Chris Chambers is one of the most underappreciated cogs in San Diego's offensive machine. Although he posted middling numbers last season – 33 catches for 462 yards and five scores – he played a key role by preventing defenses from loading up against Antonio Gates and Vincent Jackson.
Chambers would have posted even better numbers if not for an ankle injury suffered in Week 5 against his former team, the Miami Dolphins. The sprained ankle cost Chambers two games and compromised him in at least two others. The injury could not have come at a worse time for Chambers, who was rolling early in the season with five TD receptions in as many games.
Despite Chambers' vital contributions, the writing on the wall says 2009 will be his final campaign with the Chargers. Firstly, the team must re-sign other players who rate as higher priorities, including Jackson, Philip Rivers, Marcus McNeill and Shawne Merriman. Some key role players enter their contract years, as well, including Brandon Manumaleuna and Tim Dobbins.
Secondly, Chambers' replacement is likely already on the roster. Two 2007 draft picks, Buster Davis and Legedu Naanee, are the leading candidates to supplant Chambers in the starting lineup. Naanee, in particular, has reportedly looked strong so far this offseason and could be in line for a significantly increased role.
Also in the mix is big-play specialist Malcom Floyd. The four-year veteran is also set to become an unrestricted free agent, but Floyd is a younger and cheaper alternative to Chambers, despite the fact that Floyd finished with more receiving yards than Chambers in 2008 (465 to 462).
That means Chambers, who will be 31 by the time the season commences, is likely auditioning for his next employer. So he will be highly motivated to improve upon last season's numbers if he hopes to avoid a sizable drop in salary – he is set to earn $4.55 million in 2009.
Rivers, for one, will enjoy Chambers while he has him. The two have developed a strong rapport, especially with sideline routes and third-down situations. And, as the cliché goes, the proof is in the pudding. The Chargers are 15-9 with Chambers in the lineup, a winning percentage of 62.5.
It's a rare luxury for any NFL team to enjoy such an impact from a No. 4 pass catcher (the team's top three are Gates, Jackson and LaDainian Tomlinson). And it's a luxury the Chargers will savor in 2009 before it likely walks out the door.
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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.