What Will the Workload for the Chargers' Backfield Look Like?

Will first-round rookie Melvin Gordon carry the team on his back, or will he share the ball?

There is a contagious illness that leads people from making rational, intelligent decisions to insane mood swings, irrational behavior, and defensive paranoia. They become twitchy until they can get treatment, and it’s notoriously hard to get rid of. This illness occurs every year; it’s an epidemic.

The disease I’m speaking of is, of course, Rookie Fever.

One such NFL team and its fanbase is certainly in the throes of Rookie Fever, and that’s the San Diego Chargers. Having drafted Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft, they appear to have -- despite his protests -- the next greatest thing since LaDainian Tomlinson.

Still, veterans Danny Woodhead and Donald Brown remain on the roster, as does 2014 undrafted revelation Branden Oliver, and head coach Mike McCoy has stated that he will use multiple players. What should we expect from the 2015 Chargers’ backfield?

First Response

We’re going to look at this two ways: first, I will show how Mike McCoy and the Chargers actually use running backs in their offense; second, I will show the value that each has provided to their running backs in the past, in terms of Net Expected Points (NEP). Additionally, we’ll look at our own projected breakdown of Chargers’ running back touches here on numberFire and whether or not that holds up.

We know -- having seen no running back drafted in the first round since 2012 -- that it’s a big deal that the Chargers selected Melvin Gordon at 15th Overall. After spending that kind of draft capital on the former Wisconsin Badger, he is easily the presumptive lead back for the Chargers going forward. Still, not all offensive schemes are created alike. What kind of workload should we expect Gordon to be given in year one?

The table below averages the Chargers’ running backs over the last five years by workload. How many opportunities did each of these roles get, and how solid of a pattern can we find in them?


The primary running back in the Chargers’ scheme has averaged about 242 touches (251 opportunities) since 2010. That’s significantly below the 300 touches or more we think of with a traditional lead back, but a lot of that was due to the motley crew that the team ran out over the last half-decade: Mike Tolbert, Ryan Mathews, and Branden Oliver have all sat in the running back big chair for San Diego recently.

It’s also interesting to note that the secondary running back actually had more targets and receptions than the primary one over the past five years, and even the third- and fourth-string backs saw significant work on average.

What do we find with Mike McCoy’s offenses? The table below shows his offenses’ average touches since 2010.


Interestingly, we see a similar output from Mike McCoy’s running backs with Denver as an offensive coordinator and now as San Diego’s head coach. 236 average touches (245 opportunities) for the primary running back, but we still see around 100 rushes for the second-string runner. Even more interesting, the second-stringer also brings in more targets in the passing game on average.

Now, what does that practically mean for us as we project into the future? As we’ll see momentarily, neither McCoy nor the Chargers have had a running back as naturally gifted as Melvin Gordon since, well, LaDainian Tomlinson. We cannot certainly expect LT-esque production in the first year for Gordon, and it’s possible we can’t expect that level of workload either. The presence of solid, situational veterans means that the load might be split to start, and both McCoy and the Chargers seem to prefer that anyway.

First Do No Harm

Now, what about value and production from these players? I mentioned before that we’d use the NEP metric; what is that? NEP helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and assign them contextual value so they relate even closer to the game on the field. By adding down-and-distance value, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

To help us find out how much value each role in the San Diego offense has given us, the table below shows production in terms of Rushing NEP and Reception NEP. I also included ranks of where each role would fit in terms of 2014 results for running backs with 50 or more rushes, as context for the top two roles. What do we see here for the Chargers’ production?

RoleRush NEPPer-PlayRec NEPPer-Play
RB1-5.26 (38th)-0.03 (t-29th)15.96 (16th)0.36 (t-22nd)
RB2-7.71 (46th)-0.07 (49th)18.31 (15th)0.37 (t-20th)

Here it is again: The primary running back for the Chargers over the last five years has been the most valuable and efficient high-volume rusher on the team, per Rushing NEP, both raw and per-play. The secondary running back has surpassed the primary back yet again in terms of average Reception NEP, both raw and per-play. What’s fascinating here, though, is that the third-string running back has had such a high average Reception NEP as well. Darren Sproles, Jacob Hester, and Ronnie Brown made a lot of impact as situational talents without huge volume.

Now, what about the value provided by Mike McCoy’s offenses?

RoleRush NEPPer-PlayRec NEPPer-Play
RB1-6.69 (42nd)-0.03 (t-29th)13.08 (21st)0.37 (t-20th)
RB2-9.69 (52nd)-0.10 (58th)18.25 (15th)0.41 (17th)

Based simply on historical averages, the Mike McCoy offense is slightly less friendly to the running back than the Chargers have been as a whole. Still, similar patterns in how they divide up the roles emerge: the primary running back provides the most rushing value and efficiency, and the secondary is the best pass-catcher. For McCoy, however, not only are fewer total touches allotted to the third- and fourth-string options, they are also much less productive and efficient. Part of this is possibly due to personnel with Denver -- Lance Ball and Jeremiah Johnson don’t strike fear into anyone’s hearts -- but even with San Diego, McCoy has preferred a simple one-two punch.

Cold Compress

So, what does this mean for our projections on the Chargers’ backfield? numberFire’s fantasy football Draft Kit predicts the following touches for each of the San Diego backs.

Melvin Gordon203.4538.97
Danny Woodhead57.9448.79
Branden Oliver76.0821.46
Donald Brown7.126.31

This looks pretty spot on, based on what we know about the historical division of labor in both the Chargers’ and McCoy’s offenses. This conservative projection on Gordon still puts him as the 16th-best running back in fantasy this year, if he can be efficient and healthy. Based on our averages assume a floor of 200 rushes and 25 receptions, with an upside of 225 and 45 for him.

Because the main duty of the secondary running back in this offense is to catch passes, we can assume Woodhead earns that slot out of the gate, as he is clearly the superior receiving talent, but Oliver could push for playing time if Woodhead’s recovery from injury complicates his return. Based on our averages, we’re a little low on Woodhead, and I would put him at a floor of 70 rushes with 45 receptions, with upside for 90 rushes and 60 receptions.

Oliver -- assuming he’s the third-stringer right now -- might be a little high, as I think his low-end value is about 50 rushes with 15 receptions, while his upside seems around 65 rushes with 30 receptions. As for Donald Brown? He gets the Lance Ball role.