San Diego Chargers: Ryan Mathews

SAN DIEGO -- Let’s do it again.

San Diego Chargers running back Ryan Mathews likely has that familiar refrain from the popular song by the Staples Singers in his thoughts when contemplating his performance last season.

In 2013, Mathews finished with a career-best 1,255 yards on a career-high 285 rushing attempts, averaging 4.4 yards per carry. He rushed for more than 100 yards six times, second to Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy. The Chargers finished 5-1 in those games.

[+] EnlargeRyan Matthews, Wesley Woodyard
Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver PostSan Diego's Ryan Mathews, center, ran for 1,255 yards on 285 carries last season, his best as a pro.
But the Fresno State product wants to take it a step further in 2014. Because of a severely sprained ankle suffered against Oakland toward the end of the 2013 season, Mathews was ineffective in the playoffs, rushing for a total of 78 yards in two contests against Cincinnati and Denver.

Although he played a full 16-game season for the first time in his four-year NFL career, Mathews is focused on being on the field and at his best when the games matter most -- the playoffs.

“It was hard, not being able to finish the year out,” Mathews said. “Sixteen games is 16 games. I played a full season, but I didn’t really get to contribute in the games after the season -- the real games when it really counts.

“That’s my expectation this season. I’ve got to do more and do better, so I can be there with my guys to be able to help them out as much as I can when we get there again.”

To that end, Mathews went to work this offseason. He did running and agility drills at the beach to strengthen the smaller muscles in his legs and maintain his chiseled 220-pound frame.

“I think Ryan is going to have a great year, probably better than last year,” Chargers offensive tackle D.J. Fluker said. “He looks faster.”

Mathews played with a hop in his step and looked healthy during San Diego’s minicamp. At 26 years old, he’s more comfortable with his role on this team. Mathews is no longer burdened with trying to live up to the impossible expectations as this team’s first-round selection in the 2010 draft, set by the person who held onto the job before him, future Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson.

Mathews smiles more. He wore rainbow-colored Under Armour cleats he said were named after Superman and the Incredible Hulk during offseason workouts at Chargers Park.

“I feel good,” Mathews said. “I feel honored just being able to be out here with my teammates, going through the plays and everything, just getting acclimated to football conditioning and football training. I’m just having fun. I feel great.”

But Mathews also will have some company in the backfield, with the Chargers signing running back Donald Brown during free agency to a three-year, $10.4 million deal. Brown is expected to serve as a complementary back to Mathews and talented third-down back Danny Woodhead.

With Mathews and Woodhead both entering a contract year, Brown provides some protection for the Chargers should they lose either player in free agency. Brown will make $4 million in total compensation in 2014, twice as much as Mathews’ $1.978 million.

Still, new offensive coordinator Frank Reich maintains that Mathews will once again serve as San Diego’s workhorse running back. That approach makes sense. The Chargers finished 9-2 last season when they rushed for at least 112 yards as a team.

“Ryan is as tough as a runner as I’ve been around,” Reich said. “He’s just a physically dominating runner. And he brings a physical presence to the game, which we love. The offensive line senses it, and they love blocking for him because of his physicality.

“He’s just a tough guy. There were times last season where I knew he was hurt, but he was just not coming out of the game. So he’s a tough guy, and a physically dominant runner.”

Mathews says he has to make the most of his opportunities when he’s on the field.

“Everybody wants the ball,” Mathews said. “If you’re a running back, you want the ball. But there’s only one ball in the game, so we all got to take turns. And when we’re in there, we have to do our best with it.

“We’re all competing against each other every day. We’re always striving to make each other better, and really to get the best out of one another. Just being able to have three different backs do three different things with our three different running styles is great. You can use us for anything.”
Good morning. Bucky Brooks of NFL.com put together his list of the most complete running backs in the league right now. And San Diego Chargers running back Ryan Mathews earned a spot on the list at No. 8.

Even though Danny Woodhead serves as San Diego’s running back on passing downs, Mathews still has the ability to make things happen as a pass catcher. More importantly, he developed into one the most effective runners in the league last season, rushing for a career-best 1,255 yards in 2013.

