TRAINING CAMP GOALS
1. The Chargers have routinely entered recent seasons with very little tinkering to their talent-laden rosters. But after going 8-8 and missing the playoffs for the second straight year, change was needed and it came true in a topsy-turvy offseason. So during camp the Chargers will continue to get comfortable with each other and blend in the new faces with the old. That's especially true with quarterback Philip Rivers as he meshes with a set of receivers new to the Chargers. Robert Meachem, Eddie Royal and Roscoe Parrish are among his unfamiliar targets, as they try to pick up the slack from Pro Bowler Vincent Jackson leaving as a free agent to Tampa Bay. And the offensive line's left side will be somewhat new as left tackle Jared Gaither replaces Pro Bowler Marcus McNeill (released) and left guard Tyronne Green takes over for another Pro Bowler, the retired Kris Dielman.
2. The team also needs to shore up a secondary that was shaky last year, as the Chargers were dreadful in getting off the field on third downs. Cornerback Quentin Jammer must prove he hasn't lost a step to Father Time; Antoine Cason, the opposite starter, must play with more consistency or he could be fighting off a challenge from Marcus Gilchrist. And can veteran Atari Bigby fill the longtime black hole the Chargers have had at strong safety? If not Bigby, is rookie Brandon Taylor ready for his baptism by fire? The Chargers have an All-Pro free safety in Eric Weddle, but the other three positions must have a strong camp.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Outside linebacker Melvin Ingram. Is it fair to focus so intently on a rookie? Sorry, but South Carolina's Ingram has little choice. The team's first-round pick is being asked to contribute immediately, as the Chargers seek a jolt to their pedestrian pass rush. Ingram needs to absorb a quick learning curve, especially considering the quarterbacks the AFC West will feature: Denver newcomer Peyton Manning and Kansas City's Matt Cassel has returned from injury. Ingram will get assistance from Shaun Phillips and Antwan Barnes, but that said the Chargers are counting on his future being now. Ingram showed well in the offseason workouts, which adds to the coaches' confidence in him. That helps, but Ingram is going to be watched closely until his production matches his hype.
ON THE HOT SEAT
Wide receiver Robert Meachem. With the deflection of Jackson, Meachem has some big cleats to fill. If he can't supply Rivers with a consistent downfield threat, as Jackson did, the team's vaunted passing attack could be compromised. Meachem must also prove to do something else Jackson accomplished: make his teammates better by drawing so much of the defense's attention. Meachem is steady, but Jackson was often that and spectacular, a key component of what set the Chargers' offense above others. Instead of Meachem being a complementary part, like he was in the Saints' offense, he'll be asked to be the No. 1 receiver on a team that is built around the pass. He'll get help by returning receiver Malcom Floyd, but Rivers is going to be looking Meachem's way with regularity as he aims for a return trip to the playoffs.
QBs: Starter - Philip Rivers. Backups - Charlie Whitehurst, Jarrett Lee.
Which Philip Rivers the Chargers get this season will go a long way in determining how far the team advances. Will it be the Rivers who threw for 4,000 yards last year and 27 touchdowns? Or will it be the one which produced 25 turnovers, and that included 20 interceptions? Rivers showed his old knack down the stretch, victimized in the midseason by an injury-wrecked offensive line. But he had his share of blemishes, too, which has made him seem even more committed for this season. Whitehurst returns after a stint in Seattle; he's not nearly the backup let go, Billy Volek.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters - Ryan Mathews; FB Le'Ron McLain. Backups - onnie Brown, FB Jacob Hester, Curtis Brinkley, Edwin Baker, Michael Hayes, FB Mohamed Marah.
Mathews had his breakout season last year, accumulating 1,546 total yards from scrimmage, seventh-best in the NFL. But he still needs to prove he can be durable enough to take the pounding that goes with being an NFL's team No. 1 back. In McClain, the Chargers have their first true fullback since Lorenzo Neal, and he'll be asked to open lanes almost exclusively. Brown must show his dramatic drop off from last year was a fluke, and not a sign that his skills have diminished to that degree. Brinkley could also get some touches, especially if Mathews is bit by the injury bug. With McClain, the bulk of Hester's work will come on special teams.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Antonio Gates. Backups --- Dante Rosario, Randy McMichael, Kory Sperry, Ladarius Green, Brad Taylor, TE/FB Patrick Doyle.
