This time last year the Chargers were scratching their head, hoping against hope that some key players would be ready for the opener.
Quarterback Philip Rivers was coming off reconstructive knee surgery. Center Nick Hardwick was worried about a March foot surgery. Tight end Antonio Gates was still nursing a sore toe. Linebacker Shawne Merriman was hoping to avoid surgery by testing his sore knee.
This year? Only Merriman didn't take part in the majority of workouts, but he's on pace to be set for training camp.
With those players basically mended, the Chargers hope they can avoid another slow start for the third straight year.
Biggest move: The return of Shawn Merriman trumps anything else the Chargers did this offseason.
Merriman, a three-time Pro Bowler, missed all but one game last year. With his absence, the Chargers' pass rush fell considerably, which translated into a secondary which spent most the year on its heels or chasing receivers after catches.
Merriman has yet to return to full-time practice duties -- the team is being extra cautious here. But it's obvious by watching him on the sidelines and when he is working with trainers that he has his burst back after getting his knee rebuilt.
If Merriman can return to form, that will not only be clear with the front seven, but on the defense's back end as quarterbacks won't have the luxury of watching receivers make multiple moves.
Merriman, if fit, will force quarterbacks to get rid of the ball quickly.
Key loss: Some might point to defensive end Igor Olshansky, who left as a free agent to Dallas.
But for team which hangs its hat so much on its potent offense, the loss of right guard Mike Goff can't be discounted.
The Chargers decided not to bring back the veteran Goff. They feel Kynan Forney or rookie Louis Vasquez will be able to fill the void.
But Goff never missed a game while with the Chargers and seldom skipped a practice. Despite being banged-up numerous time, he would grit his teeth and trot out there, setting an example for the rest of the offense.
Goff's absence might be felt, not only along the line but in the locker room.
Needs addressing: The secondary must rebound if the Chargers are to advance deep into the playoffs.
The Chargers have to find out if Antonio Cromartie is the player who led the NFL with 10 interceptions in 2007 or the one who was repeatedly beat in 2008.
Before the '08 campaign, Cromartie crowed about setting a NFL record for interceptions in a season. But he finished with only two, and they both came in one game.
Cromartie said after the year he was playing with a bum hip -- something never mentioned on the injury report. So it's up to him to prove '08 was an aberration for the former first-round pick.
At safety, the Chargers are hopeful another opening day starter can bounce back in Clinton Hart.
Hart, a strong safety, was slowed by a broken hand early last year and then a neck injury toward the end. He often missed tackles and was out of position, eventually losing his job to Steve Gregory.
Cromartie, Hart and the rest of the secondary will be aided if Shawne Merriman can return to his Pro Bowl caliber of play. But regardless of what Merriman does, Cromartie and Hart have to show they can be part of what the Chargers hope is a championship-caliber defense.
Offseason Standout: Running back LaDainian Tomlinson would seem like an odd selection here.
But now 30 years old and coming off his second consecutive season which ended with an injury, many wondered if Tomlinson still had the get up and go.
Tomlinson, though, proved time and again in the practices that there are plenty of skills still at his beck and call.
Sure, there was little hitting -- and that's particular true for a franchise player.
But it was also obvious that Tomlinson was running, cutting and faking out players with regularity. He has proved -- so far -- the serious groin injury which derailed him in last season's playoffs is a thing of the past.
Lineup Watch: The Chargers have to find a right guard and their choices seem to be between Kynan Forney and rookie Louis Vasquez.
Forney didn't play last year, although he was with the Chargers most of the season.
Vasquez, a third-round pick, has to prove he can make the transition from blocking in a pass-happy, spread offense at Texas Tech, to one which likes to employ a power-running game to complement its awesome passing attack.
Forney has the edge at the time. But if Vasquez can show the learning curve isn't steep, he could be a surprise starter here.
Rookie Impressions: Larry English was the team's top pick and he hasn't done anything to show that the Chargers should regret this pick.
Not only could English contribute right away -- that's the word from coach Norv Turner -- but he supplies the Chargers with insurance.
