Mailbag: What will the Chargers do with Marion Grice and Branden Oliver?

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Today’s mailbag question comes to us from Chargers fan, and San Diego native, Gump in Scottsdale, AZ. If you have a question for our mailbag please tweet them to us @cover32_SD.

“Do you think the Bolts plan to keep both Branden Oliver and Marion Grice?” – Gump, Scottsdale, AZ.

Thanks for your question, Gump. This has been the topic of conversation throughout the Chargers fan base after Branden Oliver burst onto the scene during last week’s preseason opener.

Let’s start with the roster breakdown and how cuts work (apologies to the advanced fans). Right now, there are roughly 90 guys in camp for the Chargers. By August 26th — after the third preseason game — the Bolts need to whittle the roster to no more than 75 players (first cuts). A few days later, on August 30th, the Chargers will again need to trim the roster to the final 53 guys they wish to take into the regular season opener.

What does this mean for the running back position?

Typically, teams will carry three or four backs on their roster following the preseason. The tendency for backs to get hurt in today’s NFL usually will force teams to carry four backs. With Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead and Donald Brown all guaranteed roster spots barring something completely unexpected, it would appear the final spot is up for grabs between Grice and Oliver.

Grice is a 6th-round pick and was highly touted coming out of Arizona State. While he has the capability to run between the tackles, he excels receiving out of the backfield and returning kicks. These tools could be extremely valuable for any team. Most assumed he was a lock for the roster as GMs hate to admit mistakes no less than four months after they have drafted a player. However, Branden Oliver has given the Chargers something to think about.

Oliver was a standout at the University of Buffalo. His production was undeniable, but having a smaller frame and an injury history, he went undrafted. Through OTAs, camp and now preseason, Oliver has been THE standout for the Chargers. He reminds some of a thicker Darren Sproles and could project to develop into a Maurice Jones-Drew/Ray Rice-type back.

Between these two, the Chargers have — if it even makes sense — too much depth. In an ideal world, San Diego would keep one of these two, and put the other on practice squad. The practice squad is an eight-man unit composed of players with no or very minimal NFL experience. The issue, however, is that the players signed to the practice squad need to be released before the August 30th deadline. This gives any NFL team the ability to claim the player. Additionally, players on the practice squad can be signed to ANY active roster during the season (ie. the Packers tried to sign Broncos 2013 6th-round pick, Tavarres King, off Denver’s practice squad last year).

So in a way, Branden Oliver going out and performing so well on a national scale was a bit of a negative. Now, every GM in the league has seen what this kid can do, and if they have an opening at running back, would love to fill it with a high-potential player.

The Chargers must decide which one of these players they think can sneak through the waiver system and be retained. Or — as crazy as it sounds — go bold and keep five running backs. In order for this to happen, Grice would need to be a huge contributor on special teams. And Oliver would have to provide some sort of additional value outside of running back. This route makes very little sense, and I don’t see it happening.

The good news for San Diego is every other team will be trying to trim their roster to 53 players as well, so claiming a young and unproven player doesn’t make a lot of sense. However, a running back-starved team could pull off a move. We will see how this shakes out as it will be the top storyline entering Friday’s game. For now, I think the Bolts keep Grice. He was the guy they wanted in May, and hasn’t done anything to lose his spot. It just so happens another player has done everything in his power to take it. Luckily, we have one of the smartest young minds in the game running the front office, and I have no doubt Tom Telesco will make the best decision for the team.