It's been three years since a running back was selected in the first round. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon might break that drought, but the film reveals a player who doesn't belong in the draft's first 32 selections
With Georgia’s Todd Gurley on the mend from ACL surgery, we should see a third straight year with no running backs selected in the first round. Actually, let me clarify that. No running back should receive a first-round grade. If one gets picked at the bottom of the first, it doesn’t mean that the player is a first-round talent. Most if not all teams have fewer than 32 players rated as first-round picks going into the draft.
If there’s one back in that borderline late-first area, it’s Melvin Gordon of Wisconsin. For teams looking for a franchise running back (there are still a few), Gordon has most of what they’re seeking. He has good size (6-1, 215 pounds), is built like a tank and is durable, explosive and highly productive.
There’s just one thing Gordon is lacking right now: three-down ability. More often than not, the Badgers’ coaching staff took Gordon off the field in passing situations. In pass protection, he has shown a willingness to block, especially throwing a shoulder when chip-blocking an end. But he rarely squares up. He also hasn’t been asked to identify a blitzer and pick him up. Both are fundamental to playing three downs in the NFL. Gordon caught just three passes his first two seasons before (in a likely attempt to showcase his skills to the NFL) he caught 19 in 2014. There’s a reason for that. Gordon doesn’t possess natural feel in space as a receiver, doesn’t run routes well and often fights the ball as a pass catcher.
Gordon is far from being a terrible receiver, though, and he has shown flashes. He wasn’t often used as a pass-catcher in Wisconsin’s offense, and he could improve once he is asked to do it more frequently. This 27-yard touchdown reception against Purdue is an example of what he is capable of.
The route is fairly choppy, but Gordon sheds the (poor) coverage and receives the ball comfortably without feeling the need to stop and catch it, as many subpar backs would do. It appears the skills are there for Gordon to become a solid-to-good NFL receiver out of the backfield, but it’s going to take some time.
In today’s NFL, it’s difficult to give a first-round grade to a running back who lacks plug-and-play ability on passing downs. Gurley would have had the ability to contribute on passing downs immediately if not for the ACL tear. He still might be worth a first-round pick; he’s that good in all areas.
However, for teams that are in contention and use more of a platoon system, Gordon could fit the bill. As a runner, he can be breathtaking with his blend of explosiveness, ability to shed arm tackles and stop-and-start agility. He will not give up on a play. His determination was on display on this run during his record-setting performance against Nebraska, when he set the FBS single-game rushing mark with 408 yards by the end of third quarter.
Gordon will need to be wiser about keeping plays alive at the NFL level—more often than not it leads to bigger losses. But that could be said about the majority of college backs.
And his vision will need to be developed. It’s decent at this time, but many of his big runs have come through huge holes opened by Wisconsin’s line, tight ends and fullbacks, or on the outside when the defense has failed to properly contain the run. Gordon can, however, navigate in traffic. This run against LSU was an example of that.
At the college level, Gordon was a threat to score from anywhere on the field. During a September game against South Florida he was bottled up for most of the first half but took over with 131 yards after halftime. He showed off his all-around skills (tackle-breaking ability and burst) on one of his two second-half touchdowns against the Bulls.
Gordon was highly productive at Wisconsin. He ran for 2,587 yards as a junior, the second-highest single-season total in FBS history, 41 yards shy of Barry Sanders’ record. He had 29 rushing touchdowns and 32 total. He averaged 7.8 yards per carry in 2013 and 7.5 in ’14.
But Gordon will be knocked due to a long line of prolific Badgers running backs who struggled in the NFL. Wisconsin always has big, talented and well-coached offensive lines. Along with Gordon, over the past 10 seasons the Badgers had 1,500-yard backs in Montee Ball, Brian Calhoun, P.J. Hill and John Clay. Ball rushed for a pedestrian 731 yards over his first two seasons; none of the other three reached the 100-yard mark for their NFL careers. The two Wisconsin backs to go in the first-round post-merger—Ron Dayne (11th overall in 2000) and Michael Bennett (27th in 2001)—had one 1,000-yard season between them.
It’s tempting to say that Gordon breaks the mold, because he’s the most talented player of the bunch. He has very good size and strength, in both his upper and lower body. He ran a 4.52 40-yard dash at the combine; on film he looks faster than his timed speed. But then you watch Gordon against national champion Ohio State in the Big Ten title game, and you realize his numbers might be inflated by level of competition. There is an overall lack of talent and speed in the Big Ten, but the Buckeyes are not a normal Big Ten team—they’re an NFL minor-league team on defense. Gordon’s 76-yard performance (2.9 per carry) should be a warning sign for teams thinking he is good enough as a two-down runner to warrant a first-round grade.
As for NFL comparisons, Gordon looks a lot like Jamaal Charles, right down to the red No. 25 jersey and dreadlocks. He looks like a bigger version of Charles, with his one-cut, upright running style. But Gordon also possesses the physicality and power of another upright runner: 2014 rushing champ DeMarco Murray.
Yes, those are two very nice comparisons, but there are several big differences. Both Charles (4.36) and Murray (4.41) ran faster at their combines. They were accomplished receivers in college and have only improved in the NFL. They also have tremendous vision. Speed, soft hands and ability to anticipate where the hole will be are why Charles and Murray are elite NFL running backs, and why Gordon will have a ways to go in that regard.
Charles and Murray have something else in common: They were third-round draft picks despite their talent. They fell, probably about a round apiece, for different reasons: Charles was undersized and viewed as more of a track athlete, and Murray had a host of injury problems at Oklahoma.
Gordon doesn’t have either of those knocks, and there’s certainly a lot to like about his game. But there will be questions about his receiving ability, and whether or not he possesses the speed to excel with his running style at the NFL level. Gordon might be picked in the first round, but right now he isn’t quite a first-round talent.
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