NFL Draft Head 2 Head: Tomlinson vs. Moreno

Now that LaDainian Tomlinson is about to turn 30 and Darren Sproles is a free agent, would the Chargers be better off trading Tomlinson and drafting Knowshon Moreno with the 16th pick? Scout.com's Chris Steuber explores this thought inside.


Tomlinson is one of the greatest running backs to ever grace an NFL field, but it appears his time in San Diego could come to a close...
Ronald Martinez/Getty

Entering the NFL:
Height: 5-10
Weight: 221
Scouting Combine 40-time: 4.46
Pro Day 40-time: Did not run
Bench Press (225 Lb.): 18 reps

When a team owns the No. 1 pick in the draft, there’s a lot of pressure to select the right player. In just seconds, you could be adding the missing piece that can revitalize your franchise and ultimately lead you to a Super Bowl. Or, you could make the wrong choice and spend millions of dollars and countless hours trying to develop a player who’s nothing more than a bust.

In 2001, the San Diego Chargers opted for the alternative and decided to trade out of the top spot with the Atlanta Falcons. At the time, the trade was viewed as a risk, because the Chargers needed a quarterback and they were giving up on the consensus No. 1 prospect, Virginia Tech’s Michael Vick.

"We passed up a great guy to look more immediate," former Chargers Head Coach Mike Riley said in regards to Vick. It turned out to be the best move for the Chargers, as Vick is now out of football.

It didn’t take long for Tomlinson to become the superstar that he is today. After a storied collegiate career at TCU, where he amassed 5,263 career rushing yards - 2,158 of them coming during his senior campaign - Tomlinson exploded on the NFL scene as a rookie and rushed for 1,236 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also caught 59 passes for 367 yards.

"I know how to rebuild a team," Tomlinson said to the media after he was drafted. "I know how to step in and work hard. I knew what it took to rebuild TCU's program. That's kind of the same situation [in San Diego].”

With Tomlinson on board, the Chargers as a whole didn’t have immediate success. It wasn’t until Tomlinson’s fourth season (2004) when the Chargers finally won the AFC West and advanced to the playoffs. In three of the next four seasons (2005 – 2008), the Chargers were AFC West Champions, but they only advanced to the AFC Championship game once (2007) and lost to the Patriots. Tomlinson wasn’t a factor in the game, as he was nursing a sprained knee.

The Chargers most realistic chance at bringing the Lombardi trophy to San Diego was during the 2006 season when they finished with a league best 14 – 2 record. During that season, Tomlinson, who was named league MVP, had the best year of his career rushing for 1,815 yards and 28 touchdowns and also hauled in 59 passes for 508 yards and three touchdowns. But once again, the Patriots stood in their way during the Divisional round and upset the Chargers at home, ending their hopes of a possible Super Bowl appearance.

This past season, Tomlinson had the worst statistical output of his career, but the Chargers rallied to an 8 – 8 record behind quarterback Philip Rivers and won the AFC West. Tomlinson was bothered by injuries the entire season and still managed to rush for 1,110 yards and 11 touchdowns. But the down year has brought about the realization of Tomlinson possibly slowing down, as many running backs tend to do, when they turn 30 (Tomlinson turns 30 on June 23rd).

Tomlinson still has three years remaining on his contract, and with the emerging Darren Sproles being a free agent, the Chargers will have to make a tough decision and let one of them go. In the end, Tomlinson may be the odd man out and that will open the door for the Chargers to draft a young, versatile player to share time with Sproles next season.
   


Drafting Moreno and signing Sproles may be a better alternative for the Chargers, as they look to get younger in the backfield and build towards the future.
Al Messerschmidt/Getty

Entering the NFL:
Height: 5-11
Weight: 208
Projected 40-time: 4.45
Pro Day 40-time: N/A
Bench Press (225 Lb.): N/A

It’s hard to compare any player to LaDainian Tomlinson, because a player of his talent comes around once in a decade. But Knowshon Moreno is also a special player who has yet to realize his full potential; the potential to be the next LT.

Since he arrived at Georgia, there was a buzz about Moreno. Although he was redshirted his first year in Athens, the highly rated high school sensation was being talked about as the next Herschel Walker; a player who would one day win the Heisman trophy and put the Bulldogs in contention for a National Championship.

But just like Walker, who left Georgia after his junior year to join the New Jersey Generals of the USFL, Moreno decided to leave school early and declared for the NFL draft as a redshirt sophomore.

