There was little indication when he came out of Wisconsin that Melvin Gordon could be a dual-threat running back in the NFL.
A first-round pick of the Chargers in 2015, Gordon spent the previous three years in the land of smash-mouth football, racking up 4,915 yards and 45 touchdowns on 631 carries and surpassing the 100-yard rushing mark in 22 of his 44 games for the ground-hogging Badgers.
Gordon finished as the school’s third-leading all-time rusher and the sixth-leading rusher in Big Ten Conference history. A receiving threat, he wasn’t. In three college seasons, he caught 22 passes for 228 yards.
“I just remember him coming out of Wisconsin,” said Anthony Lynn, the Chargers’ second-year coach, “and the only passes he caught were sweeps.”
The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Gordon has added a few more pass-catching plays — swing routes, wheel routes, flat routes, option routes and screen passes, to name a few — to his repertoire over the past three years, evolving into one of the NFL’s most versatile backs.
Gordon is the team’s second-leading receiver through five games this season, entering Sunday’s game at Cleveland with 28 catches for 261 yards and three touchdowns. He ranks third in the NFL behind New Orleans running back Alvin Kamara and San Francisco tight end George Kittle with 206 yards after the catch.
“It’s not a 25-carry, 150-yards rushing league anymore,” said Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, a 15-year veteran. “It’s a 16-carry, seven-reception, how many touches does he get for 150 yards? I mean, you see it around the league with the best backs. That’s what they do.
“I think Melvin has embraced that and grown into it. ‘Shoot, I don’t care if you’re handing it to me, I’m going to run a heck of a route and throw it to me.’ At Wisconsin, it was handed to him and he ran through [huge] holes.”
Gordon, 25, has always been a physical, punishing runner with good instincts and balance, as he showed when he broke five tackles on a bruising 13-yard run in a Week 4 win over San Francisco.
According to the analytics website Pro Football Focus, Gordon ranked second in the NFL behind Kansas City Chiefs rookie Kareem Hunt with 48 missed tackles in 2017, when Gordon rushed for 1,105 yards and eight touchdowns on 284 carries.
Gordon ranks eighth in the NFL with 334 yards on 73 carries this season. Pro Football Focus rates him third in percentage of carries he’s remained upright through first contact (37.0%) and tied for fifth in forced missed tackles per rush (0.247).
“One of the things we focused on was his extending runs,” Lynn said. “He’s really worked at that. That has been an emphasis for him. He’s winning his one-on-ones more, and it’s paying off.”
Gordon’s development as a receiver has been more gradual. He caught 33 passes for 192 yards and no touchdowns as a rookie in 2015 — when he shared time with dual-threat back Danny Woodhead — and 41 passes for 419 yards and two touchdowns in 2016.
After Lynn took over in 2017 and retained offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, Gordon assumed a bigger receiving role in 2017, catching 58 passes — second most on the team behind Keenan Allen — for 476 yards and four touchdowns.
“Studying the 2016 tape when I first came here, I thought, ‘This guy catches the ball a lot better than I thought,’” Lynn said. “Then he backed it up in training camp through the rest of the season.
“We felt like he can make plays as a receiver, especially if there is a matchup that we want. Sometimes the best matchup might be Melvin on a linebacker as opposed to Keenan on a cornerback. So we have to look at that.”
Gordon has accumulated more receiving yards than rushing yards in three of five games this season, including a nine-catch, 102-yard afternoon in the season-opening loss to the Chiefs and a four-catch, 62-yard game in Sunday’s 26-10 win over Oakland.
He has four receptions of 20 yards or more, including a 34-yard screen pass that set up the Chargers’ second touchdown in the second quarter against the Raiders.
“Any way to get the ball,” said Gordon, who has teamed with versatile backup Austin Ekeler to give the Chargers one of the best running back tandems in the NFL. “What coach talks about is touches. With Philip, you have to be great in the passing game. It just makes me a better football player. It is all about making a man miss and getting open.”
The Chargers are using Gordon — and Ekeler — much like the Rams employ Todd Gurley. Get him the ball quickly and in open space, where Gordon can best use his speed and elusiveness.
“They’re doing a great job helping Melvin Gordon become one of the best all-purpose backs in football,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said.
Gordon, who missed the final three games of 2016 because of a knee injury, is on pace for 1,068 yards rushing and 835 yards receiving this season.
If he remains healthy and as productive as he has been through five weeks, he could move from the class of very good running backs to the elite level, a group that includes Gurley, Hunt, Kamara and Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott.
“I think you can say he’s moving in that direction because of his overall development,” Lynn said. “If you look at what he’s doing in the passing game, with his hands and receiving, he’s become a versatile threat.