LB Tim Dobbins (Jim Rogash/Getty)
San Diego’s excessive depth will force some difficult decisions as training camp unfolds. However, the wide receivers and linebackers aren’t the only ones feeling the crunch. The choices the Chargers make regarding their kickoff coverage teams could make or break the careers of some longstanding veterans. Chargers expert Michael Lombardo explains.
The Chargers boasted one of the NFL’s top kickoff coverage teams in 2007. Nate Kaeding was the only kicker in the AFC whose opponents’ average starting position was inside their 20-yard line.
Kaeding benefited from a star-studded coverage team that featured two-time Pro Bowler Kassim Osgood and rookie sensation Brandon Siler, who was one of only three players in the NFL to finish with 21 or more tackles on special teams. The Bolts also had two-time Special Teams Player of the Year Carlos Polk, although his season ended after Week 11 with a shoulder injury.
Osgood, Siler and Polk all return in 2008 along with most of last season’s kickoff-coverage regulars. Tim Dobbins returns after posting 15 special-teams tackles last season. On the opposite side of the kickoff team, Marques Harris and Jyles Tucker will fight for the opportunity to match Dobbins’ productivity.
On the outside, cornerbacks Quentin Jammer and Cletis Gordon ensure kick returners don’t get a free run up the sidelines. On the inside, Andrew Pinnock and Brandon Manumaleuna take on blockers and free things up for the playmakers around them. Other kickoff-coverage stalwarts, like Antonio Cromartie and Legedu Naanee, floated in and out of the rotation.
In 2008, special teams coach Steve Crosby’s pool of available players is going to get awfully crowded. Rookies Antoine Cason, Jacob Hester and DeJuan Tribble have all been added to the mix. Three sophomores who spent last season on the inactive list -- Anthony Waters, Paul Oliver and Scott Chandler -- are also clamoring for a chance to cover kicks.
The makeup of the kickoff-coverage team will affect the shape of the active roster. For example, Polk and Dobbins are on the team primarily for their special-teams skills. If Waters replaces Polk, the Chargers may cut the veteran to save a roster spot. The same is true if Hester replaces Dobbins.
Other players, such as Chandler and Malcom Floyd, will need to carve out a niche on special teams if they have any hope of being active on game days.
No matter which players the Chargers tab for kickoff-coverage responsibilities, the decision needs to be made by the third preseason game. That way, if the decision makes a veteran expendable, A.J. Smith has an opportunity to shop that player before other teams shape their final rosters.
For example, if Dobbins is deemed expendable, the Chargers could move him to an out-of-division team in exchange for another back-of-the-roster player or a late-round draft pick in 2009 or 2010.
The Chargers have the most talented special teams in the NFL. Now, the trick is finding a way to get the maximum value from all that talent.
Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003.