Brooks: "The additions of Donald Brown this year and Danny Woodhead last year have turned Mathews into a bit of a role player in the Chargers' offense, but he still displays the skill and versatility to be a three-down back. The fifth-year pro has surpassed the 1,000-yard mark in two of his past three seasons, exhibiting the balance, body control and vision to be effective between the tackles or on the perimeter. Mathews finished 2013 with six 100-yard games (he narrowly missed a seventh, posting a 99-yard effort in Week 16) and caught at least three passes in four different contests. Although his receiving numbers were greatly affected by Woodhead's prominent role in the passing game, Mathews' skills as a runner/receiver make him worthy of consideration as one of the league's most complete running backs."
SAN DIEGO -- Coach Mike McCoy must be loosening up -- just a little bit.

For the first time during his tenure as head coach of the San Diego Chargers, McCoy played music during practice on the opening day of minicamp for the team.

Players could be seen bobbing heads and tapping toes as a mix of rap, country and arena rock blared over the speakers at Chargers Park.

McCoy
"We put someone in charge early this morning to get a mix for us," McCoy said. "No. 1, we’re going to be playing on the road, where it’s going to be loud from time to time. And when we’re playing at home it’s going to be loud, too, and that’s the environment we want to have when our defense is out there -- playing loud and having a good time.

"We decided to play it during the two-minute drill, some country music, and some other forms of music I don’t know a whole lot about, to be honest. If it’s not Kenny Chesney I’m not listening to a lot of it, but it’s better than listening to airplane music for a two-minute drill."

Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said the music during practice was a good change of pace for what can become a monotonous time of year.

"I didn’t know that was happening until about a couple minutes before practice," Rivers said. "It was fine. It actually added a little energy to stretch and the individual period. In the two-minute period it was loud. It was probably louder than the standard, static crowd noise that we have. I thought it was all right."

Of course, Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has become somewhat noteworthy for hiring a DJ and playing music during his practices in Seattle, and before that at USC. With training camp practices dubbed "Club Carroll", the Seahawks coach believes music adds energy and creates some fun for players when they hear their favorite song during practice.

Chargers running back Ryan Mathews agrees with that sentiment.

"It was fun," Mathews said. "It was something different. Minicamp is supposed to be fun. Football is a fun game, and Coach (McCoy) just added another level to it. It’s a great feeling."

Ryan Mathews attends OTAs

May, 29, 2014
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Reporters are only allowed to attend one organized team activity per week for the San Diego Chargers. So on Tuesday we reported that running back Ryan Mathews was as no-show for the team's first OTA.

However, Ricky Henne of Chargers.com, the team’s website, writes that Mathews was in attendance on Wednesday, and looks to build on his career-best 2013 season.

“This whole process has been fun and it’s important,” Mathews said. “It’s great to be back to football and be around these guys. We brought a bunch of new guys in and they fit right in. We have a good group and all have roles. We’re going to be a tight knit group and will feed off each other to do whatever it takes to win.”

Nathaniel Peters-Kroll of Pro Football Focus says tight end Ladarius Green is San Diego’s secret superstar.

Elliot Harrison of NFL.com writes that Lance Alworth -- not Junior Seau or LaDainian Tomlinson -- is the best player in Chargers history.

Nick Canepa of U-T San Diego writes that the Chargers’ offense is in good hands under new offensive coordinator Frank Reich.

Scott Kaplan and Billy Ray Smith of The Mighty 1090 AM radio talk with new San Diego running back Donald Brown in this audio link.
SAN DIEGO -- Sunny skies greeted the San Diego Chargers as the entire team took the field for the first time in preparation for the 2014 season.

Coach Mike McCoy also had to deal with a couple veteran no-shows in the first organized team activity. The practices are voluntary, so McCoy said he had no problem with running back Ryan Mathews, offensive guard Jeromey Clary, outside linebacker Dwight Freeney, inside linebacker Jonas Mouton and tight end Antonio Gates being no-shows on the first day of practice.

Rookie running back Marion Grice and cornerback Greg Ducre also were not in attendance.

McCoy said the absences were expected, and he had no issues with any of the players not being there.

Mathews
“Not at all,” McCoy said. “We know why they are not here. And we’re going to get better with the guys we have here right now. It’s voluntary, and we know why people are not here.”

Mathews, 26, is in the final year of his rookie contract. The Chargers signed running back Donald Brown to a three-year, $10.4 million contract this offseason, and the University of Connecticut product will actually make more in total compensation in 2014 ($4 million) than Mathews ($2 million) for the upcoming season.

But Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said before the draft that Mathews had no concerns with the signing.

“Ryan is a starting back, so his role will essentially be the same,” Telesco said. “Ryan’s a smart guy. He knows why guys are here, and he knows what his role is. It wasn’t an issue at all.”

Clary is due to make $4.55 million in total compensation for the upcoming season. And with San Diego drafting Notre Dame product Chris Watt in the third round, there’s some thought Clary could be asked to take a pay cut.

Clary
But as of right now, Clary is set to make his current salary. San Diego’s first-unit offensive line included King Dunlap at left tackle, Chad Rinehart at left guard, Nick Hardwick at center, Johnnie Troutman at right guard and D.J. Fluker at right tackle.

Floyd’s back: Malcom Floyd, 32, said he’s been cleared for full contact after suffering a serious neck injury in Week 2 of the 2013 regular season against Philadelphia. The veteran receiver worked with the first unit opposite Keenan Allen, and even took a good blow when middle linebacker Donald Butler got caught in the air while going after the ball. Butler braced his impact by grabbing Floyd, and both players fell to the ground.

“I think I’m ready for regular contact now after today,” Floyd said, smiling. “But it felt good. This is something I’ve been looking forward to. There’s no more looking back.”

Hardwick was not pleased with the play, giving Butler an earful afterwards. Butler apologized to Floyd after the play.

Te’o out: Second-year pro Manti Te’o was one of a couple players who did not practice due to injury. Te’o still is rehabbing from foot surgery during the offseason. Tight end John Phillips (knee) and offensive lineman Michael Harris (ankle) also did not practice.

McCoy did not seem too concerned with Te’o being limited on Tuesday.

“We’re just taking it one day at a time with him, like everybody else who has some kind of injury,” McCoy said.

Some tidbits: Players who stood out during team drills includes tight end Ryan Otten, running back Branden Oliver and cornerback Brandon Ghee. … Shareece Wright and Richard Marshall were the starting corners with the first unit. … Javontee Herndon did a nice job catching punts on the side field during practice.

Chargers offseason wrap-up

May, 23, 2014
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» NFC Wrap: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South » Grades

With free agency and the draft in the rearview mirror and training camp just a couple of months away, we assess the San Diego Chargers’ offseason moves.

Best move: Some NFL analysts panned San Diego's signing of running back Donald Brown to a three-year, $10.4 million deal in free agency. Critics surmised that San Diego had more pressing needs on defense and the Chargers could get a cheaper alternative through the draft. But by signing Brown, Chargers general manager Tom Telesco locked up a known entity that will lessen the load for workhorse Ryan Mathews, particularly if San Diego advances deep in the playoffs for a second straight season.

[+] EnlargeDonald Brown
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsDonald Brown, 31, adds depth to a Chargers backfield that already includes Ryan Mathews.
Brown also protects the Chargers should Mathews or Danny Woodhead not come back after the 2014 season. Both are set to hit free agency in 2015. Finally, with as much as head coach Mike McCoy likes to run the ball, the Chargers cannot have too much depth at running back and actually drafted Marion Grice in the sixth round to further bolster that group.

Riskiest move: There is no doubt cornerback Jason Verrett has the skills and mentality to be an effective cover cornerback in the NFL. Still, drafting a smaller cornerback when the trend is to use bigger players on the perimeter is a risky proposition for the Chargers. That Verrett is coming off shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum and will not be ready to practice until August could leave San Diego looking at a slow transition for the TCU product. That is not good news for a defense that needs immediate help in the secondary.

Most surprising move: Perhaps the most surprising move is one San Diego chose not to make by passing on bringing in a big-name receiver in free agency and waiting until the seventh round to select Baylor speedster Tevin Reese. Receiver was considered a need position for the Chargers heading into this offseason. But as a seventh-round pick, Reese is not guaranteed to make the final roster. So perhaps the Chargers believe Vincent Brown will finally play up to his potential in 2014 and Malcom Floyd can return healthy from a serious neck injury that cut short his 2013 season. The Chargers need a consistent deep threat to emerge opposite second-year pro Keenan Allen.

