The San Diego Chargers are heading into the 2012 season with a different team. A team built differently in what seems like overnight by a general manager that has his job on the line. It is now scary to think how the Chargers' running game will look next season.
Here are the four reasons why I believe the Chargers' rushing attack will be one of the top five rushing attacks in the league in the upcoming season.
Last season, Ryan Mathews showed a little bit of why A.J. Smith gambled his way in a trade to move up 12 spots to pick up the Fresno St. running back in the 2010 draft. Mathews rushed for 1,091 yards on 222 attempts in 2011 for an average of 4.9 yards per carry. He added six rushing touchdowns also.
Although the Chargers ranked 16th in rushing as a team, Mathews ranked 10th in the league in rushing. That's pretty impressive. What's even more impressive is the fact he was ranked 10th in the league in rushing despite missing two games and sharing carries with Mike Tolbert, who is no longer with the team this season.
Of the top 10 rushers in the league, Mathews has the least amount of carries of them all while averaging more yards per carry. That means that he did more with the ball as a rusher than Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice, Michael Turner, LeSean McCoy, Arian Foster, Frank Gore, Marshawn Lynch, Willis McGahee and Steven Jackson. That's a pretty impressive list.
Mathews admitted he wasn't 100 percent ready in terms of physical fitness with the holdout situation and not much of an offseason. So he added some mass to his frame to be durable enough to last the entire season carrying the load.
With Mike Tolbert and his 121 carries from last season gone, Mathews will get a nice portion of those missed carries, as he'll look at breaking the top five in rushing as a running back.
The biggest free-agent acquisition, in my opinion, is fullback Le'Ron McClain.
Standing 6'0" and 260 lbs, McClain is an imposing force in the running game. McClain is an old-school blocking fullback that hasn't been seen in the Chargers' offense since the departure of Lorenzo Neal. Everyone knows how important Neal was to the Chargers' offense, as his blocking mentality helped enhance LaDainian Tomlinson's skills to Hall of Fame levels. I see a little bit of Lorenzo Neal in Le'Ron McClain.
It shouldn't surprise anyone that McClain learned a little bit of how to play the position from Lorenzo Neal himself, when Neal was a fullback for the Ravens back in 2008. As a fullback, McClain helped pave the way for Ray Rice to reach over 1,000 yards in his first two seasons as a starter. While playing fullback for the Chiefs, McClain opened up holes for three of the running backs on the Chiefs' offense despite injuries in the backfield.
The most interesting fact about McClain is his ability to run with the ball if he has to. In 2008, while playing for the Baltimore Ravens, McClain rushed for 902 yards, averaging 3.9 yards per carry along with 10 total touchdowns.
Ryan Mathews will look to get more protection as a runner with McClain helping to pave the way to the end zone along with the offensive line.
The Chargers are bringing back one of the most dominant offensive lines dating back to the last five weeks of the 2011 season. From left to right, the Chargers' starting linemen during the last five games were Jared Gaither, Tyronne Green, Nick Hardwick, Louis Vasquez and Jeromey Clary.
During those games, the Chargers averaged 130.6 yards per game in the rushing department. What makes it very interesting is that Ryan Mathews led four out of the last five games in rushing. The game that Mathews didn't lead the stat column in rushing is the last game of the season, in which he didn't even play at all.
Look for the Chargers' offensive line to dominate the line of scrimmage, much like how they did in the last five games of the season against teams like the Baltimore Ravens.
Say what you want about Philip Rivers, opposing defenses still have to respect the deep ball of San Diego's vertical offense. Especially with him at the helm.
Rivers will make a difference in helping the Chargers' run game be even better next season, but so too will the additions of newly acquired weapons such as wide receivers Eddie Royal and Robert Meachem and tight ends Dante Rosario and rookie Ladarius Green. Not only does Rivers have new weapons to throw to, but healthy current players like Malcom Floyd and Antonio Gates also seem to be at 100 percent health for the first time in a long while.
Look for the Chargers' passing attack to continue to help the rushing attack face seven-man fronts all season long.
It is absolutely easy to see why the Chargers' rushing attack will be elite next season. The only thing that can stop such predictions is injury. But then again, all teams have that hanging over their heads.
All in all, with Ryan Mathews finally adding enough bulk, the offensive line still in-tact, a run-blocking fullback and a potent passing attack, it's easy to see the Chargers' rushing attack making the top five in the league at minimum.
Will the Chargers dominate on the ground this upcoming season? I absolutely think so. Especially since the Raiders and Broncos didn't do anything to address their lack of run defense over the offseason.
Next season will be a very special season as Ryan Mathews will continue to carve out a name for himself, much like what LaDainian Tomlinson did early in his career, with the help of many weapons.