The Los Angeles Chargers have become a fan favorite to fight for a Lombardi Trophy in 2019. Thanks to a well-balanced offense, a solid defensive front, and overall talented roster, the Bolts could be setting up for a straight path down to Miami come February.
In case you’ve been out of the loop for the past 48 hours, Melvin Gordon might be sending the Chargers in the opposite direction.
The 26-year-old running back informed the organization he will not be reporting to camp and will demand a trade if he’s not offered a new deal in the future, according to his agent Fletcher Smith. Smith stated Gordon did not want to go down this route to secure a new deal, but with the way contract negotiations were headed, he felt it was necessary to voice his concerns.
Gordon is entering the final year of his rookie contract, a fifth-year option worth $5.6 million. It’s easy to understand his frustration as the two-time Pro Bowler is coming off a season where he averaged 114.6 scrimmage yards per game and 14 total touchdowns.
With the former Wisconsin star rapidly turning into one of the league’s premier running backs, a payday should be in his future. There are two problems with the theory that Gordon is set for a lucrative contract out in Los Angeles; the position and the current team.
Why now, Melvin?
Gordon’s timing for the announcement should not be overlooked and questioned. He waited for the right moment to address this with the team and now has the ammunition to back up his case.
As the feature back for Los Angeles, the Chargers have put the position on the back burner when it comes to the draft and free agency. In April, knowing Gordon was entering a contract season, Chargers’ general manager Tom Telesco ignored the position in the draft, believing he would be able to keep Gordon in Los Angeles long-term.
With depth nowhere as strong behind him, Gordon has the leverage to push back and ask for a higher salary.
Last season, former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’ Veon Bell was expecting a new contract. Instead, he was franchise tagged, the parties couldn’t meet on a deal, and Bell sat out the entire season. Gordon, who many consider a top 10 running back in today’s league, could experience the same deal once his contract expires after the 2020 season.
Now, why would the Chargers continue to franchise tag a player with so much potential instead of signing him long-term? Simple; contract disputes. Not only will Gordon be up for a new deal but so will quarterback Phillip Rivers, offensive linemen Mike Pouncey and tight end Hunter Henry.
Rivers has been the face of the franchise since being drafted in 2004 and is likely the first up for a new deal. Pouncey excelled in his first season under center and has been a focal factor in the run game. If Henry returns to form following his torn ACL, he too is worth an extension in the future.
Facts over figures
The reality is running backs are now a commonwealth rather than a commodity in the NFL. The worth has diminished over the years due to teams looking more to win through the air than on the ground. Last season, teams rushed the ball. 25.9 times per game, the lowest mark in NFL history according to Pro Football Reference.
And while running backs no longer have the same value as in the days of Emmit Smith or Barry Sanders, we still see the top guys walk away with secure contracts. Todd Gurley, David Johnson, and Bell all received contract extensions since the start of the 2018 season. The three are herald by many as the top runners in the game right now due to their versatility and focal roles on offense.
Even those deals still came at a price few saw coming.
Johnson received a three-year $39 million contract just a season after spending a majority of his time on the injured reserve. Gurley, who now could be on the watch for a career lingering injury, signed a four-year, $60 million deal. Bell, who missed all of the 2019 season thinking he could remain healthy and get paid, settled on a four-year, $52 million offer from the Jets this past offseason.
Gordon falls behind all three runners heading into a contract season. He also could be considered a less valuable running back than Dallas Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott and New York Giants’ Saquon Barkley, both of whom still have several years left on their rookie deals.
The NFL isn’t fair to their top stars as a position will always trump talent when it comes to contracts. Quarterbacks will receive massive contracts and cornerbacks are going to be the first paid on defense. Left tackles could make an enormous deal to protect the blindside while pass rushers are paid top dollar to attack a backfield.
The ultimate trump card
Gordon wants to be paid and understands his worth. He also understands the frustration of stars wanting deals done and missing time.
An advocate to the Bell situation, Gordon told Sports Illustrated last season that if he were in Bell’s shoes, he’d take the same approach when dealing with negotiations.
Last fall SI spent a game day with Melvin Gordon, and when asked by his dad, he shared his thoughts on Le'Veon Bell sitting out last season 👇 pic.twitter.com/YP6VYqp2mb
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) July 11, 2019
With Bell missing last season, the Steelers, a favorite to compete for a Super Bowl in the AFC, found a star in James Conner but missed the postseason altogether. If Conner’s production remained similar, but the team had Bell’s dual-threat ability, perhaps we’re looking a Steelers’ organization hoisting their seventh Lombardi Trophy.
The Chargers are now in the same boat and Gordon could hold the key on determining their season. With the team looking strong and in control, a loss of a premiere player over contract disputes could set the team back and out of the race. In a very winnable AFC West division, Los Angeles needs Gordon more than Gordon needs LA.
The Chargers are known for letting free agents walk. After posting career numbers a season ago, Tyrell Williams will now face his former team twice a season in Oakland. If not for a team-friendly contract thanks to an injury, Los Angeles would have likely lost linebacker Denzel Perryman as well.
With the Chargers looking likely to contend this season, they need to be at full force. Gordon will be the x-factor on the offense to help keep them in the top of the offensive rankings.
The NFL is a business, and much like the real world, sometimes it’s unfair. A person who doesn’t do the work will get promoted and paid due to their value of the role on the team. It happens every day.
But Gordon’s ploy to try and gain a new contract is playing into his favor. While some might consider the position dead, few running backs have matched the similar skills Gordon has produced in his last three season.
If so, they have already or soon will be up for contract disputes.
Gordon is worth every penny he’s asking for. Running backs might not matter, but the top-level talent on a roster does. You pay talent.
Gordon is talented. Los Angeles, pay him or trade him.
The reality is someone is going to. It might as well be you to seal your place among the AFC greats for year’s to come.
Cole Thompson is the Lead NFL writer for Pro Football Network. Follow him on Twitter at @MrColeThompson.