Richardson excelled at Alabama because of his sheer power. He was able to run through defensive linemen, linebackers or defensive backs with ease while often forcing the defense to gang tackle him to stop his forward momentum. While Richardson could break off big runs, he didn't run away from faster defensive backs with the ease that Gordon has during his time at Wisconsin. Furthermore, Richardson was widely considered the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson while Gordon has become more of a polarizing evaluation amongst NFL Draft analysts.
As players on the field, Gordon and Richardson are very different. There's no arguing that. As prospects, they share the same problem.
Richardson's NFL career has careened off course. He appears to be on the verge of being released by the Indianapolis Colts after being suspended to end the season. Richardson has apparently gained significant weight, which is a major problem for a player who was already too slow to be effective on the field. His fall from being the third overall pick in the 2012 draft to this point on his second team has been severe.
Although a post-draft weight gain could be blamed for Richardson's poor play, his vision and agility has simply been ineffective since he stepped on an NFL field. If you go through his tape from Alabama, those issues can be found but only with a fine comb. Richardson's flaws were masked in college because of his immense strengths. He was able to rely on those strengths to compensate for his weaknesses against lesser athletes and less disciplined college defenses. Once those defenses were replaced by great athletes and more discipline, Richardson's weaknesses began to overshadow his strengths.
Gordon has different strengths and weaknesses, but the same lack of clarity exists because of the relative levels of those traits.
Before the beginning of the season, it was easy to compare Gordon to Jamaal Charles. There is still some legitimacy to that kind of comparison, but more so in terms of style than quality. Gordon had an incredible year. His production made him worthy of winning the Heisman trophy, even though Marcus Mariota ultimately took the award home. Gordon had 343 carries for 2,587 yards and 29 touchdowns. His ability to consistently break off huge gains bloated his average per carry to 7.5. All of those touches allowed Gordon to show off his strengths, but also made his flaws more prevalent.
Gordon's speed is his greatest attribute. His long speed and acceleration is going to make him very dangerous in space, even against the better athletes at the professional level.
With his average per carry, it's no surprise that Gordon had plenty of big runs last season. This one against Nebraska highlighted his acceleration around the edge and his ability to sustain his speed downfield. The running back decides very quickly that he is going to attack the outside edge of the defense. His speed to get to the edge gives the edge defender outside no time to react to his movement. Once there, Gordon shows off the balance to bend his trajectory and accelerate again towards the sideline. The deepest Nebraska defender initially has an angle on Gordon.
That defender is able to contact Gordon down the sideline, but the speed at which he is moving forces him to attempt a sloppy tackle. Gordon is able to jump away from the contact without losing much of his speed before sprinting towards the end zone.
As soon as Gordon got past that defender downfield, he began to pull away from the pursuit.
These kinds of plays are what make Gordon tantalizing as a runner. It was a well-executed play that would likely have gained good yardage with a lesser back, but Gordon's speed to the edge, balance turning downfield and sustained long speed allowed him to extend the play further. Gordon's overall speed (quickness, acceleration and long speed) may not be on the level of Jamaal Charles' but he can boast similar physical attributes on the field to those of Chris Johnson. The former Tennessee Titans running back used his long speed and acceleration to great effect early in his career.
Gordon's ability to plant-and-go in the open field to make defenders miss can be very impressive. On this play, Gordon begins his deceptive movement four yards in front of the defender. He initially plants his left foot before shifting his body weight and dropping his upper body onto his right. From there he is able to lift his feet so that he can swerve past the defender's inside shoulder at speed. If you slow the video to 0.5 speed it's easier to see how he makes each motion of his movement in the open field.
The physical attributes that Gordon shows off would fit perfectly for a one-cut runner behind a zone-blocking offensive line. However, he often negates his explosiveness between the tackles because he takes too many false steps and crouches into his cuts instead of simply being aggressive and decisive. Gordon can cost himself yardage by moving laterally or being late to attack a running lane simply because of his footwork and how he carries his weight.
Although these are minor issues, they could become more problematic when the game speeds up in the NFL. If Gordon had better vision/discipline as a runner, then this would be even less of a concern but that is where one of his primary weaknesses lies.
One of the more common flaws for faster running backs is a tendency to force the play towards the sideline. It's unclear if this is a vision issue for Gordon or if it's simply that he trusts his speed too much at the college level, but it's definitely a concern. Alone it's not a major concern but Gordon doesn't anticipate movement of immediate defenders or create yardage by setting up his blocks, so he can't afford to be an undisciplined runner.
Even when Gordon had a productive day in college, he could still provide plenty of examples of poor vision/decision-making. The LSU game was one such game.
On this play, Gordon is angling his run towards his center as he receives the football from his quarterback. The offense is leaving one defender unblocked to the right side while sliding its offensive line to the left. That defender is holding his position because of the threat of the option for the quarterback run. It's important to note that the defense lined up with a deep safety to that side of the field on this play also.
From the beginning of this play, Gordon had space on the second level to his left with an open running lane to attack. He could have made a quick cut by planting his right foot to push towards his left tackle. Instead he made an elaborate cut where he dipped his upper body and spread his right foot away from underneath his body. This completely stopped his momentum and forced him to move laterally.
While running directly towards the left sideline, the right defensive end of the defense is able to push the left tackle backwards and move to the inside. Whether Gordon recognizes this is unclear, but he reacts accordingly by continuing towards the sideline. Yet, as soon as Gordon took his first step, the defensive end pushed back towards the outside. This meant that the running back had an opportunity to cut upfield for a clean route to the secondary.
Considering Gordon's speed and the positioning of the deep safety, Gordon would have had a chance at running for a huge touchdown completely untouched. Instead he escaped outside for a first down and an impressive gain.
A first down and an impressive gain is not a bad thing, but in terms of translating to the NFL this kind of decision is typically not a good one. In college, the defensive end just missed out on grabbing Gordon because of his speed. Defensive ends in the NFL are typically longer, stronger and faster. They prioritize setting the edge and are much more likely to be in position to contain Gordon when he doesn't recognize how the blocking and defenders are developing in front of him.
For a running back who doesn't project to break tackles against defensive linemen or linebackers in the NFL, inconsistent vision can prove to be fatal.
Gordon is a good running back prospect, but these areas of uncertainty are going to act like swing states for him. He could very easily become one of the best backs in the NFL if he can straighten out some of these seemingly minor aspects of his game. Yet, he could also flame out quickly if he can't find ways to show off his explosiveness.
Losing sight of the forest through the trees is an issue during draft evaluations. Some prospects are easier to interpret as a whole while others show off traits that are tough to piece together. This becomes even tougher when you begin to compare prospects at specific positions. Saying that Gordon isn't on Todd Gurley's level isn't to say that he won't be a good or even a very good running back in the NFL, it just means that he offers much less certainty than a running back who shows up strong in every individual specific trait and when those traits are stapled together.