Mailbag: What is the future for Ryan Mathews in San Diego?

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In today’s mailbag we have a question from twitter user @Coach_JMT. We appreciate any questions, you can ask them by tweeting at us (@cover32_SD) or hashtagging #Boltup32.

Thanks for the question John. It definitely is a pressing issue. As we have talked about many times over the offseason. Danny Woodhead and Ryan Mathews are both set to become free agents after the 2014 season. In today’s NFL, running backs are becoming more like disposable razors than anything else. You use them for a short time while they’re sharp, the second they become dull you try to force one or two more shaves, and then you toss them never to be used again.

We can see this with guys like Knowshon Moreno, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Chris Johnson. Moreno finally broke out for Denver last season during the fifth year of his career, and final year of his rookie contract. Most would consider Moreno, a former first rounder, a bust, but he was a critical part of the Denver offense last season. The former Georgia Bulldog had over 1,500 yards from scrimmage in 2013 to go along with 13 touchdowns and was kicked to the curb by the Broncos this offseason. His prize? A one-year/$3 million dollar contract with the Miami Dolphins. Moreno has experienced knee trouble this offseason and is one bad year away from his career ending.

This is seen all too often at the running back position. Maurice Jones-Drew led the league in rushing two years ago on a franchise going nowhere. He tried to force a trade to a contender, but instead gave two more years to the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars, and even though he signed a small deal with Oakland this offseason, he is talking about retirement. Similarly, we can look at Chris Johnson. One of seven members of the 2,000 yard club, and a guy who has run for 1,000 yards in all six of his years at the NFL level. His reward? Getting cut by the Titans to save cap.

The running back position has become one of the most thankless jobs in the NFL. Now, this isn’t an indictment on Ryan Mathews. The signing of Donald Brown actually will work to his advantage. This shows us that Tom Telesco values depth in the backfield, and Mathews still provides the pop in a very versatile group of running backs.

However, Telesco is also no dummy. He’s not going to give a long-term deal to a running back who will be approaching 28 years of age entering the 2015 season. At this point, the Chargers lead back should still have a few years in the tank, and the way he played last season makes it seem like he is entering his prime. I expect Mathews to return to the Chargers on a three-year deal worth somewhere between $5-10 million per year with most of that money coming up front in case the Chargers want to cut him down the road. This may seem ruthless, but that’s the way this business has grown to treat its stars.

Ryan Mathews broke out last season, and Donald Brown should keep him fresher in 2014. Unforunately, he and his agent need to understand the market value for running backs when his free agency hits. I expect Mathews to have a monster season with his contract looming. The Chargers will have a lot of cap space in 2015, and while some of that will likely go to Mathews, priority No. 1 for Tom Telesco will not be giving an aging running back eight figures per year.

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