RB Ryan Mathews (Lenny Ignelzi/AP)
San Diego's backfield will not look all that different this year. Darren Sproles will be the go-to player on passing downs and hurry-up situations and Jacob Hester and Mike Tolbert will split fullback duties. It's the change at the top -- replacing franchise mainstay LaDainian Tomlinson with rookie Ryan Mathews -- that has everyone abuzz.
The Chargers had no choice but to move on without LaDainian Tomlinson. The '06 MVP was coming off a season in which he posted career-lows in rushing yards (730), per-carry average (3.3) and receptions (20). Additionally, he was clearly frustrated with how he was used in the offense and how he was valued by management.
San Diego was aggressive in landing Tomlinson's replacement, surrendering the No. 40 overall pick and LB Tim Dobbins in order to flip first-round selections with the Miami Dolphins and select RB Ryan Mathews at No. 12 overall.
Mathews comes off a monster '09 season in which he carried 276 times for 1,808 yards (6.6 ypc) and 19 touchdowns. He has the build (5-foot-11, 220 pounds) of an every-down, workhorse back in the mold of Tomlinson. The only question is, does Mathews have the durability? He injured his ankle and collarbone in 2007 and his knee in 2008, costing him a total of seven games. If he misses time again in 2010, San Diego's running game will sputter.
“I'm fast enough to get around the corner; I have great vision; I hit the hole pretty well; and I think I'm just an all-around running back,” Mathews said.
Behind Mathews is Darren Sproles, the team's franchise player for the second consecutive season. Sproles comes off a year in which he set career-highs in rushing yards (343), receiving yards (497) and total scores (eight). He makes his biggest impact on screens and delays -- as well as special teams -- so it's vital San Diego keeps him in the No. 2 role.
Sproles will also be valuable in pass protection, especially while Mathews hones his blitz pick-up skills.
“I think with me and Sproles back there, it is really going to change a lot,” Mathews said.
San Diego's No. 3 back will emerge from a group including waiver-wire pickup Marcus Mason, undrafted rookie Shawnbrey McNeal and first-year player (and gunshot survivor) Curtis Brinkley. If any of those players logs more than the 23 carries Michael Bennett received last year, San Diego is in trouble.
Coach Norv Turner's third ball-carrier of choice is FB Mike Tolbert, with co-starter Jacob Hester coming in next in the pecking order. Neither Tolbert nor Hester is a dominant lead blocker, but both are capable runners, strong receivers and dominant special-teams players. With Kassim Osgood no longer in the picture, Hester and Tolbert are San Diego's two best special-teams players, although Brandon Siler is also in the conversation.
Last season, Tolbert led the Chargers with a per-carry average of 5.9 yards, although much of that came late in games against winded defenses. Turner plans to increase Tolbert's workload this season to see if he can maintain that proficiency.
Regardless of who is carrying the ball, the Chargers should be far more effective than last season, when they ranked in the bottom-two in total rushing and rushing average.
In fact, Mathews is a potential candidate for Rookie of the Year, especially if he gets the 250 touches Turner has forecasted. It would be sweet redemption for the Bolts if Mathews takes home that honor, something not even Tomlinson was able to do.
Who will be San Diego's No. 3 running back? Discuss inside the message boards.
Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003. You can see more of his updates by following him on twitter.