The state of the Chargers’ backfield
By Nicholas Dilorenzo
With Melvin Gordon’s struggles and injury questions, the Chargers’ backfield is in flux.
We know what running back Danny Woodhead can bring to this offense, but he is not a three-down back. He is a change-of-pace back with exceptional hands along with the great ability to get open out of the backfield.
The Chargers drafted Gordon in the first round of the 2015 draft with the expectation he would play all three downs. Gordon’s numbers were not the best in his rookie campaign. While we can’t blame it all on him, he needs to improve in 2016. Gordon’s numbers aren’t far off from 2014 undrafted free agent Branden Olivers’.
Here are the career stats of the two. Try and guess which player is which:
Player A: 191 carries, 690 yards, 3.6 yards per carry average, 3 rushing touchdowns, 49 receptions for 383 yards, and 1 receiving touchdown, 0 fumbles.
Player B: 184 carries, 641, 3.5 yards per carry average, 0 rushing touchdowns, 33 receptions for 192 yards, 0 receiving touchdowns, 5 total fumbles, 4 lost.
If you watched the Chargers last season, it is quite obvious who is Player B. Gordon had zero touchdowns in his rookie campaign, fumbled a total of five times (losing four of them). Turning the ball over as a rookie is a great way to get benched, which Gordon did multiple times last season.
Oliver has done a nice job holding on to the football in his short career so far, but he hasn’t proved to be a three-down running back. Gordon has the tools to become just that.
Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
So how does the running game get back on track? Well, the offensive line play was awful last year. In fact according to Pro Football Focus, they were ranked 32nd in the league. Injuries were a big part of that as well as the porous play from the center position. The Chargers signed veteran Matt Slauson in free agency, with the anticipation for him to start day one at center. With the addition of Slauson and the health of the offensive line as a whole, their play should help Gordon and the Chargers’ running backs see bigger holes this season.
The Chargers also got back offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, who took them to the playoffs in 2013. The offense had an amazing season in 2013 under his play calling, finishing fifth in yards per game (393.3), fourth in passing yards per game (270.5) and 13th in rushing yards per game (122.8). Whisenhunt was named the NFL Assistant Coach of the Year as a result of his brilliant efforts.
It is also worth noting the Chargers drafted fullback Derek Watt to help Gordon get back on track. Watt blocked for Gordon in college as they both played for Wisconsin. He helped Gordon become a Heisman finalist in 2014.
Jan 1, 2015; Tampa, FL, USA; Wisconsin Badgers running back Melvin Gordon (25) is congratulated by fullback Derek Watt (34) and teammates after he scored a touchdown against the Auburn Tigers during the second half in the 2015 Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium. Wisconsin Badgers defeated the Auburn Tigers 34-31 in overtime. Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
The current running backs on the roster consist of Gordon, Woodhead, Oliver and undrafted free agents Kenneth Farrow and Dreamius Smith. Farrow and Smith have a chance to make the roster if they prove in training camp and the preseason that they belong on this team, but it is unlikely to keep that many backs.
Should the Chargers look in free agency for help in the backfield? Or should they roll with what they have? As of today, the best options in free agency include running backs Arian Foster, Joique Bell, Toby Gerhart, Reggie Bush, Anthony Dixon, Chris Polk and Bryce Brown.
Foster is definitely the premiere option of the backs listed, but he is coming of an Achilles injury. If Foster were healthy by training camp, he would be the best option for the Bolts.
Gordon needs to have a bounce-back season if the Chargers are going to have a chance in making the playoffs. With the offensive line getting healthy, along with the addition of Whisenhunt and Slauson (and even Max Tuerk for that reason), he should be able to improve on his rookie numbers if healthy. We can expect Woodhead to contribute on third downs, especially in the passing game, and Oliver to play in the reserve role.
Overall, this backfield needs to improve as a group for the Chargers to have success in 2016.
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