Double-digit sack guy needed: Corey Liuget led the Chargers in sacks for the second year in a row with 5.5 in 2013. That can’t happen again in 2014. Someone from among a group of edge-rushers that includes Dwight Freeney, Melvin Ingram and Jeremiah Attaochu must emerge as double-digit sack guy for this team to generate a more consistent pass rush and help a young secondary.
ESPN fantasy football experts released the top 200 players for the 2014 season Tuesday, which you can check out here. And with all 11 starters returning from one of the top offenses in football, it's no surprise that six San Diego Chargers made the cut.

Mathews
Running back Ryan Mathews is the top San Diego player at No. 37, followed by Keenan Allen (42), Danny Woodhead (87), Donald Brown (114), Philip Rivers (118) and Nick Novak (157).

Antonio Gates and Ladarius Green did not make the list, but the duo is rated the No. 15 and 16 tight ends in ESPN fantasy football.

Mathews is ranked No. 17 among running backs, followed by Woodhead (36) and Brown (48).

Rivers is ranked No. 14 among quarterbacks, and Allen comes in at No. 16 among receivers.


Novak is the No. 7-ranked kicker in ESPN fantasy football.

And if the Chargers' defense is looking for any more motivation, they will find it here -- ESPN fantasy football ranks San Diego's defense as the second-worst in the league.
Good morning. In this ESPN Insider piece Insider, ESPN senior draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. examines the worst-case scenarios of where some of the top prospects on both sides of the ball could fall in the upcoming NFL draft.

And for Notre Dame defensive tackle Louis Nix, the draft floor was the second round to the San Diego Chargers at No. 57. Kiper writes because of the limited need for run-stuffing nose tackles, Nix could tumble down the draft board.

Kiper: “Nix could drop some from where I had him ranked going back to the season, and he could fall because he’s not a player any team can draft. He’s more of a zero- or 1-technique, and you look for a fit as much as value.”

Aaron Wilson of the National Football Post reports that Middle Tennessee State defensive tackle Jimmy Staten visited the Chargers.

Bucky Brooks of the NFL Draft gives the Chargers cornerback Joe Haden at No. 12 instead of running back Ryan Mathews in his 2010 draft do over.

Peter King of Sports Illustrated talks with draft guru Gil Brandt, who says six receivers could go in the first round. It could be hard for San Diego not to bite on a receiver in the first round and stay on the defensive side of the ball, where the team needs more help.

Nathan Jahnke of Pro Football Focus takes a closer look at how many rushers a team sent during the 2013 season. According to Jahnke, the Chargers brought four rushers 60.3 percent of the time, and rushed five players 25.9 percent of the time.

Ricky Henne of Chargers.com profiles Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde.
In this series, we count down the top 10 impact plays for the San Diego Chargers that helped shape the team’s 2013 postseason run.

Situation: Second-and-1 from Washington’s 6-yard line.

Score: Chargers trailed the Washington Redskins 24-21, in a Week 9 contest at FedEx Field.

Time: Twenty-nine seconds left in regulation.

Williams' take: Danny Woodhead corralled a Philip Rivers' pass out in the flat, darted toward the end zone and leaped toward the pylon as three Washington defenders closed in. The play was called a touchdown on the field, but after a replay official reviewed the play upstairs, the call was reversed. The Chargers got the ball first and goal from Washington’s 1-yard line, but could not get into the end zone with three chances from there, settling for a field goal to push the game into overtime. San Diego lost to Washington in overtime, 30-24.

Check out the play here.

Season impact: The fact Woodhead thought he scored on the play is up for discussion. But whether you believe he got into the end zone or not, the loss was the beginning of a three-game losing streak for the Chargers. It appeared to be the turning point of the season, almost knocking them out of the playoffs. However, San Diego's struggles to get into the end zone from a yard out forced coach Mike McCoy to take a closer look at their team's identity on offense, and ultimately trust that Ryan Mathews would not fumble the ball in the red zone. Before the Washington game, Mathews had seven touches in the red zone. After the Washington game, Mathews had 25 touches, including five touchdowns. The Chargers morphed into a running team, taking pressure off of Rivers to make every play on offense, and also keeping the defense off of the field with long, time-consuming drives. And that identity came together partially because of the team's struggles on the goal line against Washington.

