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Position Preview: Running Backs

Posted Jul 20, 2010

Ryan Mathews has cultivated expectations faster than a swab of germs in a Petri dish, but a calm demeanor, as well as the speedy Darren Sproles, could mitigate that pressure.

SAN DIEGO – Ryan Mathews trudged to bed at the La Costa Hotel and Conference Center in Carlsbad after a 16-hour day at the NFL’s rookie symposium last month.

As his peers texted their girlfriends or slipped on headphones, preparing to sleep, Mathews popped open his laptop to play some World of Warcraft, a multiplayer online role-playing game.

The 12th overall pick in this year’s draft spent many afternoons during OTAs flipping through a car magazine at his locker in silence.

     "Coming in here as new blood, I’m going to do whatever I can to help the team." - Ryan Mathews

A mosaic of personalities become successful in the NFL, and to attach “good” and “bad” labels to certain attributes often is futile. But a calm, unexcitable demeanor could help a running back with the pressure of replacing a legend and the expectation to revitalize San Diego’s running game.

“I really haven’t given much thought about what the team did last year,” he said. “Coming in here as new blood, I’m going to do whatever I can to help the team. Whatever happened last year, that’s the past. It’s going to be a new team this year and it’s going to be fun.”

Speculation about the first-round pick’s performance has run wild, with the media and fans alike depicting a player with a real chance to make an impact. But Mathews, despite his combination of vision, power and speed, has yet to take even one preseason snap in the NFL. What is appropriate to expect?

“There’s a lot of variables when you enter a team as a rookie,” Head Coach Norv Turner said. “He’s joining a real talented football team. It’s certainly a team that doesn’t have to lean on him.

“That being said, I expect Ryan to have an extremely productive season. I expect him to be a big part of our running game and he’s shown that he’s going to be very capable as a receiver. We felt he was the most complete back in the draft and we’re going to give him an opportunity to be a factor right away.”

That should allow the quick-as-a-peregrine-falcon Darren Sproles to thrive, free to terrify defenses with his elusive frame in open space. It also keeps San Diego in line with a trend that’s seen many NFL teams shift to a multiple-back system that distributes the workload at one of the most taxing positions in the league.

That’s fine with Sproles, who knows his strengths.

“We’re different,” Sproles said. “He’s more like a power type back and I’m more of a slasher, shifty type back, so (we should work well together).”

While Mathews and Sproles don’t have to fret about their place on the roster during training camp, three other running backs will compete for the third spot.

Marcus Mason is a no-nonsense back that lowers his shoulders and bulls for four yards at a time. He led the NFL in rushing with 317 yards during the 2008 preseason and is anxious to establish a role on a team after a brief and scattered career.

Shawnbrey McNeal, too, would enjoy a chance to plant some roots after a hectic couple of years. He transferred from Miami to SMU, helped care for his diabetic mother during multiple surgeries and declared for the draft after his junior season but wasn’t selected.

He compiled 1,471 all-purpose yards in the spread under June Jones last season. More change of pace than Mason, he wants to prove he’s just as elusive as the mainstay Sproles.

“If (Sproles) can have a productive career and have a major impact on an organization like the Chargers, then I know there’s hope for me,” McNeal said. “It gives me hope and gives me a sense of urgency to want to get better.”

Curtis Brinkley, an undrafted free agent in 2009, missed all of last year, including training camp, after suffering bullet wounds in July. He rushed for more than 1,100 yards as a senior at Syracuse in 2008.

RUNNING BACKS AT A GLANCE

  

RYAN MATHEWS
Size:
6-0, 218
Exp.: R
Career GP: 0

Expected to carry the bulk of the load on first and second down … Led the nation with 1,808 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns as a junior … Also caught 11 passes for 122 yards … Only back in the NCAA to rush for more than 100 yards against three ranked teams: No. 5 Cincinnati (177 all-purpose yards, one touchdown), No. 6 Boise State (234 rushing yards, three touchdowns) and No. 14 Wisconsin (107 rushing yards).

  

DARREN SPROLES
Size: 5-6, 190
Exp.: 6
Career 6P: 62

Was the shortest player in the NFL last season … Keeps a Mighty Mouse bobblehead in his locker stall that Head Coach Norv Turner gave to him … One of the most prolific returners in Chargers history … Averaged 5.4 yards a carry and 11.8 yards a reception in 2008 as a third-down back … Should return to that role this season behind Mathews.

  

MARCUS MASON
Size:
5-9, 226
Exp.: 3
Career GP: 10

Played behind six Pro Bowl running backs since 2007 … Earned his first NFL action last season, playing 10 games for the Washington Redskins … Rushed for 127 yards and caught six passes for 58 yards … Uncle, Mark Mason, spent training camp with the Dallas Cowboys behind Emmitt Smith in 1994 after their second straight Super Bowl win.

  

SHAWNBREY MCNEAL
Size:
5-9, 190
Exp.: R
Career GP: 0

Declared for the NFL a year early but wasn’t drafted … Wants to provide for diabetic mother … Became the first running back to reach 1,000 yards in a season in college under June Jones … Helped SMU to an 8-5 season and a Hawaii Bowl win after transferring from Miami … Finished his junior year 29 yards shy of 1,500 all-purpose yards.

  

CURTIS BRINKLEY
Size:
5-9, 208
Exp.: 1
Career GP: 0

Signed by the Chargers as an undrafted free agent in 2009 … Suffered gunshot wounds in Philadelphia before training camp that placed him on Reserve-Non-Football Injury for the season … Rushed for more than 2,800 yards as a high school senior and more than 1,100 as a senior at Syracuse.

Week 1 starting running backs, 2000-09:

2000: Robert Chancey.
2001: LaDainian Tomlinson.
2002: LaDainian Tomlinson.
2003: LaDainian Tomlinson.
2004: LaDainian Tomlinson.
2005: LaDainian Tomlinson.
2006: LaDainian Tomlinson.
2007: LaDainian Tomlinson.
2008: LaDainian Tomlinson.
2009: LaDainian Tomlinson.

Week 1 running backs on roster, 2000-09:

2000: Robert Chancey, Terrell Fletcher.
2001: LaDainian Tomlinson, Ronney Jenkins, Terrell Fletcher.
2002: LaDainian Tomlinson, Ronney Jenkins, Terrell Fletcher, Jesse Chatman.
2003: LaDainian Tomlinson, Jesse Chatman, Leon Johnson.
2004: LaDainian Tomlinson, Jesse Chatman, Andrew Pinnock.
2005: LaDainian Tomlinson, Michael Turner, Darren Sproles.
2006: LaDainian Tomlinson, Michael Turner.
2007: LaDainian Tomlinson, Michael Turner, Darren Sproles.
2008: LaDainian Tomlinson, Jacob Hester, Darren Sproles.
2009: LaDainian Tomlinson, Darren Sproles, Michael Bennett.

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