As the Chargers prepare for the NFL draft, the Los Angeles Times will examine their roster. Part 8 of 8: running backs.
Chargers coach Anthony Lynn, a former running backs coach and an ex-NFL running back, offered a five-word scouting report for running back Melvin Gordon earlier this offseason.
“When he’s well,” Lynn said of Gordon, “he’s hell.”
In their first year together, Lynn didn’t get to see Gordon “well” often. While his third season in the NFL was certainly his best, he still wasn’t all that well.
Gordon dealt with a knee injury for most of the season, but near the end — in the biggest games — played his best football at his healthiest.
Gordon finished with 1,581 yards from scrimmage, fifth-most in the league behind Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, Kareem Hunt and LeSean McCoy. That’s big-time company, and the Chargers want to see more of that from Gordon in 2018.
The team hit a home run — or at least a double — with undrafted rookie Austin Ekeler, a big-play threat who should continue to develop into a weapon on third downs and in the red zone.
But those two aren’t enough — not for Lynn’s offense. In the draft, the Chargers could use an early selection to get “more well” at the position.
Lynn has long spoke about finding a complementary back for Gordon, and that could mean the Chargers move something else out of San Diego. Rashaad Penny emerged as a fringe Heisman Trophy candidate last season for the San Diego State Aztecs, and he checks a lot of boxes for the Chargers.
He’s a strong, physical runner capable of spelling Gordon with a hard-running style that served well in leading the NCAA with 2,248 rushing yards. Penny also can help on kick returns, a big weakness for the Chargers.
Another local product, USC’s Ronald Jones, isn’t as thick as Penny, but he’s more of a big-play threat. He’d give the Chargers some lightning to match Gordon’s style.
Running backs under contract: Melvin Gordon ($3.39 million), Derek Watt ($662,420), Austin Ekeler ($556,666), Russell Hansbrough ($555,000).
Free agents: There is talent available if the Chargers decide to address their need via free agency. Players such as C.J. Anderson, DeMarco Murray and Alfred Morris have track records of success. Finding a veteran on a cheap, make-good deal wouldn’t be impossible.
Draft: Picking a running back makes more sense than signing one in free agency because Lynn frequently has talked about finding young players to grow with the organization. Lynn has had kind words about the depth at running back in this draft, and if he sees something he likes in a later-round prospect — for instance, Alabama’s Bo Scarbrough — the Chargers will make a move.
Roster decisions: In-house, the biggest decision for the Chargers might be how best to use Ekeler in his second season. He proved to be an explosive player, but some crucial fumbles were really costly — especially in Jacksonville. If the Chargers add a high pick at running back, will they have enough carries to spread around?