Quote: "I'm by no means saying that cost us. But I thought he got in. I thought the call on the field would be a hard one to overturn. Then again, if we had the ball on the half yard line for three plays, it’s our job to score, and we didn’t."
-- Rivers on Woodhead's touchdown being reversed.
The San Diego Chargers capped what appeared to be a slow start to free agency by filling an important need in signing Indianapolis Colts free-agent running back Donald Brown to a three-year deal.

The Chargers leaned on the running game in the second half of the season with the emergence of Ryan Mathews. However, with Mathews hobbled at the end of the year after suffering a severe ankle sprain against Oakland, San Diego’s offense sputtered in the playoffs and the Chargers ultimately lost at Denver.

Add to that the fact that Mathews and third-down back Danny Woodhead’s contracts expire after the 2014 season, and you can understand the urgency Chargers general manager Tom Telesco had in bringing in reliable, impact player at running back as insurance.

Further, this year’s running back crop in the draft does not have many impact players at the top of the board, which means teams looking for help at running back had to fill that need through free agency.

Brown can fill in as an every-down runner, but is best suited to be used as a complement to Mathews. A one-cut, downhill runner with power and speed, Brown is a good fit for San Diego’s power and zone-blocking scheme. He’s also a patient runner and has good hands out of the backfield, with 83 career catches for 767 yards.

With Brown in the fold, Chargers free-agent running back Ronnie Brown likely will not return to the team.

Check out some highlights of Brown in action here.

Tom Krasovic of U-T San Diego believes the cerebral Brown is a good fit in the Chargers’ offense.

Pete Prisco of CBS Sports already has grades out for NFL teams on the first day of free agency. Prisco doesn’t like San Diego’s signing of Brown. Prisco: “Why? Why? Why? I don't get it. Yes, Ryan Mathews misses time, but why not draft one? Brown played well last season, but is he worth a three-year deal at $4 million a year? Weird. Grade D”

ESPN’s Kevin Seifert wraps up a busy first day of free agency, noting the remarkable run on the safety position that included T.J. Ward signing with the Broncos.

Mike Klis of the Denver Post writes the Broncos are using free agency to put the ‘D’ back in Denver, which includes confirmation of a report by ESPN’s Adam Schefter that released Dallas Cowboys edge rusher DeMarcus Ware will visit the Broncos' facility.
Tom TelescoAP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackComing off a playoff season, Tom Telesco hopes to build the Chargers into a perennial contender.
SAN DIEGO -- A patient decision-maker with just a week on the job, San Diego Chargers general manager Tom Telesco helped his new franchise make perhaps the most impactful move in recent memory when he hired Mike McCoy as the team’s new head coach a little over a year ago.

The detail-oriented McCoy, who had been the Denver Broncos' offensive coordinator, led the Chargers to their first playoff appearance since 2009. Along the way, he resuscitated the careers of quarterback Philip Rivers and running back Ryan Mathews.

Telesco and McCoy have San Diego headed in the right direction, re-establishing a good working relationship between the personnel department and coaching staff that had turned sour under former head personnel man A.J. Smith.

Telesco and McCoy let their actions speak louder than their words. McCoy divulged little about his team in weekly conversations with reporters, concerned with leaking information to the opponent.

Telesco shares a similar approach, preferring to speak in generalities about his team’s performance. For now, the hushed approach has proved effective.

On the field, Telesco said he was attracted to McCoy’s knack for teaching his coaching staff and players what he wanted to accomplish, along with an ability to adapt.

“He’s direct with the players,” Telesco said of McCoy. “He defines what he wants from them, so there’s no gray area. So everyone knows what’s exactly expected of them, and I think that’s a great trait to have.

“We had some ups and downs, which is pretty much what you’d expect from a team in transition. And you saw on the field that sometimes we looked like a pretty good football team, while other times you could say we looked pretty far away.

“So we were a little inconsistent early in the year, but he always kept the players focused. Even when we were 5-7 and most people had counted us out, the players were locked in on Mike the whole time. And you saw that on the practice field every day.”

The Chargers were a surprise entry to the playoffs last season. But San Diego has several aging foundational players in place, including Rivers, tight end Antonio Gates, center Nick Hardwick and safety Eric Weddle.

It’s the mild-mannered Telesco’s job in Year 2 to help provide McCoy with more tools to make a deeper playoff run in 2014, which means talent upgrades in the secondary and defensive and offensive lines, along with improving overall team speed through the draft and free agency.

