Five to Watch: Panthers vs Bolts

TE Antonio Gates (Jed Jacobsohn/Getty)

Several of San Diego's core players have a lot to prove during the season opener against the Carolina Panthers. A pair of All Pros must prove they are fit after limping to the finish last season, while a couple rookies must prove they are NFL-ready. Samantha Fillerup profiles the top five players under the spotlight.

1. Antonio Gates will start for the first time since he underwent toe surgery back in February. Gates is the centerpiece of the passing attack, consistently lodging himself between the ball and the defender. His soft hands and great body control netted him 933 yards and 10 TDs last season. Against the Carolina Panthers, Gates will look to start fast and prove he can maintain his productive pace from seasons past.

2. LaDainian Tomlinson will see his first game action since a cameo appearance in the AFC Championship Game, where he was forced to the sidelines with a knee injury, for which he did not need surgery. To say that he is a play-maker is a gross understatement, as he has led the League in rushing yards for two consecutive seasons. Like Gates, L.T. needs a quick start to prove his injury and advancing age (29) won't compromise his standard-setting productivity.

3. Mike Tolbert enjoyed an impressive training camp and exhibition season. He will play his first professional game after being signed with the Chargers as an undrafted rookie out of Coastal Carolina. He is a powerful lead blocker and looks comfortable in space, unlike the man he'll replace (Lorenzo Neal). Tolbert's athleticism and natural instincts are positives and he is a reliable short-yardage runner.

Click here to read Scout.com Draft Analyst Chris Steuber's analysis of Tolbert.

4.Shawne Merriman is the epitome of a team player, not only for his decision to play despite PCL and LCL tears in his left knee, but for the impact he has on his teammates. He is a three-time Pro Bowler and is known for being a game-changer. Over the last three seasons, he's led the NFL with 39.5 sacks. However, in order to prolong his ability to play this season, he will wear a knee brace that could potentially inhibit his mobility and speed. Being the athlete his is, there is little doubt that he will overcome any obstacle in his path to be successful until he is no longer able to play.

5. Antoine Cason, a first-round pick out of Arizona, shined throughout the preseason and nailed down the nickel back job. Cason is also expected to see time on special teams, where he will chase down former Charger Mark Jones, who was signed by the Panthers last week. Cason is fast and instinctive, having already recorded an interception during the preseason. The Panthers will test Cason early and often as they look to throw away from Antonio Cromartie and Quentin Jammer. The rookie must prove he's NFL-ready.

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