The San Diego Chargers will be keeping a watchful eye on many positions during camp over the next three months. Many perceived improvements have been made, but as with any team relying on an influx of high-upside yet inexperienced talent, the truth will be revealed once the helmet and pads are donned.
One of the most closely watched positions will be at running back. It was revealed two weeks ago that Melvin Gordon had microfracture surgery on his left knee in January. Gordon is expected to be a full participant when the Chargers begin their full training camp in July. A heavy weight sits on Gordon’s shoulders to be the franchise running back the Bolts traded up to acquire in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Behind a patchwork offensive line that endured 25 lineup changes throughout the course of the year due to injury and inconsistency, Gordon found little room to run. On the year, Gordon compiled 181 carries for 641 yards and 33 receptions for 192 yards. A concern that arose during the season was ball security as Gordon fumbled six times (five fumbles on runs, one fumbled reception). Mathematically, that translates to one fumble every 36 touches.
Almost equally as disturbing is the fact Gordon did not find the end zone once during his rookie season. That can be attributed to the offensive line woes and an offensive running scheme he was ill-equipped to excel in. Gordon set NCAA records at Wisconsin running in a traditional Power-I formation with a lead fullback opening the first hole. Last season, then Chargers offensive coordinator Frank Reich plugged Gordon into his pistol formation and ignored the recipe that made him a Heisman Trophy finalist.
This season Reich is gone and in his place is Ken Whisenhunt. Whisenhunt was the offensive coordinator the last time San Diego made the playoffs in 2012. A return to a running scheme Gordon can thrive in has been a priority and it became very evident when the Chargers selected fullback Derek Watt with one of their sixth-round picks in last month’s NFL Draft. Watt was Gordon’s fullback at Wisconsin, leading the way for Gordon to lead the nation in rushing his senior season. The selection of Watt sends a message to Gordon and the Chargers’ faithful that a return to power football is at hand.
One more positive sign for Gordon is the fact that despite the offense’s constant state of flux, he still had six runs of 20 yards or more. His yards per game (45), yards per carry average (3.5) and touchdowns can be expected to improve significantly this season.
All eyes will be on Gordon’s knee in training camp but he is firmly entrenched as the starting running back barring any complications.
Danny Woodhead is next on the depth chart. Now two seasons removed from a broken leg, Woodhead is the swiss army knife of the Chargers backfield. Last season he was the leading receiver on the team in catches (80) and receiving yards (755). He was also the second leading running back on the roster with 336 yards on 98 carries. Woodhead led the team in touchdowns with nine, (six receiving, three rushing). He will resume his role as pass-catching specialist and third-down threat.
As for the third spot in the rotation, the coaching staff has indicated a desire to get Branden Oliver back into the mix. Oliver saw very little action in 2015 with 31 carries for 108 yards and 13 receptions for 112 yards. In 2014, with Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead out with injuries, Oliver stepped into the lead role and excelled immediately. The 5-foot-8, 208-pound bowling ball notched back-to-back 100-yard games, earned NFL Rookie of the Week honors and led the Chargers in rushing. If the staff is sincere in its plans to create a three-headed monster in the backfield, this will be a unit to be reckoned with.
The remaining contenders in the running back competition consists of Dreamius Smith and Kenneth Farrow. Smith spent last season on the Chargers’ practice squad after making the team as an undrafted free agent. Farrow is also an undrafted free agent from the University of Houston who signed with the team after the 2016 NFL Draft.
Barring injury the running back lineup is set. We’ll know the progress Gordon is making by the front office’s actions on the waiver wire. If another veteran is picked up, he’s not where they want him to be. Expect Telesco’s first call to go to former Texans four-time Pro Bowl running back Arian Foster if that is the case. Foster is the biggest named, most highly decorated running back still available. A litany of injuries have led to the unraveling of his career. If Gordon is on schedule, a running back acquisition won’t be made. There are many other areas that are bigger concerns than in the backfield, which looks to be stocked better than it has been in years with the running backs and fullbacks that will make the roster.
Do you like what you see in the backfield or should the Chargers make a move to add more depth? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
The Greg One