In part two of our ongoing series focusing on the Chargers strengths and weaknesses, we take a closer look at the running back position. I was hoping to have some finality to the Ladainian Tomlinson contract renegotiations before writing this column, but as of today we still don’t know exactly how it’s all going to pan out. Will LT and the Chargers reach an agreement soon, or will this drag out to the point where the team is forced to take drastic measures? All we can do now is speculate, as any number of conclusions seem feasible.
Those who have followed my columns over the years know how highly I regard LaDainian Tomlinson. He is a genuine guy, a player with a lot of passion for the game and a lot of heart. As running backs go, he will forever be listed among the best ever. Unfortunately, last season was probably the worst of LT’s renowned career since his rookie season in 2001. His 1110 yards rushing was his lowest ever, and his 11 rushing TD’s was a large drop from previous years. Now that single below average (for LT), injury-riddled season has led to some doubt that LT will return to the Chargers for the 2009 season.
There are basically two schools of thought regarding LT at this point in his career. The first sees LT as an aging, overused running back whose career is on the decline and will never recover. A knee injury in the 2008 playoffs, as well as multiple injuries in the 2008 season point towards the beginning of the end for LT’s career. Knee, toe, and groin injuries are not exactly the building blocks for future successful seasons as a running back, so for all intents his career is over.
The second school of thought believes that LT is still one of the best-conditioned athletes in the NFL, and that the injuries he has sustained are mere flukes and not a signal for future injury. The more significant worry is improving the offensive line that regressed dramatically last year. We’ll dig into the O-line in future columns, but basically two injured Pro-Bowl lineman with two sub-par linemen on the right side gave LT little chance to find a hole to run through.
As you decide which school of thought you subscribe to, I can’t let you forget about Darren Sproles, who’s franchise tag insures that the Chargers can at least control his destiny for the upcoming season. This fan favorite opened a lot of eyes in the playoff win against Indianapolis. He’s a great change-up and a deadly weapon for any offensive coordinator. I’ll admit that the franchise tag surprised me, but I believe that in the long run it was really just a negotiating tactic for the Chargers. Expect the Chargers to figure out a way to sign him to a multi-year deal or trade him. I just can’t see them paying Sproles franchise-tag money for one season, especially for a guy whom the Chargers know can’t be our 1st string running back.
That brings us back to LT. The uncertainty surrounding the future Hall Of Famer has a lot of fans divided. Whether you believe he’s past his prime or not, I simply ask: Are we better off with or without LT next season? I have to believe that we are better off with LT. On a team with some important holes to fill, I don’t want to use a 1st round pick on LT’s replacement, and I don’t believe that Sproles can carry the team on his diminutive shoulders.
That means you have to keep LT. You have to find a way to make it work. I’m all for renegotiating his contract since he’s willing to discuss it but you can’t let the guy walk. We have too many other positions to worry about to try to replace a guy who still had over 1000-yards rushing while playing 15½ games with an injury.
In this discussion of Chargers running backs you can’t forget Michael Bennett, Jacob Hester, and Mike Tolbert. Bennett is a solid veteran backup who received surprisingly little work last season. He should be in the Chargers plans for 2009, and I’m hoping with a full training camp he will be given a little playing time in the regular season. Hester, as good of a guy as he is, was a waste of a 2009 2nd round draft pick. Most everyone believes that AJ picked him too early in 2008 (3rd round) and gave up too much to get him (see that 2009 2nd round pick). That being said, he’s a gamer who could turn into a Mike Alstott type of player. He lacks some of the raw athleticism of some of his peers, but he is the type of player who plays tough and can continue to improve with enough playing time. Expect him to start at fullback for the Chargers, with Tolbert filling the backup fullback role unless the Chargers find another guy they just can’t pass up.
We’re getting close to a final decision on LT, one way or the other, so give us your predictions ASAP.
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