Chargers Turn to Draft to Replace L.T.

The NFL Universe is counting the days till the draft, where the most pressing question coming out of San Diego is, "How will the Bolts replace great LaDainian Tomlinson?" The draft is still about a week away but the answer is already in -- they won't.

There is no dismissing the impact LaDainian Tomlinson had on the San Diego Chargers. CEO Dean Spanos made that clear when he green-lighted the decision to cut ties with L.T. in February.

"When [L.T.] came here in 2001, we were a struggling franchise," Spanos said. "It's clear that we are where we are today because of him. He truly has been the heart and soul of our team all these years, and just done an outstanding job and helped turn this franchise around into a winning franchise."

Fortunately for A.J. Smith, he does not face the daunting task of drafting another L.T. There is no pressure to find a do-it-all back who can score 31 TDs in a single season; or catch 100 balls and average more than 100 yards per game in the same campaign; or compile a passer rating of 146.9.

RB LaDainian Tomlinson
Donald Miralle/Getty
Smith does not need to replace the Sports Center version of L.T., rather the L.T. who sputtered to the end of his San Diego stay.

The truth is, the 2009 Chargers won 11 consecutive games in spite of L.T., not because of him.

Since joining the New York Jets, L.T has complained that opportunities were taken away from him last year. Yet he was given 223 carries in 2009 despite averaging just 3.3 ypc -- no other halfback with a ypc of 3.3 or lower received more than 131 attempts.

Bottom line: The Chargers stuck with their struggling running back more than any other team in the league was willing to do.

Also, late in his career Tomlinson wasn't the team leader many made him out to be. He had frequent disagreements with Norv Turner about his role in the offense and was not afraid to voice his disapproval to his peers in the locker room, with Antonio Gates serving as his go-to option.

This is not to disparage Tomlinson, who did more good on the field and in the community than any player ever to don the blue and gold. Rather, it paints a more realistic picture of the void A.J. Smith needs to fill in the NFL Draft.

The Chargers don't need a runner who can average over 5.2 ypc, as Tomlinson did twice during his Chargers tenure. If these Bolts can win 13 games while averaging 3.3 ypc, as they did last season, they will feel like world-beaters if a rookie can come in and average even 4 yards per attempt.

Also, a rookie does not need to come in and replace a leadership void in the locker room or the huddle. Philip Rivers is the leader of this offense and this team; it's been that way since 2007 and figures to stay that way for years to come.

So, how do the Chargers get by without their game-changing running back? The same way they did it last season.

As for replacing the '09 version of L.T., that's not too steep a task for a team with the No. 28 and No. 40 overall picks in the draft. The Chargers figure to grab two running backs in the first four rounds, and if those two players can embrace Norv Turner's philosophy and average anything over 3.3 ypc, the Chargers will be running in the right direction.

Which elite running back prospects are the Chargers showing the most interest in? Find out in our Insiders Draft Talk Forum.

Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003. You can see more of his updates by following him on twitter.

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