San Diego has quite a few players seeing time standing behind Philip Rivers. If you include the pair of converted fullbacks, San Diego presently carries five running backs on their roster. The most notable, Ladainian Tomlinson, has a questionable future with the team due to diminishing returns. Darren Sproles, the primary backup to Tomlinson, has proven effective catching the ball out of the backfield and in the return game but has not put up consistent yardage when running the football.
These two, as the primary rushers for San Diego, have combined for 887 yards to this point. Beyond the limited yardage they have averaged 3.2 (Tomlinson) and 3.3 (Sproles) yards per carry across the entire year.
The third running back on the depth chart, Michael Bennet, has 12 carries across the entire year for a mere 37 yards. It is apparent he is not in the team’s backfield plans, having spent more games inactive then active.
Taking the team’s backfield roster to five are a pair of converted runners come road-pavers in Jacob Hester and Mike Tolbert. Both have traded time as the primary fullback, but neither has overwhelmed at the position. They are natural running backs, Tolbert in the large bowling ball mold of Michael Turner. Tolbert is sufficiently reminiscent not only in style, but in being virtually the same size at five-nine and two hundred forty-three pounds (a mere pound lighter and inch shorter then Turner).
Hester, who is technically the starting fullback over Tolbert, is somewhat smaller, posting a near identical size to Ladainian Tomlinson (an inch taller and four pounds heavier then LT). He is also posting nearly four times the salary of Tolbert (1.1 million dollars as compared with 300,000).
Tolbert and Hester shared one game where they both carried the ball seven times. In that game (albeit largely considered "garbage time" carries) the pair put up 104 yards on those fourteen carries, with Tolbert the leader of the two gaining 58 yards. Tolbert followed that game with 19 yards on four carries the following week, the only other time one of the pair saw more than three carries in a game.
With the roster accounted for, where does this leave the team? It is not particularly safe to rely on Tomlinson to be taking over two-hundred snaps next year. The fullback position is decent in its versatility, but subpar with regards to lead blocking. Sproles is going to be entering back into contract negotiations after spending the year as the team’s franchise player.
The team needs to modify the current lineup in the offseason. They have many ways they can do this, and all would be preferable to the present situation. All have benefits and drawbacks, and this team will need to weigh the options carefully before jumping to one set path.
The first would likely be considered the simplest. Let Tomlinson go, draft a high ranking running back, and try to rebuild the team’s backfield with youth. This would likely save the team money, as the highest one may expect the Chargers to draft at this juncture would be roughly 25th. Unless Tomlinson negotiates a drastic salary cut, that pick would likely make roughly half of Tomlinson’s salary.
This move bears with it several issues, however, the first being the public relations slant. Tomlinson is a first-ballot hall of famer who just passed Jim Brown on the all-time rushing list. He is not a 1,400+ yard threat any more, but is still considered effective enough such that a fan base would be very critical of a team willing to let Tomlinson go.
Falling among that public relation concern would also be the idea of a minor renaissance with a team better suited to the running game (see Larry Johnson’s first game in orange and black). Should he put up over 3.5 yards per carry across a full year on another team, San Diegans will call for AJ Smith’s head.
The final concern is the giant question mark of drafting a first round running back to be your primary. Moreno and Wells have put up respectable stats for Denver and Arizona respectively (better than four yards per carry for both), but as pieces of a running back tandem, not as primary runners.
This leads to the potential second option—retaining LT (likely negotiating a pay cut beyond the small one agreed upon last offseason) and putting a first day draft pick alongside him in a running back committee. The pitfalls of a rookie feeling the pressure of taking 80 percent of a team’s handoffs can be avoided and Tomlinson can provide an example for the young developing player.
This strategy seems great on paper. Where in runs into the biggest problems would be financially. Tomlinson’s contract can only be negotiated so low. Sproles will need a new contract (as will other current Chargers), and a first-day running back will not be terribly cheap. This team would have a large sum dedicated to the backfield once more.
What it also does is remove the capacity to use that pick somewhere else (ideally depth along either line or cornerback). The team has no glaring holes with a healthy Jamal Williams and Nick Hardwick, but is thin at many reserve spots, and with the age of Williams another young nose tackle would be especially high on the team’s wish-list.
To save money, the team should attempt to work on the problem in-house. Hester and Tolbert showed well in the modest looks given to them, and both are far better suited to run behind this offensive line than Darren Sproles, who has been thwarted by a lack of space much of the year.
They can continue the shared fullback role while also taking some of the rushing load each game or the team can elect to commit one to a primary focus at the fullback position while allowing the other to return to the halfback position either is more comfortable in.
Tolbert would be the more likely then to slip back into the halfback role behind Tomlinson. He is a more drastic change of pace with his size, and has better hands then Hester (with twelve receptions on the year for nearly two-hundred yards). His size and shorter stature would also make him ideally suited for short-yardage duty, his low center of gravity and 243 pounds making him very difficult to drive backward.
Committing to additional carries to Hester and Tolbert this year would go far towards deciding if one or both can assume a portion of Tomlinson’s workload. Splitting eight or ten carries between them across the final three games should give enough of an idea to work with, and a mid-round draft pick can replace Bennett on the deeper end of the depth chart to possibly earn that backup role and take carries without sacrificing a first or second round draft pick.
Given the Chargers passing game, and the successful glimpses out the fullback-duo when involved more directly in the offense (running or receiving), it seems logical to attempt this third path. Instead of a high pick or money toward a rookie replacement for Tomlinson, platoon the hall of famer alongside the current roster.
Instead of 7-10 carries per game for the less than effective Sproles, allow him to slip from backup to his natural state of Swiss-army running back (a sparkplug lining up in a variety of spots taking a-traditional snaps rather than countless runs straight ahead at the heart of a defense), put the ball into Tolbert and Hester’s hands. Allow them to help wear out defenses with a more punishing style.
Given an in house-role shuffling, the team should be able to run the ball effectively while letting the passing game still shine. They will appease the fan-base by keeping Tomlinson, and save money and draft picks by not getting a day one running back. It seems the most logical approach, and one that should pay off for San Diego in the end. Here’s to another division crown in 2010, good luck and go Chargers!