Bolts breakdown, unit by unit

Training camp is just weeks away and the San Diego Chargers boast one of the most talented rosters in the league. The Bolts return all 11 players who earned Pro Bowl invites last season and have impressive depth across the board. Here is a unit-by-unit analysis of the team most experts are picking to win AFC West.

QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Philip Rivers. Backups -- Billy Volek, Charlie Whitehurst.

Rivers, in his second year as a starter but his fourth in the league should benefit from the arrival of new head coach Norv Turner. Quarterbacks have usually flourished under Turner, the noted offensive guru. Turner is inheriting a quarterback who's coming off a Pro Bowl season and shows all the signs of being among the elite player at his position for years to come. In Volek, the Chargers have an experienced backup to run this team with Super Bowl aspirations should something happen to Rivers. In Whitehurst, they possess a young talent who could be used as a trade bait down the line as it's unlikely Rivers is going anywhere, any time soon.

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

Tomlinson will have a tough time duplicating his MVP season of last year, but don't put it past the future Hall of Famer. With the punishing Neal leading the way and the front line intact, Tomlinson could pick up where he left off in setting the NFL single-season mark with 31 TDs. Turner gives the Chargers a dynamite backup and change-of-pace to Tomlinson's shifty style. Sproles lost last year to a broken leg and it remains to be seen if he will ever have a significant role in the offense.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Antonio Gates. Backups -- Brandon Manumaleuna, Scott Chandler, Kelly Griffeth.

Gates continues to be the gold standard at this position with his reliable hands and his ability to shield defenders with his body. Gates led the Chargers in receptions, yards and TD receptions last season and there is no reason he shouldn't do it once again. Manumaleuna's biggest role is as a blocker, but teams can't got to sleep on him as he slipped out of early blocks to catch three touchdown passes last year.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Vincent Jackson, Craig Davis. Backups -- Eric Parker, Malcom Floyd, Greg Camarillo, Kassim Osgood.

Jackson must prove he is up to the task of being a No. 1 guy. Now in his third year, Jackson has shown signs he could be a big-time contributor with his size (6-5) and decent speed. But sometimes he gets sloppy on routes and consistency is always something he is seeking. Davis came with the team's top pick last spring. The Chargers were impressed with his hands and his ability to gobble up yards after the catch. Parker is reliable at the No. 3 spot, although Chargers fans still can't shake the image of his dreadful showing in the playoff loss to New England. The 6-5 Floyd is worth watching as he is a great red-zone target and seems to have a good relationship with Rivers. Osgood is more of a special-teams demon.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Marcus McNeill, LG Kris Dielman, C Nick Hardwick, RG Mike Goff, RT Shane Olivea. Backups -- LT Roman Oben, LG Scott Mruczkowski, C Cory Withrow, RG Scott Mruczkowski, RT Cory Lekkerkerker.

Look no farther than this unit in why the Chargers went 14-2 last year and led the NFL in points. The blocking was sensational, and it came with McNeill holding down the left tackle spot despite being a rookie and playing with two broken hands. Dielman was the team's key off-season move as he turned down more money from Seattle to stay put in San Diego -- that was huge. Hardwick is a scrappy player coming off a Pro Bowl season and Goff delivers the veteran leadership. Olivea can be streaky, but also delivers a nasty attitude that others thrive off of. Don't overlook the big uglies as an explanation as to why the Chargers are so good on offense.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LE Luis Castillo, NT Jamal Williams, RE Igor Olshansky. Backups -- LE Jacques Cesaire, NT Ryon Bingham, NT Brandon McKinney, RE Jacques Cesaire, RE Derreck Robinson.

Williams has established himself as one of best at his position, clogging the middle to allow the linebackers to swoop in for the tackles and the glory. Castillo is eager for a full season after missing seven starts with an ankle injury -- and he still had seven sacks. Olshansky is a force on the early downs, proving to be a difficult man to move at the point of attack. Cesaire is a capable backup on the edge; Robinson has also worked his way into the regular rotation, Williams doesn't come out often, but the Chargers are fairly comfortable with Bingham when he gets his shot.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB Shaun Phillips, LILB Stephen Cooper, RILB Matt Wilhelm, SLB Shawne Merriman. Backups -- OLB Marques Harris, ILB Tim Dobbins, ILB Anthony Waters, ILB Brandon Siler, OLB Carlos Polk.

Merriman is more than a Pro Bowler -- he can change the outcome of games with his dominating play, He missed four games last year with a suspension, and still paced the NFL with 17 sacks. Phillips isn't far behind Merriman in production, especially when teams focus so much on Merriman -- Phillips's quickness gave him 11 1/5 sacks last season. The key here will be the play of Cooper and Wilhelm. Cooper is replacing the savvy Randall Godfrey and Wilhelm is asked to replace Donnie Edwards, the team's leading tackler in each of his five seasons in San Diego. The club is high on Dobbins as a run-stuffer and likes the potential of Waters and Siler.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Quentin Jammer, RCB Drayton Florence, SS Clinton Hart, FS Marlon McCree. Backups -- LCB Cletis Gordon, RCB Drayton Florence, SS Eric Weddle, FS Bhawoh Jue, LCB Steven Gregory, RCB Paul Oliver.

Jammer and McCree will start -- other than that, this unit will supply the most spirited competition during camp. Florence will try to hold off Cromartie, who made significant strides in his rookie season last year as the nickel back. And Hart will have to stiff-arm Weddle, the versatile safety from Utah who the Chargers acquired in a draft-day trade. Jammer is coming off his best season and McCree has been solid in communicating where everyone should be and when. For years the secondary has been the weak link of the defense, but there are signs of improvement as it benefits from playing behind one of the top pass-rushing teams in the league.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Nate Kaeding, P Mike Scifres, KR Michael Turner, PR Eric Parker, KR Darren Sproles, PR Darren Sproles, LS David Binn.

Kaeding turned in a Pro Bowl season last year and even found extra distance on his kickoffs -- their length had been a cause for concern. Scifres is solid and among the reasons Rivers was so good on third downs -- he wouldn't force a pass knowing Scifres would deliver a good punt and Rivers would attack the defense on the next series. Turner can be electrifying as a returner as he is difficult to bring down; Parker is decent on punts, but the team always worries his slight body will not hold up from the punishment, Sproles could fill in as a kick-returner, but has looked shaky on punts. Binn enters his 14th year and is as good as there is in the league.


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