The San Diego Chargers head into the 2014 season with a crowded backfield that includes Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead, free-agent acquisition Donald Brown and rookie sixth-round pick Marion Grice. It’s a deep stable of running backs, so one has to wonder what the Chargers have in mind as far as the division of labor.
It’s possible that very little changes in 2014 from last year. That would mean Mathews is the starter, Woodhead comes in on third down, Brown steals a few more carries than Ronnie Brown did last year and Grice is just a backup.
Maybe that’s the case, but with both Mathews and Woodhead free agents after the season, it’s probably worth reading the tea leaves even if the person holding the cup is saying something different. Actions speak louder than words—especially in the NFL.
Sooner rather than later, Brown will replace Mathews as the starting running back. It’s understandable that the Chargers would want to tread lightly on the topic, but you don’t spend $3.5 million per year on Brown if he’s not going to be a significant piece of the offense.
A sure sign of the impending divorce is the fact that Mathews missed “voluntary” organized team activities according to ESPN's Eric D. Williams. While workouts are voluntary, everyone knows teams would like 100 percent participation and the Chargers are no different no matter what they say publically. Skipping organized team activities is often an indication that the player is unhappy with their contract or is no longer willing to do the team any favors.
If Mathews wants a long-term contract extension at the end of this season, skipping voluntary workouts isn’t going to help him. Despite the fact that skipping voluntary workouts shouldn’t be a big deal, Mathews once reported to training camp and failed his physical, so it’s a bit more notable based on his history. Those days seem to be behind him, but just how much trust he’s earned over the last couple of years is unknown.
One of the biggest reasons Brown will replace Mathews is because he will likely be more productive in 2014. Since Brown was better last year and over the last three years, there’s little reason to believe that won’t continue to be the case.
Brown outperformed Mathews in virtually every category in 2013. For starters, Brown averages nearly a full yard more per carry. The notable difference was the number of carries as Mathews had nearly three times the number of totes.
However, the number of carries doesn’t tell the whole story. Brown also averaged nearly a full yard more after contract than Mathews, had just five fewer missed tackles and three fewer carries of 15 or more yards according to ProFootballFocus (subscription required).
|Mathews vs. Brown Stat Rankings and Statistics|
|Player||DYAR Rank (FO)||DVOA Rank (FO)||Success Rate Rank (FO)||Run Grade Rank (PFF)||EPA/P (AFA)|
|Player||Rush Attempts||Yards Per Carry||15+ Runs (PFF)||Missed Tackles (PFF)||Yards Per Carry After Contact (PFF)|
|Football Outsiders (FO), Pro Football Focus (PFF), Advanced Football Analytics (AFA), NFL.com|
It’s possible Brown’s advantage in yards per carry and yards per carry after contact would be smaller if he had more carries, but there is little doubt he would’ve evaded more would-be tacklers and broken off more long runs than Mathews.
Brown also ranks near the top of all the advanced stats including DVOA and Success Rate from Football Outsiders and EPA/P by Advanced Football Analytics. In other words, Brown was efficient and consistent. Mathews only eclipsed Brown in DYAR from Football Outsiders, which is a measurement of total value and not more value per play. Therefore, it is obviously linked to opportunity.
Brown managed to perform better behind a worse offensive line than Mathews did in 2013. Per Football Outsiders, the Chargers ranked third in adjusted line yards, but were 27th in open field yards. A gap like this is a strong indicator that the offensive line was doing most of the work. The Indianapolis Colts were 15th in adjusted line yards.
|Offensive Line and Passing Game Comparsion|
|Offensive Line||Adj. Line Yards (FO)||Open Field Yards (FO)||Team Run Block Grade and Rank (PFF)|
|Chargers (Mathews)||4.26 (3)||.50 (27)||-15 (15)|
|Colts (Brown)||3.89 (15)||.63 (21)||-50.1 (23)|
|As Receiver||Targets (PFF)||Yards Per Route Run (PFF)||Missed Tackles (PFF)|
|In Pass Protaction||Pass Block Snaps (PFF)||Total Pressure (PFF)||Pass-Blocking Efficiency (PFF)|
|Football Outsiders (FO), Pro Football Focus (PFF)|
According to ProFootballFocus, the Indianapolis Colts had a run block grade of negative-50.1. By comparison, the Chargers’ grade was negative-15.0. Despite not being too far apart in the PFF’s rankings, the grade tells a much different story.
In the passing game, the two players were about equal. Both players were targeted roughly the same amount of times in 2014 and produced similar yardage per route and per catch. The notable difference was in pass protection, where Brown was trusted to stay in and block about five times more than Mathews.
Brown isn’t a great pass-blocker, but he proved to better than Mathews last year. Brown allowed eight hurries on 93 snaps to Mathews’ three in 20 snaps. Just 20 snaps in pass protection is proof that the Chargers don’t trust Mathews to block more than about once per game.
What a player is making can be a strong indicator of their role depending on the circumstances. In this case, Mathews is about to be a free agent and general manager Tom Telesco didn’t draft him. Meanwhile, Telesco signed Brown and is previously familiar with him from his time in Indianapolis.
The fact that Brown will make more than Mathews in 2014 shouldn’t be lost. According to Over the Cap, Brown will get $3.25 million in signing bonus and another $750,000 in base salary in 2014 for a total of $4.0 million. Mathews will get just his $1.98 million in base salary in cash.
It just doesn’t make sense to pay one player $4.0 million to back up a player that makes $1.98 million—at least not at at running back. It just doesn’t happen very often, even when one of the players is still on their rookie deal.
|Free-Agent Running Back Contract Comparison|
|Player||Age||Years||Total Value||APY||Guaranteed||Projected Starter|
Brown received a better deal than Ben Tate in both average salary per year and guarantees. Tate is not only two years younger than Brown, but also played in the zone-blocking scheme the Chargers deploy. Toby Gerhart received $3.5 million per year just like Brown, but with $500,000 more in guarantees according to Over the Cap. Tate and Gerhart will both be starters for teams that use the zone-blocking scheme like the Chargers.
If the Chargers brought in Brown and don’t intend for him to be a significant part of the running game in 2014, they made a huge mistake. Running backs not only come cheaply, but they are relatively easy to find. There was no reason for the Chargers to pay Brown like they did if he wasn’t going to overtake Mathews in 2014.
It would be a huge waste of resources to pay a running back like Brown and then not use him enough. Maybe the Chargers can get both running backs enough work, but the odds are that Mathews is going to be the first player to lose carries even if he’s technically the starter this season.