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Cardinals can win without Boldin; Chargers' success depends on L.T.

Will Anquan Boldin and the Cardinals ever end their soap opera? This is the second offseason the two have waged a contract squabble, and Cardinals fans have to be tired of it.

At issue is Boldin's desire to have his five-year, $22.5 million contract reworked to represent his current value as one of the league's top receivers. However, the Cardinals contend they've addressed his contract situation before by agreeing to an extension at an average of $4 million a year and aren't in a hurry to open up discussions on a new deal with two years remaining on that deal.

"Our position with Anquan is still as it's always been," Cardinals general manager Rod Graves said at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. "We respect Anquan's abilities. We feel like he is one of the best players in the National Football League. He's certainly a core player of ours. We'd like to extend him when the best window of opportunity comes."

To his credit, Boldin has been a statistical marvel since entering the league in 2003. He has twice finished among the top three in the league in receptions and is one of the fastest to reach 500 receptions in a career. Additionally, he has amassed four 1,000-yard seasons in his six-year career while earning three Pro Bowl selections. He has 40 career touchdown receptions, including 20 in the past two seasons.

With such an impressive résumé, it would appear Boldin is just in his desire to receive a new deal, but there are several factors working against him in this negotiation.

For as productive as Boldin has been throughout his career, it appears he is a descending player at this stage of his career. Boldin's average yards per catch dropped down to 11.7 in 2008, and his number of big plays has steadily declined during each of the past three seasons. His 10 receptions over 20 yards are a career low, and he finished the season with only three 100-yard games.

Though some of Boldin's statistical drop can be attributed to the emergence of Pro Bowl wideout Larry Fitzgerald, and to the fact Boldin missed four games due to injury in '08, his declining production raises red flags, and forces you to take a closer look at his skill set in relation to other elite receivers.

While Boldin is widely regarded as one of the game's toughest and most physical players at the position, the strength of his game revolves around his ability to make things happen with the ball in his hands. He is an outstanding runner who has the ability to turn short passes into big gains due to his toughness and power. However, he lacks elite speed and isn't explosive enough to run past defenders on vertical routes. Thus, defensive coordinators are not obligated to pay special attention to Boldin with bracket or double coverage.

A No. 1 receiver is judged by his ability to warrant double coverage, and Boldin doesn't garner that consideration on a consistent basis in Arizona. Opponents opt to roll their coverage to Fitzgerald and are willing to roll the dice when facing Boldin in single coverage.

Additionally, the argument can be made that the Cardinals' offense doesn't skip a beat when Boldin is out of the lineup. In the four games Boldin missed last season, the Cardinals went 3-1 and averaged 28 points per game. His replacement in the lineup, Steve Breaston, hauled in 21 receptions for 276 yards (13.1 avg.) with two scores during those contests and showed that he could handle the pressure of being a starter in the Cardinals' pass-happy offense.

Furthermore, the Cardinals' desire to field a more balanced offense in the future diminishes the importance of keeping Boldin in the fold on a long-term basis. Ken Whisenhunt is molding the team following a blueprint learned from his time with the Steelers. He is intent on developing a strong running game to complement an aggressive defense. Thus, the team has started to focus more on building a top notch offensive line and will look to add the right pieces at running back through the draft or free agency.

With Fitzgerald firmly entrenched as the team's go-to-guy, it is not necessary for the team to have two big money players at the position. Of course, the team re-signed Kurt Warner to a two-year, $23 million deal to retain all of the major players from the league's fourth-ranked offense for the next two seasons.

That minor detail may be only a coincidence, but it could go a long ways towards shedding light on the team's plans for handling Boldin's contract situation in the immediate future.

"Anquan has two years left on his contract," said Graves. "We understand how he feels and we're taking all of that into consideration. And hopefully, we'll address it over time."

The Chargers' decision to keep LaDainian Tomlinson in 2009 may turn out to be the wisest of the A.J. Smith era. The Pro Bowl back agreed to a restructured three-year contract last week that will pay him $6.75 million in 2009 as he continues his assault on the record book. More importantly, his return will greatly benefit quarterback Philip Rivers, wideout Vincent Jackson and fellow running back Darren Sproles.

