Where will Melvin Gordon play in 2022? Cardinals, Chiefs, Saints, Steelers among viable suitors for veteran RB

If the Denver Broncos don't re-sign Melvin Gordon, where could the veteran running back land in free agency?

In just a few short months, Melvin Gordon is scheduled to hit free agency for the second time in his career. In 2020, the veteran running back left the Los Angeles Chargers to join the division rival Denver Broncos on a two-year, $16 million contract. Will Gordon receive the same type of value on the open market in 2022? What teams will likely express interest if he doesn’t re-sign with the Broncos?

Melvin Gordon’s free agent profile

Gordon’s current contract with the Broncos is extremely odd in that it slots into a middle tier of running back deals that is essentially vacant. The usual suspects, from Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara down to Aaron Jones and Joe Mixon, round out the top tier of the RB market, with salaries ranging from $12-16 million annually. Meanwhile, most running backs earning less than $5 million per year are playing on rookie or one-year deals.

That leaves an odd tier of RBs with salaries between $5 million and $8 million. That list includes pass-catching specialists such as Nyheim Hines and Tarik Cohen, a player with off-field history in Kareem Hunt, and Austin Ekeler, whom the Chargers somehow secured for $6.125 million per season despite the fact that he was coming off a 92-reception campaign.

At the very top of this tier sits Gordon, who received $8 million annually and a relatively stunning $13.5 million in full guarantees from Denver. It was a surprising contract at the time, and it still looks strange in hindsight, even though Gordon has played well. Now that he’s entering his age-29 campaign, Gordon will almost certainly need to accept a one-year contract with a reduced salary.

That’s not to say Gordon has been disappointing in Denver. He’s split carries for most of the past two seasons, but he’s totaled 1,794 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground in that time. In the receiving game, he’s managed 59 catches for 265 yards and 3 more scores. Gordon’s production is perfectly acceptable. But aging running backs with nearly 1,500 career carries under their belt simply don’t get paid on the open market.

Melvin Gordon’s fits in free agency

If the Broncos hand over their running game to 2021 second-round pick Javonte Williams, where could Gordon end up? Here are a few potential destinations.

The Arizona Cardinals may need to replace their entire backfield

The Cardinals’ high-flying passing offense has been just as good as expected, even given the various injuries to Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins. But Arizona’s ground game has also held up its end of the bargain.

James Conner is tied for second in the league with 14 rushing touchdowns. Chase Edmonds is 11th in the NFL in success rate. And neither back has gotten a ton of help from the Cards’ offensive line, which ranks 27th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards.

Both Conner and Edmonds will become free agents at the season’s end. It’s unclear if the Cardinals will re-sign either one. Gordon becomes an especially intriguing fit in the desert if Arizona only brings Edmonds back in 2022. The duo could form a thunder-and-lightning tandem, though it’d be tough to replicate the 2021 success of Conner/Edmonds.

Gordon would give the Kansas City Chiefs another option behind CEH

Clyde Edwards-Helaire will be back in Kansas City next season. But the Chiefs can’t feel confident with him as the unquestioned starter at running back. Darrel Williams could return, but he’s had success this year and will be a free agent. It seems unlikely that Andy Reid would be comfortable with only Derrick Gore behind CEH on the club’s depth chart.

If he signs in KC, Gordon would get to continue his tour of the AFC West (next stop, Raiders!). In an ideal situation, he could serve as the early-down back for the Chiefs and allow CEH to spend more time as a pass catcher. Edwards-Helaire was an excellent receiver at LSU, but he’s never fully developed that aspect of his game in the NFL.

Of course, Gordon isn’t a total slouch as a pass catcher, either. He posted at least 30 receptions in each of his first six seasons. If he manages 3 catches in Week 18, Gordon will reach that mark again in 2021.

The New Orleans Saints need a backfield partner for Alvin Kamara

Here’s where the Saints have ranked in expected points added (EPA) per rush dating back to 2014:

  • 2020: No. 4
  • 2019: No. 8
  • 2018: No. 6
  • 2017: No. 1
  • 2016: No. 4
  • 2015: No. 9
  • 2014: No. 3

They have been inside the top 10 for nearly a decade and ranked as a top-four rushing team by EPA four times. But where do they stand in 2021? 28th! Of course, that’s based on several factors: the lack of Drew Brees, injuries to key contributors along one of the league’s best offensive lines, and health issues for RBs Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram, and Tony Jones Jr.

Whether due to injuries or not, Kamara just hasn’t been the same back this year. After acquiring him from the Texans, the Saints extended Ingram through 2022, but he’s not due any guaranteed money next season. Gordon alone wouldn’t solve New Orleans’ issues in the run game. But he’d be a better option behind Kamara than what the team has deployed this year.

Gordon could give Najee Harris a breather with the Pittsburgh Steelers

Despite his baseline numbers, Najee Harris hasn’t been very efficient this season. But who can blame him? The rookie has played more snaps (862) than any other running back in the NFL. Harris’ 84.8% snap share leads the league by a whopping margin, as no other RB has even topped the 70% threshold (Jonathan Taylor is second at 67.5%).

The Steelers didn’t provide any depth behind their starting running back this year, but that hasn’t always been their strategy. In 2015 and 2016, Pittsburgh had veteran DeAngelo Williams available behind workhorse Le’Veon Bell. Gordon could play a Williams-esque role in relief of Harris, limiting the latter’s snap count and potentially helping him become more effective.

Could Gordon reunite with the Los Angeles Chargers?

Reunited, and it feels so good? Yes, Gordon has a complicated history with the Chargers, as he held out and demanded a trade after being franchise-tagged in 2019. But time can heal all wounds, and maybe new head coach Brandon Staley can help smooth things over.

Somehow, someway, Los Angeles needs to add another back behind Ekeler. Joshua Kelley is a plodder, Larry Rountree III has looked lost as a rookie, and Justin Jackson has blown more blocks in pass protection than I care to count.

Ekeler is already an All-Pro level talent, and he’ll continue to be a focal point in LA’s offense next season. But if the Chargers scoop up Gordon in free agency and let him play 30-40% of the RB snaps in 2022, Ekeler could ascend even higher.

Dallas Robinson is a Writer and News Editor at Pro Football Network. You can read his other work here and follow him on Twitter: @dallasdrobinson.

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