Young Stars Drive Down Homestretch

As time winds down on San Diego's first non-winning season since 2003, the Chargers must consider using the final three games to evaluate young talent for next season. There are many skilled youngsters set for bigger roles in 2009 and this is the perfect time to get their feet wet. Here's a look at five players who deserve an extended look.

Who are the young players you want to see in action over the final three games? Click here to talk about it in the message boards.

1. WR Legedu Naanee -- Chargers coaches rave about Naanee's athleticism, yet he struggles to carve out a spot in the rotation. The challenge will only get tougher next season with the emergence of Malcom Floyd and the return of former first-round pick Buster Davis from a groin injury.

Naanee has posted only five receptions for 27 yards in his sophomore season. Norv Turner should give Naanee some extended run over the next three games, likely at the expense of Chris Chambers, to determine if the Boise State product can use his size (6-foot-2, 226 pounds) and speed to create some mismatches downfield.

2. OG Scott Mruczkowski -- The versatile Mruczkowski started his first game of the season in Week 13 against the Atlanta Falcons and the results weren't pretty. He allowed two sacks, including one in the final three minutes that scuttled a potential game-winning drive.

Nonetheless, there is a real chance Mruczkowski could take over at right guard next season after Mike Goff's contract expires. If that's the plan, it makes sense to plug in Mruczkowski now and let the "line of the future" begin to gel. Mruczkowski signed a new three-year contract prior to the 2008 season, so he's certainly in the team's long-term plans.

LB Anthony Waters

3. LB Anthony Waters -- The amount of playing time Waters receives will depend largely on his health. He injured his hamstring during the Week 14 win over the Oakland Raiders and will likely sit out this week's game against the Kansas City Chiefs. However, if Waters can return to log heavy snaps during the season's final two contests, it would be a boon for his development.

The Chargers need a two-way linebacker to pair with Stephen Cooper -- Matt Wilhelm is weak against the run and Tim Dobbins is a liability versus the pass. If Waters can stay healthy and acquire some experience, he has the physical skills and relentless attitude to be a dominant starter as early as next season.

4. CB/FS Paul Oliver -- Oliver is hindered by his lack of a true position. He lacks the size and diagnostic skills of a true safety and yet doesn't have the agility or recovery speed of a top-notch cornerback. However, there is a lot to like about Oliver: He's a sure tackler, he can knock receivers out of their routes, and he can blitz from any spot on the field.

Defensive coordinator Ron Rivera must get Oliver plenty of playing time over the next three weeks and