If I were a carpenter...

The first preseason game is now less than a month away, which means the Chargers have yet another difficult decision to make. With competition at an all-time high, the preseason rotation is sure to be a hotly debated topic.

The biggest misconception about the Chargers is that they are returning the same team in 2005 as they fielded in 2004. Even though they do return all 22 starters from last season, they are still going to have a very different look about them.

On defense there should be at least three new starters. Bhawoh Jue or Clinton Hart will likely supplant Jerry Wilson at free safety; Luis Castillo should take over at end for Jacques Cesaire; and Shawne Merriman could replace Ben Leber, assuming Merriman shows up for camp on time.

On offense there will be changes too, although probably not in the starting line-up. Keenan McCardell and Reche Caldwell will be on the field together for the first time. Darren Sproles will likely be the new recipient of LaDainian Tomlinson's table scraps, and Vincent Jackson appears set to challenge Antonio Gates for the title of top gold zone target.

So while the team may appear on the surface to be very much the same as last year, the level of change is actually quite significant. The team must be cognizant of this fact when they allot playing time during the preseason.

With a roster littered with young players who need grooming and star players who need protecting, the temptation may be to give the first units very limited reps. This would be a mistake.

While the Chargers will benefit greatly from the minimal turnover authored this offseason, there is still a lot for these players to get used to. Brees needs to get comfortable with his new targets, as Jackson and Sproles both figure to be featured in the passing game.

On defense, Merriman and Castillo are both rookies who will have to learn the speed of the game, and Jue or Hart will have to earn his stripes as the quarterback of a secondary high on talent and low on accomplishments.

While the veterans need time to adapt to the newcomers, the youngsters need playing time too. This is why the Chargers will have such a difficult task allocating playing time. Both of the Chargers' lines are loaded with players who have incredible talent and next to no experience.

On the offensive line, players such as Courtney Van Buren, Wesley Britt, Wes Sims and Scott Mruczkowski are all expected to make the team, and each needs ample work on their technique. On the defensive line, guys like Dave Ball, Ryon Bingham and Robert Pollard all lack in-game exposure as well, and each of them figures to be a part of Wayne Nunnely's rotation this fall.

But it is not only the unknown trench workers who need seasoning. Even at the game's most marketable position there will be a battle for preseason playing time. Just as Drew Brees needs time to develop some chemistry with his new targets, Philip Rivers likewise needs to get some more snaps under his belt.

In the season finale against the Chiefs, Rivers looked slow footed and awkward. Just imagine how bad he might have looked against a real defense. If Brees gets injured this year, or regresses as some skeptics believe he will, the team will not have Doug Flutie to fall back on. Rivers needs to be ready.

This is the question facing the Chargers: Should they protect their starters and develop their depth, or should they worry more about chemistry and cohesion? After all, team unity is the primary explanation for the Chargers' jump from worst to first last season, so it would only seem logical to give that same attribute every chance to blossom this August.

Which way the Chargers should lean is debatable. Some players, such as LaDainian Tomlinson, need little to no preseason work to prepare themselves. Others, such as the Jets' Curtis Martin, rely on it.

But with the Chargers abundance of star veterans (Brees, Tomlinson, Gates, Edwards, Foley, Terrence Kiel, etc.), and their equally impressive group of up-and-comers (Sproles, Jackson, Van Buren, Bingham, Shaun Phillips and more), expect the starters to have slim chances at seeing much playing time.

The team may regret not giving their new weapons time to gel with the holdover portions of their arsenal. Giving all of their players, new and old, time to play as one could behoove the team greatly. It is something they ought to consider, but likely won't. We are probably in store for more of the same this preseason. It seems a conservative team like the Chargers wouldn't have it any other way.

Michael Lombardo can be reached at Lombardo@SanDiegoSports.net

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