Will Merriman be ready for the opener?

The Chargers knew they would be without suspended All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates for the season opener. Now he could be joined on the sidelines by linebacker Shawne Merriman.

Shawne Merriman, the team's top pick and the 12th overall selection, sprained his left knee in Friday's exhibition game loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Coach Marty Schottenheimer said he's not certain if Merriman will be fit in time to face the Cowboys on Sept. 11.

"I don't know," Schottenheimer said of Merriman's availability for the opener. "That remains to be seen."

Merriman has had a tough time getting his NFL career on track. He missed the first exhibition game against the Packers with a strained hamstring. He played against the Rams and showed well, but lasted but one play in Minnesota when getting hurt on the opening kickoff.

"I've never missed games before; that was my first time I ever missed a game in Green Bay (Aug. 11) and then this one," Merriman said. "I'm just having a rough start, that's all it is right now. It's something I have to deal with and move on."

Schottenheimer shrugged off Merriman's status, saying it was "part of our business." But he did allow that he was "disappointed" with Merriman's condition.

The Chargers were counting on Merriman, the former Maryland star, to give their tepid pass rush a boost. After collecting a measly 29 sacks last year -- third lowest in the NFL - the Chargers addressed that shortcoming by drafting Merriman and defensive end Luis Castillo in the first round.

But Castillo, like Merriman, has had trouble staying fit. He's missed the past two games with a severe ankle injury. Castillo, though, could return this week to practice.

But he won't be joined by Merriman.

"He looks good standing over there on the sidelines taking pictures," linebacker Steve Foley said of Merriman. "But we need to get him on the field."

That looks as if it will be awhile.

"It's something I have to deal with and move on," Merriman said.

Merriman was hoping to win the starting outside linebacker's job where Ben Leber has played the past three years. But Merriman never made a serious push, after reporting to camp tardy while getting his contract finalized, then missing practice time with various injures (toe, hamstring, knee).

But while not in line for a starting job, the Chargers wanted Merriman available on passing downs. That would give their pass rush balance, with Foley on the opposite side. Foley had more than a third of the team's 29 sacks last season.

The Chargers are also downcast about wide receiver Vincent Jackson, their second-round pick. Jackson needed a solid camp, as he's making the challenging transition from Davison I-AA Northern Colorado to the NFL. But that switch has been slowed dramatically as he's missed the past two games with a sore Achilles' tendon.

So to date, the Chargers have seen very little of their top three draft picks. They were hoping all three would contribute immediately, but that goal is looking farfetched as the season draws near.

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