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Dunlap, Starks competing for SD's left tackle job

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SAN DIEGO (AP)

(Eds: Updates throughout. Should stand.)By BERNIE WILSONAP Sports Writer

King Dunlap or Max Starks?

One of the veteran newcomers - both allowed to leave their former teams as free agents - will become the San Diego Chargers' left tackle, charged with protecting Philip Rivers' blind side.

Dunlap, who played both left and right tackle in four seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, has gotten the majority of snaps with the first team so far in training camp.

Starks hasn't been given the inside track even though he won two Super Bowl rings during his nine seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Keeping Rivers in one piece is imperative. He was sacked 49 times last year and committed 22 turnovers, many because he was under siege behind a leaky line.

Center Nick Hardwick is the only offensive lineman returning in his original position. Jeromey Clary is back, but he's being moved from right tackle to right guard. Rookie D.J. Fluker, the Chargers' first-round draft pick, is the starting right tackle. The left guard will be new, and Chad Rinehart is listed as the starter on the first official depth chart.

Starks expected to have to compete for the job and knows the battle will be decided during the exhibition season, which starts at home Thursday night against Seattle.

''Those games are going to be a big deal,'' Starks said. ''It still matters. The second I start thinking back or feeling like I've arrived, it's time to switch to a new profession. You have to continually get better at your craft. Nobody's mastered this craft. If you've mastered it, you've retired and you've went to the Hall of Fame.''

Starks helped the Steelers win two Super Bowls, starting at right tackle against Seattle in 2006 and at left tackle against Arizona in 2009. He was on injured reserve with a neck injury when the Steelers lost to Green Bay in the 2011.

He played every offensive snap for the Steelers last year despite tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during Pittsburgh's playoff loss at Denver the previous season.

Starks has started 96 of 123 regular-season games played and made eight starts in 10 playoff games.

He said it doesn't matter if he's not working with the first team, ''As long as I know that my communication is strong with whoever my left guard is and my technique is strong and I'm executing the blocks and beating the guys in front of me. That's all that matters.''

Dunlap feels the same way.

''I can never be satisfied. I've got to find something to get better at every day,'' he said. ''I guess from what I've been told I've had a good camp. I just have to come out here and work hard every day and watch the film and correct my technique.''

He feels he's showed ''That I'm capable of being a starting left tackle. Coming from another team ... a new team, a new place, a new head coach, it's definitely refreshing.''

Dunlap was signed the opening day of free agency, March 12. Starks was signed two months later.

''They told me there was going to be competition, that I would definitely have to earn it,'' Dunlap said. ''Same way it was in Philly last year - you come in and there is competition and let the game tape and practice tape decide who wins.''

The Eagles allowed 48 sacks last year. Michael Vick was dropped 28 times and Nick Foles, 20.

Starks and Dunlap are considered big upgrades over Jared Gaither, who was released due to his questionable work ethic.

Regardless of who ends up protecting his blind side, Rivers thinks the offensive line ''has meshed so well together, so quickly. You've only got one guy from the same position as a year ago, but they have come along super quick. And that is what we need.''

Hardwick said there are challenges in having new guys playing next to each other, ''but as long as we come out and we are getting after it t it out here - individual period is a grind like I haven't seen in 10 years - we are working. We're getting after it and the D line is making us a better group because we have some D linemen who are studs. They're forcing us to be better and it's coming together in a hurry. It has to.''

Hardwick said what matters is how quickly every player learns to communicate with each other and understands his assignment.

''They're done a good job upstairs bringing guys in that can play football, bring in good depth behind us, because you know inevitably, somebody's going to get hurt,'' Hardwick said. ''It's not a matter of if, it's when, so somebody's got to be willing to step up and be capable of stepping up and they've done a nice job of doing that.''

Former Chargers star running back LaDainian Tomlinson visited camp late last month and said that Rivers being sacked 49 times last year ''is way too many for your franchise quarterback.''

Starks agrees.

''You think about him getting sacked 49 times, I think obviously they're not running the ball efficiently,'' Starks said. ''There's an emphasis on making sure that we run the ball well so that we can have the play-action game at our disposal, the quick pass game and the regular passing game. All those things work together to being a complete offense.''

---

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

Tagged: Eagles, Steelers, Chargers, Philip Rivers, Nick Hardwick, Max Starks, King Dunlap

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