Head coaches, like players, change teams every season and the average Joe probably doesn’t care too much when it occurs. Studying a team’s supporting cast goes beyond the field of play to the sidelines where the most important decisions are made. Coaching changes on perceived below-average teams can give you an edge. Target the following players if the price is right based on their fit in a new offensive scheme and at their average draft position (ADP).
Melvin Gordon, RB, Los Angeles Chargers (ADP: 1.09)
The 24-year-old Wisconsin star needs a man like head coach Anthony Lynn in his life. The Chargers haven’t had a double-digit win season or advanced to the AFC title game since 2009, and the franchise hasn’t made the playoffs since 2013, going 9-23 the past two seasons. Whether a different coaching philosophy will drastically change the team’s win-loss record remains to be seen. Fantasy owners only care about individual statistics.
Melvin Gordon had 997 yards on the ground, 1,416 yards from scrimmage and 12 total touchdowns in 2016. His 3.9 yards per carry on 254 attempts isn’t good enough. Touchdowns are unpredictable. Expect his scores to drop considering he had zero touchdowns as a rookie. Everything else can improve.
For starters, Lynn will raise Gordon’s rushing average. Gordon also benefits from Danny Woodhead signing with Baltimore. Woodhead had 19 rushing attempts and six receptions in 2016 due to a season-ending ACL injury, and 98 carries and 80 receptions for 1,091 yards in 2015. Gordon is the no-doubt workhorse nowadays. Lynn’s resume proves he won’t be afraid to lean on his new tailback.
The then-San Diego Chargers were the 26th-worst rushing team at 3.8 yards per carry in 2016 and ranked 31st at 3.5 yards per carry in 2015. The past two seasons, Lynn was the Buffalo Bills assistant head coach and running backs coach where his team led the NFL in rushing yards (2,630 in 2016 and 2,432 in 2015) and rushing touchdowns (29 in 2016 and 19, tie in 2015). Lynn also called the second-most rushing plays in both 2016 (492) and 2015 (509); the Chargers tied for 22nd (398) and were 31st (393) in that period. The Bills’ top-notch offensive line paved the way for a league-leading 5.3 yards per carry. The Chargers’ offensive line has a long way to go, ranked 21st entering the season, according to Michael Renner of Pro Football Focus, who noted the offensive line has graded out below average for 10 consecutive seasons.
I like what Lynn has done in the offseason to change the culture, such as signing left tackle Russell Okung and drafting interior linemen Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney. The hiring of Lynn also benefits Ken Whisenhunt, who’s entering his second season as offensive coordinator. Former head coach Mike McCoy was fired in January after four seasons with a 28-38 record, 1-1 in the playoffs. Whisenhunt runs the offense but his decisions are based around the head coach’s philosophy. Under McCoy, the Chargers’ pass attempts per game ranked in the Top 10, including eighth (2016) and fourth (2015, 2013). A fair rebuttal can be made that a pass-happy offense was necessary last season because the defense ranked 29th at 26.4 points per game. That argument starts to lose relevancy in McCoy’s other three years at the helm in which the defense, on average, ranked 19th at 22.8 points per game.
Even if the running game struggles, coaches must continue to pound the rock or use short, quick passes to remain balanced and control the clock. A solid rushing game is possible and may be needed even more so because the team’s first-round draft pick, wide receiver Mike Williams, will start training camp on the physically unable to perform list following a second epidural. Because Williams is missing valuable playtime and there isn’t a guarantee of when he’ll return, Gordon could play an even bigger role.
Whisenhunt was the Chargers’ offensive coordinator in 2013. Not only was that the last year the team made the playoffs, San Diego ranked sixth in rushing at 30.4 attempts per game led by Ryan Mathews and Woodhead. Unlike McCoy’s final three seasons, Lynn will remain committed. Whisenhunt was also Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator (2004-06) and head coach for Arizona (2007-12) and Tennessee (2014-15).
Pittsburgh’s ground game ranked first in attempts in 2004-05 and 14th in 2006. Arizona was a letdown in averaging 31st over six seasons, including four times having the fewest attempts per game. That was in the heyday of quarterback Kurt Warner and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who were underwhelmingly led on the ground by Tim Hightower and Chris “Beanie” Wells. Not to make excuses but it’s understandable why Whisenhunt based the offense around two of the game’s all-time greats. As for Tennessee, the Titans ranked 25th in 2015 and climbed up to third in yards and fourth in attempts last season with the one-two combo of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry.
As for their schedule, many analysts say the Chargers have a difficult first half of the season. I disagree when it comes to rushing, not team defense. This is who the Chargers play in Weeks 1-8: Denver’s (twice) rushing defense ranked 28th at 130.3 yards per game, followed by Miami (30th, 140.4), Kansas City (26th, 121.1), Oakland (23rd, 117.6), Philadelphia (15th, 103.2), New York Giants and New England (tie 3rd, 88.6) – a 102.1 yards per game average, or 15th ranking. Could those rushing defenses drastically improve in 2017? Is Miami going to allow 30 yards fewer every game throughout the season? How about Denver and Oakland? My guess is no, which benefits Gordon as a dual-threat runner and receiver.
According to Fantasy Sharks rankings, Gordon is RB7 in standard and points per reception (PPR) leagues. I’d move him up a spot because I dislike Chicago’s Jordan Howard, who’s ranked higher in both formats. Are you feeling bewildered? I was. Before researching Gordon, I thought he was a prime candidate to be a bust, or at least disappoint based on his 1.09 average draft position. Success is never guaranteed but Lynn’s history should help put everyone at ease. Don’t be surprised if the Chargers’ run-first head coach helps Gordon reach his potential.