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2012 San Diego Chargers Team Preview: Can Rivers Return to Elite Status This Season?

Sam Garcia

Sam Garcia

Sam Garcia writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

STATE OF THE FRANCHISE

2011 marked another disappointing year for the Chargers, as the team missed the playoffs for a second consecutive season despite having a roster which featured five Pro-Bowlers. The Bolts started fast for a change, winning four out of their first five games, but a six-game losing streak through the heart of the season ultimately spelled disaster. A strong finish to the year was enough to save head coach Norv Turner's job for the time being, but the feeling in San Diego is that the Chargers' reputation for being a team of underachievers is really starting to wear thin.

Heading into 2012, Philip Rivers returns to lead an offense that is one of the best in the league as long as they protect the football. In 2011, Rivers threw for 4,624 yards and 27 touchdowns, but he also tossed 20 interceptions and lost five fumbles. Being saddled with 25 turnovers from your quarterback is nearly impossible to overcome no matter how much talent the offense possesses. Speaking of that talent, tight end Antonio Gates appears to finally be 100 percent recovered from his lingering plantar fascia injury, but there will be significant turnover at the wide receiver position. Malcom Floyd is the only key contributor returning from 2011. Newcomers Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal will be hoping to acclimate quickly, and ultimately should add more speed and big play potential to the passing attack.

Out of the backfield, rising star Ryan Mathews will look to improve on a season in which he posted 1,091 rushing yards, 455 receiving yards, and six touchdowns despite dealing with a variety of injuries. In 2011, Mathews missed two full games and parts of a few others, but the Chargers are hoping that he becomes more durable this year since they no longer have Mike Tolbert to lean on if Mathews goes down. In an attempt to offset the loss of Tolbert's short yardage and third down production, the Chargers signed fullback Le'Ron McClain.

On defense, the Chargers are banking on another solid year from the aging Takeo Spikes and hope that Shaun Phillips will bounce back from a season in which he missed four games due to a foot injury. The defensive line and coverage units remain largely unchanged from 2011, so the biggest improvements on defense will likely come from a trio of talented draft picks in Melvin Ingram, Kendall Reyes and Brandon Taylor.

On special teams, punter Mike Scifres remains among the league's best, and kicker Nate Kaeding should be healthy for the start of the season after tearing his ACL in the 2011 opener. In the return game, Eddie Royal is the most dangerous weapon that the Chargers have employed since Darren Sproles departed after the 2010 season.

KEY ACQUISITIONS

Le'Ron McClain, FB (Chiefs)
Will be used heavily as a run blocker, but should also handle a substantial portion of the 175 total touches that went to Mike Tolbert last year.

Robert Meachem, WR (Saints)
After averaging only 43 catches per season over the last three years, he is set to start opposite Malcom Floyd and will become more of a focal point than he ever was in New Orleans.

Eddie Royal, WR (Broncos)
Should bring big play ability to the Chargers as a punt returner and slot receiver, primarily on third downs.

Melvin Ingram,LB, South Carolina (Round 1, 18th overall)
With 19 sacks and 26 tackles for loss in his last two seasons at South Carolina, he will use his uncommon blend of speed and athleticism to immediately boost the pass rush.

Ronnie Brown, RB (Eagles)
Not the player he once was, but the June acquisition gives the team a veteran backup to starting running back Ryan Mathews.

Brandon Taylor, S, LSU (Round 3, 73rd overall),
The former senior captain of LSU's championship defense is known as a big hitter with solid coverage skills. He could challenge for the starting strong safety job opposite Eric Weddle.

KEY LOSSES
Vincent Jackson, WR (Buccaneers)
The Chargers were certainly not happy to see their best receiver walk, but they ultimately decided that his price tag was too high, especially when lots of cheaper options were available on the open market.

Mike Tolbert, RB (Panthers)
Tolbert was a huge part of the San Diego ground game over the past two seasons, handling nearly all of the goal line and short yardage work, while catching a career-best 54 passes in 2011.

TEAM NOTES

THE BOLTS' PASSING ATTACK MINUS V-JAX
When Tampa Bay signed Vincent Jackson to a five-year, $55 million contract, the Chargers were faced with the unenviable task of replacing the production of their most dynamic wide receiver in recent memory. In response, they signed former first-round pick, Robert Meachem, to serve as the new No. 1. Meachem has demonstrated big play ability in a crowded and diverse Saints' offense in the past, and his speed should make him the primary downfield complement to Antonio Gates underneath. The Chargers also brought in Eddie Royal to add some juice from the slot. Those two should allow the Bolts to survive the loss of Jackson without breaking the bank, but San Diego's group of receivers will probably lack that one clear cut stud that they've had in years past.
Conventional wisdom says that Antonio Gates is still among the elite tight ends in the league when healthy, but there must be some concern about the cumulative effect that a variety of foot, ankle and toe injuries have had on his game. Gates once again missed a few games in 2011, but he was able to put up 704 yards and seven touchdowns over the final 11 weeks of season. Those are solid numbers, but Gates will turn 32 by the time the new season kicks off, so it's fair to wonder if his best days might now be behind him.

THIRD DOWN WOES
The Chargers finished dead last in the NFL on third down defense, allowing opponents to convert on 49.2 percent of their opportunities. "We could not get off the field," said General Manager A.J. Smith of the team's struggles on third downs. "If you can't get off the field, you're not going to win. I don't care what other statistics are there." The Chargers decided that the best way to correct this glaring problem was to create more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and they hope they did just that when they selected Melvin Ingram and Kendall Reyes with their first two picks in the draft.

CHOPPY RIVERS
Philip Rivers had an extremely uneven 2011 season despite earning his fourth Pro Bowl invitation. More than any other player, he was most responsible for the Chargers disappointing up and down year. In the team's eight wins, Rivers posted stellar numbers, with an average quarterback rating of 109.5, but in the team's eight defeats, his rating was a pedestrian 75.9. The worst aspect was his maddening penchant for costly turnovers. If the Bolts are to return to the league's upper echelon, they need Rivers to clean up the turnovers and play more consistent football.

VALUE METER

RISING: Le'Ron McClain only had 15 rushing attempts in 2011, but an increase in production is a virtual certainty this year as he'll be the primary complement to Ryan Mathews.

DECLINING: Durability issues aside, Malcom Floyd's biggest obstacle heading into this 2012 is the presence of Robert Meachem. He appears destined for second fiddle status again.

SLEEPER: Robert Meachem was lost in the shuffle at times in New Orleans, but his speed makes him San Diego's best vertical threat, and Philip Rivers throws a nice deep ball.

SUPERSLEEPER: Eddie Royal has not approached the 91 catches he had as a rookie in recent years, but he is capable of contributing if he secures the primary slot responsibilities.

IDP WATCH

Takeo Spikes, LB
The veteran slowed towards the end of the season, but led the Bolts with 106 total tackles and tossed in one sack and one interception for good measure.

Eric Weddle, S
Weddle earned a big contract prior to the 2011 season and responded with seven interceptions and 88 total tackles.

Shaun Phillips, LB
Phillips played in only 12 games and tallied just 42 tackles and 3.5 sacks, but remains a key defender in San Diego.

TEAM DEFENSE:
RotoWire Rank: 25