The 2010 calendar year for the San Diego Chargers was not one that fans will want to revisit. The year started off with a major disappointment and a home playoff loss to the New York Jets in a game full of errors. The game was especially disappointing in light of the previous years of playoff experience (and disappointment) that the squad had. It got worse when future NFL LaDainian Tomlinson left San Diego on a bitter note and signed with the above mentioned Jets.
There was a lot of hope for the 2010-2011 but a lot of uncertainty as well. The 2010 NFL draft brought a lot of hope when the Chargers selected Ryan Mathews as the franchise’s next running back. The uncertainty came with the contractual situations of left tackle Marcus McNeill and wide receiver Vincent Jackson. Also gone were veterans like Kassim Osgood and Jamal Williams, and during the season game changer Shawn Merriman was released after two disappointing seasons. Fans expected a little downturn, but hopes were still high. The regular season went along and the Chargers had some of the worst special teams in history. The long and short of it was that the franchise ended its 4 straight years of AFC West Championships and was left out of the playoffs to the disappointment of the owner, general manager, coaches, players and of course, the fans. It’s no surprise if someone asks where does that leave expectations for the 2011-12 season?
Super Bowl Championship hopes for the Chargers will always be aspired for as long as Philip Rivers is behind center, so let’s get that out of the way. Rivers had arguably his best season as a pro despite a depleted (for various reasons) wide receiver group. Antonio Gates was on his way to a record breaking season before being sidelined by injury. New franchise running back Ryan Mathews was not immune to the injury bug and missed games and was not used in some games due to the team having to pass late in games. Mike Tolbert had a breakout season, bolstering the running attack and convincing head coach Norv Turner that running back by committee is possible in San Diego.
However, there have been departures on the offensive end. Kick return specialist and 3rd down receiving option Darren Sproles was a free agent and signed with the New Orleans Saints. Malcom Floyd, the Chargers #2 wide receiver is also a free agent and is on the move. #3 wide receiver Legedu Naanee was also not resigned.
As of this writing, both Gates and Mathews are on the practice field with the team and should bolster the league’s #1 offense. Also returning are the franchise tagged Vincent Jackson (who missed the first ten games due to a contractual dispute) and veteran Patrick Crayton who missed the last half of the season with a broken arm. The Chargers drafted San Diego State University’s Vincent Brown and still have Seyi Ajirotutu on the roster and production from both will be vital in Rivers’ aerial attack. Realistically, we should expect some drop off in the passing game but that should be made up for with the balanced rushing attack of Mathews and Tolbert. Mathews was drafted to be a complete running back, so look for him to start catching more passes out of the backfield and be a dump off option for Philip Rivers.
The offensive line retains its continuity as all 5 starters return. Jeromey Clary was signed to a 5 year contract extension to retain cohesiveness within the unit. Chargers fans can continue to expect stellar play out of the other 4 veterans, left tackle Marcus McNeill, Kris Dielman, Nick Hardwick and Louis Vasquez.
The common thought in years past was if the defense ever caught up to the offense, the Chargers would win a Super Bowl. Statistically, that happened last season as the Chargers had both the #1 offense and #1 defense. Outside linebacker Shaun Phillips had one of his finest seasons, leading the squad and making the Pro Bowl as an alternate. Veterans Antwan Barnes and Travis LaBoy look to add depth to the OLB group and everyone is hoping that 3rd year OLB Larry English sheds his label as a “bust” after returning from foot surgery.
Eric Weddle continued his ascension into one of the top safeties in the league as he anchored the secondary and became one of the hottest free agents of 2011. Weddle became one of the NFL’s highest paid safeties and will remain with the club to the dismay of the rumored 12 teams who pursued him. Quintin Jammer was Quintin Jammer and that always bodes well for the Chargers defense. Jammer, drafted in 2000, continues to play well and should serve as a mentor to newly drafted rookie cornerbacks Shareece Wright of USC and Marcus Gilchrist of Clemson. The secondary depth looks to be improved by bringing in the two youngsters. 2008 draftee Antoine Cason became a full time starter for the first time and played better than the player who preceded him.
The strong safety position has been a question mark despite solid play by Steve Gregory, but that has been more due to the departure of Rodney Harrison years ago. A major playmaker at that position has never been acquired….until now. 2007 defensive player of the year Bob Sanders was released by the Colts in the offseason and was stealthily picked up by the Chargers. Sanders has had injury history but if he returns to form, he and Weddle will easily be one of the top safety tandems in the league.
The team got a major breakout season at nose tackle by traveled veteran Antonio Garay. Garay’s production and disruption rivaled a prime Jamal Williams and erased concerns about the loss of the former Charger veteran. Let’s hope this is Garay’s last stop because early reports from training camp have him repeating his dominance at the line of scrimmage. Luis Castillo continues to play well at defensive end. The team hopes for improvement by Castillo as the defensive line and linebacking crew have improved for the most part, which takes away double teams by opposing offensive lines.
The Chargers drafted Corey Liuget, defensive tackle out of Illinois, with the 18th pick in the draft and he looks to start alongside Garay and Castillo. 2nd year player Cam Thomas continues to improve and 3rd year pro Vaughn Martin looks to have an eye opening season in the defensive line rotation. Veteran Jacques Cesaire looks to be in the rotation as well and continue his mentorship of the younger linemen. Departing the defense are Kevin Burnett, Brandon Siler and Stephen Cooper. All played well in 2010 but the Chargers front office felt like upgrades could be made. At the exact minute that free agency started, AJ Smith was on the phone with veteran Takeo Spikes and got him to agree on a 3 year deal to join the team. Spikes is well respected across the league and even in his 13th year had 81 tackles and 27 assists. Spikes looks to add leadership to the team and an urgency to succeed as he has never been on a team that has gone to the playoffs. Spikes will have to mentor 2010 draftee Donald Butler as he returns from an Achilles injury that sidelined him for the entire 2010 season. Another newcomer, Jonas Mouton out of Michigan joins the inside linebacking crew. Mouton was chided as a major draft reach when he was selected near the end of the 2nd round. A quick look at Mouton’s highlights show that it wasn’t as farfetched of a pick as many made it out to be, and he looks to be a part of the rotation in a hurry.
The cerebral Ron Rivera parlayed his stout defensive calls and stellar resume as Chargers defensive coordinator into a head coaching position with the Carolina Panthers. Greg Manusky, former linebacking coach with the Chargers and San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator fills the void. Having Travis LaBoy and Takeo Spikes joining him in powder blue should help the transition. Manusky is a fiery coach and fans (and opposing players) can expect more blitzes than before.
The team’s biggest question mark will undoubtedly be its special teams unit. Arguably costing the Chargers their playoff chances, a new special teams coach was brought in. Rich Bisaccia brings fire to an overhauled special teams unit that will be filled by rookies and younger members of the current team. The preseason and game 1 should tell us if the problems are in the past.
The NFL lockout and subsequent resolution has caused a truncated training camp. Veteran teams like the Chargers will fare better than teams with new coaching staffs and a major influx of new players. There are quite a few talented undrafted free agents who are scrambling to make the squad along with late round draft picks. This preseason is one of the most exciting preseasons in a while and should be enjoyable as the march toward Week 1 against the Vikings rolls on.