LaDainian Tomlinson ready for new role

MISSION VIEJO, Calf. -- If LaDainian Tomlinson never plays another down of football, he will go down as one of the greatest running backs in history. His legacy is secure, but there he was Tuesday, working up a sweat with several veteran teammates and a few neophytes that can only dream of being in the same huddle as him one day.

It was something to see, a future Hall of Famer -- first ballot, no doubt -- participating in Mark Sanchez's "Jets West" camp at Mission Viejo High School.

"Powerful," second-year running back Joe McKnight said of Tomlinson's presence.

You want really powerful? Heading into what could be his final season, Tomlinson said he will gladly accept a smaller role because he believes Shonn Greene is ready to be the Jets' feature back. Tomlinson said his new goal is to become the best third-down back in the business.

"I don't want to carry the ball as much as I did last year," he said after a one-hour workout on Day 2 of Sanchez's weeklong camp. "Hopefully, that role goes to Shonn Greene and some of the younger guys, so I can really create matchup problems out of the backfield [as a receiver].

"I would love to be the best third-down back in the league. I'd love to be that. I've been the best running back in the league before. Now, at the end of my career, I'd like to be the best third-down back."

That probably is the Jets' plan. They have a crowded backfield, with Greene, Tomlinson, McKnight and the newest addition, fourth-round pick Bilal Powell. Coach Rex Ryan said at the conclusion of the draft that he'd like Greene to be the "bell cow," with an increased role for McKnight.

You don't have to be a math major to figure out that it's going to take a bunch of carries away from Tomlinson, who rushed a team-high 219 times last season. Worn down by the end of the regular season, after a fantastic first half, his role started to shrink. Some of his carries went to Greene, although he maintained his role as the primary third-down back -- perhaps his only role in 2011.

And he's OK with that.

"I always said that when I get to the end of my career, I don't need many carries," said Tomlinson, who turns 32 next month. "I don't want that. I don't want to beat myself up when I don't have to. Shonn Green is ready to take on that role."

Tomlinson will be remembered for his legs, but he actually has terrific hands -- 52 receptions last season. He's a crafty route runner and knows how to pick up a blitzing linebacker -- all traits of a third-down back.

At "Jets West," Tomlinson's mere presence sent a strong message. Sanchez, who organized the camp for the second straight year, said it was easier to recruit teammates once they heard Tomlinson was coming.

"He was one of the first guys on board," Sanchez said. "He's a true leader. This is the kind of stuff people don't see. They see him scoring touchdowns and being the rushing champ in San Diego, playing when everybody told him he was too old last year on Sundays. This is the other stuff. This is the other 320 days a year he's working."

Tomlinson is surrounded by a couple of young bucks at this camp, McKnight and fullback John Conner. Greene didn't make the trip to Southern California. Tomlinson also gave some pointers to the three rookies in attendances, along with a couple of players from the Mission Viejo High School team.

"It sends a message to all the guys," tight end Dustin Keller said. "It's like, 'Wow, if LT is here, I'd better get my butt there, too.'"

Tomlinson isn't a great player anymore, but he's a player that still wants to be great. And that can be contagious on a team.

Rich Cimini covers the Jets for ESPNNewYork.com.