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
A week away from the official beginning of the free agency period, teams are already cutting players to save cap space. That space will then be used to sign their replacements. A handful of recognizable players have already been shown the door and more will come after free agent signings begin.
Big names who have already been added to the unemployment line include running backs Matt Forte and Arian Foster; safeties Michael Griffin and William Moore and other notables add to an growing list of names. Over the past couple of days former New Orleans Saints record-holding wide receiver Marques Colston and Ex-Buffalo Bills/Houston Texans standout defensive end Mario Williams were shown the door.
On Monday, March 7 those names and many more will find new homes during the six-week buffer zone between the start of free agency and the NFL Draft. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. To that end, one of those early cap casualties would be a great fit on the Chargers defense.
Enter Rams cap casualty James Laurinaitis.
Laurinaitis was an integral part of a stout Rams defense. The middle linebacker is on the right side of 30 as he won’t celebrate that milestone until December. Entering his eighth season in the NFL, he averages 122 combined tackles per season and has not missed a single NFL game. Over the length of his career, Laurinaitis has amassed 16.5 sacks, 34 passes defensed, 10 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles and one safety.
A player that dependable and in the Chargers case, that durable is badly needed. With Donald Butler all but out the door, Laurinaitis would be a substantial upgrade.
Last season Butler had 43 combined tackles, 2 passes defensed and one interception over the entire season. Over the course of his six-year career he has averaged 80 combines tackles and has compiled 7 sacks, 12 passes defensed, 6 forced fumbles, 3 interceptions and one touchdown. He’s missed 25 games and been docked game time when he is healthy because of his subpar play.
Almost not fair to compare the two is it?
Simply put, Laurinaitis is in his prime and the San Diego defense needs more playmakers and better tacklers. Laurinaitis is a tackling machine. His instincts keep him near the ball at all times. He is not a Ram anymore not because his production fell, it’s because he makes too much money and the Rams couldn’t afford him.
Chargers GM Tom Telesco fired up the fan base when he said he was going to be more active in free agency than he has ever been. A signing like this would show a commitment to bettering the team now, rather than finding a low-cost replacement for players on the way out.
The market will have quite a few teams bidding for his services. At present, Laurinaitis has a visit to New Orleans scheduled for next week. Teams are going to have to ante up and put together a good 4-year deal minimum to win his services. For the old school fans of professional wrestling, to have the son of the legendary Road Warrior Animal on the team would be pretty damn cool. Laurinaitis has shown the son of Animal has grown into a beast in his own right!
The Greg One
After trading up from pick 17 to pick 15, the Chargers selected Wisconsin’s running back Melvin Gordon. Gordon has already become a fan favorite without playing a single snap. You all know of the stats, of the record-breaking game he had against Nebraska and the LT comparison. He was a sensational back in college, showing great vision and unbelievable lateral movement coupled with great speed at the college level. He was the top running back on many people’s big boards, and a no-brainer pick for the Chargers at 17.
So what’s all the negativity about? Melvin Gordon has some flaws, just like 99% of the players in any draft class. But Gordon ran behind the best offensive line in college football a year ago, and didn’t have to do much work. Gordon is “very in love with the sidelines”, meaning he will, more times than not, try to use his speed and bounce out of a hole to get to the sidelines and outrun defenders. With a 4.52 40-yard speed, he might not be able to do that in the pros.
Gordon lost 6 fumbles in his last seven games while fumbling in 50% of his games played in 2014. His fumble problems got worse after beginning his collegiate career with one fumble in 2012, then four in 2013 and seven in 2014. That can only get worse while at the next level.
But did the Chargers really need to move up two spots to take him? San Diego swapped their first-round pick with San Francisco and traded their 2015 fourth-round selection and 2016 fifth-round pick to nab him. It wasn’t necessary to move up and lose more picks, for a team who lacks depth and is in a slight rebuild mode. The 49ers were still targeting Arik Armstead and the Texans have Arian Foster and Alfred Blue. There is a high chance Gordon would have still been there. This was one of the deepest RB classes the NFL has seen in recent years. The team could have been able to get impact starters (Duke Johnson, Jay Ajayi, Ameer Abdullah, TJ Yeldon, Tevin Coleman) in rounds two and three, while drafting BPA (best player available) at 17. This trade only really makes sense if the Bolts trade back and get more picks.
