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Old Faces in New Places - LaDainian Tomlinson
John Tuvey
May 7, 2010
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Other Players: Donovan McNabb  Jason Campbell  LaDainian Tomlinson  Chester Taylor  LenDale White & Leon Washington
  Nate Burleson  Anquan Boldin  Santonio Holmes  Antonio Bryant  Brandon Marshall

LaDainian Tomlinson to the Jets

It all boils down to this: what’s left in the tank?

A good share of fantasy owners were off the LaDainian Tomlinson bandwagon last year; while they missed out on a dozen touchdowns, they weren’t forced to endure career lows across the board in games played, attempts, yards, yards per carry, and receptions. The cumulative total of more than 3,500 NFL touches, regular and postseason combined, seem to be catching up with LT. Further evidence of the toll the mileage is taking can be found by looking at this stat courtesy of Pro Football Focus: among regular running backs, Tomlinson ranked dead-dog last in yards after contact.

Tomlinson is also on the wrong side of 30 and has seen his yards-per-carry drop steadily over the past four seasons, a total of two yards per carry since his 5.2 in 2006.

Of course, at this time last year the talk was how Thomas Jones was too old and washed up. And while he was coming off a significantly more productive season in 2008 than LT is this year he was able to keep Father Time at bay with 1,402 yards and 14 touchdowns. Those numbers ranked Jones sixth among fantasy backs last season, 13 spots ahead of LT. And Jones wasn’t exactly getting much more than what was blocked for him; according to Pro Football Focus, his 2.1 yards after contact per rush was only slightly better than Tomlinson’s 1.9.

So if you think LT still has some game left, then it’s about his situation. The Jets ran the ball an average of 10 times more per game than the Chargers last year; they also ran it with significantly more success, 4.5 yards per carry to 3.3 for San Diego. That’s roughly the same difference between Jones’ yards per carry last year (4.2) and Tomlinson’s (3.2), so with the backs averaging the same yards after contact it would stand to reason that the Jets’ line was clearing more room for Jones. And that’s the line Tomlinson will be running behind in 2010.

At least, that’s the line LT will be running behind some of the time in 2010. After all, the distribution of carries in the postseason—54 for Shonn Greene to 45 for Jones—suggests that Greene will be seeing a significant portion of the Jets’ workload.

There’s also the question of just how much workload Tomlinson can handle. He carried the ball 20 times or more just five times last year, compared to 11 times for Jones. So you can’t simply slot him into Jones’ numbers; the split will likely be a whole lot closer to 50/50, or maybe 60/40 in favor of Greene.

Perhaps the Jets brought Tomlinson in to fill Leon Washington’s role as a third-down and change-of-pace back—a role that produced 461 yards from scrimmage on just over 12 touches per game prior to Washington’s season-ending injury in Week 7. Sans Leon the Jets ranked last in the league in running back receptions with 28; though Jets backs accounted for only eight receptions after Washington got hurt, even prior to the injury the Jets were on pace to finish behind every other team in that category.

The opportunity for LT, then, is cloudy at best. Will he split carries with Greene, and if so can he hold up to the workload? Or will he be the designated pass-catching back on a team that targeted backs 52 times last year (by comparison, 30 NFL teams had more than 52 running back receptions)? Even if you estimate 15-20 touches per game for Tomlinson, there’s still one burning question to be answered:

What’s left in the tank?

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