Charger Roundup: Ready for Week 1

The Chargers put the lid on what on the most bizarre camps they've had in years. They hit the field for good Sept. 13 in a Monday Night game against the Chiefs. Maybe at that point the year will take on a sense of normalcy.

The recently concluded camp will be known almost for as much as who wasn't here and those in attendance.

The Chargers got linebacker Shawne Merriman in late and never did see two other Pro Bowlers, left tackle Marcus McNeill and wide receiver Vincent Jackson. Those two are still bent over the lack of a long-term contract and it appears unlikely they will play much -- if at all -- for the Chargers this year.

That's quite a blow to a squad with Super Bowl aspirations -- again -- and the Chargers were hoping this was the year they finally evolve from talking about being an elite team to becoming one.

The Chargers are still in line to have a fantastic season. They are loaded on offense -- if the left tackle spot holds -- and seem to have enough on defense.

They are the benefactors of playing in the wobbly AFC West and their non-divisional schedule is as soft as a baby's backside.

But the Chargers are eager to do more than be among the regular-season top dogs -- they certainly were last year in going 13-3 and winning their last 11 games.

Nope, this season will be judged in how they do in the postseason. And on that count, the Chargers have failed miserably, losing three of their last four playoff games. That includes that January stinker in which the upstart Jets upset the No. 2-seeded Chargers.

But the Chargers have much ground cover before worrying about erasing their latest playoff pratfall. They must prove worthy of their fifth straight AFC West title and prove to the doubters they can excel without Jackson and McNeill.

This season also marks the turning of the page from LaDainian Tomlinson to Ryan Mathews. While somewhat downcast to see Tomlinson move on to the Jets, it's clear they are excited about the opportunities to resurrect a horrible running game behind the zest of a rookie back in Mathews.

What they don't have to tinker with is Philip Rivers. He's among the game's top players and proved it last year in topping 4,000 yards passing for the second consecutive season, with the AFC's top quarterback rating.

Now will his numbers suffer without Jackson stretching the field and opening up the underneath routes for Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates? We'll see. But Rivers is the type of players who makes those around him that much better.

Despite some team blemishes, coach Norv Turner has been clear that this is the best team he's had while in San Diego. That seems to be a stretch, possibly a coach trying to build the younger players' confidence.

But he could be on to something, with a new mix of personnel which could help the Chargers get over the hump.

That said, the Chargers won't be anything special unless they discover a pass rush. That chore was to fall to Shawne Merriman, and it still could. But Merriman hasn't been the same player since undergoing knee surgery two years ago and he needs to show he still has the speed and quickness that were once his calling cards.

But all the cards on the table and what do you have? Another solid roster constructed by general manager A.J. Smith, but one with enough blemishes that makes you wonder if this really is the year.

What's clear is that a Chargers era has ended with Tomlinson and many other longtime stalwarts now at different addresses. The question remains can the Chargers deliver only the second Super Bowl appearance in team history, something that has seemingly been promised about this time every year in recent memory.

COACHING: Norv Turner, 13 year (84-102-1), 4th with Chargers (35-19).

REMEMBERING: 2009 record: 13-3 (1st in AFC West); lost in divisional game to Jets, 17-14.

PREDICTING: 2010 regular-season record: 11-5 (1st in AFC West); lose in divisional game.


--The Chargers acquired WR Patrick Crayton in a trade with the Dallas Cowboys for a seventh-round pick. Crayton, a seven-year pro, could start opposite Malcom Floyd, or at least add depth, to a unit which is missing its biggest downfield threat, the unsigned Vincent Jackson.

"We felt Patrick would be a very good addition to our team," general manager A.J. Smith said. "He brings double value. He is a good, experienced receiver and also a punt returner. We are excited to add him to the mix. We also feel his familiarity with our system should get him up to speed quickly."

Crayton has averaged 41 catches for 596 yards and five touchdowns in each season since 2006. "I'm excited about the offense, man. Very excited," Crayton said. "They've got a bunch of weapons and I'm just happy to be a part of it."

--Jackson was nearly traded over the weekend, until a deal fell about over how much compensation the Chargers were seeking for the Pro Bowl wide out. According to one of Jackson's agents, the player has retracted his demands for a long-term deal and would be open to signing a one-year contract. Another obstacle in consummating a deal is that Jackson is suspended for three games by the NFL for violating its personal conduct code, and could face another three-game suspension after the Chargers placed him on the Roster Exempt List. The NFLPA's contention is that the Roster Exempt List suspension would not follow Jackson if he is traded to another team. The NFL's position is that both suspensions would apply and he would have to miss six games.