At the end of the day, the pick was fine. Gordon is a heck of a back and one who can be put in as the starter day one.
Please leave your thoughts in the comment section below!
As the 2014 season came to a closure a few weeks ago, the Chargers organization and personnel are already moving forward and working on the 2015 season. With free agency and the draft approaching, the off-season really isn’t an off-season.
Mike McCoy is busy tweaking playbooks while assisting Tom Telesco with recruiting, finding talent, and preparing for the draft. It is Telesco’s priority to fill positions and replace those that may no longer be in a San Diego uniform next year. The running back position is now under a microscope since one player is already expected to hang up his no. 24 blue and gold jersey as he hits the free agency market. Unfortunately, that player is Ryan Mathews.
You might be asking, “Why does Telesco need to focus more attention to a position that is easy to fill?” Well, it really isn’t that simple to replace an established running back like Mathews. Injury history, age, ability, and how to find a running back are all taken into consideration when searching for a replacement.
Let’s start with free agency. Many NFL running backs are seen as expendable or the term “a dime a dozen”. There is no need to snatch a 30 year-old back who may have only a few years left in the league. Yet, there also isn’t a necessity to sign a 27 year-old with an extensive injury record. Most backs are a two-down player while another player will come on the field for a third-down passing situation. As a general manager, you almost are taking a gamble with cap money to sign a free agent running back. There’s a sense of caveat emptor, which is Latin for “let the buyer beware” when it comes to these situations.
The next is the 2015 NFL draft. Recruiting new talent is one of the most difficult tasks for a general manager. Let’s face it, San Diego needs to address the offensive line first and foremost. You won’t see a running back in the first round this year. Yet again, the draft is a gamble. Whether it be injury or underperformance, drafting a running back doesn’t always work out. For example, Marion Grice was drafted in the sixth round (201 overall) in the 2014 draft, but ended up not making the 53-man roster and was signed to the practice squad. It was Branden Oliver, undrafted rookie out of Buffalo, which earned a spot. Over 100 players give up college eligibility to enter the draft, yet almost 40% go undrafted.
Yes, famous backs such as Priest Holmes, Arian Foster, and Joe Perry went undrafted, but finding them is like finding a needle in a haystack; unlikely. Now, imagine drafting a running back in the third or fourth round, only to end up as a disappointment. Finding and selecting the right player isn’t as easy as you may have thought.
Moving forward, the Bolts are looking for a specific set of skills. First contact effectiveness, open-field quickness, and an eye for open holes are all needed in San Diego. Have ever watched Pittsburgh Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell? He has a special talent that allows him to break tackles and gain extra yardage even after contact. Seattle Seahawk’s Marshawn Lynch’s open-field speed landed him most recently a 67-yard touchdown run against the Arizona Cardinals stout defense. A player with all these abilities is needed in America’s finest city next season.
Ryan Mathews was a first round pick in the 2010 NFL draft but has suffered unfortunate injuries which has kept him sidelined through-out his career. He knows the system and knows how to play, but the team may be ready to part ways with the Pro Bowler. Replacing him won’t be easy and Telesco is already preparing for a brute running back that can be utilized effectively in third-down situations. With three backs on the roster already, there is absolutely no room for error when finding the right guy. I am no genie or fortune teller, but I do know the Chargers are ready for a powerhouse running back to make some noise.
It took almost a full season but the San Diego Chargers are finally starting to become the team we envisioned at the beginning of the season. The possibility of a team that would once again become playoff relevant looked good but not great as the Chargers took a 4-3 record into the bye week. The bye week came as the Chargers had won two straight games against Indianapolis and Jacksonville. After the bye, the Chargers dropped three straight games to fall to 4-6. With that losing streak, all hope for a return to prominence looked lost.
The Chargers went to Arrowhead to face the Chiefs. The Chiefs were 9-1 and coming off their first loss at Denver. The Chargers took it to the Chiefs and won a shootout 41-38. That win began a Chargers run that has seen them win four of their last five games. The Chargers now sit at 8-7 with a shot at getting into the playoffs if they can beat the Chiefs at home and the right teams lose on Sunday.
