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Roster Roundouts ’10: A San Diego Chargers Season Preview

See all of the previous LiveBall Roster Roundouts articles:  BucsBrownsChiefsJaguarsRamsSeahawksBengalsBillsLionsGiants,DolphinsBroncosRedskinsCardinals, Raiders.

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San Diego Chargers (projected finish: 9-7)

Team synopsis: For the Chargers, it’s the same old story of a slow start (projected 1-4 this season), followed by a furious finish (8-3) with a great passing game led by Phillip Rivers.  The only difference this year: the tie-breakers won’t fall in the Chargers favor yet again.  This team, at best is looking at 3-3 in an improved AFC West, and the Raiders are looking to snap a streak of 14 consecutive losses to the Chargers.  If Norv Turner and the Chargers can’t extend that streak to 16, then their streak of four consecutive division titles will snap as well.

LiveBall’s projections see two Chargers wins over Oakland, and a two game margin of difference in the final records.  You do the math.

Best Players

  • QB Philip Rivers (drafted — N.C. State/2004 1st round pick)
  • WR Malcom Floyd (signed — Wyoming/2004 undrafted free agent)
  • TE Antonio Gates (signed — Kent State/2003 undrafted free agent)
  • LG Kris Dielman (signed — Indiana/2003 undrafted free agent)
  • LB Shaun Phillips (drafted — Purdue/2004 4th round pick)
  • CB Quentin Jammer (drafted — Texas/2002 1st round pick)
  • S Eric Weddle (drafted — Utah/2007 2nd round pick)

Best Prospects

  • RB Ryan Mathews (drafted — Fresno State/2010 1st round pick)
  • RG Louis Vasquez (drafted — Texas Tech/2009 3rd round pick)
  • NT Cam Thomas (drafted — North Carolina/2010 4th round pick)
  • CB Antoine Cason (drafted — Arizona/2008 1st round pick)

Best Players who Potentially Won’t Sign Until Week 10

  • WR Vincent Jackson (drafted — Northern Colorado/2005 2nd round pick)
  • LT Marcus McNeill (drafted — Auburn/2006 2nd round pick)

And such is the first chapter of the 2010 Chargers story, the first team willingly snakebit by the rules of the uncapped season.  Any discussion of the 2010 Chargers has to begin with Jackson and McNeill, and eventually ends with the irreplaceable: Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates.  Of course, we’re about to find out if McNeill and Jackson are also irreplaceable.  This blog’s sense of the issue is that something will get done with Marcus McNeill long term, that is in compliance with the CBAs 30% rule, and McNeill misses only a game or two at most.

Vincent Jackson is a different issue altogether.  Since the beginning of the Marty Schottenheimer era, the Chargers have always felt their receivers to be somewhat replaceable.  If you’re weak at the position: you go get Chris Chambers.  If you are stronger at the position: you waive Chris Chambers.  Jackson, though, is the best receiver that the Chargers have had, at least since the days of Kellen Winslow or Lance Alworth.  To a degree, you can understand why the Chargers think life will go on without Jackson.  Philip Rivers’ arm is golden, Jackson isn’t the most versatile weapon in the Chargers offense already, and there are young targets that the Chargers are trying to develop at receiver.

But here’s the issue: the entire San Diego roster is experienced and growing old together, and there’s not a lot of time to covert this talent into a super bowl title.  The Chargers are a contender this year, but not on the level they have been in the past, and the AFC West isn’t going to sit idle while San Diego gets its act together.  Unlike 2006, the Chargers need every strategic advantage they can get.  And an offense without Vincent Jackson, and with Legadu Naanee and Craig Davis doesn’t threaten offenses downfield the way that Rivers and Jackson do.

Now, Malcom Floyd is a legitimate downfield NFL receiver, and can replace Jackson adequately in that tole.  Floyd is 28 — a year older than Jackson — so there’s a lot of upside here.  Floyd is Floyd, not a future Jackson.  Davis is a wild card in that number two role.  Davis, who also goes by the moniker ‘Buster’, has been branded a bust by many observers after 30 catches in three seasons.  To be clear, Davis has been a limiting factor on the passing offense when he has been used.  But, if you throw out his rookie season, Davis has been a great target in limited time.  He has just been inactive and buried on the roster.  Conflicting evidence, yes, but if he plays well through the first three months of the season, the team doesn’t have to worry about extending Jackson.  Davis is not listed as a prospect because throughout this series, I have ignored players with three or more accrued seasons as potential breakout players, however, the Chargers appear to have a theme in expecting breakouts from players who have been around for some time.

Jackson earned a suspension for a DUI charge in the offseason, and he will miss the first three games of this season regardless.  Jackson does not have to sign his RFA tender to serve the suspension, so he will be eligible to return for the Week 4 game against Arizona.  The fact that it’s likely that the Chargers fans aren’t going to see Jackson before Week 11 against Denver means his name will be offered in trade talks all the way up to the trade deadline in Week 6 of the NFL season, or until he reports.  The Washington Redskins and the Seattle Seahawks want Jackson in their offense, but are unwilling to offer the first round pick the Chargers desire in a trade.  I continue to hear that this is more likely to get done than not, so Jackson might have played his final game in a Chargers’ uni.

The offensive line and running back situation should collectively be better this year.  Ryan Mathews is a rookie, yes, but offers much more explosion in the legs than LaDainian Tomlinson had his final two seasons.  Darren Sproles will play this season under a one year tender, and he remains the most dangerous screen back in the league.  3rd RB Marcus Mason provides surprisingly effective inside running, and of course, a legendary preseason performance.

