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San Diego Chargers Free Agency: Running Back

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The San Diego Chargers are facing some tough decisions about their running back group as free agency approaches, but they may have already forced their hand with a signing last year.

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San Diego Chargers Free Agency Checklist:

Here's the truth: NFL teams should never spend money on free agent running backs, unless they can somehow get a lightly-used running back for well below value. Luckily, most NFL teams realize this.

Do the San Diego Chargers realize it? Maybe, maybe not. The Chargers actually spend more on their running backs ($10.9 million per year) than every team that's not named the Philadelphia Eagles or the Minnesota Vikings. That's a result of Ryan Mathews getting drafted early and before the rookie wage scale existed, as well as Danny Woodhead and Donald Brown being signed as free agents.

Past Free Agency Playing a Role

Signing Donald Brown was a mistake. We can admit that, right?

Not only was Donald Brown disappointing on the field this season, but dedicating more than $10 million of the team's $133 salary cap to the running back position ended up hurting the depth at other position groups (such as the offensive line).

To put it bluntly, the team cannot afford to spend that much money on the RB position again this year. If the team cut Brown, he'd count for $2.16 million in dead money against the cap.

If they were to cut Brown and sign another free agent RB to take his place, their RB group would look like this:

  • Danny Woodhead: $2.5 million
  • Free agent RB: $3 million
  • Donald Brown's dead money: $2.16 million
  • Branden Oliver: $510k
  • Rookie RB: ~$450k

That puts you somewhere between $8.5-9 million for the RB group, which is a step down but not a significant one.

Ryan Mathews

In 2014, Ryan Mathews was the 14th highest paid RB in the league ($3.6 million). He has the talent to be a top-10 RB (~$5 million per year), but what's more likely for him is that he signs a 1 or 2-year deal for around $3 million per season with a team that has a strong offensive line.

If the team was to try and keep the same group they had this year, the money works out like this:

  • Danny Woodhead: $2.5 million
  • Ryan Mathews: $3 million
  • Donald Brown: $4 million
  • Branden Oliver: $510k

That adds up to about $10 million, which is still way too much. Basically, because of Donald Brown's contract, it's going to be impossible for the San Diego Chargers to retain Ryan Mathews without causing the same issues they had this season (spending too much on the RB position).

One possible solution would be Mathews taking a "prove it" deal, something like 1-year for $2 million, and Donald Brown restructuring his contract (although I can't imagine why he'd do that). Outside of that happening, Mathews will be wearing another uniform next season.

Does free agency factor in?

Ask anyone who knows and they'll tell you that running back performance is largely based upon the offensive line, and that it's not worth it to pay for a running back or even draft one early unless they are particularly elite. Mathews could have fit that bill, but he wasn't able to stay healthy enough this year to be counted on.

The smartest thing for the Chargers to do to try and rehabilitate their running game is to start looking at every RB that's not Danny Woodhead as a nameless, faceless, expendable player that will perform well if the line in front of him performs well.

After free agency passes, I'll flesh out options for running backs in the draft (along with Kyle) because I do not believe it makes sense for the Chargers to make any additions to their group of running backs through free agency. In the end, we should be hoping that Tom Telesco spends around $6.5 million on his RBs next year instead of $10 million.