Chargers versus Raiders Preview

<center><i>What's On The Line?</i></center><br><br>With one game remaining for the 2003 San Diego Chargers, fans can expect to see different players playing for different reasons this weekend. Star running back LaDainian Tomlinson will be playing for his spot in the record books. Underachieving defensive end Marcellus Wiley will be playing to pad a season's worth of pathetic stats as he faces a massive pay cut this off-season...

And promising corner back Sammy Davis will be playing to remove the target from the back of his jersey.

Then, there are a series of fringe players playing for their positions on next season's roster. Players such as receiver Reche Caldwell (not endearing himself to management by being unable to play Sunday), guard Phil Bogle, defensive end Adrian Dingle, and most importantly, quarterback Drew Brees have very murky roles heading into next season. This Sunday versus archrival Oakland will be a final audition for these players. These are the men who the team has not given up on, but does not know exactly what to do with.

The team would have liked to heavily observe the play of Reche Caldwell. He is a talented young player in only his second season, and it is a well-known fact many wide receivers do not break out until their third season. After his terrible season statistically, he will have little to no trade value, and the team will receive minimal salary cap relief by cutting him amidst his rookie contract. Adding to that the aforementioned injury that will cost him the game, and the Chargers are stuck in a rut with Caldwell.

However, this year's injuries and poor production will force the Chargers to bring in another wide receiver to replace Tim Dwight and to start along side David Boston next season. Kassim Osgood is in the mix and will get a chance to show his mettle again this week as the number two receiver. How he plays could go a long way in determining what kind of receiver will be brought in. Also, wide receiver Eric Parker seems ideal for the dual role of slot receiver and punt return specialist. Expect the Chargers to bring in a low round draft pick to challenge Caldwell for the number four receiver spot. Caldwell could end up the number four receiver and possibly the kick return man next season, or he may be bumped off the roster entirely.

Phil Bogle is another player who, despite a solid rookie season, has a position very much up in the air concerning next season. This year's offensive line has been injury riddled and ridiculously ineffective, and so an overhaul is expected in the off-season. With Damion McIntosh and Solomon Page on their way out the door, the Chargers will bring in at least two new tackles next season to play with up and comer Courtney Van Buren and veteran leader Vaughn Parker, who could see a restructure to stay. The question comes on what to do with the guard positions.

Toniu Fonoti has more invested in him the any other interior lineman, and has the size and tenacity to dominate. And Kelvin Garmon has shown improved consistency and the ability to play very well. However, Garmon is a free agent, and Bogle's play could force the Chargers hand concerning Garmon's contract. With Fonoti expected to assume one staring role, will the Chargers give Garmon a contract issuing starter caliber pay if they feel the much cheaper Bogle can play at an equal or greater level? Bogle's play may very well dictate the structure of the 2004 Chargers interior line, so his play the weekend will be closely observed as well.

Another player whose role in the near future remains unclear is defensive end Adrian Dingle. While Dingle is tied for the team lead with five and a half sacks this season, his role as a starter is in grave danger as far as next season is concerned. The team's top priority this off-season will be improving the pass rush, and the first step in doing that is improving the amount of heat applied off the edges. The team has a lot of money invested in Marcellus Wiley, would take a big salary cap hit should they release him, and still holds firm to the memories of his thirteen sack season from not too long ago.

This means another defensive end will be brought in next season. The question is whether to burn a second round choice on a player to challenge Dingle, or to spend big on a free agent to replace him outright. The answer to that may be found in how Dingle finishes out the season. A big performance may make the team reluctant to spend big money on a free agent that may not even out produce the cheaper incumbent Dingle. This week will be show time for Adrian Dingle.

The final fringe player playing for the future this weekend is quarterback Drew Brees. Brees‚ six turnovers in the two games since his return all but guarantee he will not be the starter on opening day next season. Names like Mark Brunell and Eli Manning have been linked to next year's Chargers, and it would not be a shock to see both of them wearing the blue and gold next season. The question is what to do with Brees?

The Chargers could merely sign a veteran to start and gauge Brees' development from the second string role. The team could also draft a young arm and let Drew battle a rookie for the starting job, and keep Doug Flutie as a safety net should the young pups both falter. Or the team could ship Brees' college film to a team needing a quarterback and hope for a fourth round pick in return. A big game this weekend could convince the Chargers to at least let Brees compete for the starting gig next season, but another turnover filled debacle could terminate Brees' career in San Diego. The Chargers have been long eliminated from the playoffs, but as far as Drew Brees is concerned, this is his Super Bowl.

The Chargers as a team may be out of the playoffs, but as individuals they still have many reasons to play and play hard. Since AJ Smith has arrived in San Diego, at least fifteen players on each year's team were not playing for the Chargers the year prior. And seeing how this season will produce the worst record since Smith's arrival, that number will balloon before it will wane. So this weekend, some players will play as an audition for their new teams next season, some will play to keep starting assignments on the Chargers squad next year, and some will play to either make more or lose less when their salaries fluctuates in the off-season.

And hopefully, some Chargers will play for the fans. After all, this is Raiders week. After what the fans have been through this season, the Chargers at least owe them that much. The individuals have reason to play; now the team has to give the fans reason to cheer.

Michael Lombardo can be reached at ReneesGaydo@yahoo.com

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