San Diego's first season under head coach Norv Turner did not start out very well as the team lost three out of its first four games. It certainly ended with a flurry though, as the Bolts reeled off eight straight wins en route to an appearance in the AFC Championship Game. Even though the Chargers were ultimately defeated by the Patriots, they put up a remarkably tough fight considering that they played the entire game without Antonio Gates, got only two carries from LaDainian Tomlinson and had Philip Rivers playing on a severely injured knee.
Assuming that all of their stars return to full strength by the time the 2008 season begins, the Chargers must be considered one of the early favorites to reach the Super Bowl. They have talent at nearly every position, and the experience they gained during their most recent postseason run might be enough to finally push them to the pinnacle of the league.
One of the main reasons for optimism might be the play of Rivers, who showed late last year that he is one of the toughest signal-callers in the league. He played the last several weeks with a painful knee strain and actually gutted out the AFC Championship game on a torn ACL. His near-heroic run through the end of the season and the playoffs cemented his status as a warrior in the eyes of his teammates. Despite the bad knee, Rivers was able to play his best ball down the stretch, compiling a quarterback rating of 98.2 during the Chargers eight-game win streak.
Of course, Rivers is aided by an impressive array of All Pros on the offensive side of the ball. Tomlinson returns as one of the most feared all-purpose backs in the league, Gates has long been considered one of the top tight ends, and the wide receivers are now led by the talented duo of Chris Chambers and Vincent Jackson, who teamed up for 578 yards and three touchdowns in the Chargers' three playoff games. All five starters return to the offensive line, a group that paved the way for Tomlinson to win back-to-back rushing titles.
The Chargers have plenty of star power on the defensive side of the ball as well. The unit is led by the tandem of Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips, two outside linebackers who have a knack for putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The secondary, long a problem area for San Diego, now features the ultra-talented Antonio Cromartie and his incredible nose for the ball.
On special teams, Darren Sproles has evolved into one of the most exciting punt and kick return men in the league, and Nate Kaeding continues to be a steady and reliable kicker.
Round, Overall, Player
1. (27) Antoine Cason, CB, Arizona
A shutdown corner who was a four-year starter in the pass-happy Pacific-10 Conference. Expected to immediately take over as top nickel back.
3. (69) Jacob Hester, FB, LSU
A tough runner and excellent pass catcher. Will be used as a tailback and is projected to be one of the primary backups to LaDainian Tomlinson.
5. (166) Marcus Thomas, RB, Texas - El Paso
A big back with deceptive speed in the open field.
6. (192) DeJuan Tribble, CB, Boston College
Inconsistent play and a knee injury during his senior season caused his draft stock to drop.
7. (234) Corey Clark, OT, Texas A&M
A three-year starter in college will add depth to the offensive line.
Derek Smith, LB (49ers)
Capable of racking up tackles and will start the first four games of the season in place of the suspended Stephen Cooper.
L.J. Shelton, OT (Dolphins)
A starter for 125 of his 130 career games. Could push for a starting role or simply add some much-needed depth.
Michael Turner, RB (Falcons)
Bolts for starting opportunity with the Falcons.
Drayton Florence, CB (Jaguars)
His departure forced team to draft a corner in the first round.
The Chargers ended 2007 with enough injured players to fill a M*A*S*H unit. Philip Rivers (knee), Antonio Gates (toe) and starting center Nick Hardwick (foot) are all coming off major surgeries. Shawne Merriman and Jamal Williams each had their knees scoped. LaDainianTomlinson's sprained MCL did not require him to go under the knife, but it still shut him down for most of the offseason. With the exception of possibly Hardwick, all of these players are expected to be ready for the start of the 2008 season, but their rehabs will bear close monitoring throughout training camp.
TOMLINSON LOOKS TO SILENCE CRITICS
When Tomlinson came out of the AFC Championship game after just two carries, he took a lot of heat in the media. Many questioned his toughness, especially when compared to Rivers, who managed to play with a torn ACL. The fact that Tomlinson's injury didn't even require surgery only added more fuel to fire. Look for LT to come into 2008 with a little bit of a chip on his shoulder, even if he says that the bad press does not bother him. He has long been one of the absolute darlings of the league, and he simply is not used to dealing with negative press. This mini-controversy might just be upsetting enough to motivate Tomlinson to do even more this season.
BALL-HAWKING CORNERS ON THE PROWL
Opposing quarterbacks will be passing the ball at their own peril against the Chargers this season. One of the biggest storylines of 2007 was the way Antonio Cromartie burst onto the scene as one of the best playmakers in the league. His three-interception performance against Peyton Manning in a nationally televised Week 10 contest remains one of the top highlights of the season, and he wound up leading the league in picks despite not being inserted into the starting lineup until the second half of the season. Opposite him, Quentin Jammer has picked off as many as four passes per year in two different seasons, and he has steadily improved his ball skills every year since being a top draft pick in 2002. Rookie nickel back Antoine Cason, who had 15 interceptions in a great college career, will almost certainly do his part. Toss in the coverage skills of Clinton Hart and Eric Weddle, and opposing quarterbacks might just want to think twice before they put up too many passes against the Chargers.
A THIRD RING FOR THE QB CLASS OF 2004?
There were three quarterbacks selected in the first round of the 2004 NFL draft: Eli Manning (1st), Philip Rivers (4th) and Ben Roethlisberger (11th). As we enter the 2008 season just four years later, two of those three quarterbacks have won Super Bowls. Could this be the year that Rivers makes it three-for-three?
Rising: Vincent Jackson was the Bolts' leading receiver in the playoffs, notching 300 yards and two touchdowns in three games.
Declining: Eric Parker missed the entire 2007 season due to injury and now finds himself fighting for playing time amongst a deep and talented group of receivers.
Sleeper: Philip Rivers did not put up eye-popping statistics and is coming off major knee surgery, but he is surrounded by as much talent as any passer in the league.
Supersleeper: Darren Sproles had 122 yards rushing in a blowout victory late last season and took a screen pass 56 yards for a touchdown in the AFC playoffs.
Shawne Merriman, LB
Recorded 39.5 sacks in his first three seasons and made three Pro Bowls.
Antonio Cromartie, CB
Lead the NFL with 10 interceptions despite only becoming a starter in Week 10.
Jamal Williams, DT
The heart of the defense is reportedly healthier than he's been for several seasons.