Let’s talk about the parts in San Diego’s backfield, and by parts I mean living, breathing human beings with families and people who depend on them outside of football.
The Plowhorse: Ryan Mathews
With a Speed Score of 119.6, Ryan Matthews is a classic profile 1 back. Matthews performed pretty much average in terms of fantasy points per opportunity which is strong for a guy who isn’t great in the passing game. But Mathews isn’t great in the passing game. In fact of the 46 backs in the NFL last year with at least 100 carries, Mathews was handed the ball at the highest rate, carrying the ball on a whopping 59 percent of his snaps. Using the AYA app, we can see Phillip Rivers has an AYA of 5.58 when targeting Mathews, which isn’t very good.
The Brave Little Toaster: Danny Woodhead
I’ve already mentioned in earlier pieces that Danny Woodhead is essentially a profile 3 back athletically. That’s been reflected in his usage his whole career as Woodhead has more receiving yards than rushing in three of his five NFL seasons. The nice thing about Woodhead is he’s a very good pass catcher, putting together an AYA of 7.98 in his time with Tom Brady and then posting an AYA of 7.86 last season on 87 targets from Rivers. The flip side is that Woodhead isn’t much of a rusher, he actually rushed on the fewest percentage of his snaps of any RB with 100+ carries at 21 percent, his career high in carries in a season in 106, and his yards per carry of 4.0 last season was very poor when you consider the fact that he got 77 percent of his carries when his opponents had extra defensive backs on the field.
The New Guy: Donald Brown
At 210 pounds with an Agility Score of 11.03, Donald Brown is a classic profile 2 back, giving the Chargers bingo, or tic-tac-toe or Mancala. OK fine I don’t know how to play Mancala (do you go until you have an empty space? Do you score for your opponent on your turn or do you skip that space? How much time can you spend counting before your turn? Let us know what you think in the comments!) Anyway, in his time with Peyton Manning, Brown posted an elite AYA of 8.9 on 42 targets before posting a respectable AYA of 7.23 over the past two years with Andrew Luck. Brown also showed well as a rusher last season, breaking off 5.3 yards per carry and scoring six times on the ground on only 102 totes.
Putting it together
The Chargers signing Brown in free agency to a three-year, $10.5 million contract this offseason seemed pretty weird for a team that already had two quality backs on their roster, but in light of the data we have on these players I think its actually pretty easy to understand the game plan. The Chargers understand that Woodhead isn’t really a good enough runner at this point to keep defenses honest on the ground, pigeonholing him into playing pretty much exclusively in passing situations. Brown gives them an above average back in the passing game who is at least capable as a rusher. It’s also the case that Matthews carried the ball a career high 284 times last season and the Chargers probably want to spell him a little bit to keep him fresh/healthy–another area where Donald Brown could come in handy.
There are now two backs on the Chargers who are much better pass catchers than Mathews and I think it’s reasonable to expect his reception total to collapse from the mid-20s to something in the single digits. The Chargers are also probably going to lean on him a little bit less heavily in the running game just because they can, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see his carries fall to the 240-260 range.
Woodhead’s 106 carries last year were a career high and given his ineffectiveness I really can’t see him repeating anything north of 75. Now that he’s clearly the third-best rusher on the team he’ll probably see less snaps which will adversely impact his catch total as well, probably taking him from 76 last year to something in the mid 50s.
For Brown, there’s really not that much to soak up, if we take the touches I just hypothesized Mathews and Woodhead would lose and gave them to Brown were looking at like 80 carries and 40 catches, which isn’t enough to be fantasy relevant. The plus side for Brown is that Woodhead is not even in the discussion to ever be an every down back, so any injury to Mathews should put Brown in the starting lineup. Further, Woodhead was able to support fantasy relevance with Mathews healthy, given the fact that Brown is a more complete player than Woodhead, it’s not at all unreasonable to believe Brown would be a solid RB2 in the event that Woodhead went down.
At this point, Danny Woodhead is the 33rd RB off the board according to Fantasy Football Calculator and Donald Brown is the 61st. Given what we know about the Chargers situation, neither player is likely to have any immediate value, but Brown can become startable with an injury to either Mathews or Woodhead whereas Woodhead would need Brown to be hurt to regain relevance, so I actually think Brown is pretty clearly the more valuable commodity in a vacuum, making him a relative steal in fantasy drafts.