By Nick Shook
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Melvin Gordon‘s first season in the NFL was one to forget.
The No. 15 pick in the 2015 draft rushed for just 641 yards on 184 attempts (3.5 yards per carry), fumbled five times (lost four of them) and was shut out of the end zone as the Chargers trudged through a 3-13 season.
Guess now is a good time to try him as a kick returner, right?
That’s what the Chargers did with Gordon during camp Friday, giving the running back reps as a kick returner during a couple special-teams periods, alongside fellow running backs Branden Oliver and Danny Woodhead, and receivers Isaiah Burse and DeAndre Reaves.
Only one of the aforementioned players is a first-round pick, which should sound the alarm bells inside the heads of the Chargers faithful. Here’s a quick look back on some of the best kick returners of the last decade and a half: Devin Hester, Josh Cribbs, and Dante Hall. Of those three, the highest selection was Hester, taken in the second round of the 2006 draft by Chicago.
None of those players were running backs taken in the top 15. And while this can simply be chalked up as the Chargers trying new things in camp because they can, and trying to get the ball in their perceived playmakers’ hands more often, this can also be taken very seriously as a team trying to get the most value out of a player who they might suddenly deem as highly overpriced.
Consider this: In 2014, Oliver rushed for 582 yards on 160 attempts (3.6 yards per carry) and three touchdowns. The following offseason, the Chargers draft Gordon in the first round, and get nearly identical numbers. Now, the backfield that Gordon was supposed to take over as the bell cow is suddenly considered crowded, with Gordon, Oliver and the small-but-mighty Woodhead. My, how things have changed.
“We’ll see how it goes,” McCoy said of the backfield situation. “I think that’s something we’re going to discuss over time. I’m not going to say definitely no or definitely yes yet. We’ll see. That’s going to be a battle back there.”
This doesn’t mean, of course, that Gordon can’t have a breakout sophomore season. History leans toward the slump, but the bar is already set fairly low for him. But considering a first-round selection who is only entering his second season (and returned a whopping eight kicks for a 21.8-yard average in college) as a kick returner is unorthodox, if not worrisome.