COSTA MESA, Calif. -- One of the evaluations of Melvin Gordon coming out of Wisconsin was that he couldn't catch the ball out of the backfield. Gordon had just 22 career receptions for the Badgers.
However, over three seasons for the Los Angeles Chargers, Gordon has built a perceived weakness into a strength through hard work, catching extra balls after practice or during his pregame routine on game days.
The result is Gordon developing into one of the better pass-catching backs in the NFL.
Gordon finished with 58 receptions for 476 receiving yards and four touchdowns last season. Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said Gordon's role in the passing offense could expand even more for the upcoming season, particularly with the loss of Hunter Henry for the year because of an ACL injury to his right knee.
"We can do some different things because Melvin has become such a good receiver out of the backfield," Whisenhunt said. "And that's not something that you saw from him in college. Not that he couldn't do it; they just didn't throw him the ball. He was too busy running for 8 million yards or whatever it was he was running for.
"So, yes, that's been a real bonus that we've had. Those two guys [Gordon and Austin Ekeler], and their adaptability and flexibility can help some."
Gordon is part of leaguewide trend of running backs being used more in the passing game. According to ESPN Stats & Information, running backs totaled 2,757 receptions in 2017, the most in a season since 2002 (2,858).
Gordon said one of his goals this offseason is to improve his production as a pass-catcher.
"In the passing game, just as far as the expansion of the routes, just in that direction," Gordon said. "It will come. I know Whiz [Whisenhunt] draws up things here and there depending on what he sees from a defense, but Phil's [Philip Rivers] going to get you the ball regardless, so I'm not really too pressed about it. We'll be fine in that area."
Also helping Gordon grow as a receiver is one of the best pass-catchers as a running back ever to play the game in Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson.
The former Charger finished his career with 624 catches for 4,772 yards and 17 touchdown receptions. In 2003 he had a career-best 100 receptions.
Only Marshall Faulk has more catches among the top 10 all-time leading rushers.
With Henry out for the year, Tomlinson says Gordon will need to become more of a focal part of the Chargers' passing game.
"Truly that's the first thing I thought about when Hunter went down, is Melvin is going to have to become a weapon in the passing game," Tomlinson said. "Hunter makes easy throws for Philip, easy first downs and easy red zone targets. Now somebody has to pick up that role, and that can be Melvin. Even if it's screen plays or little pivot routes out of the backfield on one-on-one matchups, he needs to be able to provide those for Philip more so than ever because Hunter is down."
Tomlinson says he usually sits down with Gordon and talks about his goals for the upcoming year before the season starts, but has yet to meet with the Wisconsin product during the offseason.
Tomlinson said Gordon's increased production in the passing game is part of his natural evolution, and a similar transition the TCU product went through as a player.
"What you're seeing is a player become more comfortable in the offense," Tomlinson said about Gordon. "His role in the offense has evolved, and it's not just rushing the football and picking up the hard yards. It's now becoming an asset in the passing game where you have to be an outlet for Philip.
"Most coaches aren't going to put too much of the passing game on a rookie running back. So I think the first year, that's what we saw from Melvin. And then in the second year you saw him start to be more of an outlet for Philip Rivers -- the swing routes, letting Philip get the ball out quickly into Melvin's hands, and letting him make plays."