--OT Adam Terry was signed Sunday after being released by the Colts. With Pro Bowler Marcus McNeill still not under contract, the Chargers' lack of experienced depth at left tackle is alarming. Brandyn Dombrowski is the starter; he's never started a game at left tackle. The team released OT Ryan Otterson to make room for Terry.

--The Chargers' practice squad will consist of: WRs Seyi Ajirotutu and Richard Goodman, RB Curtis Brinkley, QB Jonathan Crompton, TE Derrick Epps, G/C Jeff Hansen, OT Nick Richmond and LB Kion Wilson.

--Two of Smith's 2010 draft picks didn't make the active roster, but landed on the practice squad: Jonathan Crompton and Dedrick Epps.

BY THE NUMBERS: 15 -- Number of Pro Bowl selections the Chargers are missing after revamping their roster: LaDainian Tomlinson (five), Jamal Williams (three), Kassim Osgood (three), Marcus McNeill (two), Vincent Jackson (one) and Antonio Cromartie (one).

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think it showcased my speed a little bit. It lets defenses know I can hit the outside. It's going to open up the inside run a lot, too." -- RB Ryan Mathews on what his impressive 16-yard run around the left edge in the preseason means for the future.


--LT Brandyn Dombrowski has been battling a sore neck and shoulders, but he was working Monday.

--CB Antoine Cason has won the starting job, despite getting picked on during the preseason.

--QB Billy Volek took a beating during the preseason games and was limited in practice on Monday.

--OLB Shawne Merriman was wearing a boot after practice on Monday; he had gone pretty hard in Sunday's workout. Merriman is nursing a sore Achilles tendon and his status for the season opener is uncertain.

--CB Donald Strickland will be the Chargers' starting nickel back.

--CB Dante Hughes will be the backup nickel back.

--WR Patrick Crayton is starting the season as the No. 3 wide out, but some teams insiders sense it's only matter of time before he supplants Legedu Naanee as a starter.


Rd. 1/12, RB Ryan Mathews, Fresno State -- Has shown well in the preseason and the Chargers are excited about getting his fresh legs in the backfield. Still needs to show he can handle the pass-protection pickups.

Rd. 3/79, ILB Donald Butler -- Never got out of camp with a knee injury and was placed on IR; he likely would have contributed on special teams.

Rd. 4/110, SS Darrell Stuckey, Kansas -- At one point the Chargers had Stuckey running with the ones. Then he was derailed by an injury, got run in over in the loss at New Orleans and showed he's not quite ready for prime time.

Rd. 5/146, DT Cam Thomas -- Will Thomas be the one to ultimately replace Pro Bowler Jamal Williams? Maybe at some point but he's far from a finished project. He should see some action on early downs, but has to prove he can keep his feet.

Rd. 5/168, QB Jonathan Crompton, Tennessee -- The Chargers have a need for a No. 3 quarterback but Crompton's summer was a mixed bag of results.

Rd. 7/235, TE Dedrick Epps, Miami -- The Chargers are top-heavy at this position and Epps has done little to stand out in camp or the preseason games.


QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Philip Rivers. Backups -- Billy Volek, J.T. O'Sullivan.

Rivers continues to show he is among the elite players in the NFL at his position. His accuracy and moxie are a big reason why the Chargers are considered to have a shot at the Super Bowl. And with LaDainian Tomlinson now with the Jets, it's clearer than ever this is Rivers' team. And it's possible Rivers will throw for 4,000 yards for the third consecutive year, especially if the team can establish a running game. Volek played well, again, in the preseason and gives the Chargers are reliable backup. OíSullivan was signed after being released by the Bengals.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter -- Ryan Mathews. Backups -- Darren Sproles, FB Jacob Hester, RB/FB Mike Tolbert.

Mathews has been a bright light to the coaches and teammates this preseason. He has looked good in the games and practice. His attitude is tops and he is eager to learn. A good thing for Mathews and the Chargers is that Mathews won't be asked to carry the load by himself. Sproles can reach the end zone any time he touches the ball and Tolbert has shown he's more than a blocker and will get more carries than last year. Hester occasionally gets a touch, but he has morphed more into a fullback than the running back the Chargers envisioned when he came out of LSU.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Antonio Gates. Backups -- Randy McMichael, Kris Wilson.

Gates is showing all the signs that he is in line for another blockbuster year, an encore to last year's big season -- the key is Gates is healthy for the second straight year. McMichael would be a bigger target on any other team; he's a nice complement to Gates. Wilson's hands betrayed him in the preseason games; most of his work will come in a blocking role anyway.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Malcom Floyd, Legedu Naanee. Backups -- Patrick Crayton, Buster Davis, Vincent Jackson (unsigned/suspended).

