by Nick Ercolano
August 06, 2018
Y'all know how we do it. Every Monday we're diving into two players for the 2018 fantasy football season whose ADPs are wicked similar, and you'll likely have to choose between in your 2018 fantasy football drafts. In this video, we're breaking down two high-end RBs being drafted in the first round. We have Leonard Fournette of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Melvin Gordon of the Los Angeles Chargers. Which of these two running backs should you grab as your RB1 for 2018 fantasy football?
Melvin Gordon - RB (Los Angeles Chargers)
10th Overall, RB8
Leonard Fournette - RB (Jacksonville Jaguars)
12th Overall, RB9
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After being drafted 15th overall in the 2015 NFL draft by the Chargers, Melvin Gordon had an absolutely brutal fantasy rookie year. He would touch the ball 217 times and wouldn't score a single touchdown. He rushed for 3.5 ypc that year. Among the 44 running backs that saw at least 100 carries that year, Gordon's 3.5 ypc ranked 2nd to last only in front of Matt Jones. He ranked 43rd out of a qualified 44 backs per Football Outsiders in their DVOA - which is basically just their efficiency metric.
However, was it all Gordon to blame? Of course not. In the same year, his tackles evaded/attempt per PFF, so just his broken tackles, ranked 6th among 38 RBs that had 125 or more carries. The 0 touchdowns. He literally received just a single carry inside the opponent's 5-yard line that year. Danny Woodhead saw 5. He didn't see a single target inside the opponent's 10-yard line that year, he saw 2 RZ targets. Danny Woodhead saw 17 RZ targets and 8 10-zone targets. Their offensive line ranked 31st in run-blocking per Football Outsiders in 2015.
While Gordon was bad, he can't there was plenty of blame to go around.
Fast forward, and we're looking at an absolute fantasy stud. Gordon finished as RB7 in 2016 and RB5 last year. Woodhead tore his ACL two games into Gordon's sophomore campaign and Gordon quickly became the featured back for the Chargers, getting 295 and 341 touches in 2016 and 2017, respectively. More importantly, he's scored 12 touchdowns in back-to-back years, and caught 99 passes in that span, a part of Gordon's game that people weren't sure how involved he could get in the NFL, he put those to rest last year when he caught 57 balls, 9th most among RBs, would've been top-5 in 2016.
The big knock on Gordon is that his efficiency, particularly his YPC is yet to hit the level of the top-tier RBs in the NFL. He's averaged just 3.9 ypc in each of the previous two seasons. However, as you should know by now, YPC isn't a predictive statistic, there are a million variables that go into YPC outside of running back skill.
The first of which is the offensive line. They've ranked 23rd and 26th in run-blocking per FO in the previous two years, 22nd in yards before contact last year per PFF, they are PFF's 23rd overall ranked line entering 2018, but have some really big upside. In 2017, the Chargers invested both their 2nd and 3rd round picks into their o-line. Their 2nd rounder Forrest Lamp was projected to be a starter, before, in classic Chargers fashion tore his ACL forcing him to miss the entire 2017 season. Lamp has had a full year to recover, but unfortunately, he's still without a timetable, according to the Chargers GM. That's never good when you have this much time, and you have guys coming back from ACL tears really quickly, but Lamp isn't cleared for training camp yet. Major story to keep an eye on. Their 3rd round pick last year, Dan Feeney was thrust into a starting role after Matt Slausen was lost for the year, and he got better and better as the year went on and should be projecting a nice year 2 jump to become a solid lineman for them. They also went out and signed former Dolphins Center Mike Pouncey to a 2-year, $15-million deal. Pouncey has been in and out of the lineup about as much as any lineman in the NFL over the past few seasons, but he's still relatively young, just turning 29 and if he can stay healthy, Pouncey is a really solid starter. As Rotoworld put it, "If this group can stay healthy, they have a legit chance to be a top-10 group", which I agree with. It's absolutely a completely optimistic view point, but presents upside for an improving Gordon nonetheless.
