The San Diego Chargers will be without Ryan Mathews for at least the next four weeks—and probably a little longer—due to a broken clavicle. Mathews has an injury history and despite playing in 14 games last season and it was somewhat surprising the Chargers let Mike Tolbert go in free agency.
The Chargers will turn to their reserve running backs Ronnie Brown, Jackie Battle, Curtis Brinkley and Le'Ron McClain to carry the load while Mathews heals.
McClain is the versatile fullback, Brown the veteran trying to get a few more miles out of his tires and Battle the big back that fought his way up from Kansas City's practice squad and had his best year as a pro in 2011.
Brinkley is the only one that was with San Diego last season, but he's currently No. 4 on the depth chart. Brinkley is younger than Brown, Battle and McClain, yet he's stuck behind them on the depth chart.
With Mathews healthy, Brinkley's opportunity to make the roster was slim and came down to his play on special teams and beating out Jackie Battle.
Now, Brinkley could see expanded opportunities running the ball, and with good production could solidify his spot on the 53-man roster.
Brinkley produced reasonably well in the first preseason game of 2012 with 11 carries for 42 yards and four receptions for 15 yards against the Packers. Brinkley can be used in the passing game, but he's never produced consistently as a runner.
The 26-year-old has 32 career carries for 112 yards which is only 3.5 yards per carry. Against the Packers last week, Brinkley averaged 3.8 yards per carry. He needs to produce more on a per carry basis to solidify his roster spot as McClain and Battle have proven in regular season games they can produce at that level.
Brown is 30, and has a lot of miles on his tires, so the Chargers will probably try to limit putting any additional miles on him during the preseason. That means a big opportunity for Brinkley, as the Chargers will feed the ball to him a lot this preseason, just as they did against the Packers.
Brinkley's only career start came in Week 17 last season against the Raiders, but he was a non-factor and averaged 3.3 yards per carry and caught just three passes for 12 yards. He’ll need to show Norv Turner and A.J. Smith that he can be a productive player when his number is called by dominating the preseason.
For Brinkley, the next three games might determine his fate in San Diego and ultimately the rest of his football career. He’s must seize this opportunity now and prove he can produce at higher than 3.8 yards per carry as well as contributing on special teams.
If he fails, the Chargers have two short and stocky rookies in Edwin Baker and Michael Hayes who can be stashed on the practice squad much like Brinkley was two seasons ago.