Like most general managers, Telesco’s mantra is to build through the draft.

Telesco, 41, received his foundation for football while playing receiver at Division III John Carroll University in Ohio. And he cut his teeth in the personnel department of one of the best in the business, spending 15 years in Indianapolis under former NFL head personnel man Bill Polian. Indianapolis appeared in the playoffs 12 times, winning eight division titles and a Super Bowl during that time frame.

“He had a really great process with the way we did things,” Telesco said about his former boss. “We were very consistent. We tried to make as many good football decisions that we could, and that included taking opinions from everybody. One thing about Bill is he always listened to everybody, coaches and scouts -- and even younger guys like me when I first started.

“It doesn't mean he’s always going to go with what you said, but he always listened, which was great. We just worked the process, and we always stayed true to the process.”

The Chargers drafted well under the direction of Telesco in 2013, selecting right tackle D.J. Fluker in the first round, linebacker Manti Te’o in the second and offensive rookie of the year candidate Keenan Allen in the third round -- all key contributors in their first season.

Along with those picks, Telesco found some bargains in free agency, signing running back Danny Woodhead and offensive tackle King Dunlap to two-year deals, and offensive lineman Chad Rinehart to a one-year deal.

Rinehart returned to the Chargers on a two-year deal before the onset of free agency.

However, everything did not go perfectly. Telesco’s top free-agent signing, cornerback Derek Cox, struggled through the first half of the season, and was eventually replaced by Richard Marshall.

Signed to a $20 million, four-year deal, the Chargers released Cox last week, saving $1.65 million in cap space and $4.25 million in cash.

“All the decisions that we make in this business, you’re never right all the time,” Telesco said. “And you try and learn.”

With free agency set to begin this week, the Chargers have little cap space to make a big splash. So expect Telesco to use his seven draft picks wisely, and once again spend sensibly in free agency in pursuit of building the Chargers into a perennial Super Bowl contender.
In this series, we countdown the top 10 impact plays for the San Diego Chargers that helped shape the team’s 2013 postseason run.

Situation: First-and-10 from the Denver’s 23-yard line.

Score: Chargers lead 17-10.

Time: Eleven minutes, 14 seconds remaining in the third quarter.

Williams’ take: This play was not Ryan Mathews' most impressive run of the 2013 season, but perhaps it had the most impact, as he used both speed and power to get into the end zone on this 23-yard touchdown. The impressive run took place in the second half, so Mathews showed he still had some gas left in the tank. What I like the most about this play is Mathews’ trademark speed to stretch the defense, his decisiveness and vision in choosing a hole and then the burst at the end of the play to get into the end zone, giving San Diego a 24-10 lead in the second half against the Broncos.

Check out the play here.

Season impact: Mathews showed he can be a productive, every-down back, displaying toughness and reliability in playing a full, 16-game season for the first time in his four-year professional career. In the final season of his rookie contract, Mathews has to go out and prove it again to earn that lucrative, second deal. San Diego’s ability to consistently run the ball took pressure off of Philip Rivers to make every critical play on offense. The Chargers need a healthy Mathews to once again have similar production on offense in 2014.

Quote: “I love blocking for Ryan. Ryan just makes people look bad on the field. DB’s don’t want to hit him. They’re scared of him because he’s physical with them.” – Chargers offensive lineman D.J. Fluker on blocking for Mathews.
Whether it's a marquee QB or an interior defensive lineman, no team can afford to lose its most valuable player.

So, who steps in if the unfathomable happens? Our NFL Nation reporters and Scouts Inc.'s Steve Muench and Kevin Weidl have teamed up to identify each team's most important player and which player in the 2014 draft each team can target to groom as a potential replacement -- MVP insurance. For some teams, their future stars may be slightly younger than others as draft-eligible non-seniors are denoted with an asterisk.

Mathews
Quarterback Philip Rivers is the best player on the San Diego Chargers.

But perhaps the most important player for San Diego’s offense is running back Ryan Mathews. The Chargers got an up-close look at the impact Mathews has on the team’s success when he was limited to just five carries for 26 yards because of a severe ankle sprain in San Diego’s 24-17 AFC divisional playoff loss to Denver.

The Chargers had morphed into an efficient, ball-control offense led by the physical running style of Mathews. The Fresno State product played a full, 16-game season for the first time in his NFL career in 2013, finishing with career highs in rushing attempts (285) and rushing yards (1,255) during the regular season.

