Analyzing the San Diego Chargers' Running Back Situation Heading Into 2015

After a disappointing, injury-riddled 2014, what will the San Diego Chargers do to address their holes at running back?

"It's a hard knock life for us, it's a hard knock life for us.
'steada treated, we get tricked. 'steada kisses, we get kicked.
It's a hard knock life."

-- Jay Z, Hard Knock Life

Last season the Vikings lost All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson to a 15-game suspension. This was called a "major blow" for Minnesota's running game.

In Week 7 of last year, within a 10-minute span the Bills first lost Fred Jackson for two games to a groin injury and then C.J. Spiller for the remainder of the season to a broken collarbone. This was called a "disaster" for Buffalo's run-heavy offense.

Today, no one would consider any of these reactions as hyperbole. The negative impacts these misfortunes had on their respective teams were immense and warranted the grim assessments that followed.

But if this is the case, then what do you call it when -- within the first three weeks of the season -- a team loses their starting running back for 10 games to an MCL sprain, loses their primary backup and third-down back for the season to a broken leg, and loses their Pro Bowl center to a career-ending neck injury, which would be just one of four different players suffering major injuries at this single position throughout the year?


These are the words that come to mind when we look at everything the San Diego Chargers running game had to deal with last season. And when we examine just how large an impact these losses had on the Chargers offense, these terms begin to look like massive understatements.

Run This Town

In 2013, during his first season as the Chargers head coach, Mike McCoy utilized a balanced offensive gameplan, rushing the ball 485 times (sixth highest in the league). This run-heavy attack resulted in a winning record, a playoff berth, and an eventual Wild Card round victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.

In 2014, with multiple running back and offensive line injuries strongly influencing the offensive play calling, McCoy was forced to dial-up just 399 rushing plays (22nd in the league). This would have a largely negative impact on the team's overall success as measured by both traditional and advanced metrics.

Though the Chargers finished with the same 9-7 record that they had the prior season, they would fail to make the playoffs this year. Beyond this, using nERD -- which is our in-house metric for team efficiency and measures how many points a team would be expected to beat an average opponent by on a neutral field -- the Chargers saw a drop in their nERD from 2.95 in 2013 (11th in the league) to -0.01 in 2014 (18th).

While the reduced ground production caused by the Chargers' massive injuries is easy for us to deduce, the contributions of this unit to Mike McCoy's offense extends beyond the run game. In McCoy's system the running back is also heavily utilized in the passing game and the lack of any true weapons at this position last season caused Philip Rivers and the entire passing offense to suffer as well.

Indeed, Rivers targeted this position on 24.3% and 17.8% of his throws in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Rivers also threw 26.5% and 21.0% of his passes in 2013 and 2014, respectively, to players behind the line of scrimmage, emphasizing the heavy use of the short passing game for this offense and the need for pass catching backs.

But with the loss of regular third-down back Danny Woodhead to injury, this offensive unit saw a nearly 30% reduction in aerial production, dropping from 847 total receiving yards in 2013 to 624 receiving yards in 2014. Due in large part to these disappointing performances at the tailback position, Rivers saw his Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) drop from 162.8 in 2013 to 105.93 in 2014.

From this, it is easy to see just how important the running back position is to Mike McCoy's offensive philosophy. And given the centrality of this position to the team's overall success, the need to find a long-term solution at the running back position becomes very apparent.

Can I Get A...

A number of factors are in play that are changing the landscape for the Chargers' offensive make up. These factors -- which include a potential quarterback controversy, a commitment to building a strong offensive line, and a starting running back slot up for grabs -- are creating a situation where a game-changing running back could come in and make a huge impact on this team sooner rather than later.

While purely speculative, the mere fact that we're even talking about a potential Philip Rivers trade is a very telling statement about the state of affairs in San Diego. Rumblings regarding the Chargers' interest in Oregon Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota, along with a refusal of the front office to deny unequivocally a potential Rivers trade, suggests that general manager Tom Telesco is at least considering the possibility that the window on Philip Rivers' prime may be closing soon.

Viewed in this light, the need for a workhorse running back for this team to lean on becomes even more imperative as the Chargers begin the inevitable transition away from the Philip Rivers era.

Offensive Line
Generating production in the ground game begins with the offensive line. If you don't believe me, just ask DeMarco Murray and Lesean McCoy for their thoughts on the matter. And after coming to this painful realization following years of neglect by former Chargers general manager A.J. Smith, the team has now redoubled its efforts in this department.

Following last season's disaster with this unit, the Chargers remained committed to building a strong front line by re-signing 6' 9", 330-pound left tackle King Dunlap to a four-year, $28 million contract.

They then snagged 6' 7", 330-pound left guard Orlando Franklin from the Denver Broncos with a five-year, $36.5 million contract. This signing was particularly significant as Franklin's familiarity with McCoy's offensive style due to their time together in Denver, and a top-13 grade at the position last season according to Pro Football Focus, makes him a formidable addition to this run blocking unit.

Playing alongside 6' 5", 339-pound right tackle D.J. Fluker, these three behemoths now form a strong nucleus that is a vast improvement from what the Chargers were working with last season, and should help drive significant production from the running game.