Although Gordon, has steadily improved over the past few years, the main cause of his fantasy production has been his volume without a doubt. He's still not as efficient as we'd though he'd be by now. FO's 29th ranked RB per their DVOA in each of the previous two years. He's a guy that ranks at the top of the list in Yards Created, Breakaway runs, overall touches and touchdowns, per PlayerProfiler, but efficiency wise still not good, his breakaway run rate ranked 28th in the NFL last year, his juke rate was 25th, yards created per carry 21st and FP per opportunity ranked and his tackles evaded/attempt according to PFF has actually been lower in both 2016 and 2017 than it was in 2015.
All that being said, as long as Gordon gets the volume, he's going to be among the top fantasy RBs for the third straight year. Behind Gordon, the Chargers have sophomore back Austin Ekeler who semi-balled during his rookie year. He finished with 539 total yards and 5 touchdowns on just 74 touches, including 27 receptions, despite being uninvolved for the final two weeks with a broken hand. Ekeler averaged 5.5 ypc compared to Gordon's 3.9, but that was on just 47 carries so it doesn't hold weight in my eyes. He's not a guy that's a serious threat to Gordon's workload. Ekeler saw more than 4 carries in just 4 games last year and 3 of those were blowout wins where they outscored opponent's 120-50. He might eat into some pass-catching work but Charges OC Ken Whisenhunt actually said that Gordon could be even more involved in the passing game. And what I think he means by that is that since both guys proved to be good in the passing game, they can use both guys at different positions, out wide, in the slot etc. So it won't necessarily mean using Gordon less, but differently.
The other part of the field which is super valuable is the GL carries, where Gordon saw the 3rd most rushes inside the 5 (14) last year, compared to just 1 for Ekeler. Gordon is in no danger of losing those carries to a back weighing 15lbs less than him.
What about the other running back here, the Chargers 7th round (251) pick Justin Jackson out of Northwestern. Well, he's over 20lbs less than Gordon so no worries there. Jackson is 6-0, 193lbs, and let me say this again, he was a 7th round pick, with a 34th percentile weight adjusted speed score, per PlayerProfiler.
Looking back to his college days, "Jackson joined Ron Dayne as the only running backs in Big Ten history to run for over 1,000 yards in all four seasons, logging a career 1,142/5,440/41 rushing line with 4.8 yards per carry and 122 receptions." He's a back that's actually very nifty, and can do a lot of good things at the position, but he's pretty slight in frame and will probably get hit by tacklers very easy in the NFL. I think really, he's just a depth play here for a team that doesn't have much in terms of bodies. Remember guys, he's a 7th round pick that I think some "experts" will tout and then nothing will happen and there will be no repercussions of it.
I'm more nervous about Ekeler taking pass-catching work than Justin Jackson being a threat at all to Gordon's workload, but I still think Gordon is a lock to have a ton of touches.
Their defense, who just suffered a big hit with the loss of Jason Verrett should still be very good and set them up with good field position.
I'm higher on Fournette this year than just about anyone's ranking I've seen in the industry. The reason is, while every back outside of the top-4 elite guys has multiple red question marks/or red flags, albeit they may be small, Fournette's singular red flag in my eyes is his injury history.
He is the clear-cut, lead back in the league's 5th highest scoring offense, who ran the ball more than any team in the NFL last year (32.9/game - next closest was Vikings at 31.3) behind a much, much improved offensive line that literally brought in this year's best FA lineman, All-Pro LG Andrew Norwell, with an amazing defense that will give them great field position, helping them dominate TOP, while using the run in abundance in trying to mask their QB, and far over-achieved in the receiving game where people had him penciled in as a virtual 0.
But injuries. It's a very real concern. Dating back to his college days, he's dealt with ankle, knee, feet and quad issues. So this is definitely a red flag. I did have Dr. Jesse Morse of the Fantasy Doctors on the show, which that episode is going to come out this Saturday - he gives it a 75% chance the Fournette misses at least one game with an ankle injury in 2018. That's definitely not good. He went in depth explaining the ankle, mans even took his shoes and socks off, got all up int the camera, showing me his toes and shit, I was like aight my guy at east soldier - but he said when you suffer the injuries that Fournette has suffered, your ankle doesn't come right back to how it was. It gets a little bit worse each time.
