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Melvin Gordon has some eye popping touchdown numbers, but those are mainly a result of opportunity.
When the Melvin Gordon signing was announced, one of the key stats that I have continually seen brought up in regards to Gordon is his touchdown numbers. This is with good reason, as he ranks 5th in the entire league in total touchdowns among skill players since he entered the NFL in 2015.
While this is certainly an accomplishment to be lauded, it also requires a little bit of closer scrutiny and context, if we are going to use it as a measure of his skill or effectiveness as a back.
Disclosure before we jump into this, lest you think I’m just attempting to further my opinion or downplay the acquisition; I’m on the fence with the Gordon signing. I am not a fan of the amount of money he was given, and don’t think in general that spending large amounts of resources on running backs (draft or cap) is a wise team building strategy. Exceptions to this would be a guy like Christian McCaffrey who I would pay big bucks to, but that’s getting off topic.
My final take – if signing Gordon ensures that Denver stays far away from drafting a RB in the first five rounds this year and next, then every penny of that $8M per year and $13.5M guaranteed is worth it. #BroncosCountry
— Jeffrey Essary (@JeffreyEssary) March 20, 2020
However, I like that Gordon brings to Denver what they hoped Royce Freeman could be, a bellcow style back who will allow Phillip Lindsay to be a rotational/change of pace style guy to keep him fresh. I think Gordon could be the thunder to Lindsay’s lightning. With that, let’s dig into what some are hailing as Gordon’s biggest asset, his nose for the end zone.
Volume and Opportunity
The crux of the touchdown narrative that should always accompany any discussion or mention of Gordon’s massive total is his volume and opportunity.
We can see when looking across the league, that with few exceptions, the biggest indicator of scoring touchdowns for running backs is number of touches near the goal line, and just overall touches.
On that note, when looking across the top 10 players in total touchdowns in the league over the last five years we see this:
Todd Gurley – 70
Mark Ingram – 50
Ezekiel Elliott- 48
David Johnson – 48
Melvin Gordon – 47
Devonta Freeman – 41
Derrick Henry – 41
Christian McCaffrey – 39
Latavius Murray – 38
Alvin Kamara – 37
First off, holy cow Todd Gurley. Now, let’s look at the top players in touches over that same time frame.
A little bit of movement with guys like McCaffrey and David Johnson dropping down for some higher volume guys, but many of the same guys are in the top of touches that were leaders in touchdowns.
So now that we have those two vectors that are just volume stats, let’s look at the rate at which these guys are scoring compared to their touches. At the very top is Aaron Jones who scores TDs at a crazy clip compared to his total touches.
As we can see here, Gordon ranks right around the middle of the pack from an efficiency stand point. Now, keeping in mind that rate stats will typically favor those with lower volume. It’s still telling that even high volume guys like Todd Gurley, Mark Ingram have been more efficient with their touches. Of course, it’s likely not a coincidence those guys also played for really strong offenses.
So that’s the volume portion, from a pure touch perspective, but there’s another aspect to look at as well when it comes to running backs. As anyone who has played fantasy football know, for most backs the majority of their TD production comes from not only a high volume of touches in general, but a high volume of touches on the goal line.
Let’s see how these backs shake out in that area. As we saw above, no running backs over the last five years have touched the ball more than Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, and Melvin Gordon. The same is true inside the 10 as well.
The top five backs with the most touches inside the are:
Todd Gurley – 140
Mark Ingram – 111
Ezekiel Elliott – 106
Melvin Gordon – 104
Latavius Murray – 93
The follow up to this then is what these guys did inside the 10 with those touches, so let take a look at how efficient they were down on the goal line with their opportunities.
Like I mentioned before, you’ll notice the guys with the highest rates have a pretty small sample size of snaps, but when you focus in on the higher volume guys you’ll notice it usually hangs between the ~30% range.
This is why it’s helpful to look at efficiency because what we can essentially discern from the numbers, that given the same number of opportunities at the goal line as Gordon, 20-30 other backs would have similar, if not better, touch down numbers, including Phillip Lindsay.
Lastly, notice that the percentage touchdowns per touch rises from 4-5% to closer to 30% in at the goal line. This makes intuitive sense, obviously – that it’s easier to score touchdowns when you touch the ball near the goal line more frequently.
Thus, we could be so bold as to say that a back with a high percentage of goal line touchdowns, perhaps doesn’t have as many quality TDs.
We can see it break down into almost three tiers. Guys who make their living at the goal line, guys who see a good chunk of their production at the goal line, and guys who’s touchdowns are a little higher quality, or at least more difficult to attain.
The epitome of this of course lies in the extreme, with Saquon Barkley who incredulously has less than half of his TD production coming from the “easier” to score area. Back to Gordon, we can see from here that he had 75% of his 47 touchdowns come from the goal line, and is a function of having one of the highest touch rates in the NFL inside the 10.
In summary, this is not an attempt to discredit what Gordon has done throughout his career as there is a reason not many backs have the production that he does. There’s value in his durability and his ability to consistently produce while carrying a large chunk of his team’s offense on his shoulders, so I’m certainly not here to say that isn’t important.
However, we just need to be careful when we talk about raw statistics, that we are putting them in proper context.
Lastly, I have to thank Joe Mahoney for his help in getting everything set up in Pro Football Reference to be able to pull this data together. He’s the man.
Joe Rowles and I discuss this in more depth on this week’s episode of Cover 2 Broncos if you want to check it out, here.
Also, here’s the full data if you want to dig more into the numbers and take a look.