LB Derek Smith (Donald Miralle/Getty)
The Chargers beefed up their roster in the offseason with three veterans who will start in place of their unavailable teammates on opening day. San Diego's patchwork offensive line will be tested by Julius Peppers & Co., while its defensive fill-in will chase down a pair of former first-round picks.
1. C Jeremy Newberry
Newberry will start in the season opener for Nick Hardwick, who is still out of commission after undergoing offseason foot surgery. Newberry is a ferocious run blocker who frustrates and wears down opponents throughout the course of a game. His lateral agility is lacking, but he makes up for it with veteran savvy.
A two-time Pro Bowl attendee, Newberry is one of the toughest players in the NFL. The challenge will be proving he's assimilated to the offense after missing ample time in training camp to rest his aching knees. Plays like the one against the Seattle Seahawks, where Newberry and Philip Rivers suffered a lapse in communication that resulted in a fumbled snap, cannot happen during the regular season.
2. LT L.J. Shelton
Shelton appears to be the starter at left tackle on opening day, as Marcus McNeill was just recently cleared to return to practice after overcoming a stinger. Shelton will have his hands full in his first meaningful game with the Chargers, matching up with former No. 2 overall pick Julius Peppers.
Also a 10-year veteran, Shelton is a versatile lineman who can also contribute at right tackle and guard. Once McNeill returns to the starting lineup, likely in Week 2, Shelton will push Jeromey Clary for time on the right side.
3. ILB Derek Smith
Smith, a seven-year member of the San Francisco 49ers, will start the first four games of the season in place of Stephen Cooper, who is serving a suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy. Smith begins his 12th season in the League and has recorded five 100-tackle seasons in the last seven years.
Smith will play mostly on running downs against the Carolina Panthers, giving way to Anthony Waters in the nickel defense. However, Smith will still work up a sweat by chasing down former first-round picks DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Smith must perform if he hopes to hold a spot in the rotation upon Cooper's return.