Floyd has had the luxury of flying under the radar, with teams more focused on No. 1 receiver Vincent Jackson. But Jackson is not expected to play in San Diego this year so Floyd has to emerge as Rivers' main target down field. Naanee has had a hard time cracking the lineup for significant playing time but that will no longer be the case; he's good, let's see if he can be consistent. Davis needs to show, at some point, he was worth a No. 1 pick.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Brandyn Dombrowski, LG Kris Dielman, C Nick Hardwick, RG Louis Vasquez, RT Jeromey Clary. Backups -- G Tyronne Green, C/G Scott Mruczkowski, T Adam Terry.

The Chargers are in a potential pickle here with Pro Bowl LT Marcus McNeill still not signed. So they plopped Dombrowski over to fill McNeill's void, despite the 2008 undrafted rookie never playing on that side. But Dombrowski held up well in the preseason games which is good -- or bad, in that the Chargers have been lulled into a false sense of security. Dombrowski's play will be a huge key to the season, in that the Chargers love to throw the football. But even if he shines, the depth behind him with Green, an interior lineman, is a big concern. Two Pro Bowlers in Dielman and Hardwick will help the transition for Dombrowski. Vasquez is solid, especially in pass protection. Clary is average and is coming off ankle surgery.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LE Jacques Cesaire, NT Antonio Garay, RE Luis Castillo. Backups -- DE Travis Johnson, DT Vaughn Martin, DT Ogemdi Nwagbuo, DE Alfonso Boone, DT Cam Thomas.

The return of Ryon Bingham at tackle never happened as a back injury led to him being released after missing all of last year. So the Chargers have inserted Garay, who played well in spots last year. The ends are steady if not spectacular but they won't be asked to do it on an every-down basis. Coordinator Ron Rivera is big on rotation here, with nearly every player suiting up that day seeing the field. No stars here, just a bunch of blue-collar guys hoping to show the whole is better than the parts. Martin remains a project; Nwagbuo has been bothered by concussions. Thomas is a rookie and plays like one.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- OLB Shawne Merriman, ILB Stephen Cooper, ILB Kevin Burnett, OLB Shaun Phillips. Backups -- ILB Brandon Siler, OLB Larry English, OLB Antwan Applewhite, OLB Jyles Tucker, OLB James Holt, LB Brandon Lang.

Will Merriman ever show that burst again? That was a question before, during and after camp as Merriman was late to sign then sat out but a handful of practices with a sore Achilles. Merriman's body has revolted the past two years in which he has but four sacks. He needs to show he can still bring the wood -- there are plenty of doubters he can do it on a week-to-week basis. With questions around Merriman, Phillips will again be asked to be the main pass rushers. He's good, setting a franchise mark with seven forced fumbles last year, but he would benefit greatly from Merriman being on the field. Burnett has had a good summer and looks to be more active than he was last year when slowed by various injuries. Cooper is a tackling machine and should lead the team again in that category. The Chargers are hopeful English shows more than he did in his rookie year (four sacks). Siler is a dependable backup and keen in short-yardage situations. Applewhite and Tucker supply occasional pressure on passing downs. Holt and Lang will be asked to contribute on special teams.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Quentin Jammer, RCB Antoine Cason, FS Eric Weddle, SS Steve Gregory. Backups -- CB Donald Strickland, CB Fred Bennett, CB Dante Hughes, CB Brandon Hughes, SS Darrell Stuckey, FS Paul Oliver.

Cason needs to prove he can be an every-down starter; he was picked on a bit in the preseason. Cason had trouble with the nickel role last year and the team is hopeful he is better out of the slot. Jammer has quietly developed into one of the more steady cornerbacks and he is always willing to lend a hand in run support. Questions remain, though, deep in the secondary. Weddle needs to bring some bigger hits to his game and find the ball more. Gregory was supposed to be supplanted by the rookie Stuckey, but that didn't quite work out. The depth at corner is solid with Strickland assuming the nickel role.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Nate Kaeding, P Mike Scifres, KR Darren Sproles, PR Darren Sproles, LS David Binn.

The Chargers have one of the most consistent kickers in NFL history in Kaeding -- in the regular season. But Kaeding's pratfall in the playoff loss -- three missed field goals -- still causes a murmur from local fans when he trots out for an attempt. By all accounts, he has put his last game behind him, although we really won't know until he is asked to make another pressure kick in the playoffs. Scifres is a Pro Bowl-caliber punter. Sproles is explosive and always dangers. The veteran Binn is nothing but reliable -- which is all you want.

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