The following is the third installment of a nine-part series analyzing every position, from the front office to the defensive backfield. To access Part 1 Coaches and Front Office or Part 2 Quarterbacks click here: http://bleacherreport.com/users/213082-justin-peniche.
Unlike quarterback, running back could be a position of change this offseason. Ryan Mathews is technically the starter but he shared time with human bowling ball Mike Tolbert. Injuries led to the promotion of Curtis Brinkley from the practice squad, and he played adequately in limited opportunities.
Mathews vastly improved from a disappointing, fumble-filled and injury-plagued rookie season. In his sophomore campaign, Mathews amassed 1,500 all-purpose yards and scored six touchdowns.
He showed flashes of the talent and ability the Chargers expected when they traded down to select him in the first round of the 2010 draft. Mathews still needs to prove that he can overcome nagging injuries throughout a full NFL season and continue to improve on ball security.
While Mathews is under contract for the next several years, both Tolbert and fullback Jacob Hester will be free agents at season's end. Fans were confused when the Chargers traded down to select Hester with the sixth pick in the third round of the 2008 draft. Hester served as a hybrid halfback/fullback for the national champion LSU Tigers.
The Chargers liked Hester because of his versatility as a pass-catching fullback in Norv Turner’s offense and as a contributor on special teams. In reality, Hester has been hit-or-miss as a blocking fullback following the departure of bruising Lorenzo Neal, and he hasn’t made a significant enough impact on special teams to warrant a substantial pay increase.
Tolbert was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Coastal Carolina in 2008. Originally considered a fullback, Tolbert has provided a lot of excitement as the thunder to Ryan Mathews' lightning. His bruising running style and ability to catch passes out of the backfield make him a very important member of the Chargers' offense.
He is also a tenacious tackler on special teams coverage. Perhaps the most important contribution Tolbert provides for the Chargers is the attitude and toughness that is lacking in other areas of the roster.
Curtis Brinkley was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Syracuse in 2009. After missing the entire 2009 season recovering from gunshot wounds sustained in a random assault, Brinkley returned to the Chargers in 2010 and has spent most of his time on the practice squad.
In 2011, injuries to Mathews and Tolbert forced the Chargers to promote Brinkley to the active roster. Brinkley finished the season with 101 rushing yards, one touchdown and seven receptions for 41 yards.
In my opinion, it is imperative for the Chargers to re-sign Mike Tolbert if for nothing else than to provide a capable backup to the oft-injured Mathews. Some of A.J. Smith’s worst personnel decisions have been allowing players like Michael Turner and Darren Sproles to leave via free agency, and the Chargers can ill afford to make this mistake a third time with Tolbert.
With that said, there is a good chance Tolbert will find more money in free agency than the Chargers will be willing to pay. Despite Tolbert’s significant contributions to the team, re-signing him is a relatively low priority considering the Chargers have decisions to make on other free agents, like Vincent Jackson, Nick Hardwick, Antonio Garay and Jared Gaither.
Jacob Hester will likely be retained. He doesn’t represent a large financial commitment and probably won’t find many offers elsewhere.
Should the Chargers find themselves needing a running back, look for them to draft a player in the middle to late rounds, like Florida’s Chris Rainey or Toledo’s Adonis Thomas.