You probably don’t see many kids in pee wee or high school football worrying about the future of their positional decisions. If that position is running back, then they may be especially locked into staying where they are because what’s more exciting than touching the ball 20 times and scoring touchdowns? Next thing you know, you’re scoring a lot of touchdowns, getting recruited to a division one school as a running back, and now you may have run out of any other choices. You’re a running back.
In the case of Melvin Gordon, the good news is that he’s spent five seasons in the NFL and made $15.3 million in the process. The bad news for Gordon and many other players at his position is that it becomes increasingly difficult to earn “the big money” on the second contract compared to many of their teammates on offense and defense. I say this even as one of those teammates just signed a $24.5 million deal with $15 million guaranteed to stay with the LA Chargers at running back, but Gordon may find that less than a year after his holdout for more money, he may have to accept the best offer from an underwhelming bunch of potential contracts.
Where could those potential contracts be coming from?
First of all, Gordon ranks as one of the top five unrestricted free agent running backs alongside Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake, Jordan Howard, and Carlos Hyde (these names are up for a debate that few people want to have unless it’s a fantasy football debate), but you might be surprised to find that the running back carousel is even less interesting than the quarterback carousel this offseason. Not that many teams are expected to part with their starter and not that many teams care about plucking one of the big fish out of the big running back pond; one of the issues for these backs is that the presumed distance between “very good” and “serviceable” isn’t perceived to be as large as it used to be.
The only standout in that regard is Henry and even that may have not been the case until his MVP-like eight game stretch from Week 10 through the AFC Championship. Prior to Henry’s remarkable run(s), he was averaging 3.9 yards per carry over nine games with the Tennessee Titans. But Henry propped himself up for a rare running back payday while Gordon has gone through one of the biggest financial disasters of recent NFL memory.
Though I must emphasize that this is not really his fault. He was reacting to a marketplace and system that is terrible for him and his position-mates: play the most injury-prone position in the league, risk never getting a second contract opportunity while playing on a rookie contract, know that the team will not only be willing to give you the ball 300-400 times per year on that contract but that they’ll be looking forward to replacing you with the younger, cheaper version of you when that deal expires.
In his shoes a year earlier, Le’Veon Bell opted to sit out an entire year rather than accept one year of franchise tag money while knowing that the Pittsburgh Steelers would give him the ball 400+ times as they did the year before, unconcerned with whether or not those touches may sap his opportunity for future NFL earnings. He was criticized for holding out for a year and potentially losing some money in the process if he had accepted the Steelers initial offer, but I can see where he was coming from and he may have done what was truly best for him and his future. Bell signed a $52.5 million deal with $27 million guaranteed after the season.
Unfortunately for Gordon, he has not been nearly as successful as Bell, a two-time All-Pro, and instead of taking the risk to miss the entire season (or is it the real risk to play running back at all?), he returned and had a campaign to forget: 162 carries, 612 yards, 3.8 YPC, 42 catches, 296 yards, nine touchdowns, one 100-yard rushing game, four fumbles.
WELCOME BACK MELVIN GORDON. WELCOME BACK!! pic.twitter.com/VhIrz3Nbdn— Los Angeles Chargers (@Chargers) December 23, 2018
Fortunately, Gordon is still a good running back and more balanced at the position than maybe any other unrestricted option other than Henry. That skill just may not be worth what Gordon wants it to be worth on the open market. Who could his suitors be?
Teams that may have no starter at RB
I’m being a little generous with the word starter and this is fine to me because the position is already so committee-based as is. These teams at least have a free agent of note who you think would need to have his snaps and carries replaced.
In Buffalo, attention will be drawn to Devin Singletary, but they still need someone to step in for Frank Gore if he’s not returning. Kansas City could lose LeSean McCoy — a former player for Anthony Lynn with the Bills — and they’ll turn more attention to Damien Williams. The Chiefs don’t seem likely to spend at running back. Philly may part with Jordan Howard, but they have Miles Sanders, Boston Scott, and Corey Clement.
Arizona probably wants to keep Drake — Kliff Kingsbury called him “a perfect fit” — and they’ll also be cutting David Johnson. Whether Tennessee chooses to give the franchise tag to Henry, Ryan Tannehill, or even Jack Conklin remains to be anyone’s guess. Tampa Bay’s Peyton Barber is a free agent but Ronald Jones was the main guy and may have earned a larger workload.
