Wide receiver Vincent Jackson: Among those benefiting the most from the in-season addition of veteran Chris Chambers last year was Jackson. Now the question is can Jackson, a former second-round pick, build on that foundation?
Jackson had 41 catches for 623 yard and three touchdowns last year. Now can he take the next step up with defenses figuring to focus again on Chambers when the Chargers try to wing the ball downfield.
Jackson doesn't only benefit from having Chambers on the field, but can also learn by observing Chambers in practice and how he prepares. Few Chargers receivers are more consistent in the routines than Chambers, who prides himself on being consistent in each practice and game.
Jackson didn't seem that comfortable in the role as the No. 1 receiver, a position he had for part of last year after Eric Parker was put on IR and before Chambers came aboard. With the Chargers getting sporadic production from first-round pick Buster Davis, it was easy to blanket Jackson.
But Davis has been pushed back to at least the No. 3 receiver -- depending if the Chargers move Parker before the season starts. And with Chambers, Jackson can fly under the radar a bit and use his considerable athletic skills for his size (6-5, 241 pounds) -- especially in the red zone.
Jackson being a red-zone target could really come into play if Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates is slowed early in the year as he tries to rebound from toe surgery.
Inside linebacker Derek Smith: The Chargers' defense was dealt a blow when Stephen Cooper, the leading tackler last year, was suspended for the first four games of the upcoming season. Cooper is not only a tackling machine, but gets the linebackers lined up in the proper positions.
But with him missing the first four months, the onus will be on Smith to not let the production or play of the unit slip.
Last year Matt Wilhelm, another starting inside linebacker, was injured early in the year the Chargers went 0-3.
Smith is a pro's pro as he enters his 12th season in a career that has seen him collect at least 100 tackles in a year nine times. Last year for the 49ers, he had 98 tackles.
Smith signed a two-year deal with the Chargers in February, so he has had the offseason to get accustomed to the 3-4 defense the team runs. The coaches are hopeful Smith hits the ground running as he will be asked to contribute immediately, starting with the Sept. 7 opener against the Panthers.
Cornerback Antoine Cason: So far all the reports on Cason have been positive -- he's extremely athletic and smart as well. The Chargers are banking on Cason being able to slid in and be productive early in the nickel role. That spot was held down by Drayton Florence for most of last year, which basically gave the Chargers three starters in the top three spots -- Florence moved on to Jacksonville where he is expected to start.
With the Chargers playing in a division which often has offenses trotting out three wide-receiver sets, it's imperative Cason absorbs his learning curve sooner than later. The Chargers are counting on it.
Positional battle: If Eric Parker is still on the Chargers' roster at camp, it should make for a spirited competition between him and second-year pro Buster Davis for the No. 3 spot behind Chris Chambers and Vincent Jackson.
Davis was the team's first-round pick last year, but had an uneven season with 20 catches for 188 yards and a score. But he had just seven catches over the final five games.
Parker was the team's top wideout for two seasons before being sidelined by a toe injury. He was placed on injured reserve before the season, ending his year before it got started. If healthy, Parker is a gutsy receiver not afraid to go over the middle -- he can also return punts. But the Chargers might try to move Parker to open up more playing time for Davis.
CAMP CALENDAR: Rookies and selected veterans report July 20. The full squad reports July 24 with a full-squad workout the next day. The Chargers hold a night practice on Aug. 6 and break camp on Aug. 23.