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In picking running backs, follow the lead blocker

True or false? Unless your particular fantasy league mandates use of a fullback, San Diego's Lorenzo Neal is a non-factor.

Don't be too quick to answer.

Based on Neal's statistics -- 26 carries for 92 yards with one touchdown -- he's not a guy you'd ever think about picking up. But when you look beyond the numbers, it's not a stretch to declare that the Chargers' 5-foot-11, 255-pound fullback may be the most important man in the league when it comes to fantasy football success.

This guy provides the most high-class escort service around.

For the past four years he's been ushering teammate LaDainian Tomlinson into the end zone. The 14-year veteran who was an All-American wrestler during his college days at Fresno State and is the brother of a heavyweight boxer (Eddie has a 5-1 record as a pro) is a master of providing that bit of daylight that helps produce elite running backs every season.

Tomlinson's 31 touchdowns are a record for a single season, bettering the 28 scored by Seattle's Shaun Alexander last year. They are also more than 17 other NFL teams have scored, including the Buffalo Bills. L.T. is just the second player in the past 60 years to break the season TD record by more than one. Since Don Hutson scored 17 TDs in 1942, the record had been upped just one at a time. Gale Sayers broke it by two with 22 as a Chicago Bears rookie in 1965.

Tomlinson's 186 points are also a single-season record, breaking the previous mark of 176, set in 1960 by Green Bay's Paul Hornung -- who also was the Packers' kicker -- in just 12 games.

All this establishes L.T. as one of the best running backs in the history of the NFL. But consider that Neal has thrown the lead block on more than two-thirds of Tomlinson's touchdowns this season and has been on the field for all but two of them.

Since Neal arrived in 2003, Tomlinson has 6,068 rushing yards and 86 total TDs. Neal, who has appeared in 206 consecutive games, has 283 rushing yards and three TDs in the same span. That includes his 4-yard score on a "fumblerooskie" play in the 48-20 win over the Denver Broncos in Week 14.

"People like the melons, the strawberries, the bananas; they like the tomatoes," Neal said recently of his role in the Chargers offense. "I'm like that old onion; when you want a good hamburger, you've got to call on that old onion."

Aside from making us hungry, that also shows why Neal was named to the All-Interview Team by NFL.com, in addition to being elected a Pro Bowl starter each of the last two seasons.

If you're thinking to yourself, "Hey, anybody could block for L.T.", you'd better think again. Neal has been blasting holes in opposing defensive lines for the past decade. He's been the lead blocker for 10 consecutive 1,000-yard rushers who have gaudy averages of 1,362 rushing yards and 12.5 rushing touchdowns since 1997.

Aside from his work with the Chargers, Neal escorted Corey Dillon to the tune of 2,626 rushing yards and 17 ground TDs with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2001-02, Eddie George for 2,81 3/2 3 with the Tennessee Titans in 1999 and 2000, Warrick Dunn for 1,02 6/2 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1998 and Adrian Murrell for 1,08 6/7 with the New York Jets in 1997.

Why all the ship jumping? It's called following the money.

"It's a reflection of fullback being one of the least-valued positions," he told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "Not all teams use fullbacks. Some use H-backs instead, or have multiple tight end sets [where the extra tight end takes the place of a fullback]. To get paid what you're worth, sometimes you have to shop yourself. Believe me, I don't like it that fullback is one of the lowest-paying positions on the field."

Neal won't dodge a foe, he welcomes the chance to lay somebody out. Credit training with boxers like ex-middleweight champion Paul Vaden and ultimate fighters for that attitude.

"If it's me and a linebacker, it's like, 'Dude, why should I cut you when I know I can take you down?' " he said in an interview with the Sporting News. "I like to hit them in the mouth and say, 'Let's go.' "

Even if fantasy fans aren't paying attention, those in the real world are. This will be Neal's third Pro Bowl and he's been an alternate for four others.

e-mail: tborrelli@buffnews.com

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