One of the hot topics of the fantasy football world this offseason has been LaDainian Tomlinson and what kind of production to expect from him in 2009. I drafted him last year, and it was quite the roller coaster ride. One of the golden rules of fantasy football is to always play your studs, but I’ll admit that I benched him a few times last year out of frustration. Doing that cost me two games, but leaving him in my lineup cost me a few, as well. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t sometimes.
A lot of the 2008 owners of LT have been saying either – “He will return to glory in 2009 because he is ‘The Man’”, or “He cost me my season last year and I’ll never have him on my team again.” Both of those sentiments are illogical and are not the right philosophy to have when playing fantasy football regardless of the player. After each season, you reevaluate each and every player, some go up and some go down. 2008 was the year when LT finally dropped down a notch and everyone hit the panic button.
In standard scoring fantasy football leagues, LT finished sixth among RBs, with 1,110 yards, 12 total tds and he just missed 300 carries at 292. He also had 52 receptions for 426 yards. If somebody with a name other than LT posted season totals like this, everybody would be happy with that kind of production. But that’s not good enough for LT, right? On the flip side of those totals, he had three of those 12 touchdowns in week 17. He only hit 100 yards rushing in two contests and had five games where he rushed for fewer than 45 yards rushing.
What’s more critical to be aware of other than just looking at LT’s numbers is the emergence of Darren Sproles. Sproles became more and more valuable to the San Diego Chargers’ offense as the season wore on. You could easily tell the difference between the two as LT looked sluggish nearly all season, while Sproles was like a burst of lightning. Is Sproles going to overtake LT on the depth chart? Absolutely not, and I don’t think you can even compare this duo to what the Carolina Panthers have in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. However, Sproles’ role on this team deters Tomlinson’s fantasy value, unfortunately. At 30 years old, and having been injured the past two seasons, LT can no longer be the backbone of this offense. He is still the focal point, but he can’t do it all by himself anymore. Sproles is there to keep LT fresh by taking a lot of the handoffs and receptions that used to go to Tomlinson. If LT is tired or sore, Norv Turner shouldn’t think twice about telling him to sit and putting Sproles in there for as long as need be. To put it simply - Turner and the Chargers don’t need LT to rack up the yardage and TDs like he used to since they have Sproles and a potent passing attack now, but they will need LT to be productive for the team to be a Super Bowl contender. They’re going to have to keep him as fresh and healthy as possible for the playoff push and the postseason.
Besides nearly cutting ties with LT during the offseason, Turner has made it clear that LT is still the main man in this running attack. I believe Turner when he says that, but I think he’s crazy if he expect LT to get between 300-325 carries. Something tells that he’s just trying to keep his star happy.
You have to remember that back when LT was dominating in years past, San Diego’s offense was designed for him to succeed – meaning it was a run-first offense. He had Michael Turner as his sidekick, like Sproles, but he also had fullback Lorenzo Neal paving the way for him. It’s pretty evident that the lack of Turner and especially Neal has hurt Tomlinson. In addition, the Chargers’ passing game wasn’t much of a threat back then. Sure they’ve had all-pro tight end Antonio Gates, but until last year, the WR core has been pretty weak in San Diego. That all changed after last season when Phillip Rivers had an outstanding season under center. Rivers has multiple weapons to throw to – Chris Chambers, Vincent Jackson, Gates and Malcolm Floyd as the deep threat. This new dynamic makes San Diego’s offense a lot more balanced, if not a pass-first offense now. All that adds up to fewer carries for LT. Still a threat as a receiver, LT had 78 targets in 2008, while Sproles had 34. I think LT will have more targets than Sproles in ’09, but the gap will be tighter.
The schedule shouldn’t make a huge impact in which players you draft, but it is always something to take into consideration. The Chargers don’t exactly have an easy road ahead of him in 2009. They will be headed to Pittsburgh, New York (Giants), Dallas and Tennessee. They also have Baltimore and Washington coming to Qualcomm Stadium.
So now for the ultimate question – where should you target LT in your draft? As always, you need to draft based on your scoring system and the way your opponents are drafting around you. For arguments sake, I personally think LT should go early in the second round. In a 10-team league, Larry Fitzgerald and maybe Drew Brees will be drafted in the first round. There are easily eight other running backs that I personally would take over Tomlinson (Adrian Peterson, Matt Forte, Michael Turner, Maurice Jones-Drew, Chris Johnson, Steven Jackson, Steve Slaton and Frank Gore).
The first four on my list don’t need to be defended. Chris Johnson is the Tennessee Titans’ offense plain and simple, like LT had recently been in San Diego, despite Lendale White vulturing some TDs. Although Steven Jackson and Frank Gore each have some injury issues, those two offenses are designed to run the ball, neither of those RBs have either a handcuff or are part of an RBBC and age isn’t a factor yet for those two. Steve Slaton doesn’t have a handcuff or an RBBC, as well, and given what he did as a rookie, I think he could have a breakout season in 2009. After all those guys, I clump LT in there with Clinton Portis, Brian Westbrook, DeAngelo Williams, Brandon Jacobs and Marion Barber, with Williams being the best in that pack.
My advice to those of you debating on LT is that he would be an excellent RB2. If you want him as your RB1, don’t wait too long to fill out your depth at RB.
Tomlinson is one of the greatest fantasy football players of all time. You couldn’t ask for anything more from an RB when he was in his prime. It appears as though those days may be over. You can’t be married to the name because of what he used to do in the past. However, what’s left now is still a very good fantasy football player. He just isn’t as good as he used to be. He isn’t getting any younger and he’s only going to be more prone to injury. Don’t expect him to go back to his old form from 2006, but hoping for similar totals to 2008 is a definite possibility.