Merriman Ready to Prove His Football Mettle

Linebacker Shawne Merriman, who missed all but one game in his fourth season as a pro, still has the fire in his belly that led to him being selected a Pro Bowler in his first three seasons.

"I'm frustrated as hell," Shawne Merriman said. "I want to get out there and play ball. The advantage I have is that I get to do it with a helmet and shoulder pads, so any frustration I have will be taken out on the field."

It's a big year for Merriman in many ways. Not only does he want to regain his status as being among the NFL's premier pass-rushers, but his contract expires at the end of the year.

So far, the Chargers have made no movement to extend his contract. Save for a long-term deal -- which figures to be one of the richest ever for a defender, the Chargers could bring him back as a franchise player.

But that is down the road. The course which lays immediately ahead is finding that path to the pocket -- something Merriman is keen on doing.

The "Hollywood" tag often lands at Merriman's cleats as he is involved in so many other things outside of football, but he said don't be fooled.


LB Shawne Merriman
Donald Miralle/Getty
"My hard work has produced (39.5) sacks in three years and been rewarded with Pro Bowls and team victories," he said. "Those are the accomplishments I look to, but it is kind of sad that people don't know about everything I'm doing, all the hard work I'm putting in behind the scenes. They only see me when I'm in front of a camera.

"Pretty soon it will be out there, about how much time I've spent getting ready for this comeback."

The Chargers are eager to watch Merriman do his thing. The pass defense was horrid last year, as the team finished with the NFL's No. 31 ranking. Time and again, passers faded back with little pressure, able to give their receivers enough time to find a crease.

With Merriman zeroing in on them, the Chargers hope that is no longer the case.

"I'm not a doctor, but I'm very pleased with what I'm hearing," Chargers general manager A.J. Smith said. "He's on schedule and he should be ready to go in training camp."

Merriman wasn't quite ready for minicamp, with the Chargers being cautious with their star defender.

But in watching him work on the side, it's evident Merriman isn't far from being set to go.

"I've been eager to push myself to the limit," Merriman said. "I've been doing some things over the last six to nine months that I never thought I was capable of. But when you're put into a situation when you want to go out there and do something no one's done before, it brings the best out of you."

And the Chargers' pass rushing may be the best thing about the defensive unit.

Not only will a motivated Merriman be back, but he joins Shaun Phillips (a team-high 7 1/2 sacks last year) and first-round pick Larry English, a pass-rush specialist out of Northern Illinois.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Antonio Cromartie's 2008 season featured a confident player eating crow.

Cromartie entered last season talking about setting the NFL record for interceptions in a season, when he spouted that 15 picks was his goal in 2009.

He fell a tad short -- by 13.


CB Antonio Cromartie
Lenny Ignelzi/AP
But one can't fault Cromartie for setting the bar so high. In his first year as a starter in 2008, he paced the NFL and set a Chargers single-season team record with 10 interceptions.

So why wouldn't his second year running with the first string not be better?

Instead, it was a disaster. Teams threw at Cromartie regularly and without hesitation, including an early-season game in Denver which revealed to the rest of the NFL that Cromartie could be had.

What Cromartie would reveal after the season was he was compromised because of a fractured hip. It's an injury which he -- nor the team -- divulged during Cromartie's trying season.

"My whole thing was to shut up and just play," Cromartie said. "I was injured for most of last season, and I can't worry about all the critics who say I wasn't hurt because I didn't say anything."

But others did. They wondered if Cromartie was all talk and no cattle. That if his breakout year of 2007 was more of an aberration and the result of passer's hurrying their throws because of the Chargers' pass rush.

When that pressure on the quarterbacks didn't arrive to the same degree -- with Shawne Merriman missing all but one game -- the pressure fell on the Chargers' defensive backs. And Cromartie -- because of a bum hip, he says -- wasn't able to answer the challenge. Not only did he wear a target, but on other occasions he whiffed on tackles and was often in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Cromartie, though, knows what went wrong and why. Now's he out to prove his stellar season was no fluke.

"I feel a whole lot stronger," he said. "I still have to work the tightness out of (the hip). That's the main thing for me right now. I feel comfortable on the field, mostly because I'm breaking a lot better and I'm able to react to what I'm reading."

He can also read a depth chart. And the Chargers spent their top pick in 2008 on Antoine Cason. In his rookie year, Cason earned the team's nickel spot and played well.

