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NFL team preview: San Diego Chargers

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INSIDE SLANT

The Chargers put the lid on what on the most bizarre camps they've had in years.

They hit the field for good Sept. 13 in a Monday Night game against the Chiefs. Maybe at that point the year will take on a sense of normalcy.

The recently concluded camp will be known almost for as much as who wasn't here and those in attendance.

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The Chargers got linebacker Shawne Merriman in late and never did see two other Pro Bowlers, left tackle Marcus McNeill and wide receiver Vincent Jackson. Those two are still bent over the lack of a long-term contract and it appears unlikely they will play much -- if at all -- for the Chargers this year.

That's quite a blow to a squad with Super Bowl aspirations -- again -- and the Chargers were hoping this was the year they finally evolve from talking about being an elite team to becoming one.

The Chargers are still in line to have a fantastic season. They are loaded on offense -- if the left tackle spot holds -- and seem to have enough on defense.

They are the benefactors of playing in the wobbly AFC West and their non-divisional schedule is as soft as a baby's backside.

But the Chargers are eager to do more than be among the regular-season top dogs -- they certainly were last year in going 13-3 and winning their last 11 games.

Nope, this season will be judged in how they do in the postseason. And on that count, the Chargers have failed miserably, losing three of their last four playoff games. That includes that January stinker in which the upstart Jets upset the No. 2-seeded Chargers.

But the Chargers have much ground cover before worrying about erasing their latest playoff pratfall. They must prove worthy of their fifth straight AFC West title and prove to the doubters they can excel without Jackson and McNeill.

This season also marks the turning of the page from LaDainian Tomlinson to Ryan Mathews. While somewhat downcast to see Tomlinson move on to the Jets, it's clear they are excited about the opportunities to resurrect a horrible running game behind the zest of a rookie back in Mathews.

What they don't have to tinker with is Philip Rivers. He's among the game's top players and proved it last year in topping 4,000 yards passing for the second consecutive season, with the AFC's top quarterback rating.

Now will his numbers suffer without Jackson stretching the field and opening up the underneath routes for Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates? We'll see. But Rivers is the type of players who makes those around him that much better.

Despite some team blemishes, coach Norv Turner has been clear that this is the best team he's had while in San Diego. That seems to be a stretch, possibly a coach trying to build the younger players' confidence.
But he could be on to something, with a new mix of personnel which could help the Chargers get over the hump.

That said, the Chargers won't be anything special unless they discover a pass rush. That chore was to fall to Shawn Merriman, and it still could. But Merriman hasn't been the same player since undergoing knee surgery two years ago and he needs to show he still has the speed and quickness that were once his calling cards.

But all the cards on the table and what do you have? Another solid roster constructed by general manager A.J. Smith, but one with enough blemishes that makes you wonder if this really is the year.

What's clear is that a Chargers era has ended with Tomlinson and many other longtime stalwarts now at different addresses. The question remains can the Chargers deliver only the second Super Bowl appearance in team history, something that has seemingly been promised about this time every year in recent memory.

COACHING: Norv Turner, 13 year (84-102-1), 4th with Chargers (35-19).
REMEMBERING: 2009 record: 13-3 (1st in AFC West); lost in divisional game to Jets, 17-14.
PREDICTING: 2010 regular-season record: 11-5 (1st in AFC West); lose in divisional game.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Chargers claimed cornerback Fred Bennett off waivers from the Houston Texans -- a red flag in that they are not entirely pleased with the play of the secondary. A 6-foot-1, 200-pound fourth-year player out of South Carolina, Bennett played in 10 games and made three starts for the Texans in 2009. He finished the year with 15 defensive tackles and three on special teams.

Some of the Chargers defensive backs' struggles come because the defense is generating very little pass rush. But when having a chance, the team brought in another veteran cornerback to add to the mix.

The team is still missing Pro Bowlers Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill. Both are expected to sit out a significant chunk of the season -- if they play at all. The Chargers are open to trading Jackson, but not McNeill. Strange, but the Chargers have only allowed the Seahawks explore obtaining Jackson and so far his demands don't meet theirs.

PLAYER NOTES

--OL Scott Mruczkowski has returned to practice after missing two weeks with an ankle injury.

--CB Brandon Hughes has had a good camp but the late pickup of Fred Bennett could make him the odd man out.

