Punch Drunk Wonderland

2015 Fantasy Analysis: The San Diego Chargers Running Back Situation

With veteran Ryan Mathews leaving town it certainly sounds like the San Diego Chargers are ready to move forward with Branden Oliver. The rhetoric from the team has suggested they are fine with the stable of backs they have remaining. Is that truth of pre-draft posturing? Will they target a running back in the 2015 NFL Draft? Will Branden Oliver, Donald Brown, and Danny Woodhead be the true face of the San Diego running game and what does that mean for fantasy production? Our friends at numberFire.com have taken a look.

Last season the Vikings lost All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson to a 15-game suspension. This was called a “major blow” for Minnesota’s running game.

In Week 7 of last year, within a 10-minute span the Bills first lost Fred Jackson for two games to a groin injury and then C.J. Spiller for the remainder of the season to a broken collarbone. This was called a “disaster” for Buffalo’s run-heavy offense.

Today, no one would consider any of these reactions as hyperbole. The negative impacts these misfortunes had on their respective teams were immense and warranted the grim assessments that followed.

But if this is the case, then what do you call it when — within the first three weeks of the season — a team loses their starting running back for 10 games to an MCL sprain, loses their primary backup and third-down back for the season to a broken leg, and loses their Pro Bowl center to a career-ending neck injury, which would be just one of four different players suffering major injuries at this single position throughout the year?


These are the words that come to mind when we look at everything the San Diego Chargers running game had to deal with last season. And when we examine just how large an impact these losses had on the Chargers offense, these terms begin to look like massive understatements.

Run This Town

In 2013, during his first season as the Chargers head coach, Mike McCoy utilized a balanced offensive gameplan, rushing the ball 485 times (sixth highest in the league). This run-heavy attack resulted in a winning record, a playoff berth, and an eventual Wild Card round victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.

In 2014, with multiple running back and offensive line injuries strongly influencing the offensive play calling, McCoy was forced to dial-up just 399 rushing plays (22nd in the league). This would have a largely negative impact on the team’s overall success as measured by both traditional and advanced metrics.

Though the Chargers finished with the same 9-7 record that they had the prior season, they would fail to make the playoffs this year. Beyond this, using nERD — which is our in-house metric for team efficiency and measures how many points a team would be expected to beat an average opponent by on a neutral field — the Chargers saw a drop in their nERD from 2.95 in 2013 (11th in the league) to -0.01 in 2014 (18th).

While the reduced ground production caused by the Chargers’ massive injuries is easy for us to deduce, the contributions of this unit to Mike McCoy’s offense extends beyond the run game. In McCoy’s system the running back is also heavily utilized in the passing game and the lack of any true weapons at this position last season caused Philip Rivers and the entire passing offense to suffer as well.

Indeed, Rivers targeted this position on 24.3% and 17.8% of his throws in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Rivers also threw 26.5% and 21.0% of his passes in 2013 and 2014, respectively, to players behind the line of scrimmage, emphasizing the heavy use of the short passing game for this offense and the need for pass catching backs.

But with the loss of regular third-down back Danny Woodhead to injury, this offensive unit saw a nearly 30% reduction in aerial production, dropping from 847 total receiving yards in 2013 to 624 receiving yards in 2014. Due in large part to these disappointing performances at the tailback position, Rivers saw his Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) drop from 162.8 in 2013 to 105.93 in 2014.

From this, it is easy to see just how important the running back position is to Mike McCoy’s offensive philosophy. And given the centrality of this position to the team’s overall success, the need to find a long-term solution at the running back position becomes very apparent.

Can I Get A…

A number of factors are in play that are changing the landscape for the Chargers’ offensive make up. These factors — which include a potential quarterback controversy, a commitment to building a strong offensive line, and a starting running back slot up for grabs — are creating a situation where a game-changing running back could come in and make a huge impact on this team sooner rather than later.

While purely speculative, the mere fact that we’re even talking about a potential Philip Rivers trade is a very telling statement about the state of affairs in San Diego. Rumblings regarding the Chargers’ interest in Oregon Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota, along with a refusal of the front office to deny unequivocally a potential Rivers trade, suggests that general manager Tom Telesco is at least considering the possibility that the window on Philip Rivers’ prime may be closing soon.

Viewed in this light, the need for a workhorse running back for this team to lean on becomes even more imperative as the Chargers begin the inevitable transition away from the Philip Rivers era.

Offensive Line
Generating production in the ground game begins with the offensive line. If you don’t believe me, just ask DeMarco Murray and Lesean McCoy for their thoughts on the matter. And after coming to this painful realization following years of neglect by former Chargers general manager A.J. Smith, the team has now redoubled its efforts in this department.

Following last season’s disaster with this unit, the Chargers remained committed to building a strong front line by re-signing 6′ 9″, 330-pound left tackle King Dunlap to a four-year, $28 million contract.

They then snagged 6′ 7″, 330-pound left guard Orlando Franklin from the Denver Broncos with a five-year, $36.5 million contract. This signing was particularly significant as Franklin’s familiarity with McCoy’s offensive style due to their time together in Denver, and a top-13 grade at the position last season according to Pro Football Focus, makes him a formidable addition to this run blocking unit.

Playing alongside 6′ 5″, 339-pound right tackle D.J. Fluker, these three behemoths now form a strong nucleus that is a vast improvement from what the Chargers were working with last season, and should help drive significant production from the running game.

Running Back
To call the running back unit for the Chargers ineffective last year is putting it verylightly. In 2013, the Bolts running backs combined for a Rushing NEP of 5.92 and a Reception NEP of 67.57, meaning that altogether this unit contributed an extra 73.49 points to the offense above expectations. In 2014, the Total NEP from this unit dropped to -5.68.

The exact breakdown of the contributions (or lack thereof) to the offense by each running back on the roster in 2014 are listed below.

Full Name Rushes Rush NEP Rec Rec NEP Total NEP
Branden Oliver 160 -19.99 36 15.38 -4.61
Donald Brown 84 -17.23 29 5.48 -11.75
Ryan Mathews 75 6.60 9 3.62 10.22
Danny Woodhead 15 -3.30 5 3.76 0.47
Total 334 -33.92 79 28.24 -5.68

The Woodhead injury was especially devastating to this offense’s aerial attack as the Reception NEP for this unit dropped from 67.57 in 2013 to 28.24 in 2014 in his absence. While Woodhead is on-track to make a full recovery from his fractured fibula and ankle, the fragility of the running back situation in San Diego is apparent.

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K. Smelser About K. Smelser
Kelly Smelser is Owner/Senior Writer for Punch Drunk Wonderland and PDFantasy Sports. Architect of the PDW fantasy football world and general spinster of NFL and Fantasy Football news and analysis. Long walks on the beach, sunsets, and other such niceties are also fine...