What has been the reason for this turnaround? The offensive line has solidified and while it isn’t a list of marquee names, the same guys are suiting up every week and staying on the field. Last season the offensive line was a turnstile with a new starting five almost every week. First round draft pick D.J. Fluker has done a great job at right tackle, helping open holes for the running backs. When starting left tackle King Dunlap missed games because of a concussion, Fluker moved to left tackle and played just as well. Jeromey Clary has found new life at right guard, Nick Hardwick hasn’t missed a game at center. Rich Ohrnberger, Johnnie Troutman and Chad Rinehart have all played well at left guard. The unit is playing better as the weeks go by and it shows. Rivers has been sacked 27 times through 15 weeks this season. Last season, Rivers was sacked a league high 49 times, a drastic improvement.
Ryan Mathews has found his stride and has put together his best season as a pro. Whether it was a change in philosophy or the new system implemented by head coach Mike McCoy, Mathews has run with a purpose and was one yard away (he had 99 against Oakland) from tying LeSean McCoy with six 100-yard rushing games this season. Mathews has more 100 yard games than higher profile backs like Jamaal Charles(4), Arian Foster(2), DeMarco Murray(3), Alfred Morris(3), Matt Forte(4) and has as many Adrian Peterson(5).
Mathews has run for over 100 yards in five of the last ten games and has a 99 yard game as well. For the first time in his career, he is set to play all 16 games and has already posted a career best 1,111 yards rushing. The Chargers are 4-1 when Mathews rushes for 100.
As a result of the first two factors, Philip Rivers is having an All-Pro season. Only Peyton Manning has more 400 yard games(4) than Rivers(3). Rivers is the fourth highest ranked quarterback in the league.
Wide receiver Keenan Allen was rushed into the starting lineup after a season ending injury to Malcolm Floyd. Allen quickly became the number one receiver and has burst onto the scene over the last 11 games. If Keenan Allen isn’t the Offensive Rookie Of The Year, the award should be discontinued due fraud. Allen is going to be a big name in the NFL as he gets years under his belt.
A who’s who of big names on defense hit the injured list before the season began including Melvin Ingram, Dwight Freeney, Larry English and draft pick Steve Williams. Out of that necessity, lesser names have had to fill greater roles, thrust into the spotlight as starters. As a result, unknowns such as Thomas Keiser, Andrew Gachkar, Bront Bird, Sean Lissemore and rookies Tourek Williams and Mantei Te’o have logged significant playing time and thrived. Now the defense has solidified and become a cohesive unit. The defense now has 33 sacks, 74 passed defensed, 11 interceptions and forced 11 fumbles (recovering 6).
The Chargers have finally all come together and look like one of those teams no one will want to play should they get into the playoffs. They played as close to a perfect game as possible in beating the Giants at home and Broncos in Denver with only five days between games. They played sloppily in the first half of the Raiders game but took over the game in the second half and cruised to victory.
The story of the season is the Chargers have beaten Denver, Kansas City, Dallas, Indianapolis and Philadelphia. Each are teams who are now or were at the top of their division. Their quality of wins are excellent. They have lost to Washington, Oakland, Tennessee and Houston. Those teams are now or were last in their division. Questionable play calling, poor execution and mental lapses have made the difference in the Chargers being in the playoffs now as opposed to fighting for a spot at the end of the season.
The good news is the Chargers are finally playing together. The offense is on track and all the moving pieces on both sides of the ball are set in place and formed a solid wall instead of a Jenga building. The new faces on defense are making fewer mistakes as they get valuable playing time in and that on-the-field experience has made all the difference here at the end of the season. Those unknowns will make the Chargers a dominating defensive unit once the injured players like Freeney, Steve Williams and Ingram start next season healthy.
At 8-7 the Chargers are guaranteed at least a .500 season. Most (not me) expected the Chargers to finish with fewer than eight wins. The McCoy/Telesco era is already off to a promising start and as this program is reshaped, will only get better.
I’ve spent my last two columns dissecting the Chargers issues, particularly in the Running Back department. I am not now, nor will I ever be a Ryan Mathews fan. His exploits and (mis)adventures on the field are well documented. My final keystrokes in this trilogy will be exploring a solution to this quandry. It goes without saying that Mathews doesn’t have to go home but he can’t stay here. A trade would be ideal but what team would burn a pick on him?
