Friday, May 22, 2009

Chargers Spring Report -- Running Backs

With the Chargers 2009 mini-camp recently concluded, Chris Ello takes an inside look at how the Bolts stack up position-by-position heading into Summer. Chargers Training Camp gets underway for real in July.

May 1st:Cornerbacks
May 4th:Safeties
May 6th:Outside Linebackers
May 8th:Inside Linebackers
May 11th:Defensive Ends
May 13th:Defensive Tackles
Friday:Offensive Line
Monday: Tight Ends
Wednesday: Wide Receivers
Today: Running Backs

Monday: Quarterbacks


Starters

LaDainian Tomlinson, 9th yr., T.C.U.: Just happen to be in Fort Worth, Tex., where L.T. played his college ball and where he is still loved, unconditionally. Strangely, my notion is that all of San Diego no longer feels the same way.

Sure he's a Hall of Famer and probably the greatest player ever to wear the Lightning Bolt, but what have you done for us lately? Last year's yardage total (1,100 yards) was the lowest of his career. Yards per carry (3.8) the lowest since his rookie season. Ditto for TD's (11). And then there's that small matter of the injuries that caused Tomlinson to miss last year's playoffs and almost all of the '07 AFC Championship Game.

Not everybody was thrilled when No. 21 agreed to re-structure his contract during the off-season in order to stay with the Bolts. 

What?

First, let's remind everybody that L.T. hasn't been close to 100-percent since that gloomy January day in New England when he was forced to be a spectator as the Pats denied San Diego a shot at the Super Bowl. Second, when he finally returned to full-strength, he once again showed his brilliance in the regular-season finale, burning Denver for 3 TD's and carrying the Bolts to the division championship.

Another off-season to rest his weary toes, ankles, knees, shoulders, groin and whatever else has caused him to look like a mere mortal the past 18 months should be just the tonic Tomlinson needs to get back to his rightful place as the spiritual leader of the Chargers. Plus, in '09 he has something to prove.

Sure, there may never be another record-breaking 31 TD season like he had in '06, but c'mon people! Is there really anybody else you'd rather have carrying the mail?

Mike Tolbert, 2nd yr., Coastal Carolina: OK. So Tolbert was no Lorenzo Neal. Few are. But it's not like his rookie season was an abject failure. Tolbert played well until a shoulder injury in late November against Indianapolis basically took him out for the season.

When he was in there, he was solid. But he lacked the experience to get completely in sync with the blocking patters of the offensive line and the running style of L.T. behind him. Now with a year under his belt, Tolbert can stop thinking so much out on the field and just concentrate on clearing paths for the running game. 

Don't judge a career on one rookie season. Tolbert could take a big step forward in '09.

Reserves

Darren Sproles, 5th yr., Kansas State: Probably to most popular Charger of them all, the little guy with the wide smile and bigger heart was spectacular as a returner in '07 (making the Pro Bowl) then had a breakthrough season last year out of the backfield.

In a Week Two loss at Denver, he piled up 317 combined yards rushing, receiving and returning, the 7th-highest total in NFL history. And, of course, who could forget his remarkable performance in the playoff against Indianapolis when he ended the night with 328 total yards (3rd-most ever in a postseason game) and ended the game with a 22-yard TD run in overtime?

Sproles was tagged as the Chargers' franchise player and cashed in with a lucrative one-year contract extension. Nevertheless, the question remains whether or not the 5-foot-6 Sproles is durable enough for the long haul. Despite his electrifying play, he handled the ball only 90 times from scrimmage (61 rushes, 29 receptions) last season.

If L.T. is struck by the injury bug again, Sproles may get a chance to prove he can be an every down back. And if he does, everybody will be rooting for him. If he doesn't become a full-timer, he'll still bring the fans out of their seats on the downs he does play.

Jacob Hester, 2nd yr., L.S.U.: The overriding assumption is that Hester was a disappointment in his rookie season, more than anything else because the Chargers moved up the pecking order to select him in the 3rd-round of the '08 draft.

But once he got a chance to play, Hester was a solid contributor down the stretch. Not flashy, but solid. After Tolbert's injury in late November, Hester gained 92 yards on 17 carries (5.4 avg.) and caught 12 passes with 2 TD's over the team's final six games. More than that, he proved himself as a blocker in front of L.T. -- and then in the playoffs, Sproles.

Hester may never be an All-Pro type headliner, but as a guy who only wants to contribute in any way he can, his rookie season proved that he's well on his way to becoming a more-than-capable NFL player.

Michael Bennett, 9th yr., Wisconsin: Acquired as an insurance policy late in the season off waivers from Tampa Bay, Bennett came through with some key carries (4 for 24 yards) in the playoff win over the Colts. 

But unless injuries crop again in '09, it's hard to see Bennett getting much playing time. If he does get in there, however, don't forget that this is a speedy runner who once gained 1,296 yards in a season with Minnesota (although that was back in '02 before injuries sidetracked his once-promising career).

Newcomers

Gartrell Johnson, Rookie, Colorado State: Many wanted the Chargers to take a running back with their first selection in the '09 draft. But with Tomlinson and Sproles already in the fold, that strategy made little sense. Instead, the Bolts smartly waited until the 4th-round to grab Johnson, a battering-Ram of a runner from CSU.

Johnson averaged 5.3 yards per carry in each of final two collegiate seasons, and finished off his career with an all-time Bowl game record 285 yards rushing against Fresno State in last season's New Mexico Bowl.

Skeptics say Johnson lacks the speed to be a great NFL runner, but some of those same skeptics said the same things about Tomlinson many years ago (not to mention Jerry Rice and many other superstars).

Will Johnson one day be a superstar? Of course, nobody knows. But with the tandem of accomplished runners ahead of him, he should get at least a season or two to find his way and get established.





 


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