Roster Roundouts: A San Diego Chargers Preseason Report
The San Diego Chargers enter the season as the team most likely to find itself in the postseason (at least an 80% probability), but forgive me for arguing that this hardly feels like a year of destiny for the Chargers.
I’m not worried about the passing offense. That’s a good place to start for this team’s strength. The biggest stories of 2008 for the Chargers were the rebound of QB Philip Rivers and the emergence of WR Vincent Jackson. Now, it’s TE Antonio Gates’ turn to rebound, and don’t underestimate the ability of backup RB Darren Sproles and starting FB Mike Tolbert to be gamebreakers in the passing game as receivers. The overall product is a completely sufficient set of weapons for Rivers, and something that the Chargers can hang their hat on going forward.
But for the rest of the team, it’s too easy to poke holes in who they are in their current form. They sport a very pedestrian defensive front, which will look to the return of pro bowl LB Shawne Merriman to provide the oomph factor in this hard hitting defense. The Chargers posted a below average adjusted sack rate last season after being above average in 2007, and the difference was almost certainly related to Merriman’s absence. They added depth with the selection of first round LB Larry English out of Northern Illinois. Up front, some combination of Ryon Bingham and Jacques Cesaire will replace Igor Olshansky at RDE in the 3-4 scheme. His loss hurts the depth there, but they can replace his production easily. Letting him walk was the correct move.
The quality of the entire defense is entirely dependent on it’s secondary. It’s really just that simple. And the solution seems simple as well: either Antonio Cromartie regains some of his 2007 form, or 2008 first rounder Antoine Cason needs to replace him in the lineup. I called Cason the steal of the 2008 draft when he went to San Diego at the end of the first round (he was my highest rated corner), and following 9 passes defended and 2 INTs, compared to Cromartie’s 10 PD and 2 INT as a starter, he appears ready to explode as a second year player. The Chargers are a team with just one safety, Eric Weddle, and an endless supply of the special teamer type who doubles as the team’s strong safety. Clinton Hart doesn’t play teams, because he’s the starter, but the team would be just as well off with Steve Gregory or Paul Oliver there.
But the assumption that the Chargers can just pull this together is far from a given. The strength of the defense in 2006 and 2007 was built behind an unsustainable high level of turnovers: in 2006 the Chargers with 3rd in turnover differential, in 2007 they were first. Sure, they remain the only team in history to intercept Peyton Manning 6 times in a game, but if they only pick him off three times, they probably don’t win that game…etc. Last year, the Chargers were 11th in turnover differential (with an improved offense), and won only 8 times.
The defense will improve over last year. It should be above average behind the return of it’s superstar. I think, to predict an improvement past that would be wishful thinking.
So, the key factor separating the Chargers from being the AFC’s most domiant team is the strength of it’s running game. The Chargers are a great running team on a year to year basis, perhaps the most dominant rushing team of the decade, but it’s production last year was rather pedestrian. Darren Sproles’ playoff game aside, against the Colts mind you, the Chargers had to ride Philip Rivers’ arm to victory because LaDainian Tomlinson’s legs failed them for the first time in his career.
The failure I speak of is a relative term: Tomlinson was neither bad or without his value in 2008. He was simply not productive in the way the Chargers have come to expect over the years. So what can the Chargers look for in 2009? A return to dominance from it’s running game? The Chargers replaced RG Mike Goff with Kynan Forney, which doesn’t seem like an upgrade, but the rest of the line has been together for the better part of the last three years. The evidence does suggest that Tomlinson has more left in the tank, but now that he’s turned 30, he’s getting very close to the end of the road. Curtis Martin is a pretty good comparable: at the age of 31, he led the NFL in rushing, but never did much after that. Depending on his usage patterns, you might see Tomlinson remain a legitimate No. 1 back for the next 3-4 years, or you might see him explode out of nowhere for a 1,500 yard season and then watch him disappear as surprisingly as he came. One place where Tomlinson should improve this year is on the goal line. His 11 rushing TD’s were well down from his career average, but given the power ability of his offensive line, his improved health should matter nowhere more than in short yardage situations.
The optimism for the Chargers this year seems to be based around an expectation for the defense to return to form, as well as a realization of the Chargers as a team that lost games last year in every way imaginable and still made the playoffs. They lost on last second passes, botched fumble rulings, clock-chewing, season-defining drives and the like. And when it came down to it, they blew their top competition out of the water. Patriots? 3 TD blowout. Brett Favre? Thoroughly dominated. Tampa Bay? Offensive explosion. And on the season’s final week, with everything to play for, they gave Jay Cutler a taste of playoff-type football as a consolation prize. The Chargers often demonstrated their excellence, but just barely often enough to win the AFC’s weakest division.
The truth is that a normalization of their luck in close games might have lead to another win or two, but the Chargers still had to come back for two wins against division rival Kansas City. While we can talk all day about how the Chargers vastly outperformed their 8-win record (which they did), they went 5-1 in the AFC West last year because the Chiefs absolutely choked away two wins. If Kansas City runs out the clock on San Diego in those games, it wouldn’t have mattered if they had gotten more fortunate in play outside the division. The 2008 Chargers became the first team to overcome a 3 game deficit with 3 games to go in NFL history, but they were an onside kick away from being eliminated from the postseason at the hands of Kansas City. The wall to wall effort from this team simply wasn’t there in every week. And maybe it all goes back to their head coach. So there you have it.
Chargers Camp, San Diego, CA
The camp battles for the Chargers are pretty much of the back-up variety.
Running back: Michael Bennett vs. Gartrell Johnson
Johnson, an impressive rookie from Colorado State, might be headed for the practice squad so that Bennett can get some carries as a Charger this year. Bennett was signed prior to the playoffs last year as a free agent, and he’s been a pretty good player over his career, but not quite good enough for anyone to hold onto him. He actually just has been unlucky, as pretty much everywhere he went, he ran into a top talent that he did not realize he would be competition with when he signed. Johnson probably will be plucked from the practice squad by some team with an injury. The 4th rounder that was spent on Johnson though might imply that the Chargers will keep both these guys for depth, and make their cut downs elsewhere.
Defensive end: Ryon Bingham vs. Jacques Cesaire
Cesaire was a starter back before the team had Luis Castillo, he makes a better backup anyway. It’s Bingham’s job to lose, and as a backup on the Chargers for five years, it’s darn near about time.
Linebacker: Brandon Siler vs. Darry Beckwith
Beckwith shocked plenty of league observers by falling from a 2nd or 3rd round projection to the status of undrafted, but in San Diego, he finds a team desperate for depth at the inside linebacker position. He’s probably an ideal fit for a 3-4 scheme, so I like him over Siler who made it onto the roster at the end of last year.
Cornerback: Cletis Gordon vs. Simeon Castille
Castille is a Bengals’ castoff who faces long odds in San Diego against Cletis Gordon, who himself already beat the odds to go from undrafted special teamer to a valuable depth player and a guy who made the starting lineup in December of last year.
Safety: C.J. Spillman vs. Kevin Ellison
Kevin Ellison was a 6th round pick out of USC, but this is an interesting camp battle because Spillman was a projected 4th or 5th rounder from Marshall who a lot of teams had ranked higher than Ellison. It would not at all shock me or the Chargers if Spillman proved to be the better player in camp.
- WR Buster Davis
- TE Kris Wilson
- G/C Scott Mruczkowski
- LB Tim Dobbins
- S Clinton Hart