Ta-ta, Tolbert?

The Chargers have two key free agents in the offensive backfield: Mike Tolbert and Jacob Hester. Although Tolbert has been the more productive player since the duo entered the league together in 2008, it would appear Hester has the better odds of returning. Read on to find out why.

When A.J. Smith drafts a player, that individual will always be "one of Smith's guys." When Smith trades up to select said player, as he did with Jacob Hester in 2008, that bond is even stronger.

Smith is willing to pay a steep price to keep his guys, as he proved last offseason by giving Eric Weddle a $40 million contract that made him the league's highest paid safety. Hester will not get a contract anywhere near that realm, nor will he become the highest paid player at his position, but Smith will make sure his starting FB stays put.

Mike Tolbert's situation is quite different. Rather than being hand-picked by Smith, Tolbert entered the league as an undrafted free agent. He's exceeded expectations, scoring 21 TDs in the last two years, but he has a few things working against him:

RB Mike Tolbert
Mike Ehrmann/Getty
1) Money. Ryan Mathews was a top-12 pick in the final year before the new rookie wage scale went into effect; he enters the third year of a deal that pays him an average salary of over $4 million. Also, Hester's salary figures to at least double as he is no longer restricted by the rookie contract he received as a late third-round pick. The Chargers may not want to spend much more than that in the offensive backfield.

2) Value. The Chargers do not place a high value on the backup running back position. That is why Michael Turner (Atlanta Falcons) and Darren Sproles (New Orleans Saints) were allowed to relocate to the NFC South. Last offseason, Smith declined to match the Saints' offer to Sproles, which was a modest four-year, $14 million deal.

3) Curtis Brinkley. A former practice squad player, Brinkley has proven worthy of a place in the rotation. He made that statement emphatically in a prime-time road game against the Kansas City Chiefs, when he ran 10 times for 43 yards and caught three passes for 24 yards. He tied up the contest with less than five minutes to play by rushing in a touchdown from 2 yards out and then making a sensational catch for the two-point conversion.

This isn't to imply Tolbert's fate is sealed. His contributions on special teams help his case immensely, as the Chargers do not want to take a step back in that department. Also, Smith may not want to take a gamble on Mathews staying healthy, given his history of being felled by nagging injuries. The Tolbert-Brinkley tandem makes for a solid insurance policy.

But what is certain is Smith will not overpay for Tolbert the way he did for Weddle ... and the way he is considering doing with Vincent Jackson. That means Tolbert may very well hit the open market and the Chargers could very well lose their backup running back for the third time in the last five years.

Should the Chargers re-sign RB Mike Tolbert? Talk about it in the message boards.

Michael Lombardo is 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 16 years and covered the team since 2003. You can see more of his updates by following him on twitter.

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