Chargers camp battle preview: Backup RB

The Battle: Although there are no questions as to who the Chargers starting running back will be this season, given LaDainian Tomlinson's all-everything stature, there are plenty of questions behind him. "We have put last year behind us," said Tomlinson in reference to the team's 12-4 season and his lingering groin injury. "We have to work towards a new year." And the backs vying for the backup role will have a battle in this new year, heightened by Darren Sproles' minicamp performance.

The Competitors:

Jesse Chatman:

Chatman is a big and powerful back who at times can be too big for coach Schottenheimer's tastes. Nevertheless, the five-foot-eight, 247 lb. back is a primetime performer. He always does better in games than in practice, and does better in the fourth quarter than in the first. While he thrives running inside and wearing down defenders, he also has homerun ability. He averaged an incredible six yards per carry last season, and picked up over 400 yards from scrimmage in spot duty.

Michael Turner:

Turner is another big back, although at five-foot-ten, 237 lbs. he is slightly leaner than Chatman. He has good speed and vision and rarely puts the ball on the ground. The knock on him coming out of college was that he was a spotty receiver, but he impressed coaches with how well he caught the ball in camp last year. He has more youth and athleticism than Chatman, which may be crucial if this becomes a numbers game. His only extended playing time during the regular season came in the season finale, when his 87 yards on only 15 carries gave Chargers fans a preview of what the future may hold for this emerging talent.

"I was not always the main guy at Northern (Illinois)," Turner revealed. "I've been in this role before, and I am comfortable with it. I just want to win games and I am willing to do whatever it takes to win games, that's my main focus."

Darren Sproles:

Sproles is virtually a lock to make the team because of his ability to double as a return specialist. While he will likely spend his rookie season working on special teams and in a few third-down packages, he has the ability to handle a larger load. Although he is vastly undersized (he is listed generously at five-foot-six), he is surprisingly tough and durable. He is a very sudden and explosive player who hides behind his blockers, breaks tackles and makes big-time plays on a regular basis. It is a treat to watch this kid run.

Andrew Pinnock:

Pinnock is wildcard in this competition who some may argue does not even belong in this debate. However, he can help this team win in more ways than any of the aforementioned players. At 250 lbs. he has the size and strength to play fullback, although he is not as effective a blocker as the team would like to see. However, he is a strong and instinctive runner with quick feet for a man his size. Also, he can catch the ball out of the backfield, and contributes on special teams, especially as the up-man on kick returns. He offers a unique and enticing option as a goal line runner from a one-back set.

"I am looking forward to finally getting my chance and get on the field, play my role and prove that I was the best fullback in that draft," said Pinnock.

Who Should Win:

Chatman should win the primary back-up job. The other players have shown they have the ability to produce, but Chatman has done so, and he has done it in crunch time against good defenses. Sproles should be the third back in the rotation and be allowed to return kicks and get maybe a couple snaps each game on offense, if just to catch the defense off guard. Turner would then have a shot to force the team to keep four true halfbacks, and Pinnock would have a chance to maintain his position as the backup fullback, despite being more of a runner by nature. Keeping six runners overall (including Tomlinson and Lorenzo Neal) is rare, but the talent is deep enough here to justify such a decision.

"I'm pretty sure all of us worry about what happens if L.T. goes down," Chatman said. "Hopefully I'm calming those worries down — if he does go down, that I want them to know that I'm able enough to step in and take care of the job."

Who Will Win:

As much as it pains me to write this, Chatman may be getting set up to be shafted here. Despite constantly overachieving and exceeding all expectations, the numbers may catch up to him. If the team wants to get Sproles involved in the offense, and they do, that leaves few snaps for Chatman, unless Tomlinson gets hurt again. Even in that scenario the team may be comfortable letting Turner be the power complement to Sproles, seeing as Turner now has a season of grooming under his belt. The team may release Pinnock as well, as his chances are hindered by his lack of a true position. Undrafted free agent Matthew Tant, a rookie fullback from Vanderbilt, has impressed so far this offseason, and appears to be the more traditional fullback the team would like to see behind the aging Neal. Also, Pinnock will be hurt by the fact that the biggest splash he has made in his two years on the team came in the form of the four-game league suspension he earned last season for taking a substance banned by the league.

The Bottom Line:

Sproles will get the vast majority of Tomlinson's table scraps.

"What he'll be asked to do here is exactly what he was asked to do in college," head coach Marty Schottenheimer explained after watching him during minicamp. "And he was a standout in college doing those things."

The potential releases of Chatman and Pinnock would give Turner more practice reps, and he appears to be ready is called upon. If Tomlinson goes down and Sproles or Turner fail to produce the big plays Chatman did last season, the team will have nowhere to target their blame other than at their own lack of foresight.

Michael Lombardo can be reached at Lombardo@SanDiegoSports.net


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