Breaking Down the Bolts: Linebackers

The Chargers return all four starting linebackers, although Stephen Cooper will miss the first four games after testing positive for a banned substance. The Chargers have ample depth ready to step in, including free-agent acquisition Derek Smith and second-year 'backer Anthony Waters. On the outside, Jyles Tucker is coming on strong.

Projected Starters

The Chargers snagged 10-year veteran Derek Smith after the San Francisco 49ers released him earlier this offseason. With nine 100-tackle seasons under his belt, the Bolts are confident Smith can fill in for Stephen Cooper early in the season, both as a starter and defensive signal caller.

LB Matt Wilhelm anticipates standing beside Smith amid the inside. Reporting 97 tackles, three interceptions and a sack last season, Bolts have confidence that Wilhelm and Smith will pick up any trash that escapes beyond the trenches.

Three-time Pro Bowl invitee Shawne Merriman returns, maintaining stellar force at outside linebacker (related story: Q&A with Shawne Merriman). Named to the second-team All-Pro by the Associated Press and All-NFL by USA Today Sports last year, Merriman has recorded at least 10 sacks in each of his three NFL seasons.

Shaun Phillips completes the Bolts 3-4 defensive scheme behind the front line. A true leader in defense, he ended his season registering 68 tackles, 8.5 sacks, two interceptions and a touchdown.

The Bolts show stellar planning to preserve firm continuity on the team as Wilhelm, Merriman and Phillips have all signed contracts that will adorn them with Chargers helmets through at least the 2010 season.

Hot Competition

LB Derek Smith
Jonathan Daniel/Getty

The roster's addition of Smith brings a multitude of competitive edges among the linebackers. With Cooper's delinquent behavior, Smith joined the team at an impeccable time. While the veteran expects a starting role for at the least the first four games, Smith's role thereafter is one to cause the other linebackers to fret.

Smith is no novice to the game and has demonstrated success that can hardly be overlooked. His 6'2", 240-pound frame is stocked with athleticism and natural field instinct through years of live field-time experience.

Smith will unquestionably give the rest of the backup linebackers a true leader to mimic and -- if nothing else -- go toe-to-toe with Anthony Waters for the primary back-up role behind Wilhelm.

Gaining Speed and Momentum

A playmaker and a solid contributor, Tim Dobbins stepped on the field after Wilhelm suffered a calf injury early in the season. Although he struggled some in the base defense, Dobbins has become one of the team's top special teams players and has the heart and desire to amp up his field time.

Brandon Siler's contribution to the kicking game last season proved to be dynamite element that the Bolts will wholly utilize. Siler also carved out a niche in the short-yardage packages.

Waters remained on the inactive list all of last season but looked strong in Mini Camp and will compete for time with Smith this season.

Carlos Polk ended the season on the injured-reserve list but should return to boost the special teams. He's a savvy veteran who provides depth at every linebacker position.

After marking key plays last season, Marques Harris remains a reliable back-up behind Shawne and Shaun. He'll compete against Jyles Tucker, who was elevated from the practice squad late last season before netting three sacks in the season finale against the Oakland Raiders.

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