Time to Step Up or Step Aside

With the draft approaching and free agency well underway, Charger fans nationwide are scrutinizing all the moves their team has made this off-season. The troubling thing about this is, even after bringing in five new players and re-signing three of their own, the Chargers nine draft picks may not be enough to provide this team with talent enough to end their long standing playoff drought.

So, if the Chargers are to be successful in their pursuit of a playoff berth, they are going to need some of their own to step-up in a big way. The following is a list of five players in no particular who must raise their game if the Chargers are to succeed in 2004:

Drayton Florence-

Florence was the talk of training camp all last season. His dynamic playing style and big play presence left the team searching for ways to get him onto the field. After flirting with the idea of switching him to free safety, the team instead made him the nickel cornerback. He responded with zero interceptions and a view from the bench as former un-drafted free agent Kevin House become the top back-up at the position, and the agonizingly slow Vernon Fox took his role in the nickel defense.

Now Florence will be given a unique opportunity. Because of the arrival of Jamar Fletcher, the team will once again experiment with Florence's location on the field. A big training camp could even land him a starting job at free safety, where his speed and ball skills would be an upgrade over those of Kwame Lassiter. Or, if he can show refined technique and a better understanding of fundamentals, he may regain his nickel back job and give the team three potential shut down corners (which may be a near necessity with a pass rush as weak as the Chargers). Then again, he may not raise his level of play at all and fall even further down the depth chart. Hopefully for the Chargers, it will be much of the former and none of the latter.

Reche Caldwell-

Last season the Chargers were hopeful that Reche Caldwell would step up and win a job in the starting lineup. Instead, he missed the majority of the season with a fractured wrist, and allowed the playing time he did receive to be plagued with dropped passes and missed opportunities. Now that the team's number one receiver has been downgraded from superstar talent David Boston to bargain basement lead man Kevin Dyson, the team is no longer hopeful concerning Caldwell's development. They are desperate.

With Eric Parker and Tim Dwight undersized for starting duty, and Kassim Osgood and Micah Ross too slow to merit increased roles, Caldwell is the only player on the roster with the ability to make an impact opposite Dyson in the starting line-up. Caldwell needs to focus more on maintaining crisp routes, and ensuring the catch before he worries what to do with it, but he has the ability to be a good player for this team. He has the ability to make the tough catch and to do something with it afterwards, but he has yet to show it consistently at this level. When Caldwell was first drafted, he said his goal was to be the best receiver in the league. While that is entirely out of the question, seven hundred yards receiving and five touchdowns should be well within the range of his abilities.

Toniu Fonoti-

When the Chargers drafted Fonoti back in 2002, they were certain they had tabbed themselves a draft day steal. The landed a road grader type blocker with the strength and agility to develop into a solid pass protector as well. His rookie season went about as expected, as his play improved the teams running game but made the pass protection a liability. And his second season was washed out before it even began thanks to foot and leg injuries. Fonoti is again healthy and seemingly rededicated. All that is missing is for Fonoti to use that dedication to transform his massive potential into equally massive production.

Solid play by Fonoti would have a magnificent ripple effect on the entire offensive line. If Fonoti can win the starting job opposite former Bengal Mike Goff, it may relegate Phil Bogle to a reserve role. Not only would that give the Chargers solid depth at guard, but would improve their depth at tackle as well, as Bogle could then garner reps as a back-up at both positions although there are rumors he may take over at left tackle. However the offensive line shakes out come training camp, the play of Toniu Fonoti is going to be vital to the success of the Chargers offense this coming season.

Jason Fisk-

With the Chargers switching to a 3-4 defensive alignment, Fisk will likely be moved to an end position. In a 3-4 defense, the ends needs to have the size to tie up blockers and push back the line of scrimmage on running downs, and the quickness to collapse the pocket for the rushing linebackers on passing downs. In the Chargers old 4-3 defense Fisk was too small to be a two gap run defender, and too slow to rush the passer. However, new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' scheme seems much better suited for Fisk's game.

Fisk will likely start at end and play there on running downs in the base defense. Here he can do what he does best, contribute as a solid tackler in the running game and help tie up blockers (as he will now be an oversized end as compared to an undersized tackle). Then on passing downs Fisk can move inside to nose tackle, where he can use his quick first step to help collapse the pocket for rush linebackers Ben Leber and Steve Foley, as fell as DeQuincy Scott, who will likely replace Fisk at end on these downs. No matter how he is used, however, Fisk must raise his game. The Chargers defensive line played very poorly last season, and the only change that has been made among the group was the release of the only player among them to ever play in the Pro Bowl. But if the new defensive system is a success and Fisk can raise his level of play, this may be a problem that can be solved from within.

Doug Flutie-

While it is a well-known fact that the Chargers are not satisfied with the quarterbacks on their roster, Flutie may be the dark horse gunslinger with a chance at having a decent season. If the Chargers do select Eli Manning at the top of the draft, and decide to groom for his starting assignment (rather than just throwing him in the fire, ala Ryan Leaf), don't be surprised if it is Flutie and not Brees who takes the snaps while the rookie learns the ropes.

The knock on Flutie is that at his age he cannot maintain a high level of play over the course of a seventeen week season. With an elite thrower readying to supplant him, he wouldn't have to. The Chargers could let him play while they groom Manning (or possibly Phillip Rivers after a trade down), and when Flutie starts to slip the team would hand the rookie the ball and Flutie the ball cap. Flutie showed last season that he can still lead the team, and when he is fresh he seems less turnover prone than Brees. Also, this young team could benefit from his energy, veteran leadership, and his scrambling ability. Which will be well utilized behind what is sure to be a makeshift line.

Michael Lombardo can be reached at Lombardo@sandiegosports.net

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