Spotlight: LaDainian Tomlinson

posted by Jason Wood on Aug 8th


Jason Wood's thoughts

Professional athletes have a hard time letting go. When you've spent the majority of your life dedicated to the pursuit of excellence, it's understandable that it would be impossible to simply turn off a switch and say, "enough is enough." The inability to call it a career is particularly evident in the NFL, because guys sacrifice their bodies for a team for years and then the team makes the decision - often the rational one - to end the relationship. But many times those athletes can't accept the idea of not going out on THEIR terms. So they look for another team to try and prove they aren't past their prime.

Every now and then, the maneuver works out.

  • Jerry Rice went to Oakland at 39 years old and had back-to-back 1,100+ yard seasons.
  • Joe Montana headed to the Chiefs at 37 years old and took them to the AFC Championship game

But MOST of the time...in fact the VAST majority of the time, things don't work out the way these proud stars planned.

  • Emmitt Smith ran for just 256 yards in his first year as a Cardinal
  • Eddie George ran for 432 yards in Dallas
  • Franco Harris logged 68 carries for 170 yards as a Seahawk
  • Tony Dorsett ran for 703 yards in his one season in Denver
  • Thurman Thomas managed just 28 carries for 136 yards as a Dolphin
  • O.J. Simpson did very little in his two seasons in San Francisco

You get the picture. All of these perennial star runners tried to hang on with another squad, only to humbly find out they really didn't have what it took anymore.

Why should LaDainian Tomlinson be any different?
Tomlinson is one of the all-time greats. 5 Pro Bowls, 3 1st team All Pros, 12,490 yards rushing (8th all-time), and 138 rushing touchdowns (2nd all-time). He's been the best running back of the last decade, and will someday be in the Hall of Fame. But things have started to come undone, as is only natural. Injuries have started to take their toll, and you can see it in the box score.

Look at Tomlinson's last four seasons:

Year Age Rush RuYds RuTD YPR Recs RecYd YPC RecTD
2006 27 348 1815 28 5.2 56 508 9.1 3
2007 28 315 1474 15 4.7 60 475 7.9 3
2008 29 292 1110 11 3.8 52 426 8.2 1
2009 30 223 730 12 3.3 20 154 7.7 0

If that's not a textbook picture of decline, I don't know what is. His carries have plummeted. His yards have plummeted. His TD production is still respectable, but 11/12 is a far cry from what he was capable of at the pinnacle. His yards per carry dropped precipitously, and last year's 3.3 was nothing short of abysmal. But the decline goes further. Tomlinson once caught 100 balls in a season, and never caught less than 50 receptions until last season when he caught 20. It also marked the first time since his rookie season he failed to score a receiving TD, in spite of the fact San Diego threw 29 of them. There's no rational way you can look at Tomlinson's on-field performance and think he hasn't crossed the chasm into ineffectiveness.

New York State of Mind
LaDainian Tomlinson has landed in New York, and gone so far as to get a tattoo pledging his allegiance. The Jets made an improbable run into the AFC Championship game last year, and are one of the trendy picks to make it to the Championship game this season. The Jets have an astoundingly talented, and deep, defense. Mark Sanchez struggled last year as a rookie, but some improvement should be expected and that may be enough. The offensive line is among the AFC's best. And the running game is the engine that makes this offense go. Last year the Jets ran the ball 607 times, a number that boggles the mind. History tells us that teams don't run THAT much in back-to-back seasons, and the Jets certainly want to shift some of the offense back into the passing game's hands - which is why they went out and acquired Santonio Holmes. But even if they throw the ball another 100 times, this is a team that should run 500-550 times if things go according to plan.

Shonn Greene will be the workhorse. The Jets saw enough from the young back in last year's playoffs to commit to him as the new bell cow and let Thomas Jones depart for Kansas City. But why sign Tomlinson to a contract roughly equivalent to what they could've kept Jones for? That's water under the bridge now, and the Jets clearly think Tomlinson has something left in the tank. I have concerns that Greene's running style and durability will make it hard for him to survive the rigors of a 16 game season of 20+ carries per game. And if I'm right, then Tomlinson becomes the starter on a power running team by default. Even if Greene does hold up, Tomlinson is still going to have the opportunity to run the ball 100-150 times.

What's Tomlinson's Upside?
I get that the San Diego offensive line isn't what it once was, and the Jets are a much better unit. So you can make the case Tomlinson's yards per carry will improve. But by how much? I would be surprised if Tomlinson is more than a 4 yard per carry back at this point in his career. Where things get interesting is at the goal line. Tomlinson is 2nd all-time in rushing TDs and has never scored less than 10 TDs in a season, including last year. That's still a skill he possesses. So a lot of fantasy owners think the Jets will plug Tomlinson into the short yardage role and let Greene handle the between-the-20s heavy lifting.

Year Rush Yds TDs TD%
2002 21 28 10 47.6%
2003 12 23 8 66.7%
2004 30 37 12 40.0%
2005 21 31 12 57.1%
2006 23 44 15 65.2%
2007 17 14 5 29.4%
2008 16 22 7 43.8%
2009 28 23 9 32.1%

Tomlinson was one of the least effective goal-line runners in the NFL last year. Again, he's not the back we've all come to expect. So will the Jets give Tomlinson the goal-line role based on respect and reputation? I'm not so sure. I do, however, think the Jets will be prolific enough on the ground that Tomlinson will get his fair share of plunges at the goal-line, but no necessarily more than Shonn Greene.

