Running Backs don’t have to be “five-tool” ball carriers to succeed in the NFL — especially if a couple of tools compensate for a lack of others. Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon might be this kind of prospect.
“There’s no running back who can start and stop faster in all of college football.”
This is what former Pro Bowl linebacker and ESPN analyst Chris Spielman says about Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon during the Badgers’ opener against LSU. Spielman went on to say that he heard ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay compare Gordon to Jamaal Charles, but the runner reminds Spielman more of DeMarco Murray based on Grodon’s burst and slim frame, but powerful lower body.
Spielman is on the short list of my favorite broadcast analysts and I have long-thought he has a keen understanding of the running back position. I specifically remember his teaching points about Michael Bush and DeAngelo Williams.
Gordon’s speed and quick feet are obvious, but after watching the Wisconsin back against LSU and Ohio State, I can’t agree with Spielman’s comparison of Gordon to Murray — at least not yet. I didn’t see Gordon break a legitimate tackle attempt against the Buckeyes and he only broke three tackles against the Tigers. And when taking a closer look at these broken tackles, one was a wrap to the ankles from a trail position that Gordon ran through as he headed out of bounds; the second was a stiff arm to a diving defender who already gave up his balance; and a third was a nice bounce off a hit to his torso, but the contact forced Gordon out of bounds.
From what I’ve seen thus far, Gordon may have quickness like Murray and he might have a frame similar to Murray, but he does not possess the same physical style of the Cowboys’ starter that makes the Dallas back a feature back capable of being the man in any offense.
This is not to say that Gordon isn’t good enough to become an NFL starter. Fit with a scheme is an integral part of selecting a running back prospect.
Darren McFadden and Bishop Sankey are better gap style runners because they’re more decisive and instinctive when they have a set destination rather than multiple choices. Arian Foster thrives in a zone scheme where he can read the line, influence defenders, and help create a crease.
There’s also a matter of what a runner does best. C.J. Spiller is not a powerful back. He has the baseline power required to perform in the NFL, he’s not going to wear down a defense or earn instant consideration in short yardage situations. Of course, there are varying degrees of backs along this spectrum. Reggie Bush and Chris Johnson have similar styles to Spiller, but they flash greater balance and power.
Gordon has Murray’s body type, but at this stage of his career he lacks the strength and balance to break tackles against athletes with NFL potential on a consistent basis. I wonder if this is an area where he’ll improve, because I see evidence of improved pad level between 2013 and 2014 and a willingness to be the first to attack, but the results aren’t there. Gordon finishes strong in terms of his willingness to engage and fall forward, but he’s not keeping his feet against similar collisions the way that many of the top prospects have watched over the past decade.
Yet, Gordon’s feet, acceleration, skill at spotting small creases, and decisive attitude compensate for any lack of power. The Boiler Room Series is my attempt to capture the state of an NFL prospect’s development into a minimal number of plays — often a single clip. A comprehensive evaluation in one play is an impossible task, but what if you have a limited number of plays to state your case about a prospect to the leadership team within an NFL organization?
If you’ve done thorough research on the play player, a cut-up of choice plays with a short presentation can provide a decent assessment of strengths, weaknesses, and potential fit for the team. You can read the rest of my Boiler Room Series here.
This week’s installment of the Boiler Room features two plays from Gordon at his best. What the NFL will have to decide is if Gordon’s best can work in the NFL and whether his weaknesses aren’t knockout factors.
Is Gordon’s Speed/Quickness on The Same Plain as LeVeon Bell, C.J. Spiller, LeSean McCoy, and Jamaal Charles?
The short answer is yes. This 1st and 10 from a 13 personnel set at the 29 of Wisconsin late in the first half evokes a little bit of Walter Payton and Marcus Allen’s best reversal of field plays, but without the same capability when it comes to power.
The scheme is designed for Gordon to find a crease on the left side of center. The left side of the line slants inside and the wing back on the right winds across the formation to seal the outside pursuit. In addition to the slanting action, there are two Wisconsin linemen working downhill to get outside and inside seals at the second level.
As Gordon takes the exchange and works towards the crease, the defensive tackle spins outside the slanting block to the inside and meets Gordon at the line of scrimmage. This is one of the three plays where the Wisconsin back “breaks a tackle,” with a stiff arm. However, the lineman never gets fully down hill with momentum to make the hit and it’s more of a reach towards the runner who has the space and awareness to attack first with the stiff arm.
This is functional power that’s good enough for the NFL, but not true power that a pro team is seeking for a power ground game. The rest is a terrific display of footwork, acceleration from multiple stops , and reading the line for an opening.
If you want to be generous, you can count the second stiff arm as a broken tackle, but I see it more like the way a wide receiver frames separation during incidental contact. The defender might have been able to tackle Gordon if not for this second stiff arm during the reversal of field, but it was less a display of power as it was an illustration of avoiding full contact.
But the true focus is the footwork and speed. I’m often skeptical of this kind of stop-start movement from a ball carrier or wide receiver. Peter Warrick was amazing at earning yards at Florida State with stop-start moves, but this top-rated receiver prospect (and overall NFL prospect on many boards) was merely above average after the catch in the open field.
Even the slowest NFL linemen and linebackers are as quick as some of the best college players at those positions and stop-start moves can be a death knell for many a ball carrier. Rams runner Isaiah Pead never got his career off the ground and stop-start moves have been a contributing obstacle with his transition.
Gordon’s acceleration on several runs appears good enough that he’ll be one of handful of runners who maintains this advantage during his transition to the pro game. However, he can’t lean too hard on it — especially as a back who will have to develop greater strength and skill to develop anything greater than functional power.
“Just Give Me Two Inches of Daylight”
Gale Sayers immortalized this statement with his play and it’s a request that’s also fitting with Gordon’s skills. Although some of Gordon’s stop-start moves that have worked at Wisconsin will not work in the NFL, his skill at spotting the small crease and his will to hit it are favorable reasons why he’ll still have success as a pro.
This play at the top of the second half is a great example. Gordon is the single back in a 12 personnel set at the 25 of Wisconsin against LSU’s 8-man box with two corners tight enough to the line of scrimmage to qualify as a 10-man box. It appears Gordon is initially working towards a crease opening outside left tackle, but as that hole narrows he dips inside the tackle and through a small gap for a huge gain.
It is notable that Gordon lacks the speed to extend his lead on the defensive back, but you can’t outrun everyone all the time. The red zone angle displays how small this crease really is.
Watching for the hole when he makes the cut is difficult. Gordon identifies the hole before the cut and is willing to squeeze through the small space between his blockers to make the dip beyond them where this narrow gap opens into a canyon within a few steps.
What the hole looks like as he identifies his choice.
The hole as he executes his decision.
This is the kid of vision, acceleration, and speed that made Ryan Mathews a fine prospect. If Gordon can make these decisions in the NFL as the speed ratchets up a notch, what makes him one of the most dangerous backs in college football will make Gordon a weapon in the NFL.
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