Securing Sproles is half the job for Chargers

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

Sproles The San Diego Chargers' decision to put the franchise tag on running back/return man Darren Sproles is just half of the team's job when it comes to securing its tailback situation.

The team now must try to keep running back LaDainian Tomlinson the face of the franchise. The Chargers are planning to talk to Tomlinson's agent about a restructured contract during the NFL combine in Indianapolis over the course of the next few days.

Tomlinson's price tag for 2009 is nearly $7 million. Sproles will now be paid $6.6-plus million after getting tagged. The Chargers aren't going to pay two running backs that much money.

If Tomlinson doesn't agree to a restructured contract, he will likely be cut. However, there are ways to get it done. The Chargers can give Tomlinson some bonus money and spread it all over the next two or three years so it can have Tomlinson and Sproles on the roster and make it manageable. San Diego general manager A.J. Smith said in a news release Wednesday that the team is hopeful to get a deal done with Tomlinson.

If Tomlinson isn't brought back, the Chargers must find another running back, perhaps in the early rounds of the draft.

Sproles, 5-foot-6, 181 pounds, is too small to be a primary back. But he is too valuable to let go. That's why San Diego put the franchise tag on him. Yes, it was pricey, but Sproles' presence makes San Diego's offense special and difficult to defense.

He is the quintessential change-of-pace back. He is nearly impossible to stop because of his quickness and elusiveness. He is a premier third-down back. And as he showed against Indianapolis in the wild-card round, he can take over games.

Sproles is a fantastic threat as a receiver out of the backfield and he is one of the best return men in the league. But Sproles is best used as a complement. That's why the Chargers have to finish the job and secure Tomlinson.

Expect San Diego to continue to try to work on a long-term deal for Sproles, who will cost another team two first-round picks if it signs him (don't count on it). Still, Sproles is a dynamic weapon who would have been snapped up on the open market. I realize some Chargers fans may have difficulty swallowing the big price tag, but Sproles does three jobs and he'd be impossible to replace. Keeping him was the prudent move.

Now, the Chargers have to complete their special backfield by finding a way to keep Tomlinson.