Perhaps the team that would make the most sense is Houston, though Hyde has expressed significant interest in remaining with the team. “I don’t want to go to another team and start all over again,” he said recently. Hyde had 245 carries for 1,070 yards in place of Lamar Miller, another free agent but one coming off of a torn ACL, so the Texans may just look to make it an easy agreement with him and move onto other needs. If not, then Gordon could be a reasonable choice to take over those 245 carries.
But I’m running out of teams in significant need of a running back pretty quickly.
I'm told #Chargers RB Melvin Gordon is expected to test the market, per source.— ig: josinaanderson (@JosinaAnderson) March 5, 2020
What other choices are there?
The Miami Dolphins have a ton of cap space and opportunities. They were led in rushing yards by RYAN FITZPATRICK and the most prolific ballcarrier, Kalen Ballage at 74 attempts, averaged 1.8 yards per carry. The Dolphins will be in the market for a running back but that running back must also now concern himself with playing in Miami’s offense.
Somewhat ironically I wonder if Pittsburgh would want veteran insurance for James Conner, but they’re already cash strapped before free agency even begins.
Should McCoy depart, Gordon might want to switch AFC West allegiances and suit up for the Chiefs to pair with Williams. Andy Reid likes splashy signings but they too are somewhat low on funds.
I would say that Washington is probably content with Adrian Peterson and Derrius Guice, but Ron Rivera may prefer a third option he can count on. This would not be an ideal situation for Gordon, however.
The Atlanta Falcons may be cutting Devonta Freeman, creating an immediate need. The Detroit Lions didn’t have a solid RB1 last season and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell is a Wisconsin guy, where Gordon starred in college. And in maybe the most shocking suggestion, what if the Carolina Panthers want to take some of that 400-touch heat off of Christian McCaffrey by giving him a solid backfield partner?
Then of course, there’s the Chargers
Gordon has expressed a desire to return to the Chargers and of course they’ve said what you would expect, which is that they like him too. But after paying Austin Ekeler, it looks increasingly unlikely that LA would be wanting to have two running backs on second contracts; few NFL teams will do that. Barring his free agency going worse than his holdout and a situation like Gordon having to accept a one-year deal to hopefully parlay himself into a better situation in 2021 — not out of the realm of possibilities — he won’t be back with the Chargers.
Further proof that Melvin Gordon’s holdout is the worst executed hold out in the history of the NFL https://t.co/JZ24FbZ7Un— Chase Snyder (@ChasingSnyder) March 6, 2020
So what are the most likely destinations?
The idea of him uniting with Bevell in Detroit feels to me like the most intriguing possibility. It was Bevell’s connection to Wisconsin that helped lead the Seattle Seahawks to drafting Russell Wilson in 2012 and now Wilson’s former teammate is a free agent, Bevell is with the Lions, and Detroit can’t feel too comfortable with Kerryon Johnson and Bo Scarbrough. The Lions have $47.7 million in estimated cap space and no high-paid running backs.
Next, I would say the Texans if they don’t re-sign Hyde, but if the two players cost relatively the same, wouldn’t Houston just make it easy and go with the player they know? I don’t think age would play a significant factor as the only time an age really matters for a running back is when they in the early 20s. Anyone 26 or older is in the same category: “Old.”
The Bucs have a lot of cap space and though they may want to see more of Jones, he did much of his damage in the final two games. However, Bruce Arians’ offense may not need a running back of note at all.
I see the Cardinals simply sticking with Drake, but there’s a chance that because Drake was a hot hand in the second half of last season he’ll be the other guy with Henry to get paid well. If Arizona doesn’t want to match that deal, they could turn to Gordon.
Same in the cases of teams like the Titans, Falcons, Chiefs, Bills, where we need a domino to fall first. For some reason I’ll go Lions, Texans, Bucs, Cardinals, Falcons. But here’s what we may see instead:
Free agency opens on March 18. Henry is tagged or signs a deal early. Drake signs. Gordon becomes the de facto best back available. Teams worry about losing a compensatory pick by signing him. He waits until after the compensatory pick period ends a la Ziggy Ansah and others in 2019. Perhaps he even waits longer until a team has an inevitable running back injury. He signs with the best fit in August. He hopes for the best in 2021. The way this running back market looks now — and I do think that this is a problem, and not a problem that anyone seems concerned with during CBA negotiations — I don’t know if I see a great outcome for Gordon.
At least not anything near what he was hoping for during his holdout and while he hasn’t played as well as hoped as a former first round pick, it is unfortunate that the nature of the position that he thrived in during his high school and college days has become what it is. I think because of this, you will see more talented players getting away from those positions early in their football lives. Though it’ll always be hard to steer them away from the allure of touchdowns.
And Gordon has been great at scoring touchdowns.