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Finding a place for the recovered Branden Oliver

Finding a place for the recovered Branden Oliver

ByShane TheodorePosted on August 8, 2016TOM WALKO/ICON SPORTSWIR

Remember Marion Grice? The former Arizona State standout running back, drafted by the Chargers in the sixth round of 2014’s draft? He wasn’t drafted to be the workhorse back – San Diego still had Ryan Mathews at that point – but he was drafted to serve as a change of pace for the running back corps.

Grice wasn’t a highly-touted draft prospect by any stretch, but he was expected to win a job on the roster and work his way into sporadic playing time his rookie year – of course, until Branden Oliver came along.

Oliver starred at Buffalo from 2010-2013, rushing for 4049 yards during his tenure and making the All-MAC first-team in 2011 and 2013. But the 5’8″ lightning bug went undrafted, arriving in San Diego’s training camp as a player nobody expected anything significant from. And then he started playing, wowing the coaching staff with his incredible balance and shiftiness that help offset his smaller stature. Oliver performed better than Grice in training camp and the preseason, and so it was Grice who hit the street after final cuts.

Two years later and Oliver’s asserted himself as a running back worthy of his place in the league. Filling in for an injured Mathews and Danny Woodhead in 2014, Oliver’s rookie year saw a couple of 100-yard outbursts on the ground, and he contributed admirably as a receiver out of the backfield. But in Mathews’ wake, the Chargers drafted Melvin Gordon to be their workhorse back in 2015, leaving Oliver pushed to the back of the picture once again. He played sporadically in 2015 and an ankle injury ended his season in November.

Oct. 23, 2014 – Denver, CO, USA – San Diego Chargers running back Branden Oliver, right, is brought down by Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver on Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014

As Oliver comes into his third year in the league, he’ll enter Week 1 as San Diego’s third running back on the depth chart behind Gordon and Woodhead. But with the struggles that Gordon showed acclimating to the professional level last season and Woodhead’s lack of up-the-gut running ability between the 20’s, Oliver’s role can still be hashed out in a way that gets him on the field with a fair amount of consistency.

San Diego is counting on Gordon to break out as a runner this season, but through the early stages of training camp, it’s also clear that the team desperately hopes he’s able to improve his pass-blocking ability that kept him off the field in passing situations last season.

If he’s not able to grow into a back who they can rely on to pick up free rushers in the backfield, that limits how much the Chargers can use him. But it opens up chances for Oliver, who has done well picking up defensive backs rushing the edge and has a knack for escaping the backfield to provide a check-down option for Philip Rivers when the pass rushers are too much for the offensive line to handle on their own.

The Chargers will use Oliver on third downs the most. With Woodhead representing a receiving threat that often motions out wide or to the slot, Oliver can hang back in the backfield and be used as a safety plug for both the line and Rivers, helping out on blocks when needed and escaping the pocket when Rivers needs to get the ball out of there.

Oliver is a player whose skillset doesn’t allow him to be a bell cow but bodes for consistent playing time at multiple spots. He’ll get time in the backfield standing next to Rivers, waiting for either a shotgun handoff or pass play that opens him up for contribution as a blocker or receiver.

He’ll get chances to run the ball with a lead blocker in front of him when the Chargers run out of the I-formation, and he’ll likely lock down the No. 1 kickoff return job before training camp is finished with. He’s not as dynamic a receiver as Woodhead and isn’t the prototypical running back that Gordon is, but Oliver is primed to make his comeback season a bounceback season.

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