San Diego Chargers Running on Empty, Trying To Sort Out Backfield for 2010

Paul PreibisiusAnalyst IJanuary 29, 2010

This offseason, the San Diego Chargers have a few key concerns, as well as a host of smaller ones.  Looking back at the 2009 season, what stands out most is the NFL’s 31st-ranked rushing attack despite the backfield’s strong resume. 

What bodes well for the team is that four of the league’s five worst rushing teams boasted dynamic and effective offenses alongside winning records (Indianapolis, San Diego, Houston, and Arizona).  Three of those were playoff teams, with the last-place Colts earning a Super Bowl bid.

That tells us that San Diego need not necessarily improve to the league’s upper half in running the football.  It does not, however, mean that moderate improvement is not necessary.

What went beyond the team’s 88.9 yards-per-game average—with a 3.3 yard-per-carry average—was an inability to put up rushing yardage in vital situations.  From buying insurance yardage when backed up against their own end zone to converting on third-and-short situations, the Chargers could not manage to find yardage when it was needed. 

Before looking at how to address this, the backfield itself must garner some attention. The unit was solid on paper but just could not translate it to the field.

Ladainian Tomlinson

The longtime face of the San Diego Chargers, Tomlinson is a Hall of Famer (likely first ballot) who received some consideration for making a run at Emmett Smith’s all-time yardage record before time and age caught him.  Despite renegotiating his contract last offseason, Tomlinson is still due to make a Pro Bowl running back’s salary. With 3.3 yards per carry over 730 yards, that is simply inadequate.

Tomlinson was slowed early by injury, which forced him out of two games and reduced his reps in several others.  Despite this, his first eight games still showed some promise. Taking away a seven-carry game against Pittsburgh, when his injury was still prevalent, Tomlinson averaged roughly 65 yards per game in that stretch—nothing spectacular, but still a roughly 1,000 yard pace (1,035 across 16 games).

Instead of surging as his injury healed, he slowed in the second half. He averaged nearly 10 yards less per game during the next five, never posting better than 3.7 yards a carry or 64 yards total in any of those games before a negligible two-attempt performance against Washington to close the year.

In all likelihood, his advanced mileage—coupled with his large contract—will mean he will not be retained by the team for 2010.  In the unlikely scenario that he will remain on the team, he has demonstrated that he is no longer built for a starter’s workload.

Darren Sproles

Considered the team’s sparkplug player, Sproles translated electrifying performances in limited duty during 2007 and 2008 into a hefty 2009 salary by way of a franchise tag.  The one-season payout leaves the team once more forced to deal with the shifty running back’s contract this offseason.

What they learned from 2009 is that he is probably best suited to a change-of-pace role instead of handling a large workload.  Sproles barely eclipsed his 2008 yardage total (343 against 330) despite getting one-and-a-half times the carries (93 compared with 61).

In games in which Sproles had seven or more carries, he averaged 2.6 yards per carry (182 yards on 69 attempts).  When Sproles was given less than seven carries in a game, he posted 6.7 yards per attempt (161 yards on 24 carries). In the passing game, Sproles was still highly effective, however, with nearly 500 yards on 45 receptions.

Sproles has proven to be a valuable commodity to the team—not only as a running back, but also as a return man.  He is not, however, worth a second franchise tag, as he is not suited to shouldering starting or tandem-back carries.

Michael Bennet

As the third back, Bennet found himself essentially fifth on the team’s backfield depth chart.  Before the final game in which the team sought to rest significant starters, Bennet had 12 carries during the entire season. 

During the entire year, Bennet averaged 2.8 yards per carry on a mere 23 attempts.  He has not posted significant numbers (more than 250 yards) on any team since 2005 and hasn’t been a starter since 2002.  At 31, Bennett’s 5'9", 207-pound frame is too small to compliment Sproles, and he is not elusive enough to pair well with a bruiser.

Odds are, he is cut loose in the offseason.  His salary, while not exorbitant, is far too much for the negligible reps given—and he has limited upside or potential.

Jacob Hester

A peculiar case.  Technically the starting fullback, much was invested in the converted running back.  The team was so high on his abilities that they traded away 2009’s second-round pick, and aging Pro Bowl bowling ball Lorenzo Neal was not retained. 

The team’s commitment to Hester has not translated necessarily to on-field results.  At 5'11" and 225 pounds, he doesn’t have the build of a traditional, lead-blocking fullback.

He showed some ability running the football in the only game with significant attempts; he posted 46 garbage-time yards on seven carries against Denver.  That did not translate across the rest of the season, with 28 yards on 14 attempts the rest of the year.

The team will most likely keep Hester; however, significant thought must be given to an altered role.  Even with another year’s improved technique, Hester lacks the frame to truly be a solid, lead-blocking fullback.

Mike Tolbert

Technically Hester’s backup, Tolbert received extra time and attention as the year progressed.  He saw one carry and three receptions in the team’s first six games.  In the final 10, he had 24 carries and 14 receptions, ending the year with 340 combined yards.

Tolbert was the only one of the five backs to average better than four yards per carry— averaging 5.9—and he showed decent hands catching out of the backfield, posting 11 yards per reception as well.