Defensive coordinators still respect LT's ability enough to employ eight-man fronts on early downs, and that will enable Rivers to keep blossoming as a passer. Last season, Rivers established new career highs in single-season passing yards (4,009), passing touchdowns (34), completion percentage (65.3) and passer rating (105.5) as he frequently worked against single-high safety coverage.

Jackson, meanwhile, averaged a whopping 18.6 yards per catch and topped the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career. While Jackson is an emerging talent, it is unlikely he would have produced such eye-popping numbers without Tomlinson on the field. Jackson rarely faced rolled coverage and was able to win his one-on-one match-ups outside.

However, perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Tomlinson returning is Sproles. For as good as the diminutive playmaker was during the Chargers' postseason run, he wouldn't thrive as the team's feature back on a full-time basis. He simply lacks the size (5-foot-6, 181 pounds) to hold up over the course of the regular season, and his special qualities would diminish if he were on the field for too many snaps.

The five-year veteran excels on screens and draws due to his outstanding quickness, but he is not as productive on conventional power runs. While his supporters would point to his exceptional performances against the Broncos (14 carries, 115 rushing yards, one touchdown; two receptions, 17 yards and a score) and Colts (22 carries, 105 rushing yards, two touchdowns; five receptions for 45 yards) as proof he can shoulder the workload, the fact that Denver and Indianapolis ranked near the bottom of the league in rush defense works against that argument.

Sproles is incapable of replacing Tomlinson's production or presence in the lineup on a consistent basis. He doesn't force defenses to alter the way they game plan the Chargers, and he limits the amount of offense the team can use because he lacks the size and strength to thrive in the power running game. Thus, it was necessary to keep Tomlinson in the mix to field a potent offensive unit.

The Chargers and Tomlinson fought through a contentious negotiation to reach an agreement. And it appears to be a deal that is a "win-win" for both sides.

Tomlinson is well aware that he'll enter 2009 amid a host of questions regarding his age, durability and skills after having the worst season of his career. He finished the season with career lows in rushing yards (1,110), rushing attempts (296) and runs over 20 yards (six) and was unable to play in the Chargers' final playoff game for the second season in a row.

However, reports of the five-time Pro Bowl back's demise are premature, and he still figures to be a major threat. Although Tomlinson's 2008 ranks as a subpar year based on his lofty career achievements (he's 14th on the all-time rushing list and second in rushing touchdowns), it should be noted that he still finished as the league's 10th-leading rusher last season and scored more touchdowns than Pro Bowl backs Adrian Peterson, Ronnie Brown, Clinton Portis, Thomas Jones and Chris Johnson.

While Tomlinson's declining production over the past two seasons coincides with the Texas native getting up in age, there are mitigating circumstances. When Tomlinson won his lone league MVP award in 2006 (he rushed for 1,815 yards and scored a league-record 31 touchdowns), he was thriving in the "Marty-ball" offense run under former head coach Marty Schottenheimer. That regime believed the running game should be the focal point, and Tomlinson benefited from the emphasis on a power offense.

Under Norv Turner's tutelage, the Chargers have shifted to a pass-first mentality, which has rendered Tomlinson as a second option in offense (In 2006, the Chargers ran the ball on 51.3 percent of their plays compared to only 45.5 percent in 2008). With fewer carries, Tomlinson doesn't get the opportunity to wear defenses down with a heavy workload and often misses out on the long runs that typically occur in the fourth quarter against tired defenses. Consequently, his yards per carry average has dipped (from 5.2 to 4.7 to 3.8 over the past three seasons) and his number of 100-yard games have also dropped in each season with Turner at the helm. Tomlinson had 10 100-yard games in 2006, but only eight the past two seasons, including two in 2008.

Of course, some believe Tomlinson's declining production can be attributed to his body breaking down after he averaged 300 or more carries per year over his eight-season career. They also point to his series of nagging injuries the past two seasons as further proof of his demise. However, Tomlinson has only missed one regular season game in his career, and his injuries (sprained knee, groin and toe) are not uncommon for the position. Though they could signal the beginning of the end for the future Hall of Famer, they could also be categorized as fluke injuries that occurred at inopportune moments. Therefore, it is not out of the question that Tomlinson reprises his role as the league's top rusher in 2009.

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