The Search for Running Backs Leads to Draft

This just in: The Chargers are seeking running backs.

OK, it's been known for quite some time that the Chargers have a gaping hole in their backfield.

On the heels of finishing near the bottom in every significant running category, the Chargers cut LaDainian Tomlinson and Michael Bennett.

So with the draft drawing near, many believe the Chargers will reach for a running back with either their first pick at No. 28 or at No. 40 in the second round.

Or, do the Chargers go after a defensive tackle with three-time Pro Bowler Jamal Williams ending up in Denver.

"We had some young guys really step up and come through for us," coach Norv Turner said, discounting the Chargers' need at Williams' old spot. "Our defensive line, I think, early in the year, was an area that people looked at as a weakness and I think became a strength for us at the end of the season. So we're not in a position where we have to do something, but again, if we can add a player, that would be great."

With Turner turning attention away from defensive tackle -- and with it being this time of year -- it probably means that's where the Chargers will address that shortcoming first.

Still, it's hard to ignore the thin depth chart at running back, which currently shows Darren Sproles, Mike Tolbert and Jacob Hester.

That's why Turner could be shooting straight when emphasizing the requirement to take care of that position in the draft.

"I've had limited exposure, but you see him enough to know that C.J. Spiller is just dynamite. He does it all, the return game, the explosiveness, the perimeter running. He's an exciting player. He's probably a little bit like (Jahvid) Best at Cal, similar style. Like Joe McKnight at (USC)."

But Spillman figures to be long gone when the Chargers are on the clock. So the Chargers will likely have to settle on someone else.

Anyone for Stanford's Toby Gerhart?

"Gerhart is a lot more explosive player than I think people realize because he's very, very physical," Turner said.

And in that vein, with the shifty Sproles already on hand, could the Chargers go for a bruiser instead of burst?

"I think people look at it and say, `Hey, with Sproles they can offset that.' But we just want the best back. We're going to adjust to what he does. It's a physical game."

But the Chargers have made noise more with a finesse approach by leaning on the passing game and the arm of quarterback Philip Rivers.

While that works, too, at some point the Chargers have to assemble the resemblance of a running game, which could lead general manager A. J. Smith toward a backfield addition.

Right, Coach Turner?

"I don't think you ever say exactly what you're going to do," he said. "But I'm going to be tugging on A.J.'s shirt trying to encourage him to."

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES


RB LaDainian Tomlinson
Donald Miralle/Getty
--The Chargers have run off some key players this offseason, which leads to a question: Just who is the Chargers' leader.

LaDainian Tomlinson is gone. Jamal Williams is out the door. Even Kassim Osgood, a special-teams demon, has exited.

"There is a void, and we have guys who are capable of stepping up," coach Norv Turner said. "Antonio Gates, obviously Philip Rivers, Vincent Jackson."

But Gates, while one of the best to ever play his position, is soft-spoken.

Rivers is an obvious one, and he has the vocal skills to fire up his teammates.

Jackson? He's another quiet guy, and with all his off-field problems, it's not clear he could be the go-to guy.

But Turner has been around long enough in enough different places that he's confident someone will step forward.

"That's a process that you go through in this league and I've gone through it many times," said Turner, who is in his third head-coaching stint. "We've got to get a young guy in and get him going in terms of playing that position, but we've got some great leaders who I think can help our younger players."

He's probably right. And to be clear, Tomlinson wasn't a big soap-box guy, which likely made him more effective. Instead of some players who talk basically because they like to hear themselves speak, Tomlinson would pick his spots.

When he did talk, teammates listened. But that voice now resides with the Jets.

Turner said losing L.T. is more a reflection on the NFL landscape than anything else.

"This league is about change, and adapting to the different situations you're put in," Turner said. "We know we need to go find a runner.

"We want to run the ball, we want to have a balanced offense, that's one of our priorities, and obviously at this point, most of that will happen through the draft."

But drafting someone who can come in and immediately command the respect of veterans is a long shot. So that means the Chargers' leader is likely already wearing one of their uniforms.

Shawne Merriman, on the defensive side, can lead. Same goes with inside linebacker Stephen Cooper. Quentin Jammer is another possibility but he's a not a big talker.

So while the talk has been about the exiting players' production which will be missed, don't overlook their contributions in the locker room.

That's another part of the Chargers which needs shored up for 2010.

"We have a resilient group," Turner added. "We've probably got 10 guys over the past three years that have overcome what could have been career threatening injuries. Some of them have gotten great notoriety -- Shawne Merriman coming off knee surgery, Philip Rivers playing in that championship game with the knee and then having surgery two days later, Antonio Gates, what he's done coming off that toe surgery.

"So we have a resilient group, and our group has been pounding on that door, and we've been pounding hard on that door, and our next step obviously is to go knock that door down, and that's what we're going to get ready to do in the off-season."

--The Chargers are giving no hints that they have given up on Pro Bowl kicker Nate Kaeding, despite his lack of success in playoff games. "I think the biggest thing for Nate is what he's accomplished," coach Norv Turner said. "You go kick 69 straight inside of 40 yards, obviously the ability is there, the mentality is there. He's capable of doing all the things we need him to do. I think he's a great example for our entire team. That last game was a disappointment, but all of us need to bounce back, and I have no doubts about Nate. If we were going to line up and kick one right now, I'm very comfortable and confident he'd make it."

--By replacing starting RT Jeromey Clary in the season's second half, Brandyn Dombrowski earned an additional $254,552 in performance-based pay for last season.

--The Chargers were awarded a fifth-round compensatory pick after losing free agents Igor Olshansky and Mike Goff last season. It will be the 168th overall selection.

