The Chargers looked stacked at running back before the season started. Ryan Mathews would lead, Danny Woodhead would find some carries and work as a frequent pass-catcher, and Donald Brown would do... something—So nice to have you, Donald! By Week 5, Mathews, Woodhead, and Brown were sidelined by injury. That's fine, though, because undrafted rookie Branden Oliver is out here owning everyone's shit.
Mike McCoy's offense relies on Rivers's accuracy—the quarterback's had a completion percentage over 70% in four of his seven games this season—but keeping that up over 40-plus pass attempts is a losing proposition, so Oliver's been a welcome addition. He has just 316 rushing and 135 receiving yards, but his future's bright. The 5-foot-7 back who broke records at the University at Buffalo has injected the Chargers' offense with some much-needed balance. San Diego averaged just 69.5 rushing yards in their first four games.
Though Oliver only has 72 rushing attempts, compared to the 90-110 range of other backs in the league, he's still near the top in terms of running back value. Per Football Outsiders, Oliver has the eighth-best rushing DYAR and sixth-best rushing DVOA of all running backs. He's also in the top ten in receiving DYAR for backs—a group that's typically made up of different names than rushing, outside of the top few elite workhorses—which is a big part of his value.
Oliver didn't get his first touches until Week 3 against the Bills, but his breakout happened against the Jets in Week 5. He ran wild on Rex Ryan's usually solid defensive front. Brown started the game, with Oliver taking in a couple of touches to let him rest, but in the second quarter, Jets defensive end Quinton Coples yanked his helmet off, knocking Brown to the ground. Coples received an unnecessary roughness penalty, and Brown didn't return to the game. He was diagnosed with a concussion, and hasn't seen the field since.
That drive ended with a touchdown thanks to a Rivers pass to Antonio Gates, but San Diego's next series was run-heavy, and Oliver was doing work. After a slow start spelling Brown, Oliver began eating ground on this drive. And on third and long, he turned into Rivers's safety valve:
The Jets broke down the pocket, and Oliver (circled) went out in the flat as the last resort. Rivers shed a defender, reset, and floated a pass into Oliver's hands. With basically half the field open in front of him, Oliver made two tacklers miss in open space. You do not want to let Oliver get in open space. Calvin Pryor and Dee Milliner got sonned:
Oliver was finally taken down after a 50-yard gain. Yeah, the Jets' coverage totally forgot about him, but he maximized the yards on that goof with his speed and cuts.
Normally, you'd sub a guy out after a big gain like that, but Oliver's play happened right before the two-minute warning. The next three plays were runs for him, the final one a 15-yard touchdown on a shotgun draw play.
That dumpoff pass wasn't Oliver's only big gain of the game. He showed his pure running abilities after halftime on a sweep left. Oliver found holes, shrugged off a hand or two and accelerated through the sort of tight spaces only the quickest backs in the league can navigate, racing for 52 yards. He's a nuisance.
The offensive line deserves credit, too. Look at the gap Oliver had:
Oliver isn't all quicks, though—he's small and speedy, but a strong runner once he hits contact. Here's one more play, from Week 6 against the Raiders. On a delayed run from shotgun, Oliver darts up the middle, and finishes the run by shoving Charles Woodson off him, like a punk.
The only way this play could be better is if Demetry James narrated.
Do these plays remind you of someone? Say, maybe a tiny running back who wore #43 for the Chargers a few years ago? Seriously, from what Oliver's shown so far, he can be Darren Sproles 2.0. (The biggest difference: He weighs 208 pounds to Sproles's 190.) They share the same strengths—great hands, low centers of gravity, and patience when running sideways—but Oliver's shown to be a bit more difficult to tackle than Sproles.
Like Sproles, Oliver probably isn't an every-down back. Bless him, he doesn't give up after contact and can break tackles, but he's just not big enough to be a bell cow. He's an average pass blocker, too. Again, similar to Sproles, Oliver is best used on delayed and outside runs. If the linemen get a second to set their blocks, Oliver will use his nose to find the open lane.
Whenever Mathews returns, Oliver has done enough to justify snaps going forward. Use him in the passing game. Give him sweeps. Use him for short yardage. Just let Baby Sproles see the field.