This is the 18th in a series of scouting reports on key players who are expected to become free agents March 13, unless they are re-signed or franchised before then.
News: Four years after making the Chargers' roster as an undrafted free agent, Tolbert is one of the top priorities this offseason for GM A.J. Smith. As a key contributor on both the team's offense and special teams, the Coastal Carolina product is likely to spark interest from several clubs who are looking for someone that can fill multiple roles on a depth chart. A year after the team lost Darren Sproles to the Saints, it would come as a surprise if the Chargers again let a valuable third-down running back depart in free agency, especially since Tolbert has stated publicly his desire to return.
Notes: With RB Ryan Mathews developing into the No. 1 back he was drafted to be in 2011, Tolbert's role in the San Diego offense was to be the short-yardage back, as well as a receiver out of the backfield. He filled those roles quite well, rushing for 4.0 yards per carry and scoring eight touchdowns on the ground, as well as catching 54 passes and gaining 8.0 yards per reception. Tolbert, who turns 27 in November, was equally impactful on kickoff and punt coverage units, leading the Chargers with 12 special-teams tackles.
Positives: Tolbert is built like a bowling ball (5-9, 243 pounds) and uses his body to roll right through opponents. Though he had just 7.6 carries per game, he regularly made a big impact, as he often was brought in to gain tough yards on third down or near the endzone. He's also a fantastic blocker, making his value in third-down situations even greater. In his lone start last season — in Week Nine vs. the Packers — he had 19 carries for 83 yards and a touchdown and added 59 receiving yards. On special teams, Tolbert is one of the top coverage players in the league.
Negatives: Tolbert is great in spurts but is not considered an every-down runner who can touch the ball 30 times per game. He also lacks breakaway speed (he had both three runs and three receptions of 20 or more yards in 2011). That makes it difficult to envision him ever becoming an every-down back in the league. Although he's a solid receiver, he only runs short routes out of the backfield, rarely going downfield.
Risk factor: Low. Given his durability and work ethic, Tolbert has very little downside. He is comfortable with his role as a third-down back and special-teams ace, and has no issue splitting carries with another back. Because of the heat Smith took from the media and fans last year by letting Sproles go, the GM is likely to make re-signing Tolbert a priority. That suits Tolbert fine, as he has given several indications he wants to remain a Charger. According to one source, the only way Tolbert goes elsewhere is if another team offers to pay him way more than San Diego does.
Follow Eli Kaberon on Twitter