Running Back
To call the running back unit for the Chargers ineffective last year is putting it very lightly. In 2013, the Bolts running backs combined for a Rushing NEP of 5.92 and a Reception NEP of 67.57, meaning that altogether this unit contributed an extra 73.49 points to the offense above expectations. In 2014, the Total NEP from this unit dropped to -5.68.

The exact breakdown of the contributions (or lack thereof) to the offense by each running back on the roster in 2014 are listed below.

Full NameRushesRush NEPRecRec NEPTotal NEP
Branden Oliver160-19.993615.38-4.61
Donald Brown84-17.23295.48-11.75
Ryan Mathews756.6093.6210.22
Danny Woodhead15-3.3053.760.47

The Woodhead injury was especially devastating to this offense's aerial attack as the Reception NEP for this unit dropped from 67.57 in 2013 to 28.24 in 2014 in his absence. While Woodhead is on-track to make a full recovery from his fractured fibula and ankle, the fragility of the running back situation in San Diego is apparent.

With injuries to their top two running backs, this team was forced to lean on undersized rookie Branden Oliver and recently acquired veteran Donald Brown. This did not go well, as these two combined for a Total NEP of -16.36 on 309 combined touches.

And the one running back that had a net positive impact in the ground game, Ryan Mathews, is now a Philadelphia Eagle.

The needs at running back for the San Diego Chargers, therefore, can not be overstated. While this offensive line is projected to make large strides in the run blocking department with their recent acquisitions, the fact remains that this group still needs someone capable to block for.

On to the Next One

Despite the aforementioned investments in the offensive line, and the front office's willingness to let Ryan Mathews walk in free agency to the Philadelphia Eagles, with everything I just laid out before you regarding the state of affairs in San Diego at the running back position, I do not believe that the first-day starting running back for the Chargers is currently on the roster.

Even with the major re-shuffling that has occurred at the position throughout the league thus far, it has been a very quiet offseason for San Diego on this front. This comes as a bit of a surprise given the importance of this position to this offense.

But all this, alongside the number of elite prospects available at the top of the draft, leads me to believe that the Chargers are planning to invest a high draft pick at the running back position come late April.

Let's take a look at the Chargers picks for this season's draft.

Round 1: Pick 17 (17 overall)
Round 2: Pick 16 (48 overall)
Round 3: Pick 19 (83 overall)
Round 4: Pick 18 (117 overall)
Round 5: Pick 17 (153 overall)
Round 6: Pick 16 (191 overall)
Round 7: None (traded to Cowboys for Sean Lissemore in 2013)

If the Chargers are indeed looking to the draft for a long-term solution at running back, there are two spots that I believe make the most logical sense for them to make this selection.

Pick 1.17:
I've gone to great lengths analyzing Melvin Gordon's talent and potential in the NFL, and in my own personal assessment I think Gordon could be the franchise running back San Diego has been looking for ever since LaDanian Tomlinson hung up his cleats -- I'm going to pretend LT never went to the New York Jets -- for the Chargers.

Gordon is a supremely talented athlete with the size and skill set to operate as a workhorse in the NFL. And while there are some issues regarding his ability to operate as a third-down back, the presence of Woodhead in the short-term, and the strong likelihood that -- with his level of football awareness and work ethic -- he can improve in this department in the long-term, all help to alleviate these concerns.

Some will argue that if the Chargers are going to use a first round pick on a running back it should be on Georgia's Todd Gurley. But with his current health status in doubt and on the heels of just having closed the book on the injury-riddled Ryan Mathews saga, the Chargers may be hesitant in selecting a running back with any health concerns whatsoever.

One factor that may prevent San Diego from taking one of the top two running backs with their number 17 pick is their need at nose tackle. Ever since the release of defensive lineman Jamal Williams from the team in 2010, the defense has struggled to make plays behind the line of scrimmage. Because of this, the Bolts may forgo selecting a running back in the first round in order to fill this need first.

This then leads us to plan B.

Pick 2.16:
Another running back I've covered in great depth, Jay Ajayi, presents a great all-around talent for the Chargers in the second round. Ajayi was the first running back to ever rush for over 1,800 yards and rack up over 500 yards receiving in a single season to go along with an impressive 32 total touchdowns.

Some question Jay Ajayi's speed and use this as a knock on his ability to translate his collegiate success to the NFL, but his overall combination of size, power, and explosiveness more than makes up for his lack of top-end speed. His durability as a workhorse back is also a welcome attribute for the Chargers, who have been plagued with injuries at the position the past few seasons.

Waiting to take a running back in the second round is not without its risks however. Ajayi's draft stock is rapidly rising, with many pundits now projecting Ajayi to be selected sometime in the early second-round, and some teams now ranking Ajayi as high as number two at the position on their draft boards. Because of this, the Chargers could potentially lose out on him to a team willing to expend a late first- or early second-round pick on the talented Boise State back.

The San Diego Chargers now find themselves at a crossroads as they face some big decisions at this key skill position. The choices they make this upcoming season at running back have the potential either to launch this team into the next era of Chargers football or to waste another precious season of Philip Rivers' prime.