Commentary

LaDainian Tomlinson could be bargain

Updated: August 17, 2010, 6:46 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

32 Questions
LaDainian Tomlinson: Is the end nigh?

It's fitting that, a year after by far his worst of nine NFL seasons -- one in which I strongly advised fantasy owners to avoid him -- LaDainian Tomlinson is the subject of a "32 Questions" in which I'm picked to analyze his prospects in his follow-up year.

No, this is isn't an attempt to tout a correct 2009 prediction. After all, anyone who cared to study the extensive history of 30-year-old running backs could have foreseen Tomlinson's career regression. To quickly illustrate, the former San Diego Chargers star, who set the fantasy world ablaze with a 410-point fantasy season in 2006, lost approximately 30 percent of his fantasy production in each successive year. To quote the specifics, it declined by 28.5 percent in 2007, 27.6 percent in 2008 and 31.1 percent in 2009. That 31.1 percent, actually, represents almost twice the level of regression of a typical back during his age-30 campaign.

The purpose, therefore, of dredging up memories of Tomlinson's miserable 2009 is to show how much the proverbial pendulum, in terms of his perceived value, has swung in the opposite direction in a mere calendar year. Last season, he was a consensus first-round selection. This year, he's barely a ninth-round selection, with an average draft position of 94.9 that ranks him the 90th player picked overall.

Of course, last season I was particularly anti-Tomlinson, though much of the reason was because of blindly fantasy owners were selecting him as a first-rounder/No. 1 fantasy back, with their typical justification going something like this: "C'mon, he's LaDainian Tomlinson, a guy this good has to bounce back!" This season many of those same owners, having been burned by the certain Hall of Famer a year ago, are shying from him even beyond the point where the first 100 picks are off the board. They'll often say things like: "Tomlinson? Ugh, he's done." In many cases, even his team's defense has been picked sooner, and in terms of ADP, that's absolutely true; the Jets' D has a 65.3 (63rd overall) ADP.

It's that perception that Tomlinson was a fantastic selection in 2009, but a dreadful one in 2010, that makes him a potential bargain in the late rounds this year. There might yet be enough left in this tank for one last fantasy hurrah.

A big reason is the New York Jets and Rex Ryan's run-based offense. The 2009 Jets led the league with 607 rushing attempts, which, incidentally, represented the most of any team since the Pittsburgh Steelers amassed 618 in 2004. They also sport arguably the league's most talented offensive line, which sent three members to the Pro Bowl last season: left guard Alan Faneca, left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson and center Nick Mangold. Though Faneca was released during the offseason, the presence of Ferguson and Mangold along with sturdy veterans Brandon Moore and Damien Woody should keep this team ranked at or near the top, especially now that the quartet has had a year to work together in Ryan's zone-blocking scheme.

LaDainian Tomlinson
Alan Maglaque/US PresswireLaDainian Tomlinson will get opportunities to shine with the Jets, but how many chances will determine his fantasy value.
Combine those factors and you're talking about Tomlinson having signed into perhaps the best possible situation for a running back, the primary strike against him being that the Jets already have a younger, quicker option at the position in Shonn Greene. In Tomlinson's defense, however, Thomas Jones and Leon Washington, who were both let go following last season, totaled 403 rushing attempts between them (or 66.4 percent of the Jets' total). Greene had 108, and if you know anything about the wear and tear at the running back position, there's no possible way that Greene could absorb 403 more carries. In fact, he might not absorb half of those.

While the Jets might talk up the notion of a "dual starter" approach, it's more likely they'll utilize Greene as their primary back, sprinkling in Tomlinson situationally.

• On passing downs: Tomlinson has been a skilled pass-catcher throughout his career, averaging 59 receptions per year, albeit only a disappointing 20 in 2009. His reputation certainly exceeds that of Greene, who didn't catch a pass last year.

To this point, Tomlinson's value in PPR leagues should be higher than his ADP, if only because if the Jets are serious about giving him 12-15 touches a game; a third of those might be catches, and that could be enough to warrant flex-play appeal.

• At the goal line: If there was any positive about Tomlinson's 2009, surely it was his usage near the goal line. He carried the football 36 times within 10 yards of his opponents' end zone, second in the NFL, and scored on 10 occasions, also second-most. (Only Adrian Peterson had more of either: 40 and 15, respectively.) For his career, Tomlinson has 306 carries in those situations and 109 touchdowns, and not once in any season did he score fewer than eight times.

To this point, if you play in a touchdown-heavy scoring system, Tomlinson might be a no-brainer starter out of your flex spot, and if you play in a touchdown-only league, he might be the smarter pick of the two Jets backs.

• As a change-of-pace back, or to give Greene a breather: While Tomlinson might no longer be capable of handling a 300-carry workload, and perhaps not even 200-plus, it might be a foolish strategy for the Jets to let Greene -- only 25 years old, entering his second NFL season and coming off a 109-touch rookie campaign -- tote the rock 300-plus times. Remember, Greene battled injury issues at times in college, including an ankle problem, then battled ankle issues again in 2009. Ryan will want to protect his young back, and might cap him in the 250-carry range. If this is a 500-plus-carry team, that means an almost guaranteed 150-175 for Tomlinson.

To this point, Tomlinson warrants status as a fantasy handcuff, especially being that his role is so closely tied to Greene's value. For all the concerns about Greene's workload hinted above, I'm as much a fan of his as anyone. But at the same time, if I'm picking him in the second round -- which his 22.1 ADP (21st overall) suggests you might need to -- I'm targeting Tomlinson by the 90th pick.

Understand, of course, that in no way should any of this be confused with my saying Tomlinson is due for a return to his prime-year numbers, or even close to it. In fact, his chances at finishing as one of the top 25 players in fantasy in 2010 are slim to none. After all, he's a year older, with 223 additional carries on his legs; he's 31 years old and has 2,880 career rushing attempts, 3,410 career touches. And if you know anything about the ravages of age on a running back, especially one with that much mileage, you know that the chances of another significant drop in production are significant, a double-digit-percentage number.

Still, sometimes players indeed hit a proverbial wall once they reach the later years of their careers. Others, placed in the ideal situation for their waning skill sets, have what it takes to eke out one more relatively productive year.

Yes, the end is near, but I say it waits one more year.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.