After a while a player gets pigeonholed, categorized. Good. Great. Bad. Average. The book on Mathews is injury prone, fumbler. Two of the worst tags a professional running back can ask for or earn. Mathews has one less fumble than he does touchdowns in his career. Defensive coordinators know this and there’s not a defense out there that isn’t waiting to see him on the field to add more turnovers to their ledger.
Being the solutions oriented columnist I am, I have ideas. Short term fixes to be sure, but a significant improvement from problem number 24. Looking around the league, the cupboard is dangerously bare but if a deal for Trent Richardson can materialize from out of thin air, who is absolutely inexpendable? Let’s look at some names. Those of you who follow me on Twitter know my first pick:
1. Michael ‘The Burner’ Turner: Former San Diego fan favorite, Turner proved to be a valuable asset behind LaDainian Tomlinson from 2004 to 2007. Turner would come on in the fourth quarter and bowl defenders over with brute power after defenses had tired of chasing LT. At 5’10” he ran with deceptive power and breakaway speed. In 2008, he broke off an 83 yard run. In 2009, he had a 73-yard run. In 2010, a run for 74. Ryan Mathews longest run? 39 yards in 2011. Turner has had a longer run in each of his seasons since 2004. Fumbles? Turner only fumbled twice in four seasons in San Diego, 17 times total in nine seasons. Turner puts the ball on the carpet once every 100 times he touches the ball. Mathews has dropped it once every 57 times he touches the ball. Mathews has 13 in four seasons. Turner has done something Mathews has never done and that’s complete a full season. As a matter of fact, Turner has completed 5 of the last 6 seasons without missing a game.
Inexplicably, the Falcons released Turner at the end of last season and he has not received a call to join another team. Turner excelled as a feature back, gaining over 1300 yards in three of his five seasons in Atlanta., averaging at least 10 touchdowns a season. Turner seems to be long in the tooth at 31 years old but he’s only had five seasons as a true starter. Having nothing to do but watch and train from home, Turner would be a great replacement for Mathews until a blue chip running back can be drafted and groomed.
2. Maurice Jones-Drew: MJD plays on the worst team in the league in Jacksonville. He is not injured but the Jaguar offense is so atrocious he has had no effectiveness so far this season. MJD would benefit mightily in an offense with a Pro bowl quarterback like Rivers and an offense that has managed to average almost thirty points a game without the benefit of a solid ground game. MJD is a human bowling ball and defensive players league-wide have recalled (sometimes with dread) how hard it is to tackle him. That’s the type of clout you want to have with defenses.
The Jaguars have already began selling off their assets and with the contract dispute MJD has had with Jaguars ownership, he would be beneficial to both sides. MJD gets to play on a significantly better team while Mathews could be traded to Jacksonville and the Jaguars gain his expiring contract and can keep him on the cheap or cut him after his contract expires next season. A running back like MJD would really open up McCoy’s offense and defenses would have to pick their poison. Stack the box to stop MJD and Rivers will carve up the secondary with play action. Play coverage and MJD will gash the defensive line for five yards a pop. That’s not hyperbole, that’s what MJD has averaged over his career.
3. Arian Foster: I know, it’s very pie in the sky and extremely unlikely. If the Texans continue on their downward spiral, who’s to say Foster won’t be in play come the trade deadline? Clearly, the problem in Houston isn’t Foster, it’s quarterback Matt Schaub. Houston’s signal caller will probably be benched by the Texans bye week if they don’t start winning now. However, every team has a price. Sending Mathews and conditional draft picks would be signed off on by every Charger fan in existence.
It’s not too late to make a serious push for the playoffs. It may look like the Broncos and Chiefs are leaving the Chargers behind, but beating those teams puts the Chargers right back in the hunt. There are a lot of winnable games left on the schedule and it’s not too late to make the AFC West a three-horse race. Let’s hope McCoy and Telesco pull the plug on the Mathews experiment sooner rather than later and fill that slot with a back who can actually produce. What do you think? Fire 24 or am I speaking too soon?
The Greg One