Roundup: Plugging Holes, Playing Tough

The Chargers are busy looking for Pro Bowler Jamal Williams' replacement, someone who can clog the middle of their 3-4 alignment.

After electing to cut Williams, the Chargers hoped to entice him to return at a more club-friendly price. Instead a hated rival -- the Denver Broncos -- swooped in and acquired Williams, who missed all but one, game last year with a triceps injury.

Just maybe, instead of uncovering a gem in the draft to fill Williams' cleats, his replacement is on hand.

While Williams didn't play in all but one game, that is one more game than his backup, Ryon Bingham. The six-year pro was hurt before the season started -- with a biceps injury -- and wasn't active for a down.

But Bingham is back, rueful that he wasn't able to seize his opportunity last year while looking ahead to a successful 2010.

"The biggest thing is that I'm in shape and my arm feels good enough to come back and play," he said.

Bingham was in line to be Williams' caddy before everything went wrong last year. First Bingham got hurt, then Williams got hurt, then the interior of the line became a rotation featuring Ian Scott, Ogemdi Nwagbuo and others.

The Chargers, after a slow start, were relatively pleased with the way the unknowns and backups filled in for Williams and Bingham.

"Our defensive line, I think, early in the year, was an area that people looked at as a weakness and I think became a strength for us at the end of the season," coach Norv Turner said. "So we're not in a position where we have to do something, but again, if we can add a player that would be great."

The Chargers could very easily use one of the top picks in shoring up the oh-so-key tackle spot.

If not, there's Bingham, former seventh-round pick, could be thrust into a starting role.

Bingham is not only healthy, but he is heading into a contract year. The team awarded him a three-extension which runs through the 2010 season after he had a breakout year in 2007. He collected a career-high 58 tackles, and 1.5 sacks, with his hard-nosed play.

Those numbers slipped a tad in 2008 when he went from making two starts to zero. But the team was high on his potential production in 2009, before the injury bug bit his bulging biceps.

Bouncing back from a serious injury isn't new to Bingham. He had to sit out his 2004 rookie season with his first biceps injury.

"I've done this before, having to sit out a season, but to have it happen later in my career was a bummer," Bingham said. "Last year would have been a really good opportunity since there was potential for me to play a lot."

But Bingham was unable to be the next man up when Williams went down. But that was oh-so-last-year and this year he's raring to go.

"I'm ready to hit the ground running," he said.

NOTES, QUOTES


Coach Norv Turner
Stephen Dunn/Getty
--Very few NFL head coaches receive the grief which follows the Chargers' Norv Turner.

When the Chargers lose, it's his fault.

When the Chargers win, it's the players receiving the credit.

But Turner has been around the NFL block as a head coach enough -- stints in Washington, Oakland and San Diego -- to let just about anything roll off his back.

Except one comment which always get a rise out of him.

"I take it personal when someone will say our team is soft or our team doesn't compete at times," Turner said.

"We went against the NFC East and were 4-0 against a real strong division. We went into Dallas and beat Dallas by driving the ball 70 yards in the last six minutes and run the ball, throw the ball, do things that we need to do.

"We go into New York (Giants) and win the game in the last two minutes. You don't do those things if you're not mentally very, very tough and focused and you don't play in this league if you're not physically really tough."

Fair enough -- and that's true when considering the Chargers set a franchise record with a 7-1 road record.

But the critics also point out that the Chargers are a pass-first offense and a defense which can struggle against the run. The current offense, while successful, is the opposite of what the Chargers offered when Marty Schottenheimer was their coach.

And defensively, most NFL observers are hard-pressed to name a consistent blow-up type hitter which strikes fear into the opposition.

Outside linebacker Shawne Merriman was once that guy, but injuries have cut into his role as an enforcer.

Cornerback Quentin Jammer is the next player who comes to mind, but most of his physical play comes in run-support.

But just because the Chargers throw the ball doesn't mean they are soft. The 49ers, back in their heyday, were a finesse team in the same manner but were seldom called soft.

"Our guys take a lot of pride in their ability to compete," Turner stressed.

The genesis for much of that talk came in the wake of the Charger' pratfall in the playoffs. Despite taking an 11-game winning streak into the postseason, the AFC's No. 2 seed was bushwhacked by the more gritty Jets.

