When Hardwick missed four games last year with a foot injury, the Chargers averaged only 80.25 rushing yards per game. In the 12 games Hardwick started, the Bolts averaged 143 rushing yards per game. That's a remarkable difference of more than 60 yards per contest.
Cory Withrow is an experienced backup with more than 100 games played and a full season's worth of starts under his belt. However, he lacks the power to generate movement in the running game or to maintain a clean pocket for Philip Rivers.
C Nick Hardwick
The Chargers are high on Mruczkowski, as evidenced earlier this offseason when the team locked him up with new three-year deal. Mruczkowski has started one game in his career with the Chargers, stepping in for Kris Dielman at left guard in a 2006 game against the Oakland Raiders in which L.T. ran for 109 yards and Rivers was sacked only once.
The only problem will playing Mruczkowski at the hub position is that it leaves a dearth of depth at guard. To solve that conundrum, A.J. Smith could offer a one-year contract to one of the handful of talented, veteran guards still on the market.
The best option available is Chris Naeole, who was a top-10 pick by the New Orleans Saints in 1997 before moving on to a very effective six-year stint on the Jacksonville Jaguars' hardnosed offensive line. Naeole has started at least 15 games every year from 1998-2006. He started the first eight games last season before tearing his quadriceps tendon in Week 8 and was released in March.
If the Chargers can reel in Naeole, they will be in great shape even with Hardwick out of the lineup. Norv Turner can field a starting five of Marcus McNeill, Dielman, Mruczkowski, Mike Goff and Jeromey Clary. He will still have a steady veteran backing up each spot with L.J. Shelton (tackle), Naeole (guard) and Withrow (center).
And when Hardwick returns, the Chargers will have the championship-caliber depth that Smith has been working so diligently to assemble.
To see a list of the other top offensive linemen still on the market, click here.
Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003.