With Mathews and Woodhead entering last year of deals, a late-round back may help

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The San Diego Chargers will enter the 2014 season with an interesting situation in their backfield. The results of 2014 themselves won’t necessarily be interesting, but what this year may mean for the 2015 offseason is more intriguing. San Diego signed running back Donald Brown to a three-year/$10.5 million contract during the offseason, in a strange move during a time no team wanted to give any money to any running backs. The Chargers had an effective backfield in 2013 with Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead, but both of those backs will be on the final year of their contracts. While 2014 should be another efficient year, both Woodhead and Brown were in the top ten of Football Outsiders’ DVOA and Mathews was in the top 20, could the Chargers use the 2014 NFL Draft to prepare for one or two of these backs no longer being on the roster after the season?

Obviously with the backfield as currently constructed, running back isn’t a very high priority to address in the draft and shouldn’t be until Day 3. Since you’ve probably spent the past two months reading about what’s going to happen with prospects in the first round, let’s take a quick dive into a Day 3 prospect who could develop into a future productive member of the San Diego backfield, Arizona State’s Marion Grice.

Depending on the media outlet, Grice is projected to be selected anywhere from the fifth- to the seventh-round, but has talent that will play much higher than that level on the field. He might not have a great second-gear for speed many evaluators look at in a running back prospect, but his decisions are quick and he has the ability to break tackles. Grice excels more in his agility than pure speed, but his vision on the field allows that ability to shine. He’s also the best pass catcher of any running back prospect in the draft. Watch some highlight films of him and see some catches a majority of backs wouldn’t dream of making. The linked highlights are from 2012, but he was even better in 2013.

In 2014 and even 2015 the Chargers would be able to benefit from having productive backs in front of Grice, allowing him to keep his production per touch high, as he scored on just over every 12 touches in 2013. That type of production isn’t likely to be sustained at the pro level, but Grice has upside as a playmaker who makes smart decisions and positive plays more often than not.

Grice also has the ability to return kicks, which could be his main responsibility during his rookie season. That would also benefit other players on the roster by taking additional responsibilities from Woodhead, Eddie Royal and allowing Keenan Allen to focus solely on being the team’s No. 1 receiver.

At 6’0” and 208 lbs, Grice could turn into a combination of Mathews and Woodhead in the backfield, which might be what the Chargers need if both leave in free agency at the end of the season. After the signing of Brown, who bumps in cap hit from $1.9 million in 2014 to $4 million in 2015, the departure of Mathews wouldn’t be surprising. Even hitting free agency at age 30, like Woodhead will after the season, he’ll like receive much more than the two-year/$3.5 million deal he signed last offseason.

Even if the full benefit of drafting Grice might not be truly realized until 2015, his upside is enough to be well worth the late-round pick needed to select him. If the Chargers were to truly select players late in the draft based on the best player available, it would be difficult not to see Grice at the top of the list at the start of Day 3. While he will have a difficult time breaking into the rotation of Mathews, Brown and Woodhead in 2014, his ability to do other things on the field would keep him from being an inactive fourth running back during his rookie season.

Having Grice on the roster on a cheap rookie contract would also allow San Diego to use the funds that would have been used on Mathews or Woodhead on other issues on the roster, likely some type of pass rusher with Dwight Freeney’s contract expiring. Running back might seem like one of the last positions that needs to be addressed, but a low-risk high reward selection of Grice could keep it that way for the next few years.

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