Unit-by-unit Analysis of the Chargers

The Chargers will return all 22 starters to a team that finished 13-5, including wins in eight of its last nine games. Here is a unit-by-unit analysis of the AFC West Champions.

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

Rivers had a bit of a sophomore slump early in the year but really came on toward the season's end and especially during the playoffs. He also grew as a leader when playing with two bum knees. Question here is if Whitehurst is ready to assume the backup role in this third year as Volek is expected to flee as a free agent. Whitehurst has the confidence of the organization; that said, they could bring in a veteran backup.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- RB LaDainian Tomlinson, FB Lorenzo Neal. Backups -- RB Michael Turner, RB Darren Sproles, FB Andrew Pinnock. Injured reserve -- Tyronne Gross, Germaine Race.

Tomlinson didn't quite have the same year he did the previous season when he was named the MVP. Still, he had a fabulous year in leading the NFL in rushing (1,472 yards and 15 TDs) for the second straight year and remains the heart and soul of this team. He took some hits for not playing in the AFC title game after aggravating a sprained MCL and that is frankly hogwash. Tomlinson has proven his durability by playing through other injuries but he just didn't have a burst against the Pats. Neal had another Pro Bowl season but missed the last month with a broken leg; at 37, the Chargers could let him go and turn the job over to Pinnock. Turner is about to flee as a free agent and Sproles is seen more as a third-down specialist. So the Chargers could draft or acquire a backup to play behind Tomlinson.

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

Gates continues to prove he's among the best in the game at his position as he again led the Chargers in touchdown receptions (nine) while catching a team-best 75 passes for 984 yards. He suffered a dislocated toe in the opening playoff game that restricted him to four catches in the next postseason contests. Manumaleuna is a blocker first and foremost and does a good job in the role when the Chargers are in two tight end sets. Chandler never did see the field but the Chargers aren't down on him.

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

Chambers came at a steep price - a second-round pick to Miami - in a midseason trade but he was what was needed to stretch defenses and open up running room for Tomlinson and the intermediate routes for Gates. Chambers was stellar during the playoffs and ended up - when including his Miami totals - with 66 catches for 970 yards and four touchdowns, just missing the second 1,000-yard season of his career. Jackson blossomed this season, especially late when he had some clutch catches in the playoffs. He seems to have turned the corner with better consistency and running routes with more precision. Davis was OK, but needs to show more toughness. Floyd's time has come and gone and he might not be back next year. Naanee is coming on fast and should continue to see the field more next year, especially with the creative Norv Turner orchestrating plays for him. Osgood remains a special-teams demon. Parker might have to fight for playing time when he returns next year.

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

Among the Chargers' troubles early in the year was the spotty play of the front five. But as the season progressed - especially when Hardwick returned after missing four games with a foot injury - this unit played as well as any other. McNeill, though, had some struggles in pass protection against the elite pass rushers. Dielman had a Pro Bowl year and Hardwick was a steadying force when he returned. Goff was solid, not spectacular and Clary did well in filling in for Olivea after he lost his starting job. Withrow was decent when filling in for Hardwick although there was a considerable drop-off.

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

Williams was a force in the middle, the reason why the linebackers - especially the inside guys - enjoyed such success. But Williams is wearing down and probably has but a couple more years left at the most. Castillo had another good year, but again, it was interrupted by injury. Still, he is good against the run and the pass. Olshansky is a run-stuffer by trade but found himself on the field more on passing downs and collected 3.5 sacks. Cesaire (2.5 sacks) has proven his worth as a backup the past two years when Castillo has been sidelined. Bingham and McKinney saw more time this year with Williams fighting hip and ankle injuries, although it's unlikely either is the answer as a starter once Williams steps aside.

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

Merriman and Phillips were solid; Merriman is headed to another Pro Bowl. Merriman led the team with 12.5 sacks and supplied the energy which his teammates fed off of. Phillips is underrated as he again was a force with 8.5 sacks. Cooper is the first guy not named Donnie Edwards to lead the team in tackles in the past six seasons - he had 109. Wilhelm started slow because of a calf injury but came on strong and was second on the team with 97 tackles. The inside pair played well considering it was the first year for both as starters. Dobbins' stock might have went down a tad as he was exposed somewhat when filling in for Wilhelm early in the year. The team remains high on Waters and Siler. Also keep an eye on Tucker who had 3.5 sacks in limited play.

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

Cromartie was sensational as he started the year as a nickel back and finished the year as a starter and leading the NFL with 10 interceptions. His athletic skills are such he might someday get a look on offense - he's that good. Jammer had but one interception but he was a force in run defense and possibly had the best year of his career. McCree probably has played his last game with the Chargers as Weddle is set to take over a starting role. Hart had a career year with 82 tackles and five interceptions. Florence is gone as a free agent, so Gordon or Gregory will get the first crack at his nickel spot.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Nate Kaeding, P Mike Scifres, KOR Darren Sproles, PR Darren Sproles.

Kaeding gave the Chargers all the offense they could muster in the loss to the Patriots when he was good on all four field-goal attempts. He was solid all year, although his kickoffs were short in the last game as he tried to kick through a leg injury. Scifres averaged 46.1 yards a kick and consistency pinned teams back deep in their own territory which helped the defense greatly. Sproles, at one point, was a long shot to make the roster in camp. But he solidified his spot on the roster for the future with a great year as a returner as he brought back a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns in the regular-season win over the Colts. He averaged 27.2 yards on kickoffs and 9.5 on punts.

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