QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Philip Rivers. Backups -- Billy Volek, Jonathan Crompton.
Rivers hasn't won a Super Bowl -- or an AFC title for that matter -- but he has established himself as one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks. With his quick delivery and uncanny accuracy, the Chargers are set at No. 1 as Rivers continues to grow and improve under the tutelage of Norv Turner. Rivers is the main reason the Chargers prefer moving the ball through the air. Volek supplies the team with a backup who has won in the regular and postseason -- that is quite a luxury. Volek has the full confidence of the coaches and his teammates. Crompton will be asked to carry the clipboard -- but that could change if there is a leak in Rivers' blind side protection by the team missing holdout left tackle Marcus McNeill.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- Ryan Mathews, FB Jacob Hester. Backups -- Darren Sproles, FB Mike Tolbert, Marcus Mason, Shawnbrey McNeal, Curtis Brinkley, FB Billy Latsko.
Mathews is the guy the Chargers targeted to replace LaDainian Tomlinson and they proved it when shooting up the draft board -- at considerable cost -- to grab him. Mathews has been impressive in the offseason and the plan is for him to start right away and be an important part of the offense after rushing for 1,808 yards and 19 touchdowns last year at Fresno State. In Sproles the Chargers have a dangerous change-of-pace runner -- and he is dynamite out of the backfield as a receiver. Sproles, simply, is a threat to score from anywhere whenever he touches the ball -- he is that quick. Tolbert and Hester share the fullback duties, with Hester expected to get a sprinkling of carries. Mason was a seldom-used backup last year in Washington; McNeal will have to fight to make the team.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Antonio Gates. Backups -- Randy McMichael, Kris Wilson, Dedrick Epps, Richie Brockel, Dajleon Farr.
Gates is a stud but he needs to show he is healthy entering the season after a nagging soft tissue foot injury derailed his offseason. But when right, Gates takes a backseat to no other player at his position and he is in the perfect offense to display his considerable skills. McMichael will supply depth, although depending on Gates' fitness he could see the field more. Wilson will be asked to block; Epps is a rookie who could land on the practice squad.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Malcom Floyd, Legedu Naanee. Backups -- Buster Davis, Josh Reed, Gary Banks, Seyi Ajirotutu, Richard Goodman, Ernest Smith, Bryan Walters, Jeremy Williams.
With no Vincent Jackson here with him in a contract tussle, suddenly this unit doesn't look so imposing. Floyd is decent in getting downfield and he is a keen red-zone target at 6-foot-5 -- but he is no Jackson. Naanee is intriguing; he's seen some playing time when the Chargers would go to the version of the Wildcat formation. But the athletic Naanee has to prove he can consistently contribute over the course of a season. Davis continues to be a first-round bust; he will get another chance this season. Reed was signed in the offseason, but he's seen as more of a possession receiver than one that is going to spread secondaries thin. This all could change quickly if Jackson signs a contract, but right now, that appears to be a long shot.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Tra Thomas, LG Kris Dielman, C Nick Hardwick, RG Louis Vasquez, RT Jeromey Clary. Backups -- T Brandyn Dombrowski, T Corey Clark, G Tyronne Green, C/G Scott Mruczkowski, T Brady Bond, C/G Jeff Hansen, C Ryan McDonald, T Ryan Otterson, T Nick Richmond.
Does Thomas have much gas in the tank at age 35? Can he be sturdy against the speed-rushers coming after Philip Rivers in his 13th season? For a team which leans on the passing game as much as the Chargers, Thomas finding one more year in his battered body is critical. If he falls short, the team would insert Dombrowski into the mix; he played well on the right side last year when filling. All of this could change if Pro Bowl LT Marcus McNeill reports before camp, but that doesn't seem likely. The interior line is stout with Pro Bowlers Dielman, Hardwick, and an emerging force in Vasquez. Clary is bouncing back from a foot injury. But the key for this unit -- and possibly for the entire team - is how well the replacement for McNeill is able to perform.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LE Jacques Cesaire, NT Ryon Bingham, RE Luis Castillo. Backups -- E Travis Johnson, T Vaughn Martin, T Antonio Garay, T Ogemdi Nwagbuo, E Alfonso Boone, T Cam Thomas, E Derrick Jones.
The return of Bingham -- he missed all of last season -- is a plus for a team which will be without three-time Pro Bowl tackle Jamal Williams after he left for Denver. Bingham is hard-nosed, if a little light, as the anchor of the 3-4 alignment. The team is hopeful Martin can contribute more in his second year and that rookie Cam Thomas will be a quick study on running downs. Castillo needs to pick up his game; Cesaire has morphed into a reliable backup to a steady if not spectacular starter. Johnson, Garay and Nwagbuo -- a starter last year -- will all see considerable action as coordinator Ron Rivera loves rotating this part of his defense.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- OLB Shawne Merriman, ILB Stephen Cooper, ILB Brandon Siler, OLB Shaun Phillips. Backups -- ILB Kevin Burnett, ILB Donald Butler, OLB Larry English, OLB Antwan Applewhite, OLB Jyles Tucker, ILB Darry Beckwith, OLB James Holt, LB Brandon Lang, LB Mike Nixon, LB Kion Wilson.
Merriman is one more year removed from a significant knee injury and playing for a contract for next season. Those two factors have the Chargers encouraged that the three-time Pro Bowler can regain the burst and production which once made him among the NFL's most feared defenders. Phillips is coming off a sensational year -- and crummy playoff game -- after he set a franchise record with seven forced fumbles. He is a force, especially when blocking schemes must focus on Merriman. English was spotty in his rookie year with just two sacks. The Chargers need more from their 2009 first-round pick. Tucker looks to bounce back after spending last year's final two months on IR. Butler could push for playing time as a rookie. The team was thrilled, though, how Siler came on last year in knocking the departed Tim Dobbins from a starting role. Cooper will continue to lead the team in tackles.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Quentin Jammer, RCB Antoine Cason, FS Eric Weddle, SS Steve Gregory. Backups -- CB Nathan Vasher, CB Donald Strickland, CB Dante Hughes, CB Brandon Hughes, SS Darrell Stuckey, FS Paul Oliver, FS C.J. Spillman, CB Traye Simmons.
Can Cason be a reliable starter? He will get first crack at the job left vacant when the team traded Antonio Cromartie to the Jets. But Cason is no lock; he lost his nickel spot last year because of inconsistent play. If he falters, veterans Vasher and Strickland are at the ready and would be counted on to step in. Jammer continues to supply a physical presence on run-support and seldom gets beat deep -- he's among the defensive leaders. Weddle will hold down the free safety spot but the team is looking for more from the strong safety position and went about it by drafting Stuckey out of Kansas. Gregory, who can also play the nickel back, will be tough to chase from that spot but Stuckey will be given a long look. Oliver will also see the field in the dime package.
SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Nate Kaeding, PK Nick Novak, P Mike Scifres, P Cort Johnson, KR Darren Sproles, PR Darren Sproles, LS David Binn.
In Kaeding, the Chargers have one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history. But Kaeding will long be remembered for missing three field goals in last season's playoff loss to the Jets. Kaeding is strong mentally, and he will have to be to put that disaster behind him. Scifres continues to be a weapon with his booming punts -- he's very close to being a Pro Bowler. In Sproles, there are fewer dangerous return men. Sproles, though, is looking to improve after returning just one for a touchdown last year. Binn is entering his 17th season and few are better at what he does.
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