The Chargers officially cut ties with LaDainian Tomlinson today, arguably the greatest player in team history. From a personal standpoint, it must have been a difficult decision for the Chargers to make. From a football standpoint, it couldn’t have been easier. At this point in his career L.T. wasn’t going to be anything more than an overpaid backup in San Diego.
So where do the Chargers go from here?
Restricted free agent Darren Sproles would be the in-house solution. He’s an electrifying back and a fan favorite. He shows flashes of greatness, but he’s also only 5’6″. No matter how talented he is, he has physical limitations which will prevent him from being effective over the course of the season. Even with just 93 carries in 2009, Sproles was held to 3.7 yards per attempt – not exactly a number that should have the Chargers excited about his prospects should the workload be doubled in 2010.
Another option would be to address the need in free agency. The top unrestricted free agents are Willie Parker and Chester Taylor, but they’re 29 and 30 respectively. It would seem like an odd move to cut ties with Tomlinson only to bring in another veteran on the decline.
That could leave the Chargers with the draft as their only option to fill their hole at running back. We’ve had C.J. Spiller headed to San Diego in our mock draft for a while now, but there are numerous other options. Spiller makes the most sense because of his versatility. The Chargers used Tomlinson extensively as a receiver, a role which Spiller could immediately fill. The downside is that he has a similar skill set to Sproles. With Spiller as the starter, it would undermine Sproles’ ability to be effective as a change-of-pace back.
Another option would be Jonathan Dwyer. He’s the top-rated running back on our board, but also could be gone by the time the Chargers are on the clock. As a strong, downhill runner Dwyer would make an excellent compliment to Sproles. The downside, however, is his lack of experience as a receiver. He comes from Paul Johnson’s triple-option at Georgia Tech and would need to learn an NFL offense. That may slow his ability to make an immediate impact and fill Tomlinson’s shoes in the passing game.
Fresno State running back Ryan Mathews is also an option. He has a similar skill set to Dwyer, which brings about the same positives and negatives. He may be a slight reach in the late 1st-round, but is the safest bet to still be on the board. The lack of quality unrestricted free agents puts the Chargers in a difficult position.
Its rare that a playoff team needs to fill such a key role in the draft, but that could be the position the Chargers are in this April. It will be very interesting to see how it unfolds. GM A.J. Smith must be kicking himself for letting Michael Turner walk two years ago…