Going into the 2009 season, among San Diego's running backs, we find a 5'6" spark plug who captured the nation's attention during last season's playoffs, a bulldozing rookie who accounted for over 3,000 yards in his collegiate career, and, of course, one of the best running backs and overall players ever to grace a football field.
With this in mind, what can San Diego fans expect from this collection of talented backs in the upcoming year?
In just eight professional seasons, LaDainian Tomlinson is one of the NFL's elite running backs since the league's foundation in 1920. With over 11,000 yards and 141 TDs in his career, Tomlinson's journey thus far can be summed up with numerous superlatives praising his performance.
Nagged by injuries that forced career lows in several categories, Tomlinson still managed to run for 1,110 yards and 11 TDs in 2008, helping his club reach the playoffs for the third consecutive season.
The nature of his position and his relative absence from San Diego's last two playoff runs due to injury have hurt his stock somewhat, but a healthy Tomlinson still strikes fear in the best of defenses.
Pros: Excellent field vision that allows him to find holes in any defense, possesses burst of speed capable of clearing secondaries, sheds contact with astounding array of jukes, spins and other evasive moves, grand work ethic and leadership rub off on teammates, threat in the passing (as passer & receiver) arena as well as running game.
Cons: Age (29) translates to about 35 in RB years, injuries have sidelined him in key moments past two seasons, has tendency to tune out when injured, offensive scheme seems to favor the passing game more recently, which limits carries.
Season Outlook: We all know what a healthy Tomlinson can net. 1,400+ yards rushing, 18-20 combined TDs, et cetera. The real issue is to see whether Tomlinson can avoid the injury bug all through the regular season, and more importantly—in the postseason.
Darren Sproles' explosive ways were well known around Mission Valley prior to the 2008 season, the Kansas State product being San Diego's primary kick returner and occasional third-down weapon.
However, last season was Sproles' coming out party to the nation, proving his value by subbing for LaDainian Tomlinson in the AFC Wild Card victory over the Indianapolis Colts, and eventually scoring the winning touchdown.
Pros: Blazing speed, diminutive size (5'6", 181) makes it near-impossible to be tackled, effective weapon in the short passing game, fantastic change of pace from Tomlinson.
Cons: Injury-prone due to size, effectiveness is slowed when receiving too many carries, not a long-term starting option, not a good inside runner.
Season Outlook: Although Sproles looks to be the No. 2 option behind Tomlinson, he'll have to fight for playing time with Michael Bennett and rookie Gartrell Johnson.
Sproles will probably have more of an impact on special teams, but should Tomlinson fall injured, the triumvirate of Sproles, Bennett and Johnson will attempt to pile up yards and points in LT's absence.
Drafted in the fourth round in this year's NFL Draft, Johnson will eventually be groomed to succeed LaDainian Tomlinson.
For now, he is the bruising change-up to Tomlinson and Sproles' speed, a runner in the vein of Michael Turner, that will keep defenses on their toes even when No. 21 is on the sideline.
At Colorado State, Johnson put up impressive numbers, and GM AJ Smith is keen on seeing the former All-MWC RB put up similar numbers in a Charger uniform.
Pros: Strong downhill runner with power, excellent inside runner, will come in handy in goal-line situations, secure ball handler, can block as well as run.
Cons: Relatively slow runner who will struggle after getting past first wave of defenders, in college, was regularly taken down at line of scrimmage at first sign of trouble, too reliant on initial burst of speed/power.
Season Outlook: Johnson will be relied upon to punch the ball in the end zone in goal situations and spell Tomlinson on occasion. Look for him to get more carries as the season wears on.
Brought in as a late-season signing to bolster the RB corps and help out with a weakened Tomlinson, Bennett appeared in the playoff game against Pittsburgh subbing for Darren Sproles.
A former 1,000-yard rusher in Minnesota, Bennett has tailed off in recent seasons, bouncing around from the Vikings, to the Chiefs, and more recently, the Buccaneers.
Pros: Career 4.4 rushing average indicates effectiveness, looked good in limited activity for San Diego last season, possesses strong legs that make him hard to bring down on first contact, tendency to fall forward results in more yards per carry.
Cons: Has never been proven to be full-load back, seeming to be more effective in limited activity, somewhat fumble prone, lacks blocking ability.
Season Outlook: It's already crowded on the Chargers RB depth chart, and while Gartrell Johnson is the favorite for the third spot, a bad preseason or injury could vault Bennett into that spot.
However, at age 30, Bennett will have to impress to stay on.
An undrafted rookie out of Syracuse, Brinkley was brought in and was expected to see significant playing time in the preseason.
As a senior, Brinkley ran for over 1,000 yards and had seven touchdowns. However, it is unclear how Brinkley's career will develop as he was tragically attacked and shot several times on July 10 in Philadelphia.
Pros: Displays good patience, waiting for hole to develop, good blocker, potential kickoff returner with good speed.
Cons: Unknown if he will recover from shooting, was injury prone in college, suffering broken leg in 2007, not a good goal-line rusher.
Season Outlook: Up until July 10, he was a good candidate for the practice squad, but now, football takes a back seat to the player's health and well-being.
The Chargers possess an interesting combination of runners headlined by a future Hall of Famer in Tomlinson, and supported by the electric Sproles and the powerful Johnson while Michael Bennett could also wiggle his way into the rotation.
San Diego leaned more towards the passing game last season, with some observers sensing a shift in Norv Turner's playcalling. However, that might have been due to the nagging injuries sustained by Tomlinson that limited his productivity.
Despite San Diego's great passing attack, a more balanced approach is definitely a proven formula for the Chargers that, if applied, should reap dividends for the team in 2009.