--SS Darrell Stuckey still has much to learn, and he proved it against the Saints. He was out of position occasionally and was run over on at least one play.

--FB Jacob Hester never thought his NFL life would include being a fullback. But the former running back has embraced the role as the Chargers have decided to give Mike Tolbert, the previous fullback, more looks at running back.

--CB Nathan Vasher seems to be falling just short in pushing Antoine Cason for a starting job. But it's a position worth watching.

--WR Buster Davis is listed as the second punt-returner behind Darren Sproles. But don't expect Davis to get too many chances as he seems to have trouble staying away from various nicks and bruises.

--P Mike Scifres hasn't got a ton of work this exhibition season but the team is just to save his leg for the regular season.

DRAFT PICKS TO STICK

Rd. 1/12, RB Ryan Mathews, Fresno State -- Has shown well in the preseason and the Chargers are excited about getting his fresh legs in the backfield. Still needs to show he can handle the pass-protection pickups.

Rd. 3/79, ILB Donald Butler -- Never got out of camp with a knee injury and was placed on IR; he likely would have contributed on special teams.

Rd. 4/110, SS Darrell Stuckey, Kansas -- At one point the Chargers had Stuckey running with the ones. Then he was derailed by an injury, got run in over in the loss at New Orleans and showed he's not quite ready for prime time.

Rd. 5/146, DT Cam Thomas -- Will Thomas be the one to ultimately replace Pro Bowler Jamal Williams? Maybe at some point but he's far from a finished project. He should see some action on early downs, but has to prove he can keep his feet.

Rd. 5/168, QB Jonathan Crompton, Tennessee -- The Chargers have a need for a No. 3 quarterback but Crompton's summer was a mixed bag of results. He'll likely land on the practice squad.

Rd. 7/235, TE Dedrick Epps, Miami -- The Chargers are top-heavy at this position and Epps has done little to stand out in camp or the preseason games. He's in a fight for a roster spot.

UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Philip Rivers. Backups -- Billy Volek, Jonathan Crompton.

Rivers continues to show he is among the elite players in the NFL at his position. His accuracy and moxie are a big reason why the Chargers are considered to have a shot at the Super Bowl. And with LaDainian Tomlinson now with the Jets, it's clearer than ever this is Rivers' team. And it's possible Rivers will throw for 4,000 yards for the third consecutive year, especially if the team can establish a running game. Volek played well, again, in the preseason and gives the Chargers are reliable backup. Crompton looked a little shaky this summer and needs work.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter -- Ryan Mathews. Backups -- Darren Sproles, FB Jacob Hester, RB/FB Mike Tolbert.

Mathews has been a bright light to the coaches and teammates this preseason. He has looked good in the games and practice. His attitude is tops and he is eager to learn. A good thing for Mathews and the Chargers is that Mathews won't be asked to carry the load by himself. Sproles can reach the end zone any time he touches the ball and Tolbert has shown he's more than a blocker and will get more carries than last year. Hester occasionally gets a touch, but he has morphed more into a fullback than the running back the Chargers envisioned when he came out of LSU.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Antonio Gates. Backups -- Randy McMichael, Kris Wilson, Dedrick Epps.

Gates is showing all the signs that he is in line for another blockbuster year, an encore to last year's big season -- the key is Gates is healthy for the second straight year. McMichael would be a bigger target on any other team; he's a nice complement to Gates. Wilson's hands betrayed him in the preseason games; most of his work will come in a blocking role anyway. Epps could land on the practice squad.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Malcom Floyd, Legedu Naanee. Backups -- Buster Davis, Josh Reed, Seyi Ajirotutu, Jeremy Williams.

Floyd has had the luxury of flying under the radar, with teams more focused on No. 1 receiver Vincent Jackson. But Jackson is not expected to play in San Diego this year so Floyd has to emerge as Rivers' main target down field. Naanee has had a hard time cracking the lineup for significant playing time but that will no longer be the case; he's good, let's see if he can be consistent. Davis needs to show, at some point, he was worth a No. 1 pick. Reed, Ajirotutu and Williams could be in a battle for the last spot to go to a wideout. Reed hasn't shown this summer; the other two are camp surprises, with Ajirotutu having the edge over Williams.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Brandyn Dombrowski, LG Kris Dielman, C Nick Hardwick, RG Louis Vasquez, RT Jeromey Clary. Backups -- G Tyronne Green, C/G Scott Mruczkowski, T Ryan Otterson, T Nick Richmond.

