The San Diego Chargers left many people scratching their heads after signing running back Donald Brown to a three-year, $10.4 million contract at the start of free agency. The Chargers already have Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead sharing carries, so adding another running back was odd for a team tight on salary-cap space.
Running backs also aren’t hard to find, which is why their value in the draft and free agency has plummeted in recent years. Despite the suppressed market, general manager Tom Telesco still decided to make a sizable investment in Brown.
How much a franchise is willing to spend on a player in free agency may indicate a team need, but not always. It could also say something about how the team values the player, the position he plays or both.
Brown just doesn’t fit neatly into any of the normal categories. The Chargers don’t have a significant need, the position isn’t one of great value, and Brown himself isn’t a special talent.
“We know Ryan (Mathews) is our bell cow,” Telesco said via Eric D. Williams of ESPN.com. “He’s our No. 1 back. He had an excellent year last year. And we all know what Danny Woodhead can do in his role. We saw that for 16 games last year. And we think Donald can come in and add to that, too, and give us some different options. And a different style, too. The more weapons we can have for Philip Rivers, the better.”
In a league increasingly shifting to the passing game, the Chargers added another running back as a weapon for their quarterback. It’s not conventional, but it worked in 2013. It also makes a lot of sense if Brown brings something to the table Mathews or Woodhead don’t.
Adding a running back makes sense for the Chargers for many reasons. Maybe a high-priced free agent wasn’t necessary, but that’s debatable.
Both Mathews and Woodhead are only under contract through 2014, which means there will be more opportunities for Brown starting next year. Mathews may also still be an injury risk after missing eight games over his first three seasons.
Veteran Ronnie Brown filled in for Mathews on occasion over the past two seasons, but he’s a free agent. Donald Brown will instantly take all of Ronnie Brown’s carries, but he’ll likely also earn more at the expense of Mathews. Ronnie Brown averaged a paltry 3.5 yards per carry in 2013 compared with 5.3 yards per carry for Donald Brown.
The Chargers can count on an uptick in production when Mathews or Woodhead aren’t in the game, plus the added benefit of all the running backs staying fresh. There is some value to simply having another running back that can produce in a run-heavy offense.
It’s clear the Chargers upgraded, but exactly how much and if it’s worth $3.5 million per year can only be answered after we see how head coach Mike McCoy uses all three running backs. The Chargers must be looking at other factors besides the upgrade of their No. 3 running back.
Yards After Contact
Where the Chargers may be looking to improve is getting tough yards after contact. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Brown led the league in yards per carry after contact at 3.3 yards.
By comparison, Woodhead and Mathews got a lot less yards after contact. This means the Chargers had to block better to get more yards out of their ground game.
The Chargers used the ground game heavily in 2013 and the offensive line remains intact, so improvement was going to be difficult unless the running backs were more efficient. Brown made the most of his opportunities in 2013, both in the running and passing game.
If Brown can maintain the full-yard advantage in yards after contact per carry he had over Mathews, he’s likely going to steal plenty of touches. It’s worth noting Brown holds a much narrower advantage in yards after contact per carry overall for the past three seasons than his numbers indicate from 2013.
Brown has also been more productive strictly on a per-carry basis over the past three seasons. Brown has just had about half the number of opportunities as Mathews. It’s possible Brown will actually outperform Mathews when his role is expanded, making a full-time transition from Mathews to Brown possible next season.
Considering what the Chargers are paying Brown, they would be foolish to try to keep Mathews and Woodhead next year. Telesco is projecting value and taking advantage of the availability of a player who fits his offense
One of the things Brown brings to the table is a combination of Mathews’ ability to run the ball and Woodhead’s ability in the passing game. Brown can be sort of a hybrid version of Mathews and Woodhead, which will make things harder on opposing defenses.
Brown’s career average reception is just a couple ticks below Woodhead’s career average. Mathews’ career average reception isn’t even in the ballpark. What this means is Brown can steal opportunities from both Mathews and Woodhead in 2014—not just Mathews.
The main difference with Brown as compared to Woodhead is the sheer number of opportunities in the passing game. This is not too different than the comparison of Brown to Mathews in the running game.
Woodhead caught 76 passes last year, nearly doubling his previous career high. Brown’s career high also came last year, but it was just 26 receptions.
A lot of Brown's value may be dependent on what he can do with more opportunities. Sometimes players are able to maintain their efficiency with more opportunities and sometimes they aren't.
People who play fantasy football will lament it, but the Chargers could be successful in becoming a three-headed rushing attack in 2014. The Chargers rushed the ball 486 times last season, so it’s theoretically possible for Mathews, Brown and Woodhead to each receive at least 100 carries.
Also, it wouldn’t be hard for Philip Rivers to complete 125 or more passes to running backs in 2014. With Brown’s ability to make something happen after contact, the Chargers may be able to improve offensively without a huge upgrade at wide receiver.
While signing Brown may have seemed a little odd at first, he’s a perfect fit in San Diego’s offense. Brown complements Mathews and Woodhead, each in a different way. By adding Brown, the Chargers are hoping to push their collective production to the next level.
Sure, Brown is probably going to eat into Mathews’ carries and Woodhead’s receptions, but for anything other than fantasy football that could be a great thing. Time will tell if the Chargers made a wise investment, but the crowded backfield in San Diego has plenty of potential.