There’s no doubt that Dexter McCluster is a dangerous, versatile playmaker who can be deadly when given the ball in space. How to get him in space, however, has remained a dilemma for NFL coordinators during his six-year NFL career. Uncertainty about how best to deploy his unique skill set has resulted in middling statistical production and recently got him cut by the Titans after a meh couple of years in Tennessee.
His new home with the San Diego Chargers, which signed him to an undisclosed contract reportedly worth up to $2 million, might finally be the place that maximizes his potential.
Confusion over Dex’s offensive role dates back to his days in Oxford, where Houston Nutt played him primarily as a receiver before figuring out midway through his senior season that handing the ball off to him wasn’t a bad idea. McCluster ended up earning All-SEC nods at both running back and receiver and left Ole Miss with the second-most all-purpose yards in school history.
His role has fluctuated frequently in the pros.
Chiefs coach Todd Haley used McCluster primary as a ball carrier in 2011, handing off to him a career-high 114 times. He was utilized more as a slot receiver under Andy Reid in 2012 and 2013, notching 105 receptions to just 20 carries during those two seasons. He also became the Chiefs’ full-time punt returner in 2013, when he earned a Pro Bowl nod for leading the league in return yards and touchdowns.
Dex converted that breakout season into a three-year, $9 million deal with Tennessee, where he projected as a perfect third-down back in Ken Whisenhunt’s pass-happy offense. But Dex was targeted just 36 times in 2014 and Whisenhunt was canned midway through the following season, giving way to Mike Mularkey’s smash-mouth run system. Mularkey praised McCluster as a “game-breaker” but never gave him the touches to back it up.
In San Diego, McCluster’s role finally seems clear: replace the injured Danny Woodhead as a pass-catching threat out of the backfield. Woodhead, who’s shelved for the entire year with an ACL tear, had more passing targets than any running back in the league last season (106), a workload he converted into 755 yards and six touchdowns receiving. Former first-round pick Melvin Gordon will be the workhorse on the ground, leaving McCluster to do the majority of his damage through the air on passing downs.
It doesn’t hurt that the Chargers offense is coached by Whisenhunt. Familiarity with Whisenhunt’s system—particularly the pass protection calls—should help ease the steep learning curve that typically accompanies a mid-season team swap.