The Chargers finished 7-1 in games that Mathews ran the ball at least 19 times during the regular season.

Mathews enters the final year of his rookie contract in 2014. Running back Danny Woodhead provides a nice complement to Mathews, with his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield in passing situations. And Ronnie Brown is a physical runner in between the tackles. But the Chargers do not have a similar style runner to replace Mathews if he gets injured, which affects San Diego’s ability to operate at a high level on offense.
SAN DIEGO -- Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead combined to give the San Diego Chargers one of the most productive running back duos in the NFL in 2013. What will these two do for an encore in 2014?

Lock: Mathews, Woodhead
On the bubble: Le'Ron McClain.
Free agents: Ronnie Brown.

Mathews
The good: Mathews ran for a career-high 1,255 yards, and Woodhead was one of the most productive NFL running backs in the passing game, with a career-high 76 catches for 606 yards and six touchdowns. San Diego should benefit early on in 2014 from having both players back. And that continuity will be important, with the Chargers facing some of the best defenses in the league when playing the NFC West this season.

The bad: Some of it had to do with play selection, but the Chargers have to do better in goal-line situations. San Diego finished No. 28 in the NFL in goal-line efficiency at 61.3 percent. Trusting Mathews to carry the load in those situations during the second half of the season helped improve that number.

The money: Mathews is in the final year of his rookie deal, and will make nearly $1.5 million in base salary in 2014. Woodhead is in the final year of a two-year deal that will pay him $1.75 million in base salary for the upcoming season. Chargers general manager Tom Telesco might want to get an extension done for one of those players before the season starts if he believes they are part of the team’s long-term future. Or perhaps you let them play out the contract and see how they perform in 2014. McClain is to make $2.5 million in base salary in 2014, which would make him one of the highest paid fullbacks in the NFL. McClain only played 12 percent of San Diego’s offensive snaps in 2013, and likely will not return at that cap figure. Brown, 32, will be an unrestricted free agent in March. While Brown proved a reliable backup for Mathews, the Chargers could use a backup with a little more juice in the run game who could also serve as a returner.

Draft priority: High. With Mathews and Woodhead set to hit the free agent market at the end of the 2014 season, the Chargers have to protect themselves by selecting a legitimate workhorse running back in the draft. San Diego got a glimpse of what the team’s offense is like without Mathews in the playoffs against Denver, and it was not a good look. So having another running back that runs in a similar style as Mathews is important. Perhaps the Chargers could find a combination running back/fullback in the draft. The Chargers already have a back on the roster with a similar skill set to Woodhead in Kerwynn Williams. The Utah State product spent last season on the practice squad, and the team signed Williams to a futures contract in January.
SAN DIEGO -- In this ESPN Insider piece Insider, Steve Muench of Scouts Inc. evaluates draft prospect Bishop Sankey, a running back out of the University of Washington.

At 5-foot-10 and 203 pounds, Sankey can run through tackles, make you miss, and has enough speed to make defenses pay in the open field.

I think Sankey would be a good fit in San Diego’s zone-based running scheme and a nice complementary back to Ryan Mathews because of his ability as a one-cut runner, along with the skill set to serve as a pass-catcher on third down. Sankey also could return kicks.

Muench: “At this point in the process, Sankey projects as a late-Day 2 or early-Day 3 pick. They are built differently and Sankey will likely run better, but Sankey reminds me of Dallas’ 2013 fifth-round pick Joseph Randle out of Oklahoma State. Atlanta and Houston are two possible landing spots for Sankey.”

Check out highlights of Sankey here.

ESPN’s Jeffri Chadiha offers an interesting read on the art of trash talking.

In this ESPN Insider piece Insider, Kevin Weidl of Scouts Inc. evaluates three offensive line prospects worth a closer look -- USC center Marcus Martin, North Carolina interior lineman Russell Bodine, and LSU guard Trai Turner. All three are underclassmen that Weidl says will add depth to this year’s offensive line draft class.

Tom Krasovic of U-T San Diego ranks defensive lineman Kendall Reyes No. 17 on his list of the top 22 Chargers from 2013.

John Gennaro of Bolts from the Blue offers his view on what players could be salary-cap casualties for the Chargers in 2014.

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