On January 12th this year, while the Bolts were battling against the Broncos in freezing Mile High City conditions, Ryan Mathews found himself on the sidelines. The breakout back was a monster in 2013 finishing with 1,255 yards in the regular season, but when the Chargers needed the running game the most, they were forced to turn to Danny Woodhead. Woodhead finished with 29 yards on 9 carries, while Mathews never saw the field in the second half against Denver. The go-to ground game that helped the Chargers secure their first playoff berth in four years was absent in the team’s most important game, and the offense suffered, scoring all of zero points through the first three quarters in Denver. The team put up a valiant comeback, but ultimately fell short and were eliminated from the playoffs. While the season was encouraging in many respects, Tom Telesco was watching, and his first move was to make sure the running back position wouldn’t have the same issues moving forward.
On the first day of free agency, we all expected the Bolts to address the struggling secondary, but Telesco instead brought in a player he knew well in Indianapolis, Donald Brown. Frustration over lack of corner improvement caused some of us to overlook the benefits of the Brown signing. The veteran running back can run between the tackles, catch passes out of the backfield, and is effective in the redzone. In a way, he does the things both Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead excel at in a more limited fashion. Woodhead was the spark out of the backfield the Chargers needed last year and was a huge threat in the passing game. Mathews was the workhorse when the Chargers played a possession game trying to limit the time their struggling defense spent on the field. Now, if one of these backs go down, the Chargers have a man capable of filling either role. Additionally, Brown will be the perfect spell to keep Woodhead and Mathews healthy for the postseason run.
The Chargers backfield is, without doubt, in great shape.
Outside of the three locks for the roster, the Chargers have some new faces at the running back position. 6th-round pick, Marion Grice out of Arizona State University, is another versatile back who some considered the best receiving back in the draft. Grice also has the ability to return kicks, something we saw Ronnie Brown do in 2013, and should have a real chance to be the starting returner in San Diego. This pick really frustrated some fans, but with Woodhead and Mathews both set to be free agents after the season, Grice could become an heir-apparent if he has a good 2014.
The fifth running back we have to talk about could have been the best player on the field at OTAs, but also has a lot to overcome if he is going to make the roster. Branden Oliver out of Buffalo University shined in offseason workouts for the Chargers. We previewed the undrafted rookie earlier this year, and think the Chargers could really benefit by keeping him, at the very least, on the practice squad. Oliver is in the MJD/Ray Rice mold, and given the chance, could be a star in the NFL in a year or two.
The Chargers have a lot of competency in the backfield, and this year will bring about a lot of questions entering the offseason. But rest assured, running back will be a strong point for the Bolts in 2014.