I was pleased to select New York Jets running back LaDainian Tomlinson after the 10th round in a recent mock draft. Despite the fact I can't call any player taken outside the top 100 a particularly bad choice -- it's a rather late pick, after all, hard to judge as a bust -- the looks I got made it seem like I had to defend the choice. Hello, it's LT, Hall of Famer, touchdown maker! OK, he's on the wrong side of 30 and his prime skills appear long gone, plus second-year running back Shonn Greene is a popular choice to emerge, but I still view Tomlinson as a contributor for the Jets and fantasy owners.
Of course, I'm finding little company on my Tomlinson island, as ESPN Fantasy ranks him 41st at running back and 99th overall. Colleague Christopher Harris has Tomlinson at No. 127 overall and wrote, "The years have taken their toll. Tomlinson was a shadow of his former self in 2008, and much, much worse in 2009."
I can't argue those points, or how Tomlinson's touchdown rate has precipitously dropped, but I also see opportunity with a franchise that values the running game and has built an offensive line worthy of making it work. Plus, I think the touches -- via the ground and the air -- and the touchdown chances will be there.
Greene certainly made a big impression with his consecutive 100-yard rushing games in the playoffs, totaling 263 yards in wins over the Cincinnati Bengals and San Diego Chargers, and I view him as the team's home run hitter. I also think the Jets know this isn't a running back ready for a 300-carry season. He wasn't durable in college and dealt with ankle and rib problems as a rookie; his bruising, rumbling running style is often his worst enemy. In a way, he's like Dallas Cowboys tantalizer Felix Jones with a better opportunity and a supporting cast few trust. I ranked Greene as a strong No. 2 running back, 15th overall, but I'm having reservations about it, because I just don't see why the Jets would have taken Tomlinson unless they planned on using him.
Tomlinson is not going to be asked to replace what Thomas Jones did. Now a Kansas City Chief, Jones was a workhorse who averaged 311 rushes and 1,357 yards the past two seasons. Even on a team intent on featuring the run, there was little room for others to make their mark. Greene rushed for 540 yards in 2009, and Leon Washington, despite annually being touted as a serious threat, averaged 484 rushing yards in his three healthy seasons. However, I don't see Greene being asked to replicate Jones' workload either. The Jets are more likely to share the running back duties.
ESPN Fantasy projects 269 rushes for Greene for 1,210 yards, with Tomlinson getting 161 rushes, turning them into 644 yards. That looks like a strong opportunity for Tomlinson; last season 161 carries would have ranked 32nd in the league. The only "No. 2" running backs on a team to get that many carries were Ahmad Bradshaw of the New York Giants and whichever of the Carolina Panthers running backs you think was the reserve. That's it.
I'd call 161 carries significant and nearly 4 yards per rush feasible. Let's remember that as recently as two seasons ago, Tomlinson was a real threat as a pass catcher. In 2009, the Chargers wanted to keep him healthy and avoided him in the passing game. For the eight years before 2009, Tomlinson was catching 50-plus passes annually. Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez seldom threw to running backs in 2009, as Washington and Jones combined for 25 receptions. Greene, incredibly, didn't catch any passes. I think Tomlinson's receiving ability will be featured at times, and he can approach 50 receptions, certainly increasing his value for those in point-per-reception formats. And, let's not forget, he's likely to receive goal-line attention.
Ultimately, this doesn't make Tomlinson a weekly fantasy starter or even a No. 3 running back for standard or larger leagues. It does, however, make him eminently draftable and someone with upside, a sure top-100 pick to me who might get a whole lot more opportunity than we think. I'm not off the Greene bandwagon, but I expect the Jets to make good use of their Hall of Fame option as well.