Chargers roster packed

With all 22 starters returning, the San Diego Chargers' roster appears to be better than it ever has. Faced with a tough schedule, they will need each of the parts to play up to its potential to return to the playoffs.

QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Drew Brees. Backups - Philip Rivers, Cleo Lemon.

Brees had a remarkable season last year, throwing 27 touchdowns and only seven interceptions for a team-record 104.8 rating. When you're setting team marks with a club which once had Dan Fouts, that's saying something. Now, does Brees build on that remarkable showing, or turn back into a pumpkin? The Chargers are hoping for the former, but are prepared for the later: they signed him to a one-year deal and has declined offering a multi-year pact to their franchise player. Rivers is at the ready if Brees stumbles, but it would take a big fall for him to replace a Pro Bowler. Still, Rivers remains the quarterback of the future in the eyes of the organization.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters - LaDainian Tomlinson, Lorenzo Neal. Backups - Jesse Chatman, Michael Turner, Darren Sproles, Andrew Pinnock.

Despite a nagging groin injury which slowed him all but the season's first month, Tomlinson still rushed for 1,335 yards and 17 touchdowns. The Pro Bowler solidified his niche as one of the NFL's elite backs, and could be in for a bigger year this season. Neal is the bruising fullback who'll once again open the running lanes for Tomlinson; Neal is tough and durable. Chatman fared well (6-yard average; three touchdowns) when replacing Tomlinson; many thought he would be pushed harder by Turner, but wasn't. Sproles could see the field on passing downs, as the undersized, shifty back could be difficult to match up against.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Antonio Gates. Backups - Justin Peelle, Ryan Krause.

Gates was among the warm-and-fuzzy stories coming out of the NFL last year, when he came out of nowhere to earn Pro Bowl status. Although he played basketball instead of football at Kent State, his 13 touchdown receptions last season set an NFL mark for his position. Gates is just scratching the surface and should be a force for years to come with his uncanny ability to shield defenders from passes, which often find his soft hands. Peelle does most the dirty work - blocking - although the Chargers aren't shy about pointing passes in his direction. Krause played in just the meaningless regular-season finale, but had a score and made some difficult catches.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Keenan McCardell and Eric Parker. Backups - Reche Caldwell, Vincent Jackson, Kassim Osgood, Malcom Floyd, Ruvell Martin.

This spot is worth watching as McCardell, a 14-year pro, will try to stiff-arm the calendar and show he still has some petro in his tank. He does, of course, but the question remains if he can do it over the course of a 16-game season. Parker, pound-for-pound, might be the toughest Charger. But at 180 pounds, there are concerns about his durability. Caldwell is eager to prove his early success last year before suffering a serious knee injury was no fluke. And with him being in a contract year, he has plenty to prove his season. Jackson, a Division I-AA product has potential, but is raw. Osgood and Floyd both have height, which would make them a prime target in the red zone - if the offense didn't also feature Gates. Osgood, coincidentally, is a player the Chargers love for his work on special teams and in the blocking game. Martin is someone to watch as he led NFL Europe in touchdowns.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LT Roman Oben, LG Toniu Fonoti, C Nick Hardwick, RG Mike Goff, RT Shane Olivea. Backups - LT Leander Jordan, LG Kris Dielman, C Bob Hallen, T Wesley Britt, G Wes Sims, C/G Scott Mruczkowski.

This group was phenomenal last year, considering none of them had played together before starting on opening day. It's a good mix of veterans - Oben and Goff - and youngsters - Fonoti, Hardwick and Olivea. Fonoti played at a Pro Bowl level last year but must keep his weight under control. Hardwick and Olivea, with a season under their belts, figure to be better - both could be at these spots for years to come. But with Oben and Goff getting up in years - and Fonoti in a contract year - the team loaded up and drafted three linemen for depth and insurance. Also, this group is no longer under the coaching of Hudson Houck, who was replaced by Carl Mauck.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters LE Jacques Cesaire, NT Jamal Williams, RE Igor Olshansky. Backups - LE Luis Castillo, LE Adrian Dingle, RE DeQuincy Scott, NT Ryon Bingham.

Williams was among the reasons why the Chargers' run defense (81 yards per game) was among the league's best. He routinely engages two blockers, which allows the linebackers to swoop in and collect the tackles. He's a load, and is playing with the confidence of a fresh long-term contract. Olshansky is a bear against the run, but seldom sees the field on passing downs. Castillo played in the middle at Northwesters, but the rookie will have his shot at stealing the left end position. The Chargers have to figure a way how to get some pressure off the edges, and frankly, it remains to be seen how they will get it done with this group.

LINEBACKERS: OLB Steve Foley, ILB Randall Godfrey, ILB Donnie Edwards, OLB Ben Leber. Backups - OLB Shawne Merriman, OLB Matt Wilhelm, ILB Stephen Cooper, OLB Shaun Phillips.

Foley resurrected his career last year with a team-high 10 sacks in the unit's 3-4 alignment. He delivers equal doses speed, strength and surliness which has made him the emotional leader of the defense. Donnie Edwards could be among the best linebackers no one ever talks about as once again he eclipsed the century mark in tackles to lead the club with 151; he also contributed team-highs in interceptions (five) and passes defensed (14). Godfrey and Leber are steady against the run. Merriman was drafted 12th overall to give a push off the edge; he could also see time on the line. But he ditched the offseason workouts and how much he can be counted on is a mystery. Look for Phillips to get close to double-digit sacks if he plays more. Somehow, someway, the Chargers have to discover a pass rush after but collecting 29 last year - third-worst in the NFL.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: LCB Quentin Jammer, RCB Drayton Florence, SS Terrence Kiel, FS Jerry Wilson. Backups - LCB Jamar Fletcher, RCB Sammy Davis, SS Clinton Hart, FS Bhawoh Jue.

Time for this unit to step up. The Chargers were dreadful against the pass last year - ranked No. 31 - and plenty of the blame can be laid here, although the number is skewed because they were passed upon more than any other team. We know all about the tepid pass rush which didn't help the back end. Still, Jammer has never played up to his fifth overall selection status as his concentration lapses and inability to manhandle receivers has cut into his production. Florence wrestled the starting job away from Davis - another first-round pick - last year, but he has to be more consistent to be counted on. Kiel is fine at strong safety; Wilson figures to be pushed by a number of contenders for a starting job. Before the Chargers can be considered among the NFL's elite teams, the secondary must pick up its game.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Starters - PK Nate Kaeding, P Mike Scifres, KR/PR Darren Sproles, LS David Binn.

Kaeding had a solid rookie year (20-of-25 on field goal attempts) and Scifres was a first-team Pro Bowl alternate in his first season as a starter. Kaeding, though, has to prove there's no hangover from his overtime miss which prevented the Chargers from advancing in the playoffs. Scifres is fine, and could be a Pro Bowler this year. In Sproles, the Chargers have a shifty return man who will have the funs scratching their heads in how he makes people miss. But, the team has to be careful not to wear the undersized Sproles out.

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