RB Michael Bennett (Chris Graythen/Getty)
No position on the San Diego Chargers roster will be under more scrutiny this offseason than running back. LaDainian Tomlinson is a potential cap casualty; Darren Sproles is a free agent; and Michael Bennett logged only seven carries last season. SDBoltReport.com takes a closer look at a position in transition.
There is one question that will determine the course of San Diego’s offseason: Will LaDainian Tomlinson be back in 2009? LT, who led the NFL in rushing in 2006 and 2007 before struggling though an injury-plagued 2008, is slated to count nearly $8.8 million against San Diego’s salary cap this season.
San Diego has three options: 1) release Tomlinson and save upwards of $6 million; 2) try to trade LT for a middle-round draft pick; or 3) renegotiate his contact to decrease the cap hit. The team will attempt strategy No. 3 before it seriously considers Nos. 1 and 2.
The Chargers will likely wait to make a decision on Tomlinson until they see what happens with Darren Sproles. The Chargers will offer Sproles a new contract, but the “Lightning Bug” has stated his desire to test the market. The Chargers see Sproles as a change-of-pace back and kick returner and will offer him a contract accordingly; if another team is willing to offer starter money, Sproles is as good as gone.
It’s unlikely that both LT and Sproles will return, meaning Michael Bennett will probably ascend to the No. 2 role. Bennett was impressive when pressed into duty during the postseason, averaging 6 ypc and 6.5 yards per reception. Always known for his track-star speed, the eight-year veteran has become a much more patient runner as his career has progressed.
An intriguing player to watch is Eldra Buckley, who has spent the last two seasons on the practice squad. Buckley, who piled up 2,437 yards and 18 touchdowns during his collegiate career at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, is a do-it-all player who is a powerful runner and an adept receiver out of the backfield. To make the active roster, he likely needs both LT and Sproles to depart.
If the Chargers choose to address the running back position in free agency, they will keep a close eye on what happens in the New York Giants’ backfield. Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward, both of whom topped 1,000 yards rushing last season, are scheduled for unrestricted free agency. Other free agents of note are LaMont Jordan (New England Patriots), Rudi Johnson (Detroit Lions), DeShaun Foster (San Francisco 49ers) and Aaron Stecker (New Orleans Saints).
If the Chargers go with a running back in the first round of the draft, the candidates are Knowshon Moreno (Georgia), Chris Wells (Ohio State) and LeSean McCoy (Pittsburgh), likely in that order. Later prospects include Rashad Jennings (Liberty), Jeremiah Johnson (Oregon) and Andre Brown (NC State).
To read Chris Steuber’s take on San Diego’s running back situation, click here.
Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003.