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Chargers running backs: Better or worse in 2016?

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A position-by-position look at the San Diego Chargers’ roster, and whether the team is better or worse off than they were last season.

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier we started reviewing 2016 Chargers position groups with the quarterback position. Now, we move onto the running backs where the biggest difference will be at fullback.

Running Backs

  • Kenneth Farrow
  • Melvin Gordon
  • Branden Oliver
  • Dreamius Smith
  • Chris Swain
  • Derek Watt
  • Danny Woodhead

Analysis

Last year, the San Diego Chargers traded up in the NFL Draft to select Melvin Gordon out of Wisconsin. The hype surrounding him was borderline unfair. That he failed to live up to it was not surprising. The degree to which he failed to live up to it was. Gordon's physical skills are indisputable. The only knock in that department is his top-end speed which is arguably the least important physical trait for his position.

The problem he had was mental. Gordon hesitates behind the line on nearly every carry. He looked especially uncomfortable on runs to the interior of the line. His physical ability covered for some of this with him breaking an impressively large number of tackles behind the line. He finished his season with missing time due to injury that resulted in microfracture surgery. Luckily for the 2016 Chargers, that should not affect him this year. Unfortunately for future iterations of the team (and Gordon himself), it could shorten his career.

Gordon will hopefully show better in his second professional season. It's too early to label him a bust, but a second terrible season would make it tough to shake that label. Fewer shotgun runs (where he struggles) and more chances behind a lead blocker should, in theory, help his reach his potential. We shall see.

Danny Woodhead is still one of if not the best receivers at the running back position in the National Football League. He's a year older but shows no signs of losing any ability. Ken Whisenhunt has made great use of his skillset before and 2016 should be no different.

Branden Oliver is heading into his third season as a pro and he looks better than ever. At this point, he is probably the best all-around running back on the Chargers roster. He has good hands, he is hard to bring down, he has good speed, and he knows how to hit the hole when it presents itself. Gordon may be harder to tackle and Woodhead is obviously the better receiver, but if you had to have one back on the field for every down, it would be Oliver.

Smith and Farrow are mildly intriguing players, but neither is likely to make the team ahead of Gordon, Oliver, or Woodhead. This is Smith's second year in training camp with the Chargers and they seem to like him, but unless there's an injury it's hard to see how he could spend the season in lightning bolts.

One of the more interesting position battles this year is at fullback. The Chargers selected Derek Watt in the draft, but then they signed Chris Swain as an undrafted free agent. Swain is a better runner and lead blocker while Watt is a better receiver. A rational person would probably favor the traits that Swain excels in, but the team invested actual draft capital in Watt and so you have to assume he is the favorite to start at fullback (and if it comes down to it, to make the 53-man roster).

Better or Worse?

Better. The addition of one or possibly two true fullbacks to a roster that hasn't had one in years is a clear improvement. Woodhead is as good as ever. Both Gordon and Oliver should be better players and better utilized. The only way this unit is worse than last year's is if there's a significant injury. So, let's all just hope that doesn't come to pass.