--WR Demetrius Byrd, a seventh-round pick last year despite being injured in a car accident prior to the draft, was released.

--Thanks for the memories: A LaDainian Tomlinson vintage T-shirt, which once sold for $39.99 can be had for $4.96 through the team's on-line pro shop.

--The team will start its offseason weight-lifting sessions on March 29.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think when you have a game like that, one or two things happen. Guys have a tough time coming back from it, or it makes you stronger. I think our guys have a mind-set that it's going to make them stronger and make them more determined." -- Coach Norv Turner on how he anticipates his players will respond after their playoff face-plant against the Jets.

OFFSEASON STRATEGY


QB Charlie Whitehurst
Shana Siler/SDBoltReport.com
All attention is being turned to the draft, and the Chargers are feeling better about it after moving quarterback Charlie Whitehurst.

By peddling him to the Seahawks, the Chargers' booty included moving up 20 spots in the second round by switching places with the Seahawks. They will also receive Seattle's third-round pick in 2011.

The Chargers seldom do much in free agency and that doesn't seem likely to change this year. To date, the Chargers don't have any significant signings in their past or future.

That could change after the draft if the Chargers can't fill some needs. But don't count on it.

TEAM NEEDS

1. Running back: The Chargers move the ball through the air. But someone has to be behind Philip Rivers and currently there's not much there. The removal of LaDainian Tomlinson and Michael Bennett from the roster means this need leaps off the Chargers' offseason page. The Chargers have the dynamic Darren Sproles, but he's more of a situational back than one to be counted on for yards between the tackles.

2. Defensive tackle: The Chargers were tardy in finding a replacement for Jamal Williams, a three-time Pro Bowler who has been breaking down in recent seasons. The Chargers now need to move fast, unless they want to spend another season plugging the defense's biggest hole in the middle with a collection of journeyman players. Ryon Bingham, Williams' backup, should return. But he doesn't have the girth and mass that Williams displayed.

3. Cornerback: The Chargers once bragged this was among the team's deepest position. But they grew tired of babysitting the talented but immature Antonio Cromartie and shipped the Pro Bowler to the Jets. There are some bodies behind Cromartie, but can any of them separate themselves to prove they are up to taking Cromartie's spot?

FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.

TRANSITION PLAYER: None.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

--C Dennis Norman is at a spot where the team has depth and likely won't come back.

--OL Jon Runyan is going to retire and run for Congress.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers)

--*C Eric Ghiaciuc (not tendered as RFA) won't have a place with the number of linemen -- when healthy -- ahead of him.

--*OLB Marques Harris (not tendered as RFA) is a decent pass rusher but the Chargers will likely see him go where he would get more of a chance to contribute.

--*LB Dontarrious Thomas (not tendered as RFA) seldom saw the field when arriving late last year and appears to be a goner.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (*indicates restricted because of uncapped year)

--RT Jeromey Clary (tendered at $1.684M with second-round pick as compensation) will return but will be pushed by Brandyn Dombrowski for a starting job.

--*ILB Tim Dobbins (tendered at $1.176M with fifth-round pick as compensation) is a solid backup after getting lapped by Brandon Siler; should return.

--*WR Malcom Floyd (tendered at $3.168M with first- and third-round picks as compensation) could get more passes thrown his way elsewhere, but he likes San Diego and will likely take a little less to remain here.

--*WR Vincent Jackson (tendered at $3.268M with first- and third-round picks as compensation) is the team's top receiver and will be brought back -- unless the team has grown tired of his immaturity; that's doubtful after two 1,000-yard seasons.

--*DL Travis Johnson (tendered at $1.226M with first-round pick as compensation) will probably have to settle for less money, but the former first-round pick of the Texans might have found a home in San Diego.

--*LT Marcus McNeill (tendered at $3.168M with first- and third-round picks as compensation) is a stud at left tackle and among the team's biggest offseason priorities.

--*OLB Shawne Merriman (tendered at $3.168M with first- and third-round picks as compensation) will return, possibly, if willing to swallow his pride and lower his price tag. A motivated Merriman playing on a one-year deal could be attractive to the Chargers.

--*RB Darren Sproles (tendered at $7.283M with first- and third-round picks as compensation) was tendered after it was first thought the Chargers would let him go.

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS

--OLB Antwan Applewhite (tendered at $470,000) can deliver a burst off the ball and is keen on special teams. He should be brought back.

--FB Mike Tolbert (tendered at $470,000) continues to improve and the Chargers could give him more carries in the base offense, depending on the situation at running back.

PLAYERS RE-SIGNED

--DT Alfonso Boone: UFA; 2 yrs, terms unknown.
--*DT Antonio Garay: Not tendered as RFA; terms unknown.
--DT Ian Scott: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--TE Kris Wilson: UFA; 2 yrs, terms unknown.

PLAYERS ACQUIRED

--RB Marcus Mason (waivers Redskins).
--CB Donald Strickland: FA Jets; 2 yrs, terms unknown.

PLAYERS LOST

--RB Michael Bennett (released).
--WR Demetrius Byrd (released/non-football injury).
--CB Antonio Cromartie (traded Jets).
--TE Brandon Manumaleuna: UFA Bears; $15M/5 yrs, $2M SB/$3M RB.
--WR Kassim Osgood: UFA Jaguars; $6.675M/3 yrs, $2.975M guaranteed.
--RB LaDainian Tomlinson (released).
--*QB Charlie Whitehurst: RFA; re-signed, traded to Seahawks.
--NT Jamal Williams (released).

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