C Nick Hardwick (Donald Miralle/Getty)
The Chargers have no questions about their starting center. Nick Hardwick is a former Pro Bowler who expects to raise his game in 2009 after playing through a foot injury last season. There are, however, some questions behind Hardwick. Jeremy Newberry is an unrestricted free agent who won’t return, leaving the cupboards virtually bare.
Nick Hardwick had an up-and-down season in 2008. He missed the first three games while recovering from foot surgery and was never completely healthy. His limitations were most evident in the running game; RB LaDainian Tomlinson was stuffed on 7.2 percent of his rushing attempts, the ninth-highest total in the NFL.
Nonetheless, Hardwick was mostly efficient last season. He allowed only 2.5 sacks and was penalized just two times for 15 yards. His efforts helped pave the way for a team that led the AFC in points per game (27.4) and produced a rare statistical trifecta: a 4,000-yard passer (Philip Rivers), a 1,000-yard rusher (Tomlinson) and a 1,000-yard receiver (Vincent Jackson).
The question marks arise directly behind Hardwick on the depth chart. That’s a big change from last season, when the team had two veterans behind Hardwick in the preseason: Cory Withrow and Jeremy Newberry.
Withrow was placed on the injured-reserve list with a hamstring injury on Sept. 1. He reached an injury settlement four days later and signed with the St. Louis Rams in October.
Newberry played a much bigger role, starting the first three games of the season and seeing ample time in Week 10 after Hardwick suffered a concussion. Newberry provided a steadying presence at the hub position, but his struggles outweighed his strengths. He had too many problems with the quarterback-center exchange and allowed the defense to get too much push up the middle.
General Manager A.J. Smith has already stated Newberry will not be back next season.
The Chargers made an under-the-radar move to address the center position this offseason, adding former Central Michigan standout Drew Mormino. Mormino was a sixth-round pick of the Miami Dolphins in 2007, when Cam Cameron was the Dolphins head coach and Hudson Houck was the offensive line coach; Cameron (2002-2006) and Houck (2002-2004) are former Chargers assistants.
Another option at center is Scott Mruczkowski, a four-year veteran who can play every position on the line except left tackle. Mruczkowski was a center at Bowling Green when the Chargers tabbed him with a seventh-round pick in 2005.
Mruczkowski’s ability to back up the center position will depend on what happens at right guard; currently, the recently re-signed Kynan Forney and Mruczkowski are expected to battle to replace Mike Goff as the starting right guard.
Because of this uncertainty, look for San Diego to target a versatile interior offensive lineman on the second day of the draft, one who can play center and guard with equal effectiveness. The Chargers have already met with Akransas C Jonathan Luigs this offseason and could call his name if he’s still available in the fourth round.
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.