Stephen Alexander (Getty Images)
The San Diego Chargers had aspirations of a renaissance at tight end this season. They envisioned Stephen Alexander taking the reigns and leading the charge as a viable option to the young Drew Brees. Not all was what it was cracked up to be.
Stephen Alexander was brought in to stabilize the tight end position for the Chargers. With Coach Marty Schottenheimer fiercely loyal to his former players, Alexander was signed to a five year deal. The dividends were expected to be immediate.
After missing most of last year, the deal he received may have been a bit much as it totaled $15 million over five seasons. He did make the Pro Bowl in 2000 as a member of Washington, but concerns had to be there after leg injuries took his 2001 season.
In 14 games this season he nabbed 45 receptions for 510 yards and one touchdown. Two other times he was open in the end zone but Drew Brees short armed the ball resulting in interceptions. Alexander missed two games with a sprained right foot.
Alexander must work on his blocking, as it is a huge part of the San Diego offense. He sometimes came off his blocks too soon this year, and it cost the offense valuable time, and LaDainian Tomlinson valuable yards. Although that is not what he is best at, it would serve the Chargers well if he improved in this vital area.
Through the first seven games, two of which he was injured for, Alexander caught just seven passes. Not exactly the blazing start the Chargers hoped for. In his next game he doubled his total with a seven catch performance in a loss to New York and over the next nine games, the New York game included, he caught 38 passes. Those were the numbers the Chargers had hoped for all season.
Why the slow start then? During the preseason, Alexander only caught one ball from Drew Brees, and it was the only ball he caught all preseason. Maybe that is coincidence as the Chargers wanted to see who else they had to rotate in. Or maybe, just maybe, it explains a whole lot. One ball between Brees and Alexander. Alexander was supposed to be the perfect dumpoff receiver to Brees, but how would he know when they did not spend enough game time finding comfort with each other.
Next year should be different. With Alexander coming on late in the year, expect him to be a more valuable target down the field in 2003. He has the skills to get open running seam routes. Believe it or not, we think he will again make the Pro Bowl, this time as a member of the San Diego Chargers.
Josh Norman, a rookie free agent out of Oklahoma, was a wide receiver and running back during his college days. At 6-2, 236 pounds, he was converted to tight end. Norman finished the season with 16 catches for 201 yards and one touchdown (on his first NFL reception no less).
Norman was just beginning to hit his stride as a member of the offense went he went down with an ankle injury in week 6 vs. Kansas City. He missed the rest of that KC game, where he had two catches and seemed to be breaking out of his shell, and five more games before returning.
He has the tools to create mismatches against linebackers who cover him in the passing game. One thing he needs to improve is his consistency. Despite his solid hands and good route running, he missed a couple passes as he looked to turn up field before he actually caught the ball. It usually occurred on the first ball thrown his way, then his nerves would settle down and he would catch the rest.
Norman can be a huge part of the offense in the coming years. Don’t look for him down at the goal line as he does not have the height or speed to get separation against cornerbacks, but between the 20’s he should see a lot of open space. If he can remain healthy, 40 catches is not out of the realm of possibility.
Norman also must work on his blocking. Since he is a bit smaller than the average tight end, his blocking becomes more of a key as teams will see him in the lineup and automatically expect a pass of some sort. If he improves in the blocking category it will open up the offense to new possibilities, and two tight end sets that will net positive results.
Justin Peelle, a rookie drafted in the fourth round of the 2002 NFL Draft out of Oregon, made his name as a blocking tight end for the Chargers. At 6-4, 255 pounds, he can even add more to his solid frame. At one point in the season, with the Chargers down to no healthy linemen he was asked to go in and play offensive tackle. Luckily, Toniu Fonoti sucked it up and went in despite a bum ankle.
Peelle ended the season with just three receptions for 15 yards but he was instrumental in helping Tomlinson gain yards. As the tight end he was often called upon to seal the outside on sweeps and tosses. What that entails is keeping the defense to the inside of the play so LT could go wide with an offensive lineman pulling to lead the blocking downfield. If he failed to seal that corner, LT would be dropped behind the line, or forced back inside where running room was tighter. It is safe to say he did a solid job in that area as a rookie.
Peelle will need to become an option down at the goal line. If he is able to release from a block and catch some touchdowns his value will tremendously increase. He does not need to be a stud receiver with Alexander and Norman in front of him on that depth chart, but the added weapon down in the red zone is always welcome.