The line will be strong once McNeill signs, and it can hold it’s own without him.  Brandyn Dombrowski will start at LT in McNeill’s place while he is unsigned.  LG Kris Dielman has missed just two games in the last four years, making three pro bowls in the process.  C Nick Hardwick is back, but he’s got a lengthy history of injury.  The Chargers have a great backup in Scott Mruckowski, and I might be alone in the opinion that this is a change worth making.  Nominally, it’s a competition, but I expect Hardwick to be on the ball in Week 1 — if he’s healthy.  Louis Vasquez is the team’s RG of the present and the future, a bright future.  Jeromey Clary starts at RT again.  Veteran tackle Tra Thomas is in camp as depth, but his retirement party will be held the day after McNeill signs his tender.

For the first time since he broke into the lineup in 2000, the Chargers will try to fill the void of NT Jamal Williams, who is in Denver after being released.  The guy who will be tasked with this is Antonio Garay, a 30 year old journeyman who played with the Bears before the Chargers.  Garay is perfect for the role, yet, is hardly a prospect since he will be 31 for the playoffs.  The Chargers have a young DE named Vaughn Martin who will see an increase in his playing time this year.  Luis Castillo has been disappointing for two seasons now, and he could lose reps to Alfonso Boone.  Ryon Bingham is over an injury that caused him to miss last season, and could start opposite Castillo.

Is linebacker still a Charger strength?  Shawne Merriman isn’t interested in being a Charger anymore, and the Chargers don’t appear to be interested in Merriman, who is no longer an explosive athlete.  Merriman’s reluctance to sign his tender can almost be described as casual.  He’ll come in for Week 10 just so he can hit free agency next year, and the Chargers will make no effort to re-sign him.  Shaun Phillips is still a nice pass rusher to have, but he’s declined each year in sacks since a career high in 2006.  2009 first rounder Larry English is going to take over for Merriman as the rush linebacker, but English has to grow up considerably to just turn into a league average linebacker.  The team is much stronger at ILB, where Brandon Siler narrowly avoided prospect status for the same reasons as Craig Davis.  He could start this year.  Bad news here, as third rounder Donald Butler will miss the 2010 season with an Achilles injury.  Stephen Cooper and Kevin Burnett are also in the mix to start.

I like the San Diego secondary in the wake of the Antonio Cromartie trade.  Antoine Cason should recover from a poor sophomore season, and look more like he did as a rookie in his starting role at RCB.  Quentin Jammer is at the top of his game across from him.  Donald Strickland and Nathan Vasher have been brought in to help Brandon Hughes provide depth for the two starters.  Eric Weddle is a star at free safety, but the other safety has been an issue.  Steve Gregory is more of a dime back type, but either C.J. Spillman, Darrell Stuckey, or Paul Oliver could play the other safety.

Fighting for a spot on the roster

It wasn’t easy going this whole article without mentioning Norv Turner or really gushing about how great of a player Philip Rivers is, but these two obviously both have significant pull in building the roster.  Teams with quarterbacks as strong as Rivers tend to keep just two quarterbacks, but in the wake of the trade returning a third round pick for QB Charlie Whitehurst, the Chargers are once again looking to pull in return on investment, drafting Jonathon Crompton (Tennessee) in the fifth round.  Crompton is certain to make the roster, but the team will likely not re-sign Billy Volek at the end of the year, in which case, Crompton should slide in as the Jim Sorgi to Rivers’ Manning.

Could the Chargers keep three fullbacks?  It’s possible if they hold only two TEs.  Mike Tolbert is the starter, but shares reps with Jacob Hester, who can also play RB.  Neither is a blocker, as Tolbert is primarily a receiver, and Hester is best as a singleback.  Billy Latsko is in camp, and could make the team as a goalline blocking back.  At TE, Kris Wilson is a very, very poor mans Antonio Gates.  Randy McMichael is in the mix for the second TE role.

Josh Reed was signed to be the fourth receiver if Vincent Jackson isn’t around this year.  He will back up Buster Davis and Legadu Naanee.  Expect Norv Turner to fall in love with undrafted rookie Jeremy Williams out of Tulane.  That should be the depth chart at WR, sans Vincent Jackson.

Tyronne Green should remain the backup at LG for Dielman.  Corey Clark is expected to remain the 9th lineman, but is in a serious camp battle with Tra Thomas to remain on the roster when McNeill signs.

8 defensive lineman is the Chargers magic number, with less need for LB depth.  The problem is, they have ten guys who are good enough to make the roster.  Garay and Cam Thomas make up the depth chart at nose tackle, where Alfonso Boone can play also.  Boone will backup Luis Castillo.  That’s four.  With Ryon Bingham back, Travis Johnson and Ogemdi Nwagbuo are on the cusp.  Vaughn Martin is safe, but Jacques Cesaire, the longest tenured member of the line, could be pushed by Derrick Jones, a second year player.

Donald Butler’s injury is bad news for the Chargers, but good news for Darry Beckwith, who now just has to hold off a pair of rookies, Mike Nixon and Kion Wilson to make the team.  If draft pick Brandon Lang flashes his rush potential, Jyles Tucker and Antwan Applewhite will have just one spot between them to win, and that spot might just be there until Shawne Merriman cares to show up.

The Chargers will have to make a cut at safety, as Paul Oliver, Steve Gregory, C.J. Spillman, and Darrell Stuckey can’t all have three spots.  One of those guys will be a starter, and one will be a release candidate.  Spillman could be in trouble as he’s a practice squad candidate.

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