The 2008 NFL draft would come and go without Mike Tolbert hearing his name called as one of the 27 running backs selected. There is no real surprise in that, as a modest college career at Coastal Carolina does not exactly put an individual on the fast track to the NFL. Tolbert did score 22 touchdowns and average over 6 yards a carry during his time with the Chanticleers (your guess is as good as mine). He also added 291 receiving yards and most impressively had over 300 touches and did not lose a single fumble. Not your prototypical running back at only 5' 9" and over 240lbs ,Tolbert would join a list of names including Gary Banks(Troy), Brian Bonner(TCU) and Josh Bell(Baylor) as undrafted free agents signed by the San Diego Chargers in 2008.
Flash forward to March of 2012 and Mike Tolbert will finally get his opportunity to be The Belle of the Ball as he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Used only sparingly in his first two seasons playing behind Ladainian Tomlinson, Tolbert managed to put up over 500 total yards from scrimmage and score 5 touchdowns. Tomlinson would depart to New York after the 2009/2010 season and Tolbert would put up over 1870 total yards and post 21 touchdowns in the last two seasons. Tolbert will now have the chance to reap the benefits of his efforts and control his own destiny as teams line up to pay for his multipurpose skills. Steve Slaton, Tashard Choice and Kevin Smith were all drafted in 2008 and are also available on the free agent market this season. It is safe to assume that Mike Tolbert will be able to sign for an amount that is higher than all three of those running backs combined. Figuring out just where Tolbert may sign is where the real fun begins. In descending order, these are the best possible landing spots for Tolbert in 2012.
The Pittsburgh Steelers face the probability of entering the 2012 season with Rashard Mendenhall on the PUP list and free agent Mewelde Moore not being brought back. That leaves their running back position in the unproven hands of Isaac Redman and oft injured, seldom used Jonathan Dwyer. Tolbert would fit nicely in the black and gold of the Steelers, pounding the ball from inside the five yard line--a throwback to the days of Jerome Bettis, albeit a smaller version of 'the Bus'. Tolbert is also an above average blocker in the passing game so his presence will help to preserve the health of Ben Roethlisberger. New offensive coordinator Todd Haley likes to run the football and the duo of Redman and Tolbert will return the Steelers to the ground and pound style that has been so successful for them in the past.
Staying in the AFC, the Kansas City Chiefs will be saying good-bye to 33 year old Thomas Jones and his paltry 3.45 yards per carry average and welcoming back Jamaal Charles from a knee injury. The uncertainty of Charles returning to pre injury form and the realization that Jackie Battle is not the answer at running back should push the Chiefs in Tolbert's direction. Kansas City general manager Scott Pioli was with New England in 2004 when Corey Dillon was signed and Tolbert could fill that same role with the Chiefs. Charles, Tolbert and the speedy Dexter McCluster would present a multitude of problems for opposing defensive coordinators and give Kansas City a very potent ground game. Each one of them would also be a dual threat out of the backfield with the receiving skills they possess. Matt Cassel struggled before going down injured last season and needs some help to return to his 2010 form. Tolbert would be just what the doctor ordered in Kansas City. Also, the chance to steal away a player from an AFC West rival cannot be overlooked.
Mike Tolbert would be an ideal fit for the New York Giants. Brandon Jacobs is due 4.9 million dollars in 2012 and there is no way that he is brought back at that price. Even though Jacobs has expressed an interest in restructuring his deal to stay in New York, the Giants would be better off spending the money to go and get Tolbert. The G-Men love to utilize their running backs in the passing game and that fits right in Mike Tolbert's wheelhouse. There would be no drop off in replacing Jacobs as the goal line back as Tolbert can step right into that role and also replace Danny Ware as the third down back. Signing Tolbert as a compliment to Ahmad Bradshaw affords New York the opportunity to maintain their system of rotating running backs and continue to bring Da'Rell Scott along slowly as their back of the future. The Giants ran 74 total red zone plays last season and actually threw the ball 21% of the time inside the 20. Tolbert himself had 16 targets last season in the red zone with 2 touchdowns. The dual threat abilities of Tolbert make him a great fit in the Big Apple.
The Detroit Lions made their first playoff appearance since 1999 last season and are a team on the rise in the NFL. A very uncertain running back situation could stall the momentum that the Lions built in 2011. Mikel Leshoure is attempting to return from an Achilles tendon injury and Jahvid Best continues to battle concussion problems and may not return at all. Bringing Mike Tolbert to Mo-Town would be a fantastic fit for the Lions because of his versatility. Maurice Morris and Kevin Smith are both likely to be let go or offered very lowball contracts to remain with the team. Keiland Williams is a limited player who has not distinguished himself at all in the league. Tolbert can step right in as the number one running back in Detroit and allow the Lions to work Leshoure back into game shape at a timely rate. Tolbert is excellent at picking up blitzes and would be a huge benefit in keeping Mathew Stafford safe in the pocket. The Lions are another team that likes to throw the ball in the red zone and can utilize Tolbert in that fashion or as the goal line running back they have lacked the past few seasons. While Detroit plays the wait and see game with the health of Best and Leshoure, Mike Tolbert would be the perfect fit to anchor their rushing attack.
Finally, the absolutely ideal team to sign Mike Tolbert for his services in 2012 and beyond is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Buccaneers lost their final 10 games in 2011, while averaging only 17.4 points per game in that span. While Tampa Bay has never been the highest scoring offense in general, 17 points a game in today's NFL will not add up to many victories going forward. LeGarrette Blount was a nice surprise in 2010 and is a hard runner, but he is not the full time answer at the running back position in Tampa. Blount has lost 6 of 9 fumbles over the last 27 games, and his yards per carry dropped nearly a full yard from his first season to the second. Earnest Graham is an unrestricted free agent and Kregg Lumpkin a restricted free agent in 2012. The signing of Mike Tolbert would make both Graham and Lumpkin easily expendable players. A backfield of Tolbert and Blount would be a beautiful thing for the Buccaneers. Two bruising runners to punish the interior of a defense and opening up things for the young set of receivers led by Mike Williams in the play action game. Tampa ran the ball 20 times in the red zone last season and gained 21 yards, scoring only twice. Tolbert had 75 yards rushing, 53 yards receiving and 10 red zone touchdowns himself in 2012. Josh Freeman needs to return to his rookie season form and having Tolbert on board to pick up blitzes and catch the ball out of the backfield will benefit the young signal caller greatly. Signing Tolbert will free up the Buccaneers to concentrate on the defensive side of the ball come April's NFL draft. The Buccaneers, after the recent release of Albert Haynesworth, have over 65 million dollars to spend in 2012. Investing a chunk of that money on signing Mike Tolbert is the perfect move for Tampa Bay.