Secret Superstars: San Diego Chargers
Our Secret Superstar series continues with a look at the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers have set about strengthening the offense in an apparent attempt to get the most out of the remainder of Philip Rivers time with the team. They added one of the best offensive linemen available in free agency, Orlando Franklin; added veteran wide receiver help in the form of Stevie Johnson; and drafted highly touted running back Melvin Gordon in the first round. However we are turning our attention to another member of the Chargers backfield, second year RB Branden Oliver.
Underappreciated and Overlooked
Oliver led the Chargers in 2014 with 582 rushing yards and three touchdowns as a rookie, but at 3.6 yards per carry there were concerns about his potential to be a true number one back. Instead the Chargers drafted Gordon to fill that role, and with the return of Danny Woodhead from injury, Oliver once again finds himself on the outside. That is a little harsh, he was running behind an injury hampered and struggling offensive line, and did more than enough to show he belongs at this level. It’s far from the first time that Oliver has been somewhat ignored by decision makers.
Unusually for a three-star running back out of Florida, Oliver only received one scholarship offer, from Buffalo. Oliver accepted, redshirting his first year before playing 41 games over the following four seasons for the Bulls, and rushing for a school record 4049 career yards. Shorter than the prototype for the position (he’s generously listed at 5-foot-8), and gaining his impressive production against MAC competition, Oliver appeared to be an afterthought when the NFL Draft came around. There was no combine invite, he didn’t get to hear his name called during the draft, and he didn’t sign to terms as a rookie free agent until 11 days after the draft had ended, which was after the Chargers had held their rookie minicamp.
Regardless of how he made it into the league, Oliver set about sticking once he got there. His preseason was impressive enough to see off the Chargers sixth round selection, Marion Grice, and convince the team to carry four backs on the 53-man roster. Playing time proved scarce initially, but injuries to Woodhead and Ryan Mathews opened the door in Week 3, and Oliver was part of the rotation for the remainder of the season.
Oliver finished the season ranked 10th among running backs, with a +6.2 overall grade. That made him the highest-graded rookie running back from the 2014 class, and gave him the seventh-highest graded season by a rookie back in our eight years of records. A large chunk of that grade came in the passing game, he had the fourth-best grade as a receiving back, but only ranked 24th when graded as a runner alone. His 1.72 Yards per Route Run ranked seventh among running backs, and he was one of four backs to have at least 30 receptions without a single drop.
Dangerous in space
At 208-pounds, Oliver is stocky for his height. He has a naturally low center of gravity and the balance which comes with that. He doesn’t have elite power, nor blazing speed, but has enough of each to get by. He does, however, have good short-area quickness, and the agility to make defenders miss. All-in-all, Oliver is a capable runner between the tackles, but he does his best work in space – he forced 0.39 missed tackles per reception in 2014, the sixth-best rate among backs.
All of Oliver’s strengths were on display in one second quarter drive, when the New York Jets came to town in Week 5. At 6:50 he caught the ball 4 yards behind the line of scrimmage with Kyle Wilson bearing down on him. Oliver showed impressive strength and balance to ride that initial tackle from Wilson, and the next from Phillip Adams. Turning a 2-yard loss into a hard earned 6-yard gain. Seven plays later in the drive, a pressured Rivers tossed the ball out to Oliver by the right sideline. Oliver turned and scampered 28 yards downfield, sashayed his way past two tacklers (Calvin Pryor and Dee Milliner this time) before being hauled down for a 50-yard gain. Three plays later and Oliver finished the drive off, bursting through a Chargers’ offensive line that had a good push on, and speeding past the diving Pryor for a touchdown.
While Oliver may lack the strength of the true power backs, he has more than enough power for the open field. At 10:10 in the third quarter against the Jets, Oliver had the strength to fend off David Harris with a stiff arm after turning upfield, and the speed to turn that into a 52-yard run. The following week against the Raiders, with 03:09 left in the fourth, Oliver was forced to step away from Pat Sims in the backfield immediately after taking the handoff. He then burst upfield until he was met by a pair of defenders 2 yards shy of the first down marker. Oliver first shrugged off the tackle from Charles Woodson, and then dragged Usama Young for the extra 2 yards he needed.
With the addition of Gordon and the return of Woodhead, Oliver may not get many opportunities to impress in 2015. However, his chance will come at some point, whether that is in San Diego or somewhere else down the line, and he has shown he the skills to be an impact player when it does.