Breaking Down the Final 53

Now that the active roster has been set, it is time to reassess the team that many consider the NFL's most talented. Things are looking up for the Chargers, as LaDainian Tomlinson is itching for some action and Shawne Merriman is ready for the defense to shed its vanilla flavor.

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

Rivers is playing with more confidence and panache than last season, and that's saying something considering he earned Pro Bowl honors. But he gained a huge dose of confidence after directing the team to a 14-2 regular-season mark. His accuracy is right on, as always, and he has some receivers more able to stretch the field this year in Vincent Jackson and Craig Davis. The Chargers are also in good hands considering Volek has started and won in this league -- not many backups can say that. The team is still high on the upside of Whitehurst.

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

Tomlinson didn't break a sweat in the preseason games or get a single carry. Big deal -- he did the same thing last year and turned in a season for the ages. Tomlinson should benefit as well with Turner calling the plays, as the offensive guru is regarded as a quarterback's best friend but is also a strong believer in the running game. Neal is fantastic, despite entering his 15th season.

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

Gates is the best at what he does -- there's no other way to put it. And in Manumaleuna, the team might have one of the game's best blocking tight ends as well. Gates and Tomlinson continue to work off each other, opening up room for the other.

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

Jackson hears the questions about the team not having a bona fide No. 1 wide out and he is bent on proving he can fill the role. He's looked every bit like a No. 1 wide receiver in the summer with three touchdown catches. Davis missed a game because of a dental problem, but still seems to have the inside track of starting opposite Jackson. Parker could miss the first month of the season after undergoing toe surgery early in camp. Floyd, at 6-5, is a dynamite target in the red zone.

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

For the first time since Tomlinson started carrying the ball for the Chargers in 2001, he has the same offensive line blocking for him as he did the previous year. This is a talented unit that is long on young talent in McNeill (a Pro Bowler as a rookie last year), Dielman (a possible Pro Bowler this year) and Hardwick (a Pro Bowler last year). Goff keeps them in line with a veteran presence and Olivea isn't one to back down.

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

Williams has been called by veteran defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell as the best nose tackle he has ever coached. He is on pace for another Pro Bowl season. Castillo could be the next Chargers defensive player to break out, as the ankle injury that hampered him so much last year -- and he still had seven sacks -- is history. Olshansky, though, enters the season without much of a camp or preseason as a groin injury basically wiped away his summer. There is good depth here.

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

Merriman is promising to be more reserved this year, shelving his look-at-me, Lights Out dance. We'll see. But he was quiet in the preseason, working more on dropping into coverages instead of blitzing the quarterbacks -- of course, the defense was very vanilla during the summer. Phillips could have a Pro Bowl season -- he is that quick off the line and effective in reaching the pocket. Still, there are some question marks on the inside. Cooper and Wilhelm are both first-time starters entering a season. Cooper looked pretty good in the preseason, including an 11-tackle outing in one half. But a calf injury robbed Wilhelm of valuable practice time and game action. In his absence, Dobbins opened some eyes and it wouldn't be a shock if he steals the job from Wilhelm at some point.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Quentin Jammer, RCB Drayton Florence, SS Clinton Hart, FS Marlon McCree. Backups -- CB Cletis Gordon, CB Antonio Cromartie, SS Eric Weddle, CB Steve Gregory, CB Paul Oliver.

Jammer is coming off the best year of his career and Florence is in a walk-year: He'll likely leave as a free agent after the season. Hart is a first-time starter heading into a season and he had to hold off a spirited challenge by Weddle, the versatile rookie. McCree will again be asked to get everyone lined up and in the right spot -- among his attributes are his communication skills. Cromartie never mounted a strong challenge to Florence, but he'll see plenty of action in the nickel package.

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

Kaeding enters the season with confidence after kicking four field goals in the next-to-last preseason game -- including the game-winner. Scifres is one of the AFC's best and he is now working in directional punting to go with his consistent hang time. Turner gives a big boost to the return game; a foot injury in the preseason needs to be watched. Sproles was all but a dead man walking when camp started but earned a spot with impressive punt returns -- including an 81-yarder for a score.

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