Unable to resolve the negotiating impasse with first-round quarterback Philip Rivers, the San Diego Chargers nonetheless might be poised for a huge financial payout -- in a contract extension for tailback LaDainian Tomlinson.
According to an NFL source close to the talks, discussions have been "pretty much below the radar," but have been productive and an agreement could be close.
It is believed the two sides have talked about a six-year extension that would bind Tomlinson to the Chargers through the 2011 season.
Tomlinson, 25, who has two seasons remaining on his original NFL contract, is due base salaries of $5.5 million for 2004 and $6.5 million for 2005. He is eligible for unrestricted free agency after '05 but conventional wisdom is that San Diego will use the franchise marker to retain its most high-profile player.
A running back's franchise tag typically is among the lowest of the 11 position categories defined by the collective bargaining agreement. The 2004 qualifying offer for a running back is $5.167 million, trailing seven other positions.
The feeling is the Chargers would use the franchise restriction for multiple years if necessary to keep Tomlinson from departing as a free agent. Therefore, the scintillating tailback and his representatives at IMG Football appear to have determined that a long-term deal is in Tomlinson's best interest.
Sources said that IMG's goal is to top the eight-year, $50 million contract that tailback Clinton Portis signed in Washington this spring. It is believed that Tomlinson seeks $20 million in guaranteed money and about $35 million in the contract's first five years.
The Chargers chose Tomlinson fifth overall in the first round of the '01 draft. That was the lottery in which San Diego forfeited its shot at Michael Vick by dealing the first overall selection to the Atlanta Falcons. One of the top runners in college history at TCU, Tomlinson has emerged as a big-time player and some feel he is the best pure runner in the league.
In three years, he has rushed for 4,564 yards and 37 touchdowns. His 6,145 total yards from scrimmage represent the most ever for a player in his first three NFL seasons. Tomlinson last year became the first player in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards and post 100 receptions in the same season.