The Chargers are in a potential pickle here with Pro Bowl LT Marcus McNeill still not signed. So they plopped Dombrowski over to fill void McNeill's void, despite the 2008 undrafted rookie never playing on that side. But Dombrowski held up well in the preseason games which is good -- or bad, in that the Chargers have been lulled into a false sense of security. Dombrowski's play will be a huge key to the season, in that the Chargers love to throw the football. But even if he shines, the depth behind him with Green, an interior lineman, is a big concern. Two Pro Bowlers in Dielman and Hardwick will help the transition for Dombrowski. Vasquez is solid, especially in pass protection. Clary is average and is coming off an ankle surgery.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LE Jacques Cesaire, NT Antonio Garay, RE Luis Castillo. Backups -- DE Travis Johnson, DT Vaughn Martin, DT Ogemdi Nwagbuo, DE Alfonso Boone, DT Cam Thomas.

The return of Ryon Bingham at tackle never happened as a back injury led to him being released after missing all of last year. So the Chargers have inserted Garay, who played well in spots last year. The ends are steady if not spectacular but they won't be asked to do it on an every-down basis. Coordinator Ron Rivera is big on rotation here, with nearly every player suiting up that day seeing the field. No stars here, just a bunch of blue-collar guys hoping to show the whole is better than the parts. Martin remains a project; Nwagbuo has been bothered by concussions. Thomas is a rookie and plays like one.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- OLB Shawne Merriman, ILB Stephen Cooper, ILB Kevin Burnett, OLB Shaun Phillips. Backups -- ILB Brandon Siler, OLB Larry English, OLB Antwan Applewhite, OLB Jyles Tucker, OLB James Holt, LB Brandon Lang, LB Klon Wilson.

Will Merriman ever show that burst again? That was a question before, during and after camp as Merriman was late to sign then sat out but a handful of practices with a sore Achilles. Merriman's body has revolted the past two years in which he has but four sacks. He needs to show he can still bring the wood -- there are plenty of doubters he can do it on a week-to-week basis. With questions around Merriman, Phillips will again be asked to be the main pass rushers. He's good, setting a franchise mark with seven forced fumbles last year, but he would benefit greatly from Merriman being on the field. Burnett has had a good summer and looks to be more active than he was last year when slowed by various injuries. Cooper is a tackling machine and should lead the team again in that category. The Chargers are hopeful English shows more than he did in his rookie year (four sacks). Siler is a dependable backup and keen in short-yardage situations. Applewhite and Tucker supply occasional pressure on passing downs. Holt, Lang and Wilson, if all make the team, will be asked to contribute on special teams.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Quentin Jammer, RCB Antoine Cason, FS Eric Weddle, SS Steve Gregory. Backups -- CB Nathan Vasher, CB Donald Strickland, CB Fred Bennett, CB Dante Hughes, CB Brandon Hughes, SS Darrell Stuckey, FS Paul Oliver.

Cason needs to prove he can be an every-down starter; he was picked on a bit in the preseason. Cason had trouble with the nickel role last year and the team is hopeful he is better out of the slot. Jammer has quietly developed into one of the more steady cornerbacks and he is always willing to lend a hand in run support. Questions remain, though, deep in the secondary. Weddle needs to bring some bigger hits to his game and find the ball more. Gregory was supposed to be supplanted by the rookie Stuckey, but that didn't quite work out. The depth at corner is solid with veterans Vasher and Strickland; Strickland will assume the nickel role. The Hughes tandem is likely fighting for a roster spot. Oliver should stick as a backup.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Nate Kaeding, P Mike Scifres, KR Darren Sproles, PR Darren Sproles, LS David Binn.

The Chargers have one of the most consistent kickers in NFL history in Kaeding -- in the regular season. But Kaeding's pratfall in the playoff loss -- three missed field goals -- still causes a murmur from local fans when he trots out for an attempt. By all accounts, he has put his last game behind him, although we really won't know until he is asked to make another pressure kick in the playoffs. Scifres is a Pro Bowl-caliber punter. Sproles is explosive and always dangers. The veteran Binn is nothing but reliable -- which is all you want.

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