One of Toughest Schedules Awaits

While the driving issue around Chargers Park these days is what they will do in the upcoming draft - they own five of the first 89 picks - did you get a look next season's schedule?

The Chargers have won but one playoff game in three seasons and didn't even make the postseason last year. So in looking to rebound and then looking at the slate of rivals waiting - if the season is played - it's clear the Chargers' work is cut out for them.

The good news is of the opening four games, three are at home. But the Vikings, Chiefs and Dolphins figure to be strong challenges. And the one lone road game takes them to New England, where the Patriots never get tired of getting up for the Chargers.

The second quarter of games shows none in San Diego - the Chargers do have a bye on Oct. 16. Otherwise, three venues tough to play in - Denver (although the Broncos are down), Jets (hello old friend LaDainian Tomlinson) and Chiefs (where the Chargers opened last year with a face-plant) round out a demanding stretch of the season.

Hitting the second half, the Chargers embrace the next four games, with three being at home. But two figure to be slugfests, with the Packers and Raiders visiting; the Chargers should have their way with the Broncos. But the road trip in this quadrant has them going to face the Chicago Bears on what figures to be a frigid November afternoon.

Ready for the big push to the tape? The Chargers are set up fairly well here - especially if not desperate for every single victory like in years past when their stumbles from the gate.

Of the final month of games, the Chargers have three road trips, but to locales where they have a good chance of winning: Jacksonville, Detroit and Oakland. Although a case could be made that it is more difficult than at first glance, with the Jaguars' game being played before a revved Monday night crowd; the Lions, which are improved and could be poised for a Christmas Eve upset, much like the Bengals did to the Chargers last year during the holidays; and Oakland, which swept the Chargers last year.

The team's last regular-season home game is no gimmie: the rugged Ravens on Dec. 18. With both teams likely playing for a playoff berth or a seeding, this could be a game with many ramifications.

In all, the slate ties for the third-toughest that any team will face. The Chargers will be asked to face the music countless times in the season to see if they've changed their tune from last year when failing to advance to the playoffs.

--Nice fits: Outside linebacker J.J. Watt, inside linebacker Martez Wilson, defensive end/tackle Christian Ballard


LB Martez Wilson
Scott Boehm/Getty
The Chargers' offense is something that always belongs in the bright lights, bathing in the accolades that come when featuring an elite quarterback like Philip Rivers.

But what really needs a jolt for those Bolts is the defense. And the Chargers could do a lot worse than reaching for Wisconsin's J.J. Watt with their first pick, at No. 18 overall.

The Chargers were basically a one-man rushing brigade last year from the edges, with Shaun Phillips doing most of the heavy lifting. Larry English was derailed by injuries and inconsistency, and the Chargers' patience with him could be wearing thin.

So by selecting Watt, they get that energy off the edge and hopefully lighten the load Phillips had to carry last year.

Of course general manager A.J. Smith, with five picks in the first 89 selections, could package some of that booty and rocket up the first round, much like he did last year in making the push to draft running back Ryan Mathews.

But the Chargers need players this year to add depth to a special teams unit that was horrible last year. Look for Smith to keep his pick at No. 18 and possibly plug in Watt to a defense which needs a charge.

Illinois' Martez Wilson, if taken with the team's second selection, could be an opening-day starter. A stretch? Maybe. But Stephen Cooper, Kevin Burnett and Brandon Siler, the Chargers' top three inside linebackers, are all looking at some form of free agency. Maybe they all return - doubtful - or maybe none of them do - possible. If Wilson is selected here, it gives Smith some breathing room in negotiating with the three free agents and if they decide not to accept his offer, he could have Wilson help fill the void.

Iowa's Christian Ballard had the luxury of sharing a defensive line with standout Adrian Clayborn. Ballard can play inside or outside, although with the Chargers he would be pointed to the end spot, opposite Luis Castillo.

TEAM NEEDS

Defensive end: The spinsters stress defensive ends aren't very productive in 3-4 alignments. While that's true to a degree, the Chargers seldom see any production out of starters Luis Castillo and Jacques Cesaire.

Inside linebacker: Their top three inside linebackers - Stephen Cooper, Kevin Burnett and Brandon Siler - are unsigned and headed for some form of free agency. The Chargers would likely bring Burnett back, but Cooper is showing wear and tear on his body. The Chargers' run defense - it allowed 251 rushing yards in a must-win game against the Raiders in December -- needs a thumper.

Outside linebacker: Smith thought he had taken care of the position opposite starter Shaun Phillips when reaching for Larry English in the 2009 draft. But English hasn't played anywhere near his first-round status. He can't stay on field and when he does, seldom has an impact.

Wide receiver: This spot might surprise some, but after starters Vincent Jackson (franchise player tag) and Patrick Crayton, there's not much proven talent. Malcom Floyd could flee as a free agent. Buster Davis, a former first-round pick, has been an extreme disappointment. There are mediocre players clogging the depth chart after that.

Cornerback: With two returning starters, this need isn't as urgent. But Quentin Jammer's replacement needs to start being groomed soon; Antoine Cason looks like a keeper on the other side. But after that the depth is lacking.

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES

--The Chargers learned their upcoming schedule and so much for it being filled with cupcakes, like last year's slate. "Teams change every year," coach Norv Turner cautioned about those reading too much into the demanding lineup. "Two years ago people thought we had the toughest schedule we've had in a long time and we were 13-3. Last year at this time people were saying our schedule was an easy schedule and we didn't do as well as we'd like. So this will play out in terms of the difficulty of the schedule." The Chargers drew the woeful NFC West last year and managed to go just 2-2.

--General manager A. J. Smith, because of the uncertainty of the CBA, is approaching this draft different than in years past. "We have to assume that these free agents are gone," Smith said. "In that light, we don't have a lot of players on this team. For now, they're out. That leaves us wide open at almost every position. The only positions I've closed out, as I've done for a while now, are kickers and punters. We're doing just fine there. Everything else is possible. When I used to say that in the past, people thought I was filling notebooks with GM-speak. But now, because of the circumstances, there are a lot of people who believe that's truly the case."

--In a conference call with Chargers' season-ticket holders, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said all parties are working to keep the Chargers in San Diego - despite the prospect of a state-of-the-art facility being built 100 miles north in Los Angeles. "It is important for all of us to recognize it is the objective to keep the team in San Diego and continue to have it be successful and find a stadium solution," Goodell said. "I know the Chargers right to the top with (team president) Dean Spanos and his family are committed to doing that."

--Might Smith be tempted to dip into the free-agent pool in a more significant manner with the Chargers missing the playoffs last year? Does it ever snow in San Diego? "I'm not a big player in the unrestricted, high-profile, big-game free-agent market," he said. "I just don't believe in that. That's a lot of money headed outside that could a reward player who has developed within your system.

--Pro Bowl QB Philip Rivers is leading the team's workout group as the players try to stay sharp during the lockout. "We have guys who will work on their own, and there are a handful of us getting together right now," he said. "Sure, you want to bench, squat and power clean, but this time of the year is really about being around one another and building chemistry. It's also about getting ready for the long haul. This thing may last through the summer, and we have to stay prepared. We're building a foundation that will help us transition back into full-on football mode at a moment's notice."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Three of the first four at home ... that's big. There's obviously going to be an emphasis on getting off to a fast start. We've been able to overcome some of the slow starts but weren't able to do it last year so I think that'll have a real strong meaning for our football team." - Coach Norv Turner, on the Chargers' first month of games as they hope for a rare fast start to the season.



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