The Chargers were held to 14 points and their lack of physical play -- highlighted by ex-cornerback Antonio Cromartie avoiding contact on Shonn Greene's scoring run -- is something their boosters can't shake.

While the Chargers would like to point out there have won four straight AFC West titles, the fans are looking for so much more with their team losing three of its past four playoff games.

"I think our fans are great, and I think they have an understanding of what we want to get done," said Turner, who is 3-3 in the playoffs with the Chargers, after losing two of his past three postseason games

. "I think there was great excitement when we went to the Championship Game (2007 season) and we played with a very injured team as well as we did. The great win in Indianapolis (2008). I think our fans feel just like our players do. We want to make that next step; our fans want to take that next step. I think that's something that we all share and there's a disappointment and a frustration of not playing our best game in our last game.

"It's going to be something that helps us to take that next step," he said.

Just don't call the Chargers soft in their mission to do just that as that makes Turner bristle.

--Ex-Chargers QB Drew Brees was in town promoting his golf tournament when asked his reaction to former teammate LaDainian Tomlinson joining the Jets.

"I don't want to use the word stagnant, but just the fact that when you're in one place for such a long time ... especially when the direction the offense kind of went differently over the last two or three years -- hey that's a credit to Norv (Turner), Philip (Rivers), and there's plenty of other guys, (Darren) Sproles -- just the fact that it's a little bit of a different mindset and offense from when L.T. was having all that success from '01 to '07," Brees said. "I think it will be a rejuvenating experience for him. I think change is good sometimes, and I think this is going to be one of the changes for the better. I think he does still have some great years left in him; I think it's just what he needs, too. As tough as it was for him to leave after all so many great years, for the community to watch, really, the face of the organization really, you can say him, (Junior) Seau, Dan Fouts, it's tough to see a guy like that go, just like it's tough to see Junior go. But you just feel like change will be good for him."

--Team president Dean Spanos said the key in getting a new CBA done is that it would allow for growth for both sides.

"We are committed to doing what is necessary to get a deal that is fair to players and owners and that allows the game to grow," he said. "This is an opportunity to create a better system for everyone. A healthy, growing business is good for everyone."

--With ex-Padres pitcher Jake Peavy moved to the White Sox last year, the Alabama native with the best right arm in San Diego is Rivers. To prove it, Rivers has been asked to throw out the first pitch in the Padres' home opener on Monday. It will be the second time Rivers has had first-pitch duties.

--Rivers' younger brother, Stephen, was visiting recently and made a trip to UCLA with his older brother. The younger Rivers is a 6-foot-6, top-notch prep quarterback in Alabama and is being hotly recruited. Philip Rivers' connection to UCLA is that Norm Chow, its offensive coordinator, held that position at North Carolina State during Rivers' first season there. When Rivers turned pro, Chow wasn't shy about predicting that Rivers would win many Super Bowls in the NFL.

--It's been uncommonly quiet regarding the Chargers and their hopes of building a downtown venue to replace Qualcomm Stadium.

--RB Curtis Brinkley is back with the team. He missed all of last season after being involved in a shooting incident prior to training camp.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I feel even better about it now that we have two of the top 40 picks in the draft (28 and 40 overall) after making that trade with Seattle." -- Team president Dean Spanos on the upcoming draft; the Chargers moved up 20 spots in the second round when peddling No. 3 quarterback Charlie Whitehurst to the Seahawks.


CB Nathan Vasher
Jonathan Daniel/Getty
OFFSEASON STRATEGY

The Chargers continue to pass on bringing free agents into Chargers Park, content on attending Pro Days and looking to beef up the roster through the draft.

While they have added a couple backup cornerbacks, the real value of the offseason was moving up 20 spots in the second round when peddling quarterback Charlie Whitehurst to the Seahawks and having another 2011 third-rounder (possibly a second-rounder) added to their vault when moving cornerback Antonio Cromartie to the Jets.

TEAM NEEDS

1. Running back: The Chargers move the ball through the air. But someone has to be behind Philip Rivers and currently there's not much there. The removal of LaDainian Tomlinson and Michael Bennett from the roster means this need leaps off the Chargers' offseason to-do list. The Chargers have the dynamic Darren Sproles, but he's more of a situational back than one to be counted on for yards between the tackles.

