Everyone is playing fantasy football these days. Your dry cleaner, your mailman, your grandmother – everyone.
This past season, Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson was the unquestioned No. 1 pick in every fantasy football league. Even the most purple-faced of Vikings fans couldn't justify Adrian Peterson ahead of Tomlinson. No cheesesteak aficionado in Philadelphia was crazy enough to choose Brian Westbrook over LT. Tomlinson, who had scored an unheard of 129 touchdowns in his first 113 games from 2001-07, was the top face on the fantasy totem pole from sea to shining sea.
But this year? Peterson is expected to be the first choice more often than not. His name will be called before Tomlinson's. Up-and-comers like Matt Forte, Michael Turner, and Maurice Jones-Drew will also beat him to the podium.
According to the fantasy rankings at NFL.com, Tomlinson is the No. 12 running back for 2009, meaning he could come off the board in the second round – second round? – of many drafts this summer. That's quite the fall for a player that still has a chance to walk away from the game as the leading rusher in league history. Not only did Tomlinson record a career-low 1,110 yards on the ground this past year and watched the majority of San Diego's playoff run from the sideline nursing a groin injury, but the former Texas Christian Horned Frog turns 30 years old this month.
Tomlinson averaged 3.8 yards per carry in '08.
Harry How/Getty Images
Much like Hugh Hefner's girlfriends, a ball carrier hitting the big 3-0 is oftentimes the kiss of death.
"I think LaDainian Tomlinson is at the end of the road," says NFL.com fantasy expert Michael Fabiano. "Norv Turner is nuts if he thinks LT can handle 325 carries this season."
The list of running backs that went to the Pro Bowl after turning 30 is quite short, while the list of running backs that saw their production suffer a serious setback – including many of those very same Pro Bowlers – is quite lengthy. Just look at some of the legends currently ahead of Tomlinson on the NFL's career rushing list. Marshall Faulk last topped 1,000 yards when he was 28. Eric Dickerson never did better than 729 yards in his 30s. The man Tomlinson is chasing at the top, Emmitt Smith, racked up quadruple digits three times on the wrong side of 30, although he wasn't much of a gamebreaker, had an enviable offensive line in front of him, and only averaged 3.9, 3.8, 2.8, and 3.5 yards per carry his final four campaigns.
If the decision makers in San Diego were 100 percent sure Tomlinson was the same player that set a record with 31 total TDs in 2006 when named league MVP, then they wouldn't have slapped a $6.6 million franchise tag on reserve Darren Sproles.
"I think LaDainian Tomlinson is at the end of the road. Norv Turner is nuts if he thinks LT can handle 325 carries this season."
– Michael Fabiano
Typically, running back is the single most disposable position in all of sports. Provided Tomlinson was destined to bounce back with another 325-plus carry season and rack up 1,500-plus yards again, that $6.6 million the Chargers set aside for Sproles could have been spent on another receiving target for Philip Rivers, more depth for a 31st-ranked pass defense, or a lifetime supply of knee braces for Shawne Merriman. But Sproles was considered indispensible, perhaps even more so after watching Turner – a backup to Tomlinson his first four years in the league – develop into a 1,699-yard workhorse in Atlanta.
"The Chargers have been wrong before," says Craig Ellenport, also an NFL.com fantasy expert, but one who disagrees with Fabiano with regard to Tomlinson. "And think about this: When you rush for 1,110 yards and 11 TDs and it's considered the beginning of the end, that's saying something."
Tomlinson cracked 100 yards just twice in '08.
Donald Miralle/Getty Images
When it comes to the wide receiver position, most of the time you're better off going with the more experienced player. While age is certainly a factor for pass catchers, the best of the best remain effective even when their physical skills start to deteriorate. Understanding the offense better, knowing how to find that soft spot in the zone, using smarts more than speed to create separation from defenders – it's been done time and time again. Jerry Rice, the greatest wideout of all time, made five straight All-Pro teams from age 30-34.
Tomlinson and Westbrook, however, are the only running backs in the top 20 that will be north of 30 come Week 1 – and Westbrook is falling fast because of even more wear and tear coming to the surface this offseason.
Fabiano reminds everyone that Dickerson and Eddie George are the lone backs ever to log more carries before 30 than Tomlinson, and both of them went from talk-of-the-town to run-of-the-mill seemingly overnight.
"They both broke down in the season of their 30th birthday," he says.
Ellenport has pulled back his career projections for Tomlinson, but he still believes the eventual Hall of Famer has plenty of gas left in the tank.
"I once thought LT would catch Emmitt for the all-time rushing crown," he says. "I no longer think he can go that far. But he's definitely got a few more big seasons left."
Tomlinson could certainly be a force again, especially with an improving quarterback in Rivers and an elite tight end in Antonio Gates to help keep that eighth man out of the box. But Faulk was never the same once he lost it. Same with Dickerson, George, and countless others. As terrific as he's been for the game of football, both on and off the field, why should LT be any different?
Unfortunately for the Chargers, it's much easier for Hef to find a another Playmate than it is for general manager A.J. Smith to find another Tomlinson.
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