One position in flux - the linebackers

A.J. Smith is not the type of person to overreact to a devastating defeat like the 24-21 setback against the Patriots. After all, the Chargers won 14 games and are in need of a tweak, not a full-blown makeover. But one position set for a significant overhaul is linebacker, where three different faces could crack the 2007 starting line-up.

The turnover will start with the impending free agent defection of Donnie Edwards, who almost certainly will not be brought back. Edwards piled up some gaudy statistics in 2006, finishing with 141 tackles, 2.5 sacks and three interceptions. He does have his critics though, as a high percentage of his tackles come downfield.

However, it will be impossible to replace Edwards' contributions in coverage. He averaged more than three interceptions per season during his five years in San Diego. Given that the secondary has struggled to create interceptions (and to hold on to them, for that matter), someone is going to have to step up to replace those picks.

Randall Godfrey, the team's other inside linebacker, may depart as well. He is seriously considering retirement and is also a free agent, so if he does decide to play in 2007 there is no guarantee it will be in San Diego.

Should both Edwards and Godfrey depart, the Chargers will likely look in-house for their replacements. Stephen Cooper and Matt Wilhelm both signed contract extensions this year and Tim Dobbins was drafted with an eye towards competing for time in 2007.

The rotation at outside linebacker will depend heavily on the health of Steve Foley. If Foley is able to make a healthy return and regain the form he showed in 2004, he could very well supplant Shaun Phillips in the starting line-up.

"He's been a great team guy for a long time. He went to war with us. Obviously, we've missed having him around," said Malcom Floyd of Foley.

Phillips could still retain his starting position, given his youth and explosive first step. But, if Foley is healthy, he is still the superior two-way defender.

The only player assured of returning to his starting position is Shawne Merriman, which may be all the stability the Chargers need. If Merriman can maintain his sack pace of 2006 over the course of a 16-game schedule, Michael Strahan's single-season sack record will be in serious jeopardy.

"He will walk right over you if you don't anchor down," said Marty Schottenheimer of Merriman.

Linebacker play is what keys 3-4 defenses. Next season's group of linebackers will have to meet or exceed the standard set by this year's group if the defense is to continue its ascent towards elite status.


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