The San Diego Chargers have all the pieces in place to become a top-10 offense next season but having the right personnel is half the battle.
Utilizing those players to their maximum potential is the other half, and some might argue that offensive coordinator Frank Reich failed to achieve the latter in 2014. The Chargers ranked 18th in total offense last season with 5,465 yards through 16 games, which was over 1,000 yards fewer than offensive juggernauts New Orleans, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis.
How could that be with an elite quarterback like Philip Rivers running the show for San Diego?
Well, the Chargers' aerial attack wasn't the problem. In fact, Rivers and Co. finished 10th in passing with 4,098 yards. It was the ground game that bogged down the offense last season. San Diego finished in the bottom three with a measly 1,367 yards rushing.
That seems about right considering the number of injuries suffered in the backfield. Ryan Mathews was the first to go down in Week 2 with a sprained MCL that held him out of seven games. Danny Woodhead wasn't far behind, he suffered a broken fibula in Week 3 that ended his season, and Donald Brown followed soon after with a concussion in Week 5 that cost him three games.
Not even halfway through the season, San Diego was forced to rummage the scrap heap of free-agent running backs still available. Shaun Draughn and Ronnie Brown were signed to add depth, but it was undrafted rookie Branden Oliver who ended up carrying the rushing load for the Chargers with 582 yards in 14 games.
Oliver put forth impressive outings in back-to-back games against the Jets and Raiders, but his production fizzled out as defenses began to key-in on stopping the run. San Diego's lackluster play up front didn't help the cause either. According to Pro Football Focus, the Chargers offensive line ranked 26th in run blocking.
Delayed handoffs, which Reich became quite fond of calling, amounted to a lot of negative plays, and the team averaged just 3.4 yards per rush on the year. And because it was a struggle to run the ball, the Chargers placed a heavy emphasis on the arm of Rivers, who finished with the second-most pass attempts of his career (570).
So what did the Bolts do in the offseason to strengthen the running game?
For starters, they beefed up the offensive line with the addition of former Denver Broncos tackle/guard Orlando Franklin, who received top marks from Pro Football Focus. He earned a grade of +15.4 and was rated the No. 2 guard available in free agency. The Chargers were also fortunate enough to retain left tackle King Dunlap, who was easily their top performer on the offensive line a year ago.
But what San Diego got in the draft with former Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon is by far the team's biggest improvement. The Doak Walker award winner is fresh off a junior campaign that saw him rush for the second-most yards in FBS history, trailing only Heisman Trophy winner and Hall of Famer Barry Sanders.
In the clip below, Bleacher Report's Chris Simms breaks down Gordon's expected usage in Year 1, and he feels confident that the Chargers have a top-five back in their midst.
Gordon shredded defenses for just under 185 yards a game and roughly 7.5 yards per carry. His presence in San Diego's backfield, along with Brown and a healthy Woodhead, will be fun to watch. The Chargers were still efficient on third down (45.1 percent) with Woodhead absent from the mix, but his receiving prowess was sorely missed last season.
In addition to establishing the run, the Chargers will also need to increase their use of fourth-year tight end Ladarius Green. San Diego's "11" personnel package relied heavily on the use of three receivers, one back and only one tight end, leaving Green on the sideline for most of the year, Michael Gehlken of the San Diego Union-Tribune explained in a recent article. As a result, Green played only 274 of the possible 1,008 snaps on offense, per Eric Williams of ESPN.com.
Meanwhile, Antonio Gates received 721 of the snaps, and for good reason. He caught 12 touchdown passes in 2014, which tied for the most among tight ends. Keeping him off the field with that sort of production just seemed wrong, but at the same time, Green has shown himself to be just as deadly in the passing game. He averaged just over 22 yards a catch in 2013 with routes like these (video courtesy of NFL Game Rewind):
The goal is to use Green more next season, per Gehlken. GM Tom Telesco has faith in the coaching staff to figure out how to do just that.
"It's a good problem to have that we have enough guys. Philip (Rivers) spreads the ball around. Basically, the open guy gets the ball; he doesn't force it to anybody. But Ladarius has a lot of talent. We'll get him in the mix. We will. He's too good not to,"
The most likely scenario would be to have both tight ends on the field at the same time, as sort of a change-up on offense, much like the Chargers did in 2013. Green's size advantage was too much for smaller defensive backs and yet he was fast enough to outrun linebackers.
Improving in both these areas should provide optimal offense for the Chargers in 2015. Reich, who enters his second year as offensive coordinator, knows this. He was on with Dan Sileo of The Mighty 1090 AM radio (h/t ESPN.com's Williams) and addressed the team's focus on the running game.
"There’s no question we need, want and will run the ball better this year. Last year we were poor in the running game. We know that. We own it. And we’re committed to changing that this year," he said.
A balanced attack was the key to San Diego's offense two years ago when it finished fifth in the league with 6,293 yards. Then-offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, now the head coach of the Tennessee Titans, relied heavily on a healthy Ryan Mathews to help open up the passing game and he succeeded with over 1,200 yards rushing.
Reich's best plan of attack will be to re-create that same formula with Gordon. That in turn should allow for more opportunities through the air. The more attention Gordon draws, the better.