STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
By any measure, the Chargers' 2013 season was a major success. The team wasn't expected to do much in Year 1 under new coach Mike McCoy and new GM Tom Telesco, so a 5-7 mark out of the gate surprised few. However, the Bolts closed their campaign with four straight victories and made the postseason for the first time in four years. They even managed to pull off a convincing playoff win on the road against the Bengals. Though the season finally ended with a seven-point loss at Denver the following week, there was a real sense that the team's best days are yet to come.
The biggest reason for the Chargers' success last year was the improved play of the team's offense. Quarterback Philip Rivers bounced back from a pair of subpar seasons to post 4,478 passing yards with 32 touchdowns, while also doing a much better job of protecting the ball. Over the previous two years, he turned the ball over a total of 47 times (35 interceptions and 12 fumbles lost), but last season Rivers limited those numbers to just 11 interceptions and two lost fumbles.
Meanwhile, running back Ryan Mathews managed to stay healthy for a full 16-game season and topped 300 total touches for the first time in his career. Under McCoy, Mathews finally looked like the workhorse the Bolts thought they had when they drafted him in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft. Danny Woodhead's first year in San Diego was also a big hit, as he capably spelled Mathews to the tune of 106 carries. He also displayed utility as a pass-catcher, hauling in 76 receptions for 605 yards and six receiving touchdowns. The signing of Donald Brown in the offseason figures to make the backfield even better in 2014.
Early season-ending injuries to both Danario Alexander and Malcom Floyd left the Bolts extremely thin at wide receiver last year, but Keenan Allen stepped up in a big way, finishing his rookie season with 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns. Antonio Gates also showed that he still has some fuel in the tank, as he led the team in receptions (77) while compiling a respectable 872 yards and four touchdowns.
On the other side of the ball, the defense was only so-so in 2013. Eric Weddle remains a great free safety, and Donald Butler has emerged as the leader of the linebacker corps, but the Chargers were extremely weak at cornerback and gave up far too many yards through the air. That's never a good thing, especially in the context of operating in the same division as Denver signal-caller Peyton Manning. Heading into 2014, the Chargers looked to shore up the unit via the draft, taking a top-tier corner in the first round (Jason Verrett) and a pass-rushing specialist in the second round (Jeremiah Attaochu). Factor in the return of Melvin Ingram from injury and the expected growth of Manti Te'o, and it looks like the defense could be a bit less giving this year.
Donald Brown – RB, Colts
He'll share touches with Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead, but could be a valuable asset in the event of an injury.
Jason Verrett – CB, TCU (Round 1, 25th Overall)
Athough considered slightly undersized, he possesses excellent ball skills and immediately fills a big need on defense.
Jeremiah Attaochu – LB, Georgia Tech (Round 2, 50th Overall)
An extremely versatile defender, he should help keep veterans like Dwight Freeney and Jarret Johnson fresh.
Ryan Carrethers – DT, Arkansas State (Round 5, 165th Overall)
Had eight tackles for loss and four sacks during his final college season and could earn a starting spot as a rookie.
Marion Grice – RB, Arizona State (Round 6, 201st Overall)
A productive player who can run, catch and return kicks, but he comes to a loaded backfield in San Diego.
Tevin Reese – WR, Baylor (Round 7, 240th Overall)
A lightning-fast receiver, he could help stretch the field for Philip Rivers.
Cam Thomas – DT, Steelers
Averaged just 21 tackles per season over the last three years and didn't record a sack in 2012 or 2013.
Ronnie Brown – RB, FA
The signing of Donald Brown and the drafting of Marion Grice make his departure a non-issue.
ALLEN STEPS UP
Keenan Allen slid in the 2013 draft due to concerns over a knee injury that he sustained in college, and nobody was really sure what to expect from the 6-2, 211-pound rookie. By season's end, Allen had answered all doubters with a stellar 71-reception season, while seemingly saving his best work for the biggest moments. He posted five touchdowns over a three-game stretch near the end of the year as the Bolts battled for a playoff spot, and then he turned in a monster performance in the team's playoff loss at Denver, grabbing six passes for 142 yards and two touchdowns after halftime. Those late-season numbers suggest that Allen – who recorded eight touchdowns and 1,046 receiving yards in 15 games overall – is only going to get better in his second season. He's healthy and now firmly atop the team's wideout depth chart.
OPTIONS AT RUNNING BACK
Ryan Mathews recovered from a dreadful 2012 campaign with 1,444 total yards and eight touchdowns this past season. Meanwhile, change-of-pace ace Danny Woodhead also posted some nifty numbers, with 1,034 total yards and eight overall touchdowns of his own. So when the Chargers signed former first-rounder Donald Brown on the heels of him recording 751 combined yards and eight touchdowns with the Colts, more than a few eyebrows were raised. The team then added further backfield depth with the sixth-round selection of Marion Grice. Mathews is still the lead dog here, but the Bolts clearly plan to run the ball a ton this year, and they now have the ability to rotate their backs liberally. Be advised that San Diego won't hesitate to ride the hot hand from week to week.
A QUICK LOOK AT THE BOLTS' DRAFT
When you consider the Chargers' 2014 draft class as a whole, it becomes apparent that the Bolts wanted to add speed. Jason Verrett and Jeremiah Attaochu are both considered quick defenders, with the former being able to keep up with the fastest of receivers and the latter demonstrating the kind of burst that drives opposing quarterbacks wild. On the offensive side of the ball, late-round picks wideout Tevin Reese and running back Marion Grice aren't guaranteed to make the team, but if either does, their situations bear watching. Reese is a speedster with great leaping ability and Grice brings pass-catching ability to the team's backfield mix after racking up a combined 39 TDs over his two seasons at Arizona State. In any case, either of the two could help their chances of sticking with the Chargers if they display aptitude in the team's return game.
Rising: If Malcom Floyd is unable to come back from a severe neck injury, Vincent Brown will need to take on a much larger role.
Declining: Ryan Mathews stayed healthy for an entire season and played well, but Danny Woodhead and Donald Brown will both steal touches in 2014.
Sleeper: Ladarius Green will see his role increase. Fifteen of his 17 catches last year resulted in a first down or a touchdown, and Antonio Gates isn't getting any younger.
Supersleeper: Marion Grice is a versatile runner, pass-catcher and return man who piled up 39 touchdowns in 24 games at ASU.
Eric Weddle - S
Weddle did everything for an undermanned San Diego secondary in 2013, with 115 tackles, two interceptions, one forced fumble and one sack.
Donald Butler - LB
Butler ranked second on the team with 84 tackles last season despite missing three games with a groin injury.
Melvin Ingram - LB
A May ACL tear derailed him last year, but he's returning to full health and expected to be a difference maker.
RotoWire Rank: 27