If Cromartie stubs his toe this season, Cason will be at the ready.

Cromartie? He's ready to get his name back being mentioned among the NFL's top shutdown corners.

With his hip healed, Cromartie has his hops and is hoping for another big season.


LT Marcus McNeill
Stephen Dunn/Getty
--LT Marcus McNeill didn't work in the minicamp after having neck surgery in February, an outpatient procedure that really hasn't hampered his preparation for the season.

"I'm 100 percent in the weight room and on the field running around," McNeill said, "but we're going to avoid contact until we get right up to training camp."

--RB/KR Darren Sproles signed his franchise player deal of $6.621 million for next season, but he was looking for more -- as in more years.

"We were hoping for a long-term deal, and we were hoping to get it done before minicamp," Sproles said. "When it didn't look like that was going to happen, I signed the tender so I could be here. It's important to be a part of the offseason program."

Sproles participated in the recent minicamp.

--The Chargers were chosen to play in three legacy games the NFL is having to toast the 50th anniversary of the AFL. The Chargers will don the duds they wore their first year, when they called Los Angeles home. The games will be in the road at Oakland and Kansas City at home against the Broncos.

--Coach Norv Turner was impressed by the Chargers' newest additions, particularly Louis Vasquez, a third-round pick out of Texas Tech. Vasquez will challenge Kynan Forney for the right guard spot vacated when Mike Goff left for the Chiefs as a free agent.

"He was very impressive," Turner said of Vasquez. "He's a big man and moves well. He is a natural pass protector and is very, very physical."

The mystery on Vasquez, who came from the Red Raiders' spread offense, is whether he can run block.

"Obviously, you got to weigh it, but he's a good football player," Turner said. "Good football players are good football players, and I don't care what offensive or defensive system they played in. We will coach them and get them ready."

--The Chargers mourned the loss of Jack Kemp, a former quarterback for the team before he entered a long career in politics.

"Jack was a special, special person," Chargers president Dean Spanos said. "He made a positive impact on everything he touched: on the country, on pro football and, most important to me, on my entire family. He was a good, good friend and we will miss him terribly."

Kemp was the team's quarterback in the first game in Chargers history, leading the Los Angeles Chargers to a 21-20 victory over the Dallas Texans. He played for the Chargers from 1960-62 and posted a 22-6 record as a starter. The Chargers tried to hide Kemp on waivers in 1962, but he was picked up by the Buffalo Bills and he led them to two AFL titles.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "The organization knows what was going on with my health. The biggest thing for me is to move forward and perform the way I'm supposed to perform." -- CB Antonio Cromartie on a hip injury -- that he didn't disclose publicly -- that he said hampered his 2008 season.

MEDICAL UPDATE

--DT Jamal Williams (knees) will be ready for training camp.
--LT Marcus McNeill (neck) expected to be ready for training camp.
--OLB Shawne Merriman (knee) will be ready for training camp.
--TE Antonio Gates (ankle) will be ready for training camp.
--DE Ryon Bingham (illness) was forced him to miss minicamp, but his condition is not considered serious.

FRANCHISE PLAYER: RB Darren Sproles: Tendered at $6.621M (signed April 28).

TRANSITION PLAYER: None.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

--C Jeremy Newberry.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

--WR Malcom Floyd (tendered at $1.545M with second-round pick as compensation) has a good connection with QB Philip Rivers and can be a solid red-zone target. Injuries slowed him some down the stretch last year.

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.

PLAYERS RE-SIGNED

--OT Jeromey Clary: ERFA; $460,000/1 yr.
--OG Kynan Forney: Potential UFA; $4.8M/2 yrs, SB unknown.
--CB Cletis Gordon: RFA; $1.545M/1 yr.
--RB Darren Sproles: Franchise FA; $6.621M/1 yr.

PLAYERS ACQUIRED

--LB Kevin Burnett: UFA Cowboys; $5.5M/2 yrs, $2M SB.

PLAYERS LOST

--RB Eldra Buckley (released).
--OG Mike Goff: UFA Chargers; $3.5M/2 yrs, guarantees unknown.
--LB Marques Harris: UFA 49ers; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--DE Igor Olshansky: UFA Cowboys; $18M/4 yrs, $8M guaranteed.
--LB Anthony Waters (released).

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