microfracture surgery on his knee in the offseason.
By comparison, undrafted free agent Branden Oliver was seen as a revelation for the Chargers during his rookie season in 2014. Despite starting in just 7 games, Oliver got 196 touches and finished with 853 yards from scrimmage, 4 touchdowns, and zero fumbles. Like Gordon, he ended his rookie season on IR with a turf toe injury.
Perception as Reality
How would we perceive Gordon differently if he were an undrafted free agent? How might we think of Oliver differently if he had been a 1st round pick, and one that ended up costing the team three total draft picks?
If you take away things like draft position and contract value, how might the running game of the San Diego Chargers look? Allow me to go insane on a Sunday morning and pursue this venture.
Melvin Gordon, raw prospect
The Chargers front office was certain that it had found the steal of the offseason when they signed undrafted free agent RB Melvin Gordon out of Wisconsin after the 2015 NFL Draft.
What they learned in the process of the 2015 season was that Gordon dropped for a reason in the draft. His combination of size, strength, speed and agility is tantalizing, but his fumbling issues and knee injury were clear warning signs that he may not be NFL-ready just yet.
Giving Gordon 47% of the team’s total rushing attempts last season was asking for too much, too soon. The Chargers gambled and it didn’t pay off. However, there is no doubting that Gordon has yet to reach his potential. Expect him to take a smaller role going forward, until he can prove that he’s ready to get the starter’s carries.
Branden Oliver, Coach Killer
Drafted in the 1st round of the 2014 NFL Draft as an eventual replacement for Ryan Mathews and Donald Brown, Oliver was called into service early. Before ending his rookie season on IR, Oliver accumulated enough carries to finish the season with 40% of the team’s rushing attempts.
After going over 100 rushing yards in his first two starts, Oliver did not hit that mark again on the ground. However, in his final game of the season, he ran for 71 yards on 14 carries and got himself a touchdown as well. The future looked bright for the little bowling ball from Buffalo.
In his second season, Oliver fell out of favor with the offensive coaching staff. He went from carrying the ball on 40% of the team’s rushing plays to just 8%. His rushing attempts per game dropped from 11.4 to 3.9.
There was no clear explanation for why Oliver’s touches were cut. He is still yet to fumble in an NFL game, his yards per attempt remained essentially the same (3.6 to 3.5) despite a tattered offensive line, and his catch rate even improved from 80% to 87%.
Rumors swirled about a frayed relationship between Oliver and Offensive Coordinator Frank Reich, who preferred undrafted free agent rookie RB Melvin Gordon to the former 1st round pick. When Reich was fired at the end of the 4-12 season, some thought it had to do with the coach’s inability to get on the same page with Oliver.
With Ken Whisenhunt returning as the Chargers’ Offensive Coordinator this year, we’ll have to see if Oliver can regain control over the starter’s job or if Melvin Gordon has refined his game enough to keep it from him.
Thanks for Reading!
I hope you all enjoyed and that the comments below will be nothing but positive feedback on my thought experiment!