The primary culprit in San Diego's meltdown at the safety position was Clinton Hart. The seven-year veteran played through hand and neck injuries, forcing him to sport a neck-roll that served as a virtual bull's-eye for opposing quarterbacks. Hart, who posted a career-high five interceptions in 2007, failed to pick off a pass in 2008 and gave up countless big plays. He will be on a short leash in 2009.
Hart will be challenged by Kevin Ellison, a rookie sixth-round pick from USC. Ellison has had trouble staying healthy and lacks straight-line speed as the result of multiple knee surgeries, but he's a playmaker when he's on the field. Although he sometimes struggles in coverage, playing the ball rather than the man, Ellison is a punishing hitter and an effective blitzer.
Also in the mix is Steve Gregory, who will back up both safety spots. He split time with Hart last season and played surprisingly well, but he is best suited for reserve work because of his small size (5-foot-11, 185 pounds) and limited athleticism. Gregory, who signed a new five-year contract prior to last season, is all but certain to return in 2009 because of his leadership, accountability and special-teams prowess.
Things are more settled at free safety. Eric Weddle had an up-and-down 2008 season in his first year as a full-time starter but finished strong and will remain atop the depth chart. He is a sound tackler, leading the team with 127 total tackles last season, and shows good instincts and hands in coverage. He is also an effective blitzer, something Ron Rivera plans to take more advantage of this season.
Behind Weddle is Paul Oliver, a supplemental pick in 2007 and a converted cornerback who made significant strides last season. Oliver, Weddle and Gregory played together in the dime defense and helped the unit gel as the season progressed; the team allowed an average of 275 passing yards over the first eight games and just 236 during the last eight. Oliver also corralled his first interception last season, an end zone pick in the season finale against the Denver Broncos.
The final safety in the mix is C.J. Spillman, an undrafted rookie free agent from Marshall. Spillman is a pure free safety who has a shot to stick because of his smooth coverage and his ability as a gunner on special teams. However, his lack of physicality and big plays (zero interceptions over the last two seasons) makes him a long shot to make anything more than the practice squad in San Diego.
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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.