The insurance comes in that if Shawne Merriman doesn't bounce back as expected from knee surgery, English will be at the ready.
And next year, if the Chargers let Merriman walk after his contract expires, English could offer a nice fallback position.
Two other youngsters worth watching -- in addition to Vasquez -- are defensive tackle Vaughn Martin and safety Rick Ellison.
Martin is a potential load in the middle, but he is relatively new to football and played college ball in Canada.
Ellison could push for significant playing time if he can stay healthy. The strong safety position is being looked at with a keen eye, and Ellison could take advantage of the opportunity for the team to upgrade at that spot.
Injury Watch: Wide receiver Buster Davis is looking to get back into the mix after missing most of last season with a groin injury. A first-round pick in 2007, Davis has to prove he can be a contributor in what could be a do-or-die season for him as far as the Chargers are concerned.
The key player returning to the fold, of course, is Shawne Merriman. While he hasn't be plopped into the practices just yet, all signs point to him being ready for training camp and then shooting for his fourth Pro Bowl season.
Contract Watch: The Chargers have a lot on the plate here, as the contracts of quarterback Philip Rivers and left tackle Marcus McNeill -- as well as Merriman -- expire at the end of the 2009 season. Rivers and McNeill aren't going anywhere and it's believed preliminary discussions have already taken place.
Merriman? The team has been reluctant to engage in any talks yet -- they could use the franchise tag on him in 2010 or let him walk if they are that impressed with rookie Larry English.
--RB LaDainian Tomlinson blew out 30 candles on his birthday cake on June 23 -- and also earned another honor. ESPN selected Tomlinson to its all-decade team; no player can match Tomlinson's 126 touchdowns since 2000. "As an athlete, you set out to be consistent over a period of time," Tomlinson said. "When you're consistent, your teammates and coaches know what they're going to get from you each and every week."
--CB Brandon Hughes, a fifth-round pick out of Oregon State, signed a four-year contract. "Brandon has played an awful lot of press coverage," coach Norv Turner said. "He's very natural in the slot. I think he's going to have a presence on our football team as a young player. He's picked up what we're doing extremely well. He's a very competitive player."
-- The Chargers have rekindled their interested in relocating to Oceanside in building a new stadium. Their other option, Chula Vista, is running into numerous obstacles. If moving to Oceanside in North San Diego County, the team would be much closer to the Los Angeles and Orange County markets.
--San Diego released rookie free agents G Sam Allen, CB Ramarcus Brown, WR Jeremy Childs and LB Anthony Felder.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think people were concerned about Kevin because he had some injuries but he is 100 percent healthy. He's moving around awfully well." -- Coach Norv Turner on the offseason work of rookie Kevin Ellison, a hard-hitting safety whose career at the University of Southern California was marred by injuries.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Could the Chargers be light in wide receivers?
It's possible if Vincent Jackson is eventually convicted of a driving under the influence charge, which would be his second such incident. If NFL commissioner Roger Goodell takes a look at Jackson's off-the-field troubles, might a suspension be forthcoming?
Also, Buster Davis has to prove he was worth a first-round pick in 2007. Davis has been a huge disappointment to date -- injuries have come into play -- but the Chargers are counting on him contributing.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: RB Darren Sproles: Tendered at $6.621M (signed April 28).
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.
DRAFT CHOICES SIGNED
--CB Brandon Hughes (5/148): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--OT Jeromey Clary: ERFA; $460,000/1 yr.
--WR Malcom Floyd: RFA; $1.545M/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.
--LB Kevin Burnett: UFA Cowboys; $5.5M/2 yrs, $2M SB.
--RB Eldra Buckley (released).
--OG Mike Goff: UFA Chargers; $3.5M/2 yrs, guarantees unknown.
--LB Marques Harris: UFA 49ers; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--C Jeremy Newberry: Not tendered as UFA/Falcons; terms unknown.
--DE Igor Olshansky: UFA Cowboys; $18M/4 yrs, $8M guaranteed.
--LB Anthony Waters (released).