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Bar set high for Chargers RB Mathews

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By Kevin Fishbain

One of the worst-kept secrets in the NFL this offseason has been that Chargers RB Ryan Mathews should expect a heavy workload in his third season.

We hear the ultimate goal is to use Mathews as a three-down back, and comparisons have been made to Emmitt Smith’s touches when Norv Turner was the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator in the early 1990s. Smith led the league in carries in 1991 with 365 and he had 373 in 1992. His reception totals from 1991-93 were 49, 59 and 57.

Mathews, in 14 games last season, had 222 carries and 50 catches, and is primed for a breakout season running behind newly-acquired FB Le’Ron McClain and with the confidence from Turner to handle the rock — and without a handcuff like RB Mike Tolbert.

When the Chargers drafted Mathews 12th overall in the 2010 draft, they did so knowing that he could be an every-down running back, as they looked for a replacement for future Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson. In PFW's 2010 Draft Preview book, Nolan Nawrocki wrote that Mathews was “a tough, downhill runner who owns a unique distinction in this draft as a back capable of playing every down.” Mathews was coming off a season with 276 carries in 12 games at Fresno State.

His ability to handle the lion’s share of touches wasn’t the only thing Mathews has brought with him from college. Injuries have also followed him. Mathews played in 14 games last season and 12 as a rookie. Among Mathews’ negatives in the draft book, Nawrocki wrote, “has been beat up throughout his career and struggled to stay healthy for a full season and durability needs to be considered.”

Similar to other positions this offseason, the Chargers added depth at running back, knowing insurance is needed for Mathews. If he is going to touch the ball 30 times a game, his injury susceptibility will increase. Veteran free-agent additions Ronnie Brown and Jackie Battle and rookie Edwin Baker round out the group’s newcomers, joining 2011 rookie Curtis Brinkley. McClain is more of a blocker, but he did rush for 902 yards in 2008 for the Ravens.

The way we hear it, Mathews is a smart player and ready for the increase in work and higher expectations. QB Philip Rivers, the Chargers’ passing game and the insurance at running back should help take some pressure off Mathews heading into the season.

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