SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
It was déjà vu all over again for the Chargers and their fans last year. Each of the last several seasons has played out in nearly identical fashion. In 2009, a team loaded with talent somehow managed to only win two of their first five games, but then promptly righted the ship and reeled off 11 straight wins en route to capturing a fourth consecutive AFC West title. During that stretch, the Chargers were known for playing smart football, consistently avoiding critical turnovers and limiting costly penalties, but they completely unraveled in their Divisional Playoff loss to the underdog Jets in front of a dumbfounded San Diego crowd in January.
Heading into 2010, the team will once again follow the lead of quarterback Philip Rivers, who threw for a career-high 4,254 yards and compiled an AFC best 104.4 passer rating last season. Part of the credit for Rivers' success goes to his talented group of pass-catchers. Vincent Jackson is becoming one of the most dependable receivers in the league, Antonio Gates has been the cream of the tight end crop for several years running, and the shifty Darren Sproles provides home run potential anytime he catches a swing pass out of the backfield.
Without question, the biggest change in San Diego will be in the backfield where the Chargers will be trying to replace a future Hall of Famer with an untested rookie. When the Bolts released LaDainian Tomlinson, it marked the end of a record-breaking run in San Diego for one of the most popular Chargers of all time, but the team seems genuinely excited for a new era to begin with the selection of Ryan Mathews out of Fresno State. General Manager A.J. Smith describes his new ball-carrier as "a championship-level back," and head coach Norv Turner gushes that Mathews is "extremely special." However, unlike when Tomlinson was a rookie in 2001, Mathews won't be expected to carry the load by himself. The diminutive Sproles has become one of the most dynamic backs in the league and will serve as the perfect complement to the physical Mathews on a weekly basis.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Chargers will once again feature their star linebackers, Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips, and Quentin Jammer will anchor the pass defense, which was ranked 11th in the league after allowing only 209 yards per game through the air last year.
On special teams, the Chargers are among the very best in the NFL. Kicker Nate Kaeding was 32 for 35 on field goal attempts on the season and led the league in scoring, while punter Mike Scifres averaged 45 yards per punt and had only two touchbacks on the year.
Round, Overall, Player
1. (12) Ryan Mathews, RB, Fresno State-The Bolts moved up 16 spots in the first round to get their new starting tailback.
3. (79) Donald Butler, LB, Washington-He can play any linebacker position and is expected to work into the rotation immediately.
4. (110) Darrell Stuckey, S, Kansas-A big hitter who will add depth and talent to the secondary.
5. (168) Jonathan Crompton, QB, Tennessee-Will serve as the third quarterback.
7. (235) Dedrick Epps, TE, Miami-An aggressive blocker who probably won't see a lot of playing time.
Nathan Vasher, CB (Bears) Veteran cornerback will be reunited with Ron Rivera, whom he played very well for in Chicago from 2004 to 2006.
Marcus Mason, RB (Redskins) Could claim No. 3 RB gig in San Diego.
LaDainian Tomlinson, RB (Jets) The Bolts are betting that LT's best days are well behind him.
Antonio Cromartie, CB (Jets) His immense talent and athleticism weren't enough to prevent management from growing tired of his petulant attitude.
Jamal Williams, NT (Broncos) The former anchor of the defense had struggled with injuries for several seasons.
LIFE WITHOUT TOMLINSON
For the first time in almost a decade, the Chargers' offense won't feature LaDainian Tomlinson. Even though LT had his worst season as a pro last year, he still touched the ball 243 times and scored 12 touchdowns. Replacing that production will be no small task. The Bolts will be looking to rookie Ryan Mathews to immediately step into a starting role, and they hope that he will help them improve on their league-worst 3.3 yards per carry average. The Chargers paid a hefty fee to move up in the draft and select Mathews at No. 12 overall, and they'll certainly be looking for the kid to prove that he was worth the cost. Darren Sproles will also get his share of touches, but he's expected to once again play the role of change of pace and third down back instead of suddenly becoming a workhorse in the offense.
Vincent Jackson: TALENT AND TROUBLE
Vincent Jackson is coming off of a huge year in which he logged career highs in receptions (68), yards (1,167) and touchdowns (nine), and earned his first Pro Bowl invitation. Heading into 2010, it wouldn't be hard to imagine him surpassing many of those numbers with another year of experience under his belt, but that optimism must be tempered by the fact that he's facing a possible suspension from the league. Jackson has two DUIs since 2006, and this past spring he admitted to driving with a suspended license the night before last season's playoff loss to the Jets. Despite all the talent, the off the field incidents make Jackson something of a risk on draft day.
THE YOUTH MOVEMENT CONTINUES
The Chargers had a number of young players make large contributions on both sides of the ball in 2009. Youngsters like Mike Tolbert, Jacob Hester, Kevin Ellison, and Larry English all saw their playing time increase as the year moved along and all were considered instrumental in helping the team settle into a rhythm in the second half of the season. Management has so much confidence in the team's young players that they have been systematically shedding their veteran stars for some time now. The trade of Chris Chambers mid-season last year and the release of LaDainian Tomlinson during the offseason were both obvious signals that the trend towards youth will continue in 2010. Rookies Ryan Mathews, Donald Butler, Darrell Stuckey, and Cam Thomas are all expected to play significant roles in the upcoming season.
SAN DIEGO IS READY FOR PRIME-TIME
Typically, only the best teams in the league are featured in prime-time contests, and the Chargers will play a total of five night games this season. From their Kickoff Weekend Monday night game at Kansas City to their Week 12 Sunday night visit to Indianapolis, Chargers fans will enjoy plenty of tough battles under the lights this year.
Declining: Antonio Gates had a nice bounce back season in 2009, but he's been somewhat injury prone in recent years and has hit the age of 30.
Sleeper: Malcom Floyd had a career high 776 receiving yards last year and for the first time in his pro career he'll enter the season as a starter from Week 1.
Shawne Merriman, LB Had only four sacks last year after averaging 13 from 2005 to 2007. A return to form could be on tap since he's now another year removed from major knee surgery.
Shaun Phillips, LB Led the league with seven forced fumbles in 2009 and also registered seven sacks; should benefit from having a more dynamic Merriman on the opposite end.
Quentin Jammer, CB One of the most solid all-around corners in the league should be good for three or four interceptions and about 60 tackles.
RotoWire Rank: 17