2. Defensive tackle: The Chargers were late finding a replacement for Jamal Williams, a three-time Pro Bowler who has been breaking down in recent seasons. The Chargers now need to move fast, unless wanting to spend another season plugging the defense's biggest hole in the middle. Ryon (CQ) Bingham, Williams' backup, should return. But he doesn't have the girth and mass that Williams displayed on a consistent basis.

3. Cornerback: The Chargers once bragged this was among the team's deepest position. But they grew tired of babysitting the talented but immature Antonio Cromartie and shipped the Pro Bowler to the Jets. There are some bodies behind Cromartie, but can any of them separate themselves to prove they are up to taking Cromartie's spot? The Chargers have added Donald Strickland and Nathan Vasher in the offseason, but this spot remains a question mark.

FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.

TRANSITION PLAYER: None.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

--C Dennis Norman is at a spot where the team has depth and won't come back.

--OL Jon Runyan is going to retire and run for Congress.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers)

--*OLB Marques Harris (not tendered as RFA) is a decent pass rusher but the Chargers will likely see him go where he would get more of a chance to contribute.

--*LB Dontarrious Thomas (not tendered as RFA) seldom saw the field when arriving late last year and appears to be a goner.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (*indicates restricted because of uncapped year)

--RT Jeromey Clary (tendered at $1.684M with second-round pick as compensation) will return but will be pushed by Brandyn Dombrowski for a starting job.

--*ILB Tim Dobbins (tendered at $1.176M with fifth-round pick as compensation) is a solid backup after getting lapped by Brandon Siler; should return.

--*WR Malcom Floyd (tendered at $3.168M with first- and third-round picks as compensation) could likely get more passes thrown his way elsewhere, but he likes San Diego and will likely take a little less to remain here.

--*WR Vincent Jackson (tendered at $3.268M with first- and third-round picks as compensation) is the team's top receiver and will be brought back -- unless the team has grown tired of his immaturity; that's doubtful after two 1,000-yard seasons.

--*DL Travis Johnson (tendered at $1.226M with first-round pick as compensation) will probably have to settle for less money, but the former first-round pick of the Texans might have found a home in San Diego.

--*LT Marcus McNeill (tendered at $3.168M with first- and third-round picks as compensation) is a stud at left tackle and among the team's biggest offseason priorities.

--*OLB Shawne Merriman (tendered at $3.168M with first- and third-round picks as compensation) will return, possibly, if willing to swallow his pride and lower his price tag. A motivated Merriman playing on a one-year deal could be attractive to the Chargers.

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS

--OLB Antwan Applewhite (tendered at $470,000) can deliver a burst off the ball and is keen on special teams. He should be brought back.

PLAYERS RE-SIGNED

--DT Alfonso Boone: UFA; 2 yrs, terms unknown.
--*DT Antonio Garay: Not tendered as RFA; terms unknown.
--DT Ian Scott: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--*RB Darren Sproles: RFA; $7.283M/1 yr.
--FB Mike Tolbert: ERFA; $470,000/1 yr.
--TE Kris Wilson: UFA; 2 yrs, terms unknown.

PLAYERS ACQUIRED

--RB Marcus Mason (waivers Redskins).
--CB Donald Strickland: FA Jets; 2 yrs, terms unknown.
--CB Nate Vasher: FA Bears; $4.5M/2 yrs.

PLAYERS LOST

--RB Michael Bennett (released).
--WR Demetrius Byrd (released/non-football injury).
--CB Antonio Cromartie (traded Jets).
--*C Eric Ghiaciuc: Not tendered as RFA/Browns; terms unknown.
--TE Brandon Manumaleuna: UFA Bears; $15M/5 yrs, $$2M SB/$3M RB.
--WR Kassim Osgood: UFA Jaguars; $6.675M/3 yrs, $2.975M guaranteed.
--RB LaDainian Tomlinson (released).
--*QB Charlie Whitehurst: RFA; re-signed, traded to Seahawks.
--NT Jamal Williams (released).

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