However, and this is a BIG, however, Fournette is reportedly coming into camp weighing 223lbs, his lowest weight since high school. Fournette weighed in at 240lbs at the combine, and Jaguars.com said Fournette played much of last year at 235lbs. This is a huge (12-17lb) drop off. If you've ever lost weight in your life, you know just how different things can be. Dr. Jesse Morse said, that for every single pound of body weight you lose, there is also 4-5lbs less force placed on your knees and ankle for every step, that's a lot of pressure taken off your knees and ankle. Especially if his weight loss rumors are really that drastic. This will be a huge relief on this lower body, his ankles in 2018 if he can maintain that weight.
Last year, Fournette had a lot working against him too.
Fournette faced 8 in the box 49% of the time. Gurley faced 8 in the box 17% of the time. Fournette faced a stacked box on the 3rd highest percentage of his rushes in the NFL. The Jags had mini breakouts from Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook, as well as bringing in Moncrief, D.J. Chark with their 2nd round pick and Austin Seferian-Jenkins to help alleviate the pressure in the box.
He was really good prior to his ankle injury. So you might say he was inefficient and sluggish at times, but that's not who he is as a running back. When he's healthy, he's a beast that combines power and speed, a monster that can breakaway evidenced by his 75 and 90-yard touchdown runs last year. There are very few running backs that can finish those runs and not get chased down.
So, a big part of Fournette's seasonal production in 2018 may come down to when his ankle injury will occur, if it does. The doc says 75% chance.
Let's look at Fournette's production last year. He played in 13 regular season games, and 3 playoff games. Including playoffs, Fournette totaled 1,628 yds & 14 TDs in 16 games, as a rookie. My absolute favorite part about Fournette is his sheer workload floor. Last year the ran the ball 268 times in 13 games. That was the 7th most, despite missing 3 games. Only Le'Veon Bell and Ezekiel Elliott ran the ball more times/game than Fournette did. According to Vegas, Fournette has the 4th highest odds of winning the rushing title behind Zeke, Gurley and Bell. I'd personally put him at 2 as well for rushing attempts.
Fournette had 19 or more touches in 14-of-16 games including playoffs. If you look at their most important games, the 3 playoff games - Fournette's touch count was 24, 27, 26, scoring 4 times in three games.
We know exactly what the Jags game plan is. It's to feed Fournette, kill the clock and let their defense zominate. They brought in no outside help for the running back spot. They have T.J. Yeldon who is a good change-of-pace and the explosive Corey Grant who, if anything will eat into Yeldon's workload. Good things happen when Grant is on the field, but I'm not even considering him to be a threat to Fournette's workload whatsoever. People get excited about the Jags OC saying they need to get Grant out there more, but this is what he said, "I'd love to put him out there because he's a major change-of-pace back,".. Change of pace... every backfield has a change of pace backs. Every single running back that's not a starter is a change of pace back.
As I was saying, Fournette was far more involved in the passing game than people expected him to be. Out of the 16 games Fournette played in last year, he caught multiples passes in every single game but 1. He'd finish the year, again counting the playoff games, with 60 targets and 43 catches, far from a zero. What's funny is I actually took a look to see if Yeldon, who also was involved, seeing 41 targets, if he had an impact on Fournette's involvement in the passing game but that wasn't the case:
Fournette actually saw more targets and caught more passes in games that Yeldon played then in games they didn't play together.
So, again, I say, the ONLY downside of Fournette is his health.
At the end of the day, I really like both of these backs, and would be happy to have either one as my RB1, if you have the chance to grab both of them, back of round 1, early round 2, I'd be ecstatic, but that won't be the case for everyone. So, if I had to choose between the two, it's Fournette for me. He's my 7th ranked overall player this year, and I'm debating moving him to 6 ahead of Barkley. Gordon is at 9. His sheer volume floor is so high. As is his scoring upside, with the new addition of Andrew Norwell and him dropping weight, I love everything about his situation. I like Gordon too, but the line is far from a sure thing if these guys can't get and/or stay healthy, and it's possible Ekeler eats into the passing game more than we anticipate after a strong rookie season. I think they're both a really good bet for 300+ touches, but Fournette's rushing upside is massive in my opinion, and if he's on the field he's giving you 20+ touches almost guaranteed. It would not at all surprise me if he scores 15 or rushing touchdowns in 2018.
by Nick Ercolano
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