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News-Herald Assistant Sports Editor Kevin Kleps doesn’t just write headlines and stories. He also checks on his fantasy sports teams. A lot. See if the moves and news from the world of sports affect your fantasy teams.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Fantasy focus: LaDainian Tomlinson

It's possible you blame him for your 2008 fantasy season going downhill faster than a contract extension given by Randy Lerner.

Your lasting image of him might be that of the sullen running back, standing on the sideline, visor masking his eyes, in the biggest playoff game of his life, watching as his Chargers lost to the Patriots in the 2008 AFC championship game.

You could even call him washed up.

Whatever your feelings, even the biggest Chargers hater has to think LaDainian Tomlinson deserves better than this.

By all accounts, he's a good guy. He seems to be well-liked by his teammates, the fans and the media.

And what's mattered quite a bit to us: In eight NFL seasons, he's rushed for 11,760 yards and 126 touchdowns, and caught 510 passes for 3,801 yards and 15 scores. That's an average season of 1,470 rushing yards, 64 receptions for 475 yards and 18 total TDs.

He's the best fantasy player this decade -- and it's not even debatable.

And now, less than five months before he turns 30 -- the age at which many running backs' careers go the way of the current economy -- he's transforming into the 2003 Marshall Faulk.

That season, at age 30, Faulk -- L.T. before L.T., if you will -- rushed for 818 yards, caught 45 passes for 290 yards and scored 11 TDs in as many games. In 2008, L.T., at age 29, rushed for 1,110 yards, caught 52 passes for 426 yards and scored 12 TDs in 16 games.

In 2004, Faulk rushed for 774 yards and three TDs. A year later, in his final NFL season, he ran for 292 yards as Steven Jackson's backup.

L.T. seems to have more fuel in the tank at this stage of his career than Faulk. Still, his ability to be a top-10, or even top-20, running back next year is a legitimate question, especially after sitting out the Chargers' elimination game in each of the last two postseasons.

With a salary-cap figure of $8.79 million and a 2009 salary of $6.725 million, it's understandable that the Chargers would hope Tomlinson takes a pay cut, or even that they're contemplating life without L.T. -- one with the electric, soon-to-be-free-agent Darren Sproles sharing carries with a yet-to-identified hammer in the mold of LenDale White.

None of that excuses what happened last week, when Chargers general manager A.J. Smith, responding to a post by Tomlinson on his Web site that said he hoped to end his career in San Diego, said the following to the San Diego Union-Tribune: "I have no intentions of leaving San Diego. San Diego is where my GM career started and where I'd like it to end. I also have nothing but love and the utmost respect for the team, the players and the Spanos family. I have absolutely no control over how long I will be with the Chargers."

The comments were understandably interpreted as Smith mocking Tomlinson. The outrage was such that Smith apologized and reached out to Tomlinson this week to smooth things over.

Smith's flub might weaken any contractual stance the Chargers were planning to take against one of their best players ever. Or it might be a sign of things to come -- the post-L.T. era, one that could get under way even before the player who ranks second all-time in rushing TDs reaches the big 3-0.

In a blog near the end of the regular season, I asked fantasy owners who drafted L.T. two questions: At which point in the first round did you draft him, and did you make the playoffs?

As I expected, the overwhelming majority of the owners who responded said they selected L.T. first overall. What I didn't expect was the majority of those who posted comments on the site or e-mailed said they made the playoffs, and many were the first or second seed in the postseason. Since Tomlinson wasn't Tomlinson in 2008, and since you usually can't afford the No. 1 overall pick in the draft to have a down year, I figured the responses would be much more negative.

The sentiments of Josh, who wrote in a comment at the end of the blog, "What a waste! ... L.T. was an absolute disappointment," were in the minority.

What will be the majority feeling heading into 2009: L.T. will be viewed as a No. 2 running back at best. The position got much younger, thanks to an outstanding rookie class, in 2008, and the TD machine of the decade is ancient by the standard set at his position.

In the list of the best keepers at each position, a link you can find to the right of this post, I ranked Tomlinson No. 20 at running back.

That seems too low for a five-time Pro Bowler who will go down as one of the greats at his position.

Until you consider his age. And his contract. And his dwindling numbers.

L.T. could surprise us all and have a big 2009. Or he could be Eddie George, post-Tennessee, the one who played the final year of his career in Dallas -- a season that began with George at the less-than-magical age of 30.

Of the two scenarios, would the former surprise you more than the latter?

If the answer is yes, you also have your answer of what to expect from L.T. next season.

Go in with low expectations, and hope to be surprised.

By now, as a Browns fan, that should be a familiar exercise.


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