When the San Diego Chargers open camp on July 25 at Chargers Park, there will be jobs up for grabs at the running back and fullback positions.
The Chargers are all-in on Ryan Mathews, and he's the unquestioned starter and every-down running back with Mike Tolbert signing in Carolina this offseason. Tolbert's departure leaves only Curtis Brinkley and two undrafted free agents as backups to Mathews.
The Chargers also use their fullbacks interchangeably as running backs at times. That means Le'Ron McClain would be the primary backup. McClain carried the ball over 200 times for the Baltimore Ravens in 2008, but hasn't had that type of workload since.
With so few options behind Mathews, it seems risky to go into the season without a more accomplished runner behind him. It's possible the Chargers could bring in a veteran like Ryan Grant or Cedric Benson around the start of training camp, but they may want to a get a look at their young guys first.
At 5'9", Curtis Brinkley is too small to be an every-down back, but he could provide a good change-of-pace to Mathews and steal a few carries here and there. The Chargers actually gave Brinkley the start over Mike Tolbert in Week 17 against the Raiders, but he had a disappointing day, with 16 attempts for 52 yards.
Which player should start if Mathews misses time?
McClain can be the short-yardage power back and Brinkley can come in on passing downs and run the draw or run a pass route to give Mathews a breather. Jacob Hester will also figure in as the fullback and grab a couple carries a game just to keep things interesting for the opposing defense.
Training camp will help the Chargers decide to divvy up any carries that don't go to Mathews, but that figures to be few unless Mathews misses time due to injury.
Curtis Brinkley could also be challenged by undrafted rookie Edwin Baker or Michael Hayes if they have impressive training camps, but relying on a rookie undrafted running back to produce anything in their first year is foolish. The Chargers can only hope they've found a diamond in the rough in Baker or Hayes, but it's far too early to make those judgments.
Losing Mathews would put a huge strain on the passing game. The Chargers need to quickly decide if they need to bring in a veteran running back or if they are content using McClain or Brinkley for over 20 carries per game should Mathews miss time.
By not bringing in a backup to Mathews, the Chargers are setting him up to receive criticism should he miss time. It's unfair to Mathews; he plays a position that's punishing, and a for a running back, a 16-game season is becoming elusive.
The Chargers should bring in another running back to compete with McClain and Brinkley for carries.
UPDATE: The Chargers signed veteran running back Ronnie Brown on June 8. It doesn't change my opinion that the Chargers should bring in another veteran. Brown is 30 and hasn't averaged more than 3.7 yards per carry in two years.
Provided Brown has some gas left in the tank he'd be the primary backup to Mathews.