SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
By Sam Garcia
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
In 2010, San Diego amazingly had the No. 1 offense (gaining 395.6 yards per game) and the No. 1 defense (allowing only 271.6 yards per game), yet they finished the season with a 9-7 record and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2005. Costly turnovers plagued the Chargers during the first few games of the season, but the majority of the blame for their disappointing season falls squarely on special teams. San Diego special teamers had arguably the worst season (in that department) in the history of the NFL. They allowed opponents to return four kicks for touchdowns, which was the most in the league, and they gave up 18.9 yards per punt return, which was the most since the NFL started keeping track of that stat in 1976. The Bolts even had four punts blocked for good measure. Still, despite the horrific numbers, there's reason for optimism in 2011. New special teams coach Rich Bisaccia, a few new coverage guys, and a healthy dose of good old-fashioned discipline should address the biggest problems, and Nate Kaeding and Mike Scifres return as one of the best kicker - punter combos in the league.
On offense, Philip Rivers led the league with a career-high 4,710 passing yards despite throwing to a receiving corps that was decimated by injuries and dealing with a Vincent Jackson holdout for all but five games. Rivers found a way to throw touchdown passes to 11 different players, en route to compiling a passer rating of 101.8, making him the only quarterback in the league to post a triple-digit passer rating in each of the last three seasons. This year, Rivers might actually be in position to put up even bigger numbers because all of his receivers should be healthy and happy from the get-go.
Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert compiled solid numbers out of the backfield in 2010, although not in the way that anybody predicted. Fumbling problems and nagging injuries limited Mathews to only 558 yards rushing and four touchdowns through Week 16 before a big Week 17 performance put a little more shine on an otherwise disappointing season. Tolbert, on the other hand, far exceeded expectations. Once thought to be nothing more than a punishing fullback who shouldn't touch the ball much, Tolbert racked up 735 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns and cemented himself as the unquestioned goal line back. Entering the new season, Mathews is understandably anxious to prove he can be a big-time performer, but head coach Norv Turner has admitted that he might need to break from his traditional pattern of riding a single workhorse running back in favor of adopting a true two-back system.
The defense was led by strong performances by Shaun Phillips at outside linebacker, Antonio Garay at nose tackle, and Eric Weddle at free safety. The unit played very well as a whole, but that didn't stop the Chargers from bringing in Bob Sanders and Takeo Spikes in the offseason with the hopes of elevating the defense to elite status. Sanders was considered one of the best football players on the planet before injuries completely derailed his career over the past few years, and Spikes will be 35 years old before the end of the year, but if they can both put together solid seasons, the San Diego D will be an absolute nightmare for opposing offenses.
Round, Overall, Player
1. (18) Corey Liuget, DE, Illinois
The Bolts hope he can become a starter sooner rather than later.
2. (50) Marcus Gilchrist, CB, Clemson
Has a strong chance to be the primary nickel back and return man.
2. (61) Jonas Mouton, LB, Michigan
Should see significant playing time at inside linebacker due to a few veteran departures.
3. (82) Vincent Brown, WR San Diego State
A good route-runner who fits the system well, but will be buried in a crowded wide receiver corps.
3. (89) Shareece Wright, CB, USC
Probably destined primarily for special teams work as a rookie.
6. (183) Jordan Todman, RB, Connecticut
Should get some carries every week in a relief role and has some legitimate upside.
6. (201) Steve Schilling, OT, Michigan
You can never have too much offensive line depth.
7. (234) Andrew Gachkar, LB, Missouri
Just hoping to make the team.
Bob Sanders, S (Colts)
The NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2007 has played in only three games over the past two seasons, but could be a difference maker if he's finally healthy again.
Takeo Spikes, LB (49ers)
The veteran linebacker tallied 109 tackles in 2010 and brings toughness and experience to an already solid unit.
Darren Sproles, RB (Saints)
His big play ability out of the backfield and on returns will be missed.
Kevin Burnett, LB (Dolphins)
Led the team in tackles in 2010, but management felt his asking price was too steep.
Legedu Naanee, WR (Panthers)
Had a few good moments, but was ultimately deemed expendable.
PASS CATCHERS WILL TOWER OVER OPPOSING DB'S
When Philip Rivers looks downfield this season, he might have to fight the temptation to drool at the giant targets that will be running around. His top three receiving options, Vincent Jackson, Antonio Gates, and Malcom Floyd, are listed at 6-5, 6-4, and 6-5 respectively. To say they will have height advantages over the guys trying to cover them each week would be a dramatic understatement. The San Diego passing attack should be fun to watch.
CONTINUITY SHOULD BODE WELL
In a year where labor unrest basically eliminated the entire offseason and dramatically shortened training camp for every team, it will be a challenge for any club to get ready for the season opener, but it will be particularly difficult for teams trying to install a new offense or acclimate to new players or a new head coach. Fortunately for San Diego, the Chargers boast tons of continuity heading into the season. They re-signed 14 of their own free agents including key players like Eric Weddle and Malcom Floyd, the entire offense is coming back virtually intact (including all five starters on the offensive line), and head coach Norv Turner is entering his fifth season as the man in charge. That familiarity should translate to a major advantage for the Bolts in the early part of the season.
LOOKING TO START FAST FOR A CHANGE
The Chargers under Norv Turner have followed an eerily similar pattern year after year. Each season they inexplicably get off to slow starts only to rally down the stretch. Since 2007, the Bolts have started with a collective record of 9-19 and finished those seasons with a cumulative record of 32-4 after flipping a magical switch at some point every year. While finishing strong is not a bad thing, the Chargers certainly hope to get off to a better start in 2011. If not, you can bet the fans will be calling for Turner's head on a platter by about Week 5.
LAST CALL IN SAN DIEGO?
The Chargers are by far the most likely candidate to pick up stakes and move into a shiny new stadium proposed for Downtown Los Angeles, and an announcement could come as soon as February of 2012. The team has been trying (with no luck) to get a new stadium built in San Diego for the better part of a decade, and team owner Dean Spanos is rumored to be ready to sell a minority stake in the team. The stars are definitely aligned for the Bolts to return to their Los Angeles roots. You can bet the players and coaches will be answering questions about the City of Angels all year long, and the situation bears monitoring just in case the off-field news starts to become a distraction between the lines.
Rising: Ryan Mathews will get an opportunity to prove he is the superstar that the Chargers thought they were drafting in 2010. He has tons of upside and the ankle injury that bothered him for most of his rookie campaign should be 100 percent when the season kicks off.
Declining: Mike Tolbert is not a player in decline as much as he is a player that isn't likely to match the gaudy numbers he put up last year, especially if Mathews succeeds in establishing himself as the lead dog.
Sleeper: Malcom Floyd is part of a receiving corps that is collectively among the best in the league and has a Pro Bowl quarterback throwing him the ball. The sky is the limit for this offense, and Floyd could easily post career-best numbers.
Supersleeper: Jordan Todman is a talented runner who posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons at Connecticut. He would probably be the biggest benefactor if Mathews were to struggle with injuries again this year.
Eric Weddle, S
Has averaged over 100 tackles per year since 2008 and has five interceptions during that span.
Shaun Phillips, LB
His 11 sacks in 2010 gave him six consecutive seasons with at least seven sacks.
Bob Sanders, S
When healthy, he commands respect and upgrades the intensity and toughness of the entire defensive unit.
RotoWire Rank: 8