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San Diego Chargers: Ryan Mathews' Latest Injury Exposes Serious RB Depth Issues

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San Diego Chargers: Ryan Mathews' Latest Injury Exposes Serious RB Depth Issues
Harry How/Getty Images

Take starting running back Ryan Mathews out of the picture, and the San Diego Chargers' backfield suddenly looks rather unfamiliar.

On his very first carry in the Chargers' exhibition opener against the Green Bay Packers, the injury-prone 24-year-old suffered a broken clavicle and will undergo surgery on Friday, according to U-T San Diego beat writer Michael Gehlken—via Twitter.

"Ryan Mathews suffered broken clavicle. Out 4 to 6 weeks." - Michael Gehlken (@UTgehlken)

San Diego's regular season opener at Oakland on Monday Night Football is Sept. 10, which is just over four weeks away. Will Mathews be recovered from surgery and ready to appear in the prime time matchup against the division-rival Raiders?

Only time will tell, but common sense tells us it's highly unlikely. A more accurate timetable will develop in the coming days, but I wouldn't forecast a return any earlier than Week 3. 

The good news is that, at some point, Mathews will return to the backfield. The disheartening truth, however, is that a promising young ball-carrier with an elite skill set and impressive work ethic just can't seem to shake the injury bug.

When Mathews does come back, how long until it strikes again?

The former first-round pick's 2011 season was marred by injuries, and 2010 wasn't much different.

For as much of a bad-luck injury as a broken clavicle seems to be, fantasy football owners and Chargers' fans will certainly fear the worst every time Mathews goes down and doesn't immediately spring back up.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Mike Tolbert playing for the San Diego Chargers in 2011.

Speculation aside, San Diego has a potential disaster looming at the RB position in 2012.

Each of the last three years, the Chargers have lost a productive running back to free agency. In 2010, the team parted ways with future Hall of Fame RB LaDainian Tomlinson. The following season, Darren Sproles would leave the Bolts to head to New Orleans and help the Saints offense become a record-setting unit. 

 

Mike Tolbert, who has scored 19 touchdowns in the past two seasons, was this offseason's free-agency casualty.

Much of this, of course, was designed to make room for the super-talented Mathews to receive an expanded workload in the future, something Turner has made clear this offseason.

Suddenly, that vision isn't so clear at all.

To replace Tolbert, who signed with the Carolina Panthers, the Chargers brought in 30-year-old veteran RB Ronnie Brown.

The former Dolphin has a 1,000-yard rushing season to his record and is a capable receiver out of the backfield, but looked extremely sluggish after joining the Philadelphia Eagles for the 2011 season. 

Brown carried the ball just 42 times last year, to the tune of a less-than-impressive 3.2 yards per carry. 

Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
Brown's stay in Philadelphia was short, but not very sweet.

Turner brought the eighth-year vet in to add competition, and because he liked the potential of Brown as a third-down option. 

Even with the knowledge of Mathews' injury history prior to the broken clavicle, it's hard to imagine the head coach ever planned on Brown receiving full-time work during the season.

Either way, with Mathews on the sideline, Brown suddenly becomes the lead man in the Chargers' backfield. 

But Brown's career has been plagued by injuries as well, and he now lies on the wrong side of the dreaded 30-year-old marker.

One potential bright spot to this woeful situation, however, could be the Chargers' recent decision to sign former Chiefs' RB Jackie Battle to a one-year deal on July 20.

The 6'2, 238-pound back was an undrafted rookie in 2007, but carried the ball 147 times and averaged 4.0 yards per carry for Kansas City in 2011 after replacing Jamaal Charles.

This year's seventh-round pick Edwin Baker and 26-year-old Curtis Brinkley are buried deep in the depth chart as well, but it's tough to see either providing what this offense needs to be running on all cylinders.

So, can QB Philip Rivers lead this team back to the playoffs without Mathews in the picture?

The depth at RB clearly doesn't offer any playoff-caliber options, and WR Vincent Jackson is no longer part of the passing game. TE Antonio Gates remains productive, but he can't seem to stay healthy, either.

These are troublesome thoughts for a franchise that has annual Super Bowl aspirations but hasn't won a playoff game in three years.

Of course, if Mathews returns from his most recent injury and can remain healthy for an extended period of time, he and Rivers will lead one of the AFC's most lethal offenses and none of this will matter. 

Until he can prove that, though, the Chargers could be heading into another promising season only to come up shy of expectations once again.

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