Breaking it down

While the loss of Steve Foley is a blow given his emotional leadership, the one position that can take it is the San Diego Chargers linebacking group.

QUARTERBACK: Starter - Philip Rivers. Backup - Charlie Whitehurst.

Color this position green. How green? Consider LaDainian Tomlinson has three more NFL touchdown passes than the Chargers' stable of quarterbacks. Rivers' start on Sept. 11 will mark his NFL debut in that role. Whitehurst has never taken an NFL snap; he was drafted in the third round out of Clemson.

Rivers appears up for the challenge, but he also had four turnovers (three fumbles, one pick) in working two halves of the middle two exhibition games. The mistakes are correctable, but there's no denying he could have issues with ball security, especially with a rookie left tackle in Marcus McNeill.

Whitehurst beat out veteran A. J. Feeley as Rivers' backup - surprising in that the team wouldn't want at some experience on the roster. Both Rivers and Whitehurst have a tremendous upside, but this season could get turned upside down if Rivers gets dinged and Whitehurst is dunked for his NFL baptism.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters - RB LaDainian Tomlinson, FB Lorenzo Neal. Backups - RB Michael Turner, FB Andrew Pinnock, RB Ray Perkins

Tomlinson didn't have a summer carry, as the team didn't want to risk injury to their franchise player. But he looks good in practice, embarrassing defenders with his cut-back ability and knack for finding the smallest of holes to blast through. He's been among the best at his position and that won't change this year. Neal is among the reasons Tomlinson gobbles up so many yards as he bullies those sitting in the hole. Turner is for real, and could start on a number of other teams. Pinnock's worth went up when Darren Sproles (broken leg; on IR) went down for the year.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Antonio Gates. Backups - Aaron Shea, Brandon Manumaleuna.

Hope Gates had a restful offseason because the team is going to lean on him constantly once the season starts. Gates and Rivers already appear to be on the same wave length and he should be in store for a huge season, Surprising, Manumaleuna hands are pretty soft - but most offerings will go to Gates. Shea's camp was derailed by injuries, so he remains somewhat of a mystery.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Keenan McCardell, Eric Parker. Backups - Vincent Jackson, Kassim Osgood, Malcom Floyd.

It looks as if the Chargers will be content to throw the underneath and intermediate routes by looking at their exhibition games. That could change, but the it's likely these pass-catchers will be asked to make the possession receptions rather than the home run balls. McCardell is a pro's pro and at age 36 is coming off one of his better seasons. Parker is fearless at No. 2, but he seems to always be banged up. Jackson is the future, but he spends too much time in the trainer's room to count on. Osgood is more of a special-teams contributor; Floyd presents a big target but little in a track record.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LT Marcus McNeill, LG Kris Dielman, C Nick Hardwick, RG Mike Goff, LT Shane Olivea. Backups - T Leander Jordan, G Wes Sims, G Scott Mruczkowski, T Cory Lekkerkerker, T Jeromey Clary.

The Chargers are entrusting Rivers' blindside to McNeill, a rookie. McNeill's development was slowed by a broken left hand and surgery. He's done OK, but privately there is concern in the organization about him being up to speed. Dielman, a converted defensive lineman, is rounding into one of the team's better linemen. Hardwick added about 20 pounds and it is helping. Goff is fine with being solid and not spectacular; Olivea needs to find another level for his game. The left tackle spot, though, is the biggest question mark with veteran Roman Oben being placed on PUP before the season. Leander Jordan was beat out by McNeill.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -LE Luis Castillo, DT Jamal Williams, RE Igor Olshansky. Backups - RE Jacques Cesaire, DT Ryon Bingham, LE Derreck Robinson, LE Chase Page.

Here's the main reason the Chargers had the NFL's top run defense last year: the front three. Williams is a load in the middle and routinely takes on two blockers. Castillo looks more comfortable rushing the passer as he seems to get quicker by the day. Olshansky earns his pay stopping the run, but is no longer a liability getting to the quarterback. Depth here is a concern as Cesaire is the lone proven product, although the coaches have been talking up Bingham.

LINEBACKERS: Starters - OLB Shaun Phillips, ILB Donnie Edwards, ILB Randall Godfrey, OLB Shawne Merriman, Backups - ILB Matt Wilhelm, ILB Stephen Cooper, OLB Marques Harris, ILB Tim Dobbins, ILB Carlos Polk.

Edwards spent the summer on the trading block but no offers enticed general manager A.J. Smith to move him. The team's leading tackler in each of the past four years had his camp derailed by a balky back, but he's returned to practice. Edwards' forte is dropping into pass coverage, while Randall Godfrey sticks his nose in the run defense. Merriman and Phillips are on the outside, Great depth on the inside in Wilhelm and Cooper. Team is also high on Dobbins, a rookie.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Quentin Jammer, RCB Drayton Florence, FS Marlon McCree, SS Terrence Kiel. Backups - FS Bhawoh Jue, SS Clinton Hart, SS Hanik Milligan, CB Antonio Cromartie, CB Markus Curry.

It appears McCree has settled at free safety, after bouncing around the preseason between there and strong. The Chargers are in dire need for turnovers from the back end, and McCree can possibly give them that. Kiel will be asked to supply the run support. Jammer was awarded a contract extension during camp, so the club is sold on him, even if having but two interceptions in his past 36 games. Florence kept Cromartie at bay, although Cromartie will play in the nickel package with Florence covering the slot receiver. The depth at safety is good with Jue and Hart; Milligan more of a special-teams contributor. But the depth at cornerback is just so-so.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Nick Kaeding, P Mike Scifres, LS David Binn, KOR Michael Turner, PR Eric Parker; PR Cletis Gordon.

Kaeding held off rookie Kurt Smith in the battle to handle kickoffs. More importantly, though, was the injury to returner Darren Sproles; on IR with a broken leg. That forces Parker into the mix on punts and it's a stretch to think his slight body can withstand that, and him being a big part of the passing game. They might keep Gordon around for just that reason. Turner could be OK as a returner. Scifres could land in the Pro Bowl.


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