San Diego Chargers Offseason Position Needs, Part Five: Running Back

Paul PreibisiusAnalyst IApril 6, 2010

TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 1: Running back Ben Tate #44 of the Auburn Tigers rushes upfield against the Northwestern Wildcats in the Outback Bowl January 1, 2010 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Here it is.  After looking at the team’s array of relatively settled positions the first of the team’s major concerns reach the table for the final offensive size of the offseason overview.

At present the team has two running backs in its stable, expensive speedster Darren Sproles and waiver-pickup Marcus Mason.  Technically they have a third in undrafted Curtis Brinkley, though he does not figure into the team’s plans.

Mason brings a decent skillset with regards to field vision and patience, but suffers from being undersized up the middle, but not explosive enough along the outside.  He was primarily brought in as depth.  Barring an surprise preseason Mason figures to be a depth back with limited duty (40-60 carries across the year).

Sproles is far more elusive, slipping his 5’6’’ 185 pound frame into spaces other backs would not fit through.  He is great at receiving out of the backfield (or lining up as a receiver) at does good things when afforded open space.

But last season was one of diminishing returns.  The more carries in a game, the more he appeared to get bottled up.  Even without this factor, his size makes it next to impossible to rely on him as the team’s primary back. 

Sproles’ workload this year will depend heavily on the performance of the rest of the backfield, but expect him to log roughly 100 carries.

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San Diego has become very much a passing team under Norv Turner, focusing on the vertical game for chunks of yardage over the ground-pounding prior regime.

Yet Philip Rivers ranked 18th in total pass attempts last season as San Diego employed a fairly balanced 53/47 pass to run ratio (Indianapolis for contrast was 62/38).  They will need a feature back that can handle a workload somewhere in the low 200 carries in order to set up play-action and churn out short yardage.

The earliest candidate for this is Ryan Matthews. 

San Diego’s draft projections for the first round are split along basically three lines; Matthews, Dan Williams if somehow he falls, Terrence Cody.  That is not to say that Smith’s thought process is the same as fans and so-called experts alike as he historically makes unexpected selections.

Matthews has the size and power to compliment the shifty Sproles while also displaying great downhill speed.  There are minor questions about his receiving ability out of the backfield, though his hands did look good at the combine.

If San Diego were to select a running back in round one, Matthews is the near unanimous choice assuming he is available by pick 28.

In the event that Matthews is not selected, San Diego still has a great host of running backs to choose from in virtually every round.

Jahvid Best is a quick, explosive back who draws comparisons to a certain Tennessee Titans running back.

A small frame and injury history make this a potentially awkward fit however.  San Diego needs consistency over a home run threat and is probably best suited to a tandem backfield that will put the ball in his hands 150 times.

Instead staying with the power theme may play to San Diego’s needs better.  Toby Gerhart, Montario Hardesty, Jonathan Dwyer, and Ben Tate are all power options the team could land in the second round (one or two  could easily see the third, but it’s a gamble that they’d be around by pick 91).

Gerhart is the draft climber while Dwyer entered the offseason with first round aspirations, but ultimately Ben Tate may just be the better fit here.  Like Matthews, he is a little smaller and faster than the other power backs in this draft—which may help his versatility in a Norv Turner offense.

The difficult question is whether or not to reach a bit over value with that upper second round pick or hope he falls to the bottom of round three.

Another possibility could be a third-round trade up.  Philadelphia is stockpiling draft picks, and may be content to drop down from that No. 70 choice they have in exchange for an additional 2011 draft pick.

This gives San Diego the flexibility to use that second round choice elsewhere, still land a good fit at running back, and won’t hurt them in the long-term as they will still own four choices in the top three rounds in 2011.

Freeing up one of the top two-rounds to go elsewhere could also give San Diego cause to land two backs later portions of the draft.  Eventually Sproles will out-price the team’s capacity to tag him for one year deals, and San Diego may just have to begin thinking about life after lightning bug (not as dire as team brass seemed to think with their knee-jerk $7.2 million tender).

Joe McKnight and LeGarrette Blount would give the team a speed-power duo at the running back position that could be had in mid-rounds. 

McKnight is a late second-early third round talent who will likely fall to the third or fourth round because of the deep second tier.  Blount is a third-round talent who could be had in the fifth because of his season-opening outburst.

The bulldozing ability of the 238 pound Blount pairs well with a number of possible players.  He is a great size and build for short yardage, goal-line, and late game carries.  His limited speed and pass-catching ability make it difficult to commit to him as the feature-back, but he is the ideal big back in a tandem.

The number of potential permutations in how San Diego will address the backfield is nearly endless.  The above options seem the best fits, though how it all goes about when April 22nd arrives is a mystery, and could very well be the position to dictate how the 2010 season unfurls.

See the rest of the ongoing Chargers Positional Needs series:

Part 1: Quarterback

Part 2: Wide Receiver

Part 3: Tight End

Part 4: Offensive Line