LB Shawne Merriman (Jeff Gross/Getty)
Shawne Merriman’s season is one-on-done as he’s opted for reconstructive surgery to repair the two torn ligaments in his left knee. In his absence, second-year linebacker Jyles Tucker moves into the starting lineup and four-year veteran Marques Harris resumes his spot as the top backup. Can this talented pair prevent a precipitous drop-off?
Shawne Merriman’s decision to undergo season-ending surgery is a huge blow to San Diego’s pass rush. However, if the season opener was any indication, the rush would not have been much better with a hobbled Merriman on the field. Merriman was forced in and out of the lineup due to knee pain and problems with a bulky knee brace. He finished with two tackles and zero sacks.
Merriman was a statistical force when healthy and those numbers will be hard to replace. Merriman first moved into the starting lineup during Week 6 of the 2005 season. Since that time, he’s recorded 38.5 sacks in only 37 games, the only player to average more than a sack per game during that span.
Replacing Merriman in the starting lineup is Jyles Tucker, a promising second-year player who is long on talent and short on experience. Tucker began last season on the practice squad before being called up for the final six games. He earned national attention in the season finale when he earned Defensive Player of the Week honors against the Oakland Raiders, tallying three sacks, a forced fumble and a touchdown.
Tucker beat the odds by sticking with the Chargers after signing as an undrafted free agent out of Wake Forest. He did something even more remarkable by recently agreeing to a new five-year contract that could be worth up to $14 million, despite having less than half a season of experience.
“I have to make plays within the defense and on special teams,” said Tucker in an interview with SDBoltReport.com shortly after joining the Chargers. “I have to do everything they'll let me do. I have to work harder than the man next to me."
Rounding out the new three-man rotation at outside linebacker is Marques Harris, the top backup last season prior to Tucker’s emergence. Harris posted 53 tackles and 5.5 sacks during his first three seasons. He has the potential to match those numbers this year given the abundance of playing time he can now expect.
Harris will be an unrestricted free agent after the season and is playing for his next contract. His former coach at Southern Utah State, Wes Meier, believes Harris has what it takes to cash in.
“He's got some of the best athleticism I've ever seen,” Meier told SDBoltReport.com after Harris signed in San Diego. “He's got great strength and great speed.”
Tucker and Harris do not have the dominant of ability of the man they will be asked to replace. However, they are certainly skilled enough help the Chargers' defense rank in the NFL's top 10 in terms of sacks.
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.