Give A.J. Smith credit for one thing: He knows how to turn a weakness into a strength in a hurry. The Chargers, who mustered only 28 sacks last season, figure to field a feared pass rush once again thanks to the return of Shawne Merriman and the addition of first-round pick Larry English.
Merriman missed almost all of last season after having season-ending surgery on his PCL and LCL. The domino effect caused by his absence was catastrophic. The rest of the team’s pass rushers could not cope with the extra attention; the secondary was exposed; and the pass defense plummeted to No. 31 in the NFL.
Merriman’s recovery is ahead of schedule. Although he was held out of the team’s recent Mini Camp, he anticipates coming back faster and stronger than ever in time for training camp in July. Merriman, who led the NFL with 39.5 sacks between 2005 and 2007, will be plenty motivated because his contract is set to expire and his love of the game is under review.
Merriman’s return will make life easier for Shaun Phillips, who largely struggled last season. Although Phillips finished with a respectable 7.5 sacks, he disappeared for long stretches, posting just a half-sack between Weeks 6 and 13. He should be able to do more with less responsibility in 2009, using his lightning-quick first step to give opposing right tackles fits.
New to the rotation is Northern Illinois product Larry English, tabbed by the Chargers as a surprise pick in the first round. English is a superb pass rusher, evidenced by his 31.5 sacks over his final three collegiate seasons, and will form a potent three-man rotation with Merriman and Phillips.
At least in the early going, English is more worried about learning from Merriman and Phillips than complementing them.
“I have watched a lot of tape of those guys and watched them play a lot of football,” said English of Merriman and Phillips. “They were really two players that I watched and looked to. They were in that group of guys that I would go to, to try and take parts of their game and mold into my own.”
English’s arrival puts the Jyles Tucker project on the backburner, at least for this season. Tucker inked a new five-year, $14 million contract prior to last season -- despite only playing in six career games -- and responded with 5.5 sacks in 13 games played. However, he only recorded just 2.5 sacks over the final 12 games and seemingly played his way out of favor.
Tucker may still have a long-term future with the team depending on what happens with Merriman’s contract situation.
The Chargers like what they’ve seen from local products Antwan Applewhite (SDSU) and Eric Bakhtiari (USD), but they will have to bide their time given the team’s new-found depth at the position.
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.