Positives

  • Tomlinson is one of the all-time great runners; and a future Hall of Famer
  • The Jets offensive line is a significant upgrade over the Chargers
  • The Jets are built to run the ball effectively and often, and Tomlinson is a Shonn Greene injury away from being the Jets workhorse, by hook or by crook

Negatives

  • Tomlinson has been on a steady decline and there's no precedent for a major bounce back; even among other all-time greats who try to recapture the glory on a new team
  • Shonn Greene is going to get every opportunity to be the work horse and the Jets used a high draft pick on rookie Joe McKnight to hopefully fill the role vacated by Leon Washington

Final thoughts

I love LT, and for a good chunk of the last decade he was a guy you coveted in fantasy drafts. Eight straight seasons at a Top 7 fantasy runner, including six seasons as a Top 3 back. Even last year, as the wheels came off, he was a Top 20 performer thanks to his double digit TDs. So this year might not be a total bust. The Jets would like nothing more than to see LT rekindle his career and provide a complementary option to Shonn Greene. If he's up to the task, 125-150 carries should be his baseline and he could quite possibly find the end zone 8-10 times even if he splits the short yardage work. He's not a total was, particularly because Greene is no bet to handle the type of role the Jets are forcing him into this year. Don't bet on greatness returning, but don't completely disregard him as a fantasy backup either.


Quotations from the message board thread

To view the entire Player Spotlight thread (there's a ton of fantastic commentary in there), click here.

rzrback77 said:

I have always been a Tomlinson fan and greatly enjoyed his exciting running style and all around game over the years. However, he needs to slide pretty far in drafts this year to provide promise. Consider that his yards per run for his career is 4.3. That same stat was 4.50 at the end of the 07 season. Since then, he has rushed 515 times for 1840 yards at 3.57 ypc, almost a full yard per carry below his previous career average.

He gets the benefit of running behind perhaps the best offensive line in football, so he could improve from 3.57 somewhat, but his trademark suddeness, long his standard is gone.

The Jets ran an amazing 578 times last year compared to only 389 passes, so if they stick to that philosophy there will be enough carries to allow him the opportunity to succeed. I think they pass a little more and perhaps run as few as 520 times, with 470 going to the RBs. Even that would spell about 140 or more for the second RB, unless McKnight comes on and he an LT share that split. I'll guess that unless Shonn Greene is injured, LT has right around 6 or 7 carries per game and also grabs 2 or 3 passes.

The most interesting thing I noticed during this review was that his ADP is RB 42 in non-ppr and RB 46 in ppr. I would only consider him in ppr leagues as I think that will be his primary role for the Jets.

MrTwo94 said:

People like to quote the Jets' 607 rushes last year, but the number fantasy owners need to focus on is the 519 RB carries. Many believe the Jets traded for Holmes because they intend to pass more. The passing game was not impressive last year, so it only makes sense that they would try to improve where they can, but that does not mean that they want to pass more. They just want to be more success when they do pass. If anything the defense should have gotten better, so they will be running the ball when they have the option which looks to be quite often. Everyone expects that 607 to take a dip and it just might as Sanchez scrambles less and takes less sacks. But I expect another 500 RB carries. I fully expect LT to take Thomas Jones' late season role of plodder with Greene getting the majority of important carries. LT will also be the third down back. Given the large amount of carries to go around between Greene, LT, and McNight, I expect LT to get enough workload to tempt fantasy owners to throw him in as a bye week filler from time to time. 500 carries = 31.25 per game. I really expect Greene to get 20 of them. If LT gets 8 he ends up with 128 carries on the season, but give him a couple receptions a game and he just might get 50 yards. On good days he might end up with 12/50 and 3/30. But some people are expecting him to get the goal line carries simply because he had a lot of success in this role during his career. He got 12 last year on a high powered offense with Sproles as his only real competition. Greene looks to be a little better suited for the role than Sproles. Unless Greene has been taken out of the game because it is out of hand, I don't think LT will see the ball at the goal line this year. I'm going to predict 8 carries a game for LT and 4 for McNight, but it won't surprise me if McNight takes over for LT midseason on third downs. I'm a little skeptical about what LT has left in the tank.

Footballguys Writer David Yudkin said:

Is there a reason that LT will be handed the goal line carries on a silver platter? He's slightly smaller in both height and weight compared to Greene. I realize Greene has not proven anything as a goal line back, but he certainly is younger and quicker at this point.

Over the past 2 seasons, Tomlinson has averaged 1.0 ypc inside the opponent's 5 yard line. In 44 carries, he has 45 yards and 16 TD. That's the most carries in the league in that situation by a fair margin, but on a percentage basis of getting the ball in the end zone, LT ranks 28th out of 45 RB with at least 10 carries inside the 5 yard line in that time.

Ministry of Pain said:

When Greene was asked to step in and carry the load last year he failed in the playoffs. What makes anyone think he can take the pounding week in and week out in the NFL. I'm not saying that LT will be the primary ball carrier but the Jets are going to use LT as much as they can squeeze out of him. 100 carries? Why did they bother signing him?

Plus LT has always been a good rass catching back, vertainly better than Greene, and Sanchez has not mastered the QB position yet so doubtful he throws everything to the WRs. Add in a tremendous OL to run behind despite a rookie LG and you have some serious value here late in your FF draft.

Raiderfan32904 said:

He doesn't last the season, and Greene goes on to have a Chris Johnson type stud year. He's been going in the 10th and 11th round, but at that ADP, I will let someone else pick him. Old, slow, no quicks, nothing left in the tank.

mjr said:

The Jets topped the NFL last season with over 600 rushing attempts, while SD ranked 19th in the same category. I don't think Greene is going to get 400 carries, so there's plenty of room for LT to get 200-250 without cutting into the number of touches Greene would need to be the fantasy workhorse so many want him to be. It's just not going to be a grueling competition for playing time in New York like it typically would be elsewhere. I'm also sure even an aging LT can tick up his YPC a few fractions behind that O-line.


LaDainian Tomlinson projections

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