Answers Await in Carson

For the San Diego Chargers, a quarterback battle, some mysteries along the offensive line and the installation of a new defense are just some of the questions that can only be answered on the football fields of the Home Depot center in Carson, Ca.

Drew Brees or Philip Rivers?

Provided Rivers makes it to camp on time, the competition is on. Brees deserves a fair shake, and should get one in Carson. If he outplays Rivers, everyone will know it and Brees would start on opening day in Houston. The hard-working Brees has an edge with his experience in the Chargers offense, but that's about it.

Rivers, a high first-round pick with a commanding presence, displayed excellent accuracy during mini-camps, particularly in the short to mid-range. His grasp on the play book will be the determining factor in his battle with Brees. If Rivers comprehends the offense, he wins out and starts from week one. For Rivers, repetitions are of the essence and a hold out past Monday (Aug 2) would be detrimental to an opening day start.

Offensive line or Achilles heel?

The offensive line will be watched like an Osama bin-Laden look-a-like walking through an airport terminal, that is, with a very cautious eye. If everything goes according to plan (it has not thus far), the Chargers would field a line of Roman Oben at left tackle, Toniu Fonoti at left guard, Jason Ball at center, Mike Goff at right guard, and Courtney Van Buren at right tackle.

On paper that's the best the Chargers can do. The hope is that offensive line coach Hudson Houck would turn the line into a group that will open some holes for LaDainian Tomlinson and keep pass rushers in check just long enough to take advantage of Rivers' quick release and efficient short game.

Jason Ball and Toniu Fonoti are the major question marks. Both players skipped mini-camp. Ball because of a contract dispute. Fonoti, reportedly, because of his weight.

To date Ball hasn't flinched from the stance that he will not report without a better contract. The Chargers have not balked stating that Ball must report before they consider offering a new contract. Something has to give here. Does Ball really want to risk sitting out part of the season? Do the Chargers really want their opening day center to be the winner of a battle between journeyman David Brandt and Nick Hardwick, a rookie who has more pins on the wrestling mat than pancake blocks on the football field?

Toniu Fonoti, according to his agent, spent some time in Houston to trim some weight off of his massive frame. On Friday, the truth will finally prevail. Has the giant Samoan put ‘get in football shape' atop his to do list? If so, Fonoti with some hard work, should be able to claim the starting left guard position.

If Fonoti doesn't have his act together Phil Bogle becomes the favorite to start at left guard. He could see competition in the form of rookie Shane Olivea, or possibly Leander Jordan, but Bogle's experience (all 13 starts) should win out.

Other questions include the development of projected right tackle Courtney Van Buren. He has the talent, but is he ready to start a full 16 game season? If Fonoti pans out at left guard does that mean Bogle becomes competition for Van Buren at right tackle? Last training camp, it was the undrafted Bogle who proved to be further along. Could that history repeat itself?

Carlos Joseph and Reese Hicks could also be in the mix at right tackle.

If quality play at right tackle is sporadic during camp, perhaps Vaughn Parker will be asked back. If he is, will he even accept an offer from the Chargers? And is his knee healthy enough to withstand another season?

Wide receiver by committee or simply a pity?

The wide receiver position has its share of dilemma. Mainly because the Chargers don't have a true number one. The misconception is that teams need star receivers to field a successful offense, but that is not always the case. The Patriots and Chiefs are two teams with explosive offensives and no superstars at receiver. Could it work for the Chargers?

Head coach Marty Schottenheimer has indicated the Chargers will go the committee route. That means Kevin Dyson, Tim Dwight, Eric Parker, Reche Caldwell and Kassim Osgood should battle for catches. But can Dwight, Dyson, and Parker stay healthy enough to make a difference? Can Caldwell bust through the bust label? Does the determined Osgood have it, or not?

One player to watch will be undrafted free-agent receiver Malcom Floyd. The 6-4 Floyd was the star of mini-camp showing the ability to make the circus catch and reliable hands. Can he carry it over through training camp?

Other receivers with a chance to earn a spot include Grant Mattos, special teamer Micah Ross, and undrafted free-agent Ruvell Martin. Wes Walker and Luke Powell will get shots as kick/punt returners.

On the tight end front, Antonio Gates, who is poised for a big season, and Justin Peelle, a solid but unspectacular player, are locks. The battle to watch is third-year man Josh Norman against 6th round draft choice Ryan Krause. Winner stays, loser goes home or sent to the practice squad.

Tid-Bolts

-The defense hasn't had much press because of all the turmoil on offense, but it should not be overlooked as the primary factor regarding the Chargers' success in 2004. The new 3-4 scheme will be much more aggressive, with an emphasis on man-to-man coverage. Something that should play to one of the Chargers strengths. A very talented, but young secondary.

-When Randall Godfrey signed, it was assumed that he will start at the inside linebacker position next to Donnie Edwards. Not so fast. He must beat out the all-but-forgotten Zeke Moreno. Moreno may just be better suited in this defense. Apparently scouts around the league don't view Moreno in as bad a light as most Charger fans.

-An interesting battle is at backup fullback. Second year player Andrew Pinnock has value in that he can also play a little running back, and has a year of experience on special teams. His competition comes in the form of an undrafted rookie. Tough guy Travis Wilson may be more of a pure fullback, but he must prove he can handle the rigors of the NFL.

Will-less Wisdom

-I just don't get the talk that Jamal Williams isn't big enough to play nose-tackle. His listed weight is 305, but it is just that, the weight that is listed. Have you ever seen the guy in person? I'd be willing to bet that Williams is closer to 330. He's fared well against double teams in the past. I see no reason why that wouldn't continue. I am, however, concerned about the lack of a proven back up.

-Jason Fisk. Out of place in the 3-4? Perhaps. Some say that he will be a casualty before the season starts, but I don't buy it. Fisk is the type of player the Chargers like to keep around. Hard working with good character. My feeling is that he will be a big part of the defensive line rotation. A little at nose-tackle, and a little at defensive end.

-It's easy to see why the Chargers are dead last in most power rankings...

Rookie quarterback, rookie kicker, practically rookie punter, offensive line in disarray, a new defense being implemented, a young secondary, questionable depth along the defensive line, and nobody to scare teams from stacking up against Tomlinson. Did I miss anything?

-It's not so easy to find reasons why the Chargers will be better than 4-12, but I'll give it a shot...

Tomlinson is the best back in the game. Antonio Gates has a chance to be the second threat that will take some of the focus away from Tomlinson. The Chargers may have actually hit on Philip Rivers. Wade Phillips has a great track record when taking over a new defense. Rookies Sean Phillips and Igor Olshansky will help provide the pass-rush that has been missing. The talent isn't as bad as some think, it's just young, but the improved chemistry and an underdog approach may just do the trick. Maybe the dark cloud will finally pass, and lady luck will once again shine on the San Diego Chargers.

Will Mortensen can be reached at will@sandiegosports.net

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