Apprenticeships winding down for three Bolts

Because the San Diego Chargers build through the draft, they prefer to fill most of their needs in-house. For example, when Donnie Edwards and Randall Godfrey departed this offseason, San Diego just plugged Matt Wilhelm and Stephen Cooper into the starting line-up. There are three other Chargers who -- like Wilhelm and Cooper -- may soon see their apprenticeships come to an end.

Scott Mruczkowski will begin the 2007 season as the top back-up at both guard positions, but it is only a matter of time until he becomes a starter. He has great size (6-foot-5, 318 lbs.) and is exceptionally bright, making him a favorite of the coaching staff. He started one game in 2006 (a 21-14 win over the Oakland Raiders) and saw ample time on special teams, too.

It appears that Mike Goff, 31, will be the player to make way for Mruczkowski. Goff is only under contract through 2008 and, although consistent, he has never been a dominant player.

Antonio Cromartie may not be stuck in apprentice-town nearly as long as Mruczkowski, as he will have a chance to pry a starting job from Drayton Florence in training camp. However, the more likely scenario has Cromartie becoming a starter in 2008, when Florence is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent.

Cromartie had an up-and-down rookie season, during which he was surprisingly consistent but failed to author a single interception. Still, he has incredible speed and athleticism, as well as the confidence required of all great cornerbacks. Given a little more seasoning, he could become the Shawne Merriman of the secondary.

Andrew Pinnock is the third player whose apprenticeship may be coming to a close. Although Lorenzo Neal signed a three-year contract extension this offseason, Neal is 36 and puts his body through a lot of punishment.

Pinnock would provide a unique element to the offense, as he runs like a halfback in a fullback's body. That would allow the team to use him in the I-formation as the lead blocker for LaDainian Tomlinson, or as the featured runner in a one-back set with Tomlinson aligned in the slot.

Even if Neal doesn't retire anytime soon, Pinnock still has a bigger role coming his way. Michael Turner is as good as gone in 2008, and Pinnock should be the one to assume most of his carries.

Mruczkowski, Cromartie and Pinnock have all put in their dues and are deserving of the positions they will soon inherit. If they thrive as starters, then the Chargers' system is reaffirmed. If not, then there is another set of apprentices coming right behind them.


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