Trading Up for RB Ryan Mathews Right Move for Chargers
Bravo, Chargers. Scared money doesn't win in the NFL.
If Mathews shows how many yards were being left on the field last year by his idol LaDainian Tomlinson, the wisdom of the move should become as obvious as a lightning bolt.
You might worry that the Chargers gave up too much when they dealt their 28th and 40th picks as part of a broader trade with Bill Parcells and the Dolphins, who are nobody's fools.
You might fret that the Chargers failed to address their defense when they poured so much into Mathews, who, pending another trade on Friday, will be their only selection from the draft's top 90.
You might believe that the Chargers should've invested less for a running back, because history tell us that good backs can be had in the lower rounds.
West Coast Bias still likes what the Chargers did. And not just because Mathews, a junior from Fresno State, is a West Coast guy who was shredding defenses while most of the country was headed toward bed.
The Chargers trusted their scouts and coaches. They made the pure football move. The grabbed a player they expect to be really good, soon. They didn't leave his acquisition to chance.
Of all the running backs available after Clemson zephyr C.J. Spiller went to the Bills ninth, Matthews was the only one who both excelled as a complete back and brought no heavy medical or makeup baggage.
The Chargers had a very good offense last year despite ranking last in the NFL in many rushing categories.
Now they can have a great offense.
"When you see this guy play, you're going to understand why we made the deal we did," said Chargers coach Norv Turner. "He's extremely special. A complete back. Physical. Fast. He's got great feet, great vision. He is complete in terms of catching the football."
I watched Tomlinson in every practice of training camp last year, either at Chargers Park or Qualcomm Stadium
In those workouts and scrimmages, L.T. showed good quickness and sure hands. Although he lacked the extra gear that used to allow him to run away from defensive backs, the 30-year-old darted and cut to good effect.
Something changed, though, when touch football became tackle football.
L.T. went down on first contact, far more often than not. It was painful to watch, such a great running back who longer was powering for extra yards, or even partial yards.
He said at season's end that he'd never been healthier.
Tomlinson, who averaged 3.3 yards per carry, wisely signed with the Jets two months ago. New York's offensive line packs more wallop than San Diego's offensive line.
Always a straight shooter, L.T. said San Diego's offensive line and Turner's passing offense worked against him last year.
He's right, but he's not wholly right.
L.T. left a lot of yards on the field.
The Chargers will give Mathews, who turns 23 next month, every chance to make that abundantly clear, if not sooner, not much later.
Five-foot-11 1/2 and 217 pounds, Mathews averaged 6.6 yards per carry last year and scored 19 TDs. Usually he ran out of a power, single-back formation behind a zone scheme that Turner said fairly mirrors San Diego's offense. The third-year junior clocked at 4.43 in the 40-yard dash.
"He's a complete back," Colts president Bill Polian told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's Bob McGinn. "He's got great speed. He can break tackles. He can make you miss. He's got vision. He can go all the way. He blocks and he catches."
Skepticism comes from scouts who were annoyed that Mathews bounced runs to the outside as often as he did. Seemingly, he heard them. "I'm a little bit more between the tackles (than L.T.)," Matthews said on Thursday night, by phone from Fresno.
The name does give one pause. The last Ryan drafted by the Chargers in the first round was a fellow named Leaf.
With the No. 28 or 40 pick, the Chargers could've strengthened their defense. They still might. Turner hinted that general manager A.J. Smith could make a trade today that would allow the Chargers to draft before 91st, their current next pick. Don't be stunned if the Chargers deal a 2011 pick, or running back Darren Sproles, or linebacker Shawne Merriman to improve their position. Sproles, though, still seems an ideal fit as a third-down back, a dicey role that shouldn't be entrusted to a rookie.
For all the concerns about not getting a defensive lineman, let's not forget that Ron Rivera's defense, despite numerous injuries, had a respectable year. The team's loss in the playoffs to the underdog Jets wasn't the defense's fault. The Jets didn't score in the first half.
The rest of the AFC West still appears weak, particularly on offense. Maybe Rivera's prowess is causing the Bolts to ask for one miracle too many, but the Chargers still should have a defense good enough to win the division.
As part of the deal, San Diego gained Miami's sixth-round pick and moved up 16 spots via a swap of fourth-round picks. In addition to the 28th and 40th picks, the Dolphins got Tim Dobbins, an inside linebacker who had lost his starting job to Brandon Siler.
A Chargers fan, Mathews had heard that the Texans would draft him 20th. Then came the happy jolt from the Bolts.
"All the talk about Houston and stuff, it really started to scare me and everything," Mathews said. "I'm lucky and blessed that (the Chargers) traded up and picked me. I'm super-excited. It's mind-blowing that they did that."
"I know how excited I was that day," Turner said. "I'm equally excited to get Ryan here now."
The Chargers, who admitted to doubting that Matthews would be there 28th, had been tracking him for more than a year. They were impressed well before he had a strong workout at the draft combine last winter.
He reminded them some of L.T., and not just because he wore No. 21 at Fresno State in honor of Tomlinson.
"They have some similarities," said Jimmy Raye, the Chargers' director of player personnel. "You don't like to compare guys, but style-wise, maybe a little bit."
Raye explained why the Chargers gave Mathews grades of "A-plus" across the board.
"He's a three-down back," he said. "We felt like he's a workhorse-type guy. He could handle the load. He is 220 pounds. He's got good speed. Good vision. Foot quickness. We feel like we can put him on the field every down, and he's effective.
"He's a well-spoken, articulate kid. He comes from a single-parent home. So everything he's had to get in life, he's had to work for, and you could see he was a hungry kid from the time he walked in here. He's never had any trouble. He's a good person."