“It was a very tough decision,” Moreno said. “I went home, talked to family members about the pros and cons of leaving. I came to the decision to leave early to pursue my career in the NFL. It’s a life-long dream. It’s been awesome coming to Athens. It’s like a second home to me.”

Georgia was the place that Moreno developed into the dynamic offensive weapon he is today. In his first year, Moreno was inconsistent at the start, but finally broke through during a five-game stretch where he averaged 26 carries, 153 yards (5.9 YPC) and two touchdowns on his way to the second highest rushing total (1,334) by a Georgia freshman since Walker. Moreno was also a big factor in the Bulldogs 41 – 10 win over Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl. In a dominating effort, Moreno scored two first quarter touchdowns and rushed for 61 yards on just nine carries.

This past season, Moreno continued to showcase his versatility and became a much more consistent player. He displayed more patience running the ball and had a larger role in the passing game. He finished the season with 1,400 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns to go along with his 33 receptions for 392 yards and two touchdowns.

There are a lot of NFL teams that could use Moreno’s talents next season. The NFL landscape is changing, and having a quality one-two punch in a backfield is becoming more prevalent. A team like the Chargers, who hold the 16th pick in the draft, would be a perfect fit for Moreno, as would the Denver Broncos (No. 12), New York Jets (No. 17), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 19) and Philadelphia Eagles (No.21).

It’s possible that the Broncos could take Moreno at No. 12, but with defense being a higher priority, the likelihood of him slipping to the Chargers is a realistic possibility. If Moreno ends up with the Chargers, the Tomlinson era in San Diego will likely come to a close. But for the Chargers to feel comfortable with moving Tomlinson, they have to resign Darren Sproles, who will be an unrestricted free agent this spring.

With Moreno and Sproles in the backfield, the Chargers get much younger and just as athletic, even though they removed a future Hall of Fame player from their lineup.


CONCLUSION

Again, comparing Moreno to Tomlinson is a bit unfair, but when you watch footage of Tomlinson at TCU and Moreno at Georgia, you can’t help but compare the two. The running styles of Tomlinson and Moreno are very similar. When Tomlinson starred at TCU, he held the ball up high and tight in the open field (he’s lowered the ball a bit over the years), not allowing defenders the opportunity to force it out. Moreno carries the ball in the same manner, and that’s why he rarely fumbles.


Moreno has the talent to be one of the best running backs in the NFL; will it be in San Diego?
Stephen Dunn/Getty

Their ability to get through the smallest crease and use their animal-like vision to cut smoothly is uncanny. Their body build is average in stature, but strong and compact, and can take a pounding between the tackles. They’re savvy enough to realize if they go down when crowded by defenders they will avoid a big hit. They possess toughness in pass protection and are aware of their surroundings to be able to slip out in the flat and provide their quarterback with a passing option.

Moreno is a tremendously gifted offensive weapon who is a threat to take it to the house any time he touches the ball. He runs with outstanding pad level, displays great vision and cutback ability. He has a quick first step and is lethal on the edge. He’s deceptively strong between the tackles and will fight for extra yards. He shows patience, waits for his blockers to set up in front of him and instantly hits the hole. He’s dangerous out of the backfield in the passing game flashing reliable hands, shifty moves and a second-gear that takes him the distance. He’s a determined player who will do whatever it takes for his team to win.


Tomlinson has spent eight years in San Diego, will he be back for a ninth season?
Stephen Dunn/Getty

The reality is that Tomlinson will turn 30 years old when the 2009 season starts and still has three years remaining on his contract. Darren Sproles is a free agent and will be 26 on opening day. If the Chargers are able to unload Tomlinson and his salary, they can resign Sproles and be in contention for Moreno, who will likely be drafted between No. 12 – 16. Losing a legendary player like Tomlinson is hard to swallow, but if you can find a player with similar attributes and playing style who is much younger, it’s a strategy worth taking.

There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding Tomlinson and the Chargers front office, and when asked about the possibility of being traded, Tomlinson said, “San Diego is where my career started and where I'd like it to end. I have nothing but love and the utmost respect for this team, the players, and the Spanos family. Me being traded is completely out of my hands. I have absolutely no control in that decision making. All I can do is wait and see how it all plays out."

 


A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999. Steuber’s features are published across the Scout.com network and on FoxSports.com. If you wish to contact Chris Steuber, email him at: csteuber@scout.com.


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