FB Mike Tolbert (Stephen Dunn/Getty)
One of San Diego’s most prominent areas of regression last year was at fullback, where rookies Jacob Hester and Mike Tolbert failed to open running lanes like their predecessor, Lorenzo Neal. The young duo added some punch in the passing game, but the run blocking must improve if the Chargers are to keep deploying a pure fullback.
Undrafted rookie Mike Tolbert began the year as the starting fullback and produced mixed results. He added a new element to the offense as a receiver, catching 13 passes for 171 yards (13.2-yard average). However, he failed to take over the role as the short-yardage specialist, converting just one of three attempts on third-and-1.
More importantly, Tolbert’s blocking was suspect. He often made the wrong read and was unable to push defenders out of the hole. When Tolbert was the primary fullback during the first 11 games of the season, LaDainian Tomlinson averaged only 70 rushing yards per game.
Jacob Hester in the season finale vs. Denver.
The Chargers turned to Jacob Hester in Week 13 after Tolbert sprained his shoulder, and the third-round pick from LSU played well enough to keep the job for the remainder of the season. Unfortunately, Hester shares many of the same flaws as Tolbert.
Hester was productive with the ball in his hands, averaging 5 yards per carry and 7.6 yards per reception. However, like Tolbert, he struggled as a lead blocker. He often failed to identify safeties and blitzing linebackers at the line of scrimmage, allowing plays to be blown up in the backfield.
Tomlinson averaged only 68 yards per game during the five contests in which Hester was the primary lead blocker.
The good news concerning Hester is that he improved with each week of experience. After spending last offseason splitting time between halfback and fullback, Hester should benefit greatly from concentrating exclusively on fullback this spring. There is a good chance he will go into next season unchallenged atop the depth chart.
The Chargers actually finished the 2008 season with three fullbacks on their roster, with Billy Latsko being the third. The former Florida Gator is more of a true fullback, known for his vision as a lead blocker and his skills on special teams. Latsko is an unselfish player with a high football IQ and has a chance to stick as the backup fullback, if only because he offers something different than Hester and Tolbert.
Regardless of who plays fullback, the position will continue to be minimalized. The Chargers often prefer to deploy two tight ends or three wide receivers, as both alignments do a better job of getting San Diego’s best 11 players on the field.
The ability of H-backs Brandon Manumaleuna and Kris Wilson to line up at fullback decreases the need for the Chargers to put a pure fullback on the field. It also means the team will carry no more than two fullbacks next season, and could carry just one depending on how the situation at halfback shakes out.
Get to Know Your Fullbacks
Scout.com makes a point to interview NFL rookies as they come into the league. Check out these pre-rookie year interviews with all three of San Diego's fullbacks to learn a little more about the Chargers lead blockers.
--Interview with Jacob Hester
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.
--Interview with Mike Tolbert
--Interview with Billy Latsko