Woodhead graded as NFL’s best receiving back, looks to miss aging decline


Last offseason, Danny Woodhead’s two-year/$3.5 million contract was one of the best deals given out in free agency. With Woodhead’s production last season alone, he outplayed the total value of the contract. As a reward, the San Diego Chargers signed Woodhead to a two-year extension on Tuesday. While Woodhead has been incredible in his one year with the Chargers, and in the years prior for the Patriots, his extension raises a few more questions than answers.

The monetary numbers of the deal have yet to be disclosed, which is obviously important to how it will be viewed. Still, with Tom Telesco as general manager, it is probably safe to assume this won’t be a significant overpay in any way. It will likely pay Woodhead somewhere around his market value, which is a place he has not been in his career. According to the numbers at Spotrac, 2014 will be the first season in which Woodhead’s base salary will exceed $1 million.

In 2013, Woodhead caught 76 passes for 605 yards and was the best receiving running back by Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR) and second in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA). He was a safety net for Philip Rivers on many plays and was a big help in Rivers’ league leading 69.5 completion percentage. Even as Woodhead isn’t a typical running back getting 200+ carries per season, he will be entering his age-29 season in 2014, which is starting the wrong side of a running back aging curve. The expiration of the original contract would part ways with Woodhead before he turned 30, but now the Chargers will get his age 30 and 31 seasons. This likely won’t carry the same impact on #39 as an aging featured runner, but it will start to be the backend of Woodhead’s career.

Even if Woodhead remained at his 2013 level in 2014, it seemed parting ways would be inevitable after the season. The Chargers brought in Donald Brown on a three-year/$10.5 million contract this offseason. More importantly, San Diego drafted Arizona State running back Marion Grice in the fifth-round of the 2014 NFL Draft. I previously wrote about Grice before the draft, but as a refresher he was the best receiving running back in the class and was a logical fit to replace Woodhead. Grice might not be affected too much, even as that future plans now include Woodhead.

The biggest fallout of this extension could be what happens with Ryan Mathews, who is entering the last season on his contract. Mathews had his best season in 2013, a year he was able to stay healthy for a full season. With Brown’s role and style much more similar to Mathews than Woodhead, it’s likely Mathews will see some reduction in his workload. Instead of Grice being the obvious Woodhead replacement next year, a mixture of Brown and Grice could emerge as the Mathews replacement with an effective 2014 season.

Before training camp opened up, it appeared likely at least one of Mathews and Woodhead would be playing his last season in San Diego. With Woodhead’s new extension, that leaves a lot of uncertainty around the former first-round pick. With the very unfavorable market for free agent running backs now, it also seems unlikely the Chargers will rush into an extension with Mathews before the season begins.

A surplus in the backfield is not a bad problem to have, and with the Woodhead extension it will continue that way for another two seasons. The extension could also be a hint to where San Diego sees the future of its running backs, which might not be great news for Ryan Mathews.

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