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Overlooked in NFL draft, Chargers’ Branden Oliver rushes to top of rookie RB class

Branden Oliver, left, may have been overlooked in the NFL draft, but he’s making a big impression now. (Michael Zito/Associated Press)

Front Office Focus: Rookies/NFL Draft

Branden Oliver was passed over by every team in the NFL draft in May, even after some of them told Oliver’s representative they would select him. He was passed over again by every team in the scramble to sign the most coveted still-available rookies in the immediate aftermath of the draft.

When the San Diego Chargers did sign the running back from the University at Buffalo a week and a half after the draft, it was for the princely signing bonus of, well, zero. Nothing. Just a minimum-salary, standard three-year contract for an undrafted rookie with not a thing added on.

“We asked for one,” Oliver’s agent, Derek Spearman, said this week. “We just didn’t get it. At the time, there were other running backs out there still higher than him on people’s lists.”

There are no rookie running backs, however, currently above Oliver on the list of rushing yards this season. Given an opportunity to play because of a series of injuries to San Diego tailbacks, Oliver has taken full advantage and leads all NFL rookie rushers with 316 yards.

He has been a major asset to the Chargers, complementing the often-brilliant passing of quarterback Philip Rivers, as they have gotten off to a 5-2 start to the season that has them in the thick of the AFC playoff chase. They will play Thursday night at Denver against the Broncos, who are 5-1, with first place in the AFC West at stake.

Oliver’s rookie-year success is further proof that for all the pre-draft work done by teams to rank, study and assess players, big-time miscalculations occur. It’s not as if Oliver has developed into a productive NFL player over time. He has stepped in and been that right away.

He is listed by the Chargers at 5 feet 7 inches and 208 pounds. He played out of the spotlight at a Mid-American Conference school. Spearman said some of his scouting of his future client came when his son Ike, a linebacker at Eastern Michigan, played against Buffalo and Oliver.

“I really think a lot of the NFL, they don’t give the MAC the justice it deserves,” Derek Spearman said in a telephone interview. “My son played against him and he told me, ‘This guy Branden Oliver, he’s hard to tackle.’ ”

It’s not as if Buffalo’s pro-day workout for NFL scouts was off the radar, however. All NFL teams were represented with the school’s standout linebacker, Khalil Mack, on his way to being the fifth overall pick in the draft in May. Oliver, who had rushed for 1,535 yards and 15 touchdowns in his final season at Buffalo, ran his 40-yard dash in 4.53 seconds and performed 26 bench-press reps.

“He did interviews with probably about 10 teams,” Spearman said. “We were expecting him to get drafted. He put up good numbers. I had scouts tell me they gave him draftable grades. Atlanta, the Jets, the Colts, they told us [prior to the draft] they’d pick him. I knew the Colts didn’t have a lot of picks. But they told us he’d have a spot on the roster even if they didn’t pick him.”

Oliver, a Miami native, participated in the Dolphins’ pre-draft workout for NFL prospects. Spearman said three teams, which he declined to name, told him during the draft that they were about to choose Oliver, only to fail to do so.

“Teams just started falling off,” Spearman said. “I heard from them, and then I didn’t. I don’t know why. They told me [during the draft] they were going to take him, and they just didn’t do it. Three teams said that—fifth round, sixth round, seventh round. I was telling him and his dad, and they were excited.

“But I told his father, ‘There’s one thing I’m not concerned about, and that’s your son making a roster. I know he will.’ He just works hard. He wants to play football and go to church. That’s the only two things this kid wants to do. I never worried about him making it.”

Oliver had several post-draft offers to attend teams’ rookie minicamps on a tryout basis, Spearman said. Oliver attended a Colts’ camp. The team told him afterward, Spearman said, that it didn’t have an available roster spot but it would keep Oliver on its short list for a possible future signing.

That’s when Spearman, who’d been in touch with Chargers General Manager Tom Telesco about another player and was speaking to a member of San Diego’s coaching staff about Oliver, heard from the Chargers. A firm contract offer came soon after, and Oliver signed with the Chargers on May 21. Telesco declined to be interviewed through a Chargers spokesman this week about the maneuverings that led to the signing of Oliver.

“I didn’t imagine it would happen this way,” Spearman said, “but it did … It couldn’t have happened to a better person. He’s mature enough to handle what’s about to happen in his life. He’s so humble about everything. I told him, ‘It’s about time we go pick out a suit.’ I think he has one. We’re working on these things. I asked him the difference between running the ball there and running the ball in the MAC and he said, ‘Better blockers.’ ”

The Chargers used a sixth-round pick on a running back, Arizona State’s Marion Grice. But Grice began the season on the Chargers’ practice squad and then was signed last month by the Arizona Cardinals to their 53-man roster.

Oliver totaled only 12 carries in the season’s first four games. But his chance came because of injuries to Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead and Donald Brown. Oliver ran for 114 yards and a touchdown in an Oct. 5 triumph over the Jets, and followed that up a week later by rushing for 101 yards and a touchdown in a victory at Oakland.

“I dropped Adrian Peterson on my fantasy team and picked up Branden Oliver,” Spearman said. “I told everyone I know to pick up Branden Oliver. They’re happy about that now.”