Competition at Carson

With free agency now moving slower than Leon Johnson on a kick return, and the NFL draft as finished as Drew Brees' opportunity down in San Diego, it is time to look ahead to training camp. The San Diego Chargers are heading back to Los Angeles in an attempt to get all of their choking out of the way before the regular season starts.

This year's training camp will be examined more closely than a Britney Spears nipple slip, as competition is expected to be fierce. There are many key roles on the team whose caretaker has yet to be determined. With that in mind, the following is a look ahead at some of the battles set to ensue.

The first and most important competitive spot is the offensive line. Toniu Fonoti apparently has noticed the Chargers glaring holes on the line, and so has attempted to bulk up to the point where he can man two positions at the same time. Despite his efforts to make Takeru Kobayashi seem like a light eater, Fonoti is still likely to start at left guard this season.

The reason for this is that Fonoti's main competition, second year stud Phil Bogle, may be called to duty at right tackle. If Bogle is needed at right tackle, and Fonoti does not improve his work ethic, expect third round selection Nick Hardwick to step in and claim the starting position. The reason that the right tackle spot is currently vacant is that last year's primary starter, Courtney Van Buren, will be shifted to left tackle this season. Van Buren has the size, agility, and footwork to man the blindside, but his footwork needs refinement and he still needs experience before he is ready to excel at such a demanding position.

The moving of Van Buren means the Chargers will have to start Bogle on the right side, unless they are able to re-sign veteran leader Vaughn Parker. If not, the only other realistic options are to start Leander Jordan (who is a better fit as a back-up swing man), or to start Carlos Joseph. Joseph is an interesting prospect, and some prayers were answered when the Chargers grabbed him during that seventh round. If Coach Houck can motivate him and improve his anticipation and technique, the Chargers may have stolen an anchor at right tackle for years to come.

Another source of heated competition will be the wide receiver position. The Chargers have several players will desirable qualities, but they all come with dangerous caveats. Kevin Dyson is a solid route runner with good hands but lacks durability and blazing speed. Tim Dwight has blazing speed and valuable experience, but his health is a concern and he lacks size and good hands. Eric Parker has excellent hands and big play flair, but lacks a solid build and run after the catch ability. Reche Caldwell has excellent run after the catch ability and incredible athleticism, but lacks consistent hands and precise route running capabilities.

The trick for the Chargers coaches is to find the two starting receivers whose flaws will hurt the team the least, and whose upside is most tempting. Based on these criteria, Reche Caldwell may be the number one receiver. He is the only player on the roster with enough ability to post a thousand yard season this year, and to not give him the opportunity given the team's void at the position would be down right ignorant. Receivers often break out during their third season, and experience and good health should cure Caldwell of his inconsistent tendencies.

This would leave Kevin Dyson as the number two receiver. Not only does this put Dyson in a role in which he has previously excelled, but it provides a veteran presence on the field for Caldwell to lean on. Eric Parker is at his best as a number three receiver, so his frail figure is not overexposed to excessive punishment. The team needs his sure hands on the field during passing downs for all sixteen games this time around. And Tim Dwight can focus on returning both kickoffs and punts, as well as providing depth and knowledge for the Chargers lackluster receiving corps.

The final and most talked about competition will be at the quarterback position. One thing is for sure, Philip Rivers will start for this team. The only question is when will that be. Last year the Jacksonville Jaguars started Mark Brunell as a lame duck quarterback, and he was having a career year until an elbow injury derailed his season. Would the Chargers allow Brees the same opportunity if he shows in training camp he is the best man for the job? It is possible, but not likely. More likely Brees will be this year's Tay Cody. He will go through training camp chasing a starting position he will be given no chance to earn, only to be off the roster by the bye week. In fact, if Brees makes it to opening day I will be shocked.

Something the Chargers should consider is starting Doug Flutie early in the season. Cynical Chargers fans too often focus on what Flutie cannot do. Well what we know he can do is energize a team for a span of four to seven games at a time, before his body begins to tire and his energy starts to wane. If Flutie can start this team off at three and two, and give the team hope while giving Rivers and extra month to watch and learn, then it could be an opportunity that is too hard to pass up.

Either way, by the end of the season this will be Phillip Rivers' team. Rivers is a talented, intelligent and humble leader. He will undoubtedly provide stability for this offense and lead this team back into the playoffs. The question is, can he be good enough fast enough for Marty to enjoy any of it?

Michael Lombardo can be reached at Lombardo@sandiegosports.net

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