Chargers Position Groups Vs AFC West: Volume 3 – Running Backs

Melvin Gordon
LA Chargers Running Back Melvin Gordon Watches On During Chargers Training Camp. Photo Credit: Monica Dyrud

Chargers Position Groups Vs AFC West: Volume 3 – Running Backs

Over the past decade running backs have been devalued, but they are as important now as ever. Unlike in eras past, big-bodied, thumping running backs have gone by the wayside as do-it-all backs have taken over. The ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, and create mismatches is paramount.

Another shift in the NFL landscape has been the running back by committee approach. We have seen what tremendous workloads mean for players long-term, which has led teams to have multiple guys share the burden. The Chargers have three backs that should see significant playing time this year, hopefully reducing the chances of another Melvin Gordon injury. 

The AFC West is bursting at the seams with young talent at the position. I studied the top three players at the position of each team in the West, to see how the Chargers stacked up. These rankings are based on what these players have already accomplished to this point as well as projecting what they will do going forward. 

4. The Oakland Raiders 

Projected Depth Chart

RB1: Josh Jacobs

RB2: Doug Martin

RB3: Jalen Richard

This is the hardest group to rank because it is based almost purely on projection rather than previous results. The Raiders took star Alabama running back Josh Jacobs with the 24th overall pick in this year’s draft. Jacobs has all the potential to be a game-changer at the position with great vision and decision making, combined with a rare blend of quickness and truck-stick ability. He is really fun to watch, much less tread on his tires compared to his classmates with only 251 career carries at Alabama. His receiving ability should make him a true three-down back. The Raiders need to get him signed to his rookie deal because he’s missing important time and could hold out longer.

Well, we talked about the exciting guy on the Raiders, now for the rest. Former Browns and Jets running back Isaiah Crowell was added in the off-season but was lost almost immediately to an achilles injury. That led the team to re-sign Doug Martin who averaged 4.2 yards per attempt in  2018, after really struggling his two previous years in Tampa averaging just 2.9. There were some flashes of the productive player he once was, but it’s mostly three yards and a cloud of dust.

The last guy to make the list is third-down specialist Jalen Richard. Richard feasted last season on the Raiders perpetually being stuck in unmanageable down-and-distances to the tune of 68 catches for 607 yards. He is a good receiving back but Oakland has many more mouths to feed this year. Look for the additions of Jacobs, Antonio Brown and Tyrell Williams to eat into his production in 2019.

3. The Kansas City Chiefs 

Projected Depth Chart

RB1: Damien Williams

RB2: Carlos Hyde

RB3: Darwin Thompson

The Chiefs running backs took a major blow in 2018 when they decided to release Pro-Bowler Kareem Hunt. The team decided to move on because of well-documented off-the-field concerns and was without a true number one option.

The team turned to Damien Williams after losing Hunt and he turned into an instant contributor. Before 2018, Williams never averaged more than 3.9 yards per carry in his first five seasons and was a middling player. With the help of Andy Reid’s scheming, Williams averaged over five yards per attempt and became a legitimate receiving option. In the Chiefs last five games, including the playoffs, he averaged 114.4 yards from scrimmage. Those numbers would have been the 6th highest average in the league had he averaged it over the entire season.

The next guy on the Chiefs depth chart is new addition, Carlos Hyde. This was somewhat of a surprise signing to me, because Hyde was pretty unspectacular in 2018. Hyde was traded and released last season while putting up game logs like 10 carries for 13 yards in Week 16, and 9 carries for 16 yards combined in his first two games with the Jaguars…

The third man right now is their 6th-round rookie Darwin Thompson. I’m much more bullish on Thompson, who in just one year starting at Utah State showed the playmaking ability to play in the league. Thompson has foot speed and although he is only 5-foot-8 and 200 pounds, has pretty good power. He did struggle with vision and indecisiveness but could be a dangerous weapon for Andy Reid’s spread offense.

2. The Denver Broncos

Projected Depth Chart

RB1: Philip Lindsay

RB2: Royce Freeman

RB3: Devontae Booker

The Broncos struck gold last off-season when they brought in Philip Lindsay out of Colorado as an undrafted free-agent. Lindsay burst onto the scene as a rookie with 1,037 rushing yards on only 192 carries with 10 combined touchdowns. Lindsay is right at the top of the division with Melvin Gordon as the top running back in the West. He might even be better. The rookie back showed great instincts in his lone season, using his breakaway speed and ridiculous balance to consistently make big plays for the Broncos with eight rushes of 20+ yards. Lindsay rightfully plays with a chip on his shoulder, and his future is bright.

The crazy part about Lindsay is that he surpassed two running backs the Broncos actually drafted instead of him. Royce Freeman was selected in the third round and found a role with the team after losing the starting job and performed admirably. Freeman showed some potential but overall was in too inconsistent to command a heavy workload. He’ll look to carve out a larger role for himself in 2019.

Devontae Booker is going into his fourth season as the experienced veteran of the group. Booker did play a role in the passing game last season but saw his carries evaporate due to Lindsay and Freeman. Without really excelling at any one ability, and having past fumbling issues, he’ll have to fight off some younger players to stay on the roster.

1. The Los Angeles Chargers

Projected Depth Chart

RB1: Melvin Gordon

RB2: Austin Ekeler

RB3: Justin Jackson

As of right now, Melvin Gordon is the best running back in the AFC West anchoring the Chargers to the top of this list. After notoriously finishing his rookie season with zero scores, Gordon has combined for 38 rushing touchdowns over his last three seasons. The big knock on Gordon is health, fighting through something seemingly every season and missing nine games in his career. When he’s healthy, Gordon is dynamic. What he lacks in vision, he makes up for with explosiveness and the ability to turn a two-yard gain into five broken tackles and a house call. Gordon has a violent running style, who has been a proven pass-catcher as well. He averaged almost 10-yards per catch last season often making the first man miss and scoring four times through the air.

Another key reason the Chargers have the best running backs in the West is their depth. Austin Ekeler is one of the most electric backups in the league. In the first five weeks last year with consistent touches, Ekeler averaged 82 yards from scrimmage per game as a backup. Ekeler is one of the strongest pound-for-pound players on the team and has the speed to match it. He’s especially dangerous catching out of the backfield averaging over 10.3 yards per catch his first two seasons. He often beats linebackers to the edge.

Justin Jackson is the wild card of the group with the least amount of exposure. With Gordon out, Jackson made his impact Week 13 against the Steelers. He carved up the Steel Curtain in a primetime game and showed ridiculous elusiveness while proving he deserved to be on the roster.

Final Thoughts

This is going to be an incredibly competitive division and this is a list I could see changing quickly. If Josh Jacobs is for real the Raiders could leapfrog the Chiefs, while the Chargers are an injury away from tumbling. What we know is that we have four teams that use running backs heavily, and premium players at the position. The battle of which team has the best stable of backs is going to be extremely fun to watch play out.