Tolbert, like Hester, will be entering his third season.  He, as with Hester, lacks any true blocking technique, but he has the advantage of a more suitable 5'9", 243-pound frame.  He is also by far the most affordable member of the team’s backfield, with a salary of just more than $300,000 per year.

With a questionable situation at running and solid numbers, Tolbert, an exclusive rights free agent, should not only be retained by San Diego, but he should also see more face time in 2010.

That comprises the team’s present backfield.  Tomlinson and Bennett are likely gone.  Sproles, Hester, and Tolbert probably will be retained.  That means a combined 139 in 2009 carries. With two fullbacks and a scatback, the team needs to find itself at least 200 carries worth of running back from other sources.

Future Prospects

If one puts stock in draftnik Mel Kiper Jr., that means Georgia Tech running back Jonathan Dwyer .  At 6" and 235 pounds, he certainly has the build for San Diego’s needs—namely, moving the chains on short yardage and pushing piles when there is contact.

Behind CJ Spiller, he is the second running back Kiper has drafted in a very front-seven- centric first-round projection.

That may not be the best thing for San Diego, however.  With a number of quality running backs available later, the team might be wise to shore up right tackle or defensive line in the first round instead of pursuing Dwyer.

This leaves even more options.  The restricted-heavy free agent stock of 2010 makes signing a running back outright difficult. The biggest names without contracts are not likely to be pursued by a San Diego team trying to retain its own host of free agents. There are a few options, however.

Leon Washington: He is still young enough to be a front-line back, and should the team not retain Sproles, he would be a solid return man as well.  He has shown well in his three-and-a-half years, and he will be seeking an opportunity to start after rumblings last offseason regarding contract and role.  As a restricted free agent, he would likely cost San Diego a second-round draft pick: high, but not exhorbitant.

The concern, however, would be his suitability.  Without Sproles, he would be a great speedster in a tandem-back formation.  But at 5'8" and 195 pounds, he will not move any piles, and he could have durability issues as a lead back.

Willie Parker : With Rashard Mendenhall emerging in Pittsburgh following a down year, Parker could be a relative bargain.  He is relatively low-mileage for a 29-year-old back, and he is not far removed from three consecutive years of more than 1,200 yards.

The potential for bargain comes because he hasn’t looked as nearly as dynamic the past two years, and he has had injury trouble.  Mendenhall unseated him in the starting role, and Parker ended the year with only 389 yards (at four yards per carry).  He has the same problem as Washington also.  He goes 207 pounds to Washington’s 195, but he is still more of a speed than power back.  San Diego’s milquetoast run-blocking may require more bulk from its lead back.

Mike Bell : With both he and Pierre Thomas restricted free agents, Bell’s status will depend heavily on what New Orleans elects to do with Reggie Bush.  If Bush and his large salary remain, then Bell could be the odd man out.  He is young (26) and an inside power runner at 6' and 225 pounds, and he has now put up solid numbers in two different systems—with Denver and New Orleans.

The flip side would be that he has never seen more than 172 carries for 677 yards in a single season.  The Chargers need a workhorse, and he has significant injury concerns.  He was also the only Saints back to put up less than five yards per carry (at a very average 3.8).

LenDale White : The dominant year of Chris Johnson could be another team’s good fortune.  Like the above names, White is a restricted free agent who could be had because the team he plays for—the Tennessee Titans—already has a starter in place.  White has the big body that San Diego could use to push short yardage, and he is only 25 years old. 

In 2007 and 2008, he showed the ability to shoulder solid reps with 303 and 200 yards respectively, gaining more than 1,800 yards in those two years.  He is eager to prove himself as a starter, as Johnson’s success cut his status from tandem back to a backup role.

While it might not take a huge investment to pry him from Tennessee, his capacity as an every-down back may ultimately disappoint.  Playing behind the same Tennessee line that Johnson put up gaudy numbers behind, White has averaged a mediocre 3.7, 3.9, and 3.5 yards per carry during the last three years. 

All free agents have potential concerns. Running backs without them are either retained by their own teams or will cost far too much in trade because of the restricted status.  San Diego is a team that rarely delves deeply into free agency and could easily be more distracted than usual dealing with its own large number of unsigned players.

The final option of consideration is likely the best course of action.  In lieu of a first- round stud or a restricted free agent signing, the team could be well-served to find itself a right tackle in the first round, and then pair him with a second-round choice at running back.

If the team is willing to trade to move up (far less pricey than trying to gain position in the first), they could seek out a player like Anthony Dixon , who has a similar size to Dwyer, but should be around come the second round.

This gives the team a quality back that could go late first round in a more running-back -focused year without costing them the expense and draft picks of a restricted free agent. That frees up the first round to go after other positions of need. 

Ultimately, this is the option with the best potential for helping the team, and hopefully, it will help San Diego’s run game toughen up and give the team that pounding element it lacked in 2009.

Look for the second part of this glance at the running game to come soon, analyzing how the team’s ground game can improve in ways beyond just who is in the backfield, as well as potential late-round dark horse options, such as:


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