Nine-year veteran Michael Bennett knows the offseason competition will be intense. In front of him on depth chart are future Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson, franchise player Darren Sproles and fourth-round pick Gartrell Johnson. However, anyone counting out Bennett is jumping the gun.
Although Bennett will likely be no better than the No. 4 halfback, he has many reasons to feel optimistic about his quest to earn a roster spot and carve out a niche on offense. Here's a look at three of them.
1. An offensive evolution: After losing Lorenzo Neal, Norv Turner compensated for his lack of a true lead-blocking fullback by going with more two-tight end sets. The move paid dividends because of Brandon Manumaleuna's versatility as a blocker -- he can line up tight or in the backfield with equal effectiveness. The emergence of another versatile H-back, Kris Wilson, will make this formation even more of an offensive staple in 2010.
If the Chargers use the two-tight end set a primary formation, it may prompt Turner to carry just one fullback (Jacob Hester) as opposed to two like he did last season (Hester and Mike Tolbert). That could clear enough space on the roster for an additional halfback, i.e., Bennett.
2. An invaluable veteran presence: The Chargers refuse to be caught in the same situation they were in during each of the last two postseasons -- Tomlinson gets hurt and the team is forced to adjust on the fly. The tandem of Sproles and Bennett was not good enough to get the job done last go-round; is a combo of Sproles and Johnson that much better?
If the Chargers keep all four backs, the threesome of Sproles, Johnson and Bennett would have the speed, power and experience necessary to allow Coach Turner to utilize his whole playbook even if Tomlinson, 29, goes down again.
3. An eye on the horizon: Bennett is under contract for two more seasons, with base salaries of $1 million in 2009 and $1.25 million in 2010. That second season at a palatable rate is important, as the running back position could be shaken up after this season. Sproles is playing on a one-year deal and Tomlinson is due a $3 million bonus in March that the team may elect not to pay.
Although it seems like Bennett has been in the NFL for eons -- he earned his lone Pro Bowl invite after the 2002 season -- he was actually a part of the same draft class as Tomlinson. Having Bennett in the fold for 2010, even if he is no longer a viable starting option, gives the Chargers a certain degree of protection.
What should the Chargers do with Bennett? Talk about it in the message boards.
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.