Examining the Charger's Revolving Backfield

Since the departure of LaDainian Tomlinson in 2010, the Chargers have been trying to find a balance at the running-back position to produce a credible backfield threat. The days of opposing defenses stacking 8 and 9 defenders in the box to stop L.T. and Michael Turner seem like just a faint memory. Having lost respect for the running game, defenders have turned their focus to bludgeoning Rivers, and this was painfully evident last season as Rivers was constantly under duress and had (statistically) the worst season so far of his promising career.

With yet another season of shuffling at the RB position, it is perfectly reasonable to question whether 2012 will be the year that the Chargers finally reestablish their identity in the running game. Last year Sproles left through free agency, and this year Tolbert and Hester may follow suit, leaving the Chargers with just Ryan Mathews, who many fans are still not completely sold on.

Enter Le’Ron McClain.

Listed at 6’1”, 260 lbs., McClain is likely to assume a Tolbert-esque role in the Chargers offense, albeit with a slightly meaner streak, while doubling as a legitimate fullback to spring Mathews loose on running downs. His height makes him a legitimate receiving threat out of the backfield, and his size should make him useful in protection schemes for Rivers to get the ball downfield to our new speedsters, Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal.

While McClain’s statistics so far don’t shine quite as brightly as Tolbert’s, it would be unfair to even make that comparison. Let’s be clear about something here – McClain is going onto the roster in the FB position, likely replacing Hester, not Tolbert. Take a look at this statistical comparison of the four backs:

These stats suggest that adding McClain provides the Chargers with the opportunity to get a tremendous boost in productivity out of the FB position, meaning that defenses would have to account for both Mathews and McClain on running downs.

You might raise an eyebrow at McClain’s reception statistics, however these numbers are the result of his environment in Baltimore and Kansas City, where he was catching balls from the quasi-elite Joe Flacco, and whichever serviceable quarterback was not injured in Kansas City at the time. Offensive philosophies are much different between his previous teams and San Diego, and McClain likely took that into consideration when choosing to bring his talent and experience to San Diego.

The Chargers got a tremendous value with this pickup although it does likely mean Hester will not be returning (unless in a reserve role). This should not be viewed as the end of Tolbert’s tenure in San Diego though. Tolbert’s stand-up special teams play and versatility in the backfield makes him an asset to the Chargers and they have already expressed a strong desire to have him return. If Tolbert does choose to leave through free agency, watch for the Chargers to pickup a running back in the third or fourth round of this year’s draft to add depth at the position.

So far, A.J. Smith has done a great job of balancing needs with wants in free agency this offseason. The Chargers may have “lost” VJax in FA, but they have used that salary cap space to add depth and talent at multiple positions, giving up one very skilled receiver to provide Rivers with four solid receivers with great potential, and a reinforced backbone in McClain. I’ll take that deal any day.

A.J.: No fan will grant you a reprieve based on this early work alone, but perhaps if you hit gold in the draft and get us a productive QB rusher we’ll let you stay on this coast for one more year. Get us some sacks, or you get the sack!

Fun fact: McClain has yet to catch a TD pass in the NFL. Do you think Rivers will change this stat in 2012? Let your voice be heard below!

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Tags: Hester Mathews McClain Meachem Royal San Diego Sproles Tolbert Tomlinson

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