The team is loaded here, especially when considering Gates is as healthy as he has been in quite some time. With his foot problems minimized, Gates led the Chargers with 64 receptions last year and added seven scoring catches. Rosario could be Gates' backup, but it will be a spirited camp battle with the veteran McMichael and emerging Sperry. Plus the Chargers like Green, or they wouldn't have drafted him.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Robert Meachem, Malcom Floyd. Backups - Eddie Royal, Roscoe Parrish, Vincent Brown, Richard Goodman, Micheal Spurlock, Mike Willie, Jason Barnes, Paul Cox, Taylor Embree, Phillip Payne.
Meachem will get the bulk of looks from Rivers; Meachem must prove he can help fill the void left by Pro Bowler Vincent Jackson. Floyd has always been a Rivers' favorite, since they were both backups. And Floyd can make the difficult, acrobatic catches that made Jackson so effective. But he needs to stay on the field, as it seems every year Floyd's production is derailed by injuries. Royal and Parrish could supply the possession receptions, although it's possible only one of them makes the squad. Brown, in his second year, continues to grow and is keen on running precise routes and has reliable hands.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Jared Gaither, LG Tyronne Green, C Nick Hardwick, RG Louis Vasquez, RT Jeromey Clary. Backups - G/T Brandyn Dombrowski, C Colin Baxter, T Stephen Schilling, C David Molk, G Johnnie Troutman, G/T Rex Hadnot, T Phil Trautwein, T John Cullen, T Mike Harris, T Mario Henderson.
The continuity the Chargers have long enjoyed up front took a hit with two Pro Bowlers exiting: left tackle Marcus McNeill was released and left guard Kris Dielman retired. Hardwick is back, which is big, and the team is fairly confident with Vasquez and Clary to his right. But how quickly the left side meshes with the others is going to be a key with Gaither and Green plugging in the gaps. Depth has taken a hit here and it's up to Schilling and Baxter to prove they are ready in being one player away from being a starter.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - RE Cory Liuget, NT Antonio Garay, LE Vaughn Martin. Backups - RE Jacques Cesaire, NT Cam Thomas, LE Luis Castillo, DE Kendall Reyes, DT Eddie Brown, DL Garrett Brown, DT Charlie Bryant, DE Logan Harrell, DE Damik Scafe.
With injuries, many youngsters were force-fed here last year and just maybe that pays off this year. Liuget was sold as a pass-rushing end, but only had one sack. Castillo missed most the season, which catapulted Martin into a starting role. Garay is steady in the middle, but not the kind of player in the middle of a 3-4 that makes those around him better. In Cesaire and Castillo - he could still vie for a starting role - the depth is pretty solid.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- OLB Shaun Phillips, ILB Takeo Spikes, ILB Donald Butler, OLB Jarret Johnson. Backups - OLB Melvin Ingram, ILB Jonas Moulton, ILB Bront Bird, OLB Antwan Barnes, OLB Larry English, OLB Darryl Gamble, ILB Josh Linam, ILB Andrew Gachkar, ILB Demorrio Williams, LB Ricky Elmore.
Getting to the quarterback is this unit's main goal; hence Ingram being the first-round pick. But the outside on early downs was also solidified with Johnson coming over from the Ravens. Phillips can be a Pro Bowler, if his legs are healthy and allow for his impressive burst. Spikes and Butler will hold down the middle, although the Chargers are hopeful Mouton can see the field. Barnes had a team-best 11 sacks last year; the team might sack English, a former first-round pick, if he again can't get through camp healthy.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Antoine Cason, RCB Quentin Jammer, FS Eric Weddle, SS Atari Bigby. Backups - CB Marcus Gilchrist, SS Brandon Taylor, SS Darrell Stuckey, FS Sean Cattouse, CB Shareece Wright, CB Gregory Gatson, CB Corey Lynch, CB De'Andre Presley, CB Arthur Hobbs.
Cason looks great - one play. Cason looks average - one play. That is among the Chargers' woes as it hopes Cason can find the consistency that often leaves him. Jammer must rebound from getting burned in the second half of the season as teams started throwing his way often. If either falters, Gilchrist could be the answer, although he absorbed his share of burn marks last year. Weddle is solid at safety, always around the ball as he is seldom out of position. He's not a big hitter, but he plays like a ball-hawk. Strong safety must be filled and it's up to Bigby or the rookie Taylor to do just that.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Nate Kaeding, P Mike Scifres, LS Mike Windt, KR Roscoe Parrish, K Nick Novak, LS Nick Guess, P Robert Malone, KR Richard Goodman.
Kaeding, one of the most accurate regular-season kickers in NFL history, probably regains his job after missing most of last year with a knee injury. But if not, Novak proved last season the job isn't too big for him. Scifres remains a weapon, so much that Rivers shouldn't have forced so many third-down passes like he did last year. Windt doesn't figure to have much camp competition. Parrish is the likely returner, but Goodman came on strong in that role late last year.
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