Three to Watch: Six-Year Veterans

LB Stephen Cooper (Harry How/Getty)

The Chargers are championship contenders because they have a good mix of youth and experience. However, if the team is going to take the next step and capture the Lombardi Trophy, it will be the players in the middle of the spectrum -- those in the primes of their careers -- who will carry the load. Chargers expert Michael Lombardo examines three such players.

TE Antonio Gates

Gates, who came off the physically-unable-to-perform list on Tuesday, is the centerpiece of the Chargers offense. His presence in the middle of the field prevents defenses from doubling the Chargers' receivers on the outside. Gates also gives opposing linebackers something to worry about other than LaDainian Tomlinson.

Gates is far more than a decoy, though. Over the last four seasons, he's averaged 79 catches for 993 yards (12.57 avg) and 10 TDs. Because of his soft hands and spectacular body control, he is an inviting target on third downs and in the red zone.

Gates' ability to put his body between the defender and the ball makes Philip Rivers feel comfortable throwing his way. However, if Rivers and Gates are to rekindle their chemistry, Gates will have to prove he's fit after off-season toe surgery. When Gates plays at half-speed, as he was forced to do in the AFC Championship Game, the Chargers' offense is not nearly as dynamic.

OG Kris Dielman

Dielman raised his game to a new level last season, playing up to his shiny new contract and earning a spot in the Pro Bowl as a result. He cleared the way for Tomlinson to lead the NFL in rushing for the second consecutive season, with L.T. running left on most of his carries.

If the Chargers offense is going to continue to improve, Dielman will have to be even better in 2008. The team will likely start the season with fill-in Jeremy Newberry at center, and while Newberry is a fiery run blocker, he lacks the agility to seal off the pass rush up the middle.

Dielman will have to keep his head on a swivel and watch for delayed blitzes up the middle, as teams will surely look to force Rivers out of the pocket. If Dielman can keep the pocket clean while still driving one of the NFL's best rushing attacks, the Chargers offense will be able to survive the absence of its Pro Bowl center.

LB Stephen Cooper

When the Chargers learned that Cooper would be suspended for the first four games of the season, the team seemed well equipped to handle his absence. Ten-year veteran Derek Smith is set to step into the starting role, while backups Anthony Waters, Brandon Siler and Tim Dobbins provide extraordinary depth.

However, as Cooper reminded everyone during the team's preseason game against the St. Louis Rams, he is hands-down the best inside linebacker on the roster. Against the run, he diagnoses plays quickly, slips off blocks and makes sure tackles. Against the pass, he has the speed to cover tight ends and the power to be effective on the blitz.

The Chargers defense should be fine in Cooper's absence -- the only team that could potentially carve up the Chargers on the ground while Cooper is out is the Oakland Raiders in Week 4 -- but Ted Cottrell's unit won't be able to reach its full potential until Cooper is back in the mix.

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.

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