Positional breakdown: Offensive Line

The first installment of the position-by-position breakdown of the Chargers' roster examines the offensive line. The Bolts will return all five starters from a year ago, when the line allowed just 28 sacks and helped the team average 4.9 yards per carry. Two of the five starters were named to the Pro Bowl, and the entire starting unit is under contract for at least two more seasons.

Every great offensive line must have a standout left tackle, and the Chargers have exactly that in Marcus McNeill. In 2006, McNeill let neither his rookie status nor his two broken hands slow him down as he quickly proved himself capable of greatness. He has terrific size, strength and agility and should only improve with experience.

The man to the right of McNeill was the story of the offseason. Kris Dielman re-upped with the Chargers after a brief foray into free agency, keeping a dominant left side intact. Dielman is a self-made player who provides a nasty presence in the trenches. At 26 years old, he is just entering his prime.

Holding down the hub is Nick Hardwick, who began the 2006 season with a six-year contract extension and ended it in Hawaii. He has been slowly adding bulk since his rookie season back in 2004 and now has the girth to complement his heady and aggressive style of play.

Hardwick revealed the closeness of this bunch after learning of his Pro Bowl invite last season. Rather than being happy for himself, he was disappointed for his fellow blockers who were not voted in.

"I was kind of disappointed that nobody else made it. We'll keep working and next year we'll get a few more guys in there," said Hardwick, who brought his fellow linemen with him to Hawaii. McNeill was named as an injury fill-in shortly after this comment was made.

Things get a little shaky on the right side of the line, starting with guard Mike Goff. At age 31, his days as a starter are numbered. And although he can still generate movement in the running game, he is a bit shaky in pass protection.

At right tackle is Shane Olivea, an overachiever and fierce competitor. He seems to have hit his ceiling and is unlikely to ever join his peers in the Pro Bowl, but his effort and toughness are enough to get the job done on most occasions.

Former head coach Marty Schottenheimer was enamored by this starting five and had the following to say as the 2006 season was winding down: "The play of our offensive line is vastly improved over a year ago. We blocked extremely well for the run throughout the year. That group is continuing to improve…By nature they are snarly. They would rather hit you in the mouth than talk to you."

For the first time in a long time, there is some quality depth across the line. Back-up tackle Roman Oben is a 12-year veteran with 130 starts under his belt. At guard, Scott Mruczkowski is a powerful and intelligent reserve who is the heir apparent to Goff. At center is Cory Withrow, a former starter who played seven seasons with the Minnesota Vikings before joining the Chargers last fall.

The offensive line was a well-oiled machine in 2006. With another year to develop a budding sense of cohesion, there is no reason the Chargers' blocking unit can't rival the dominant lines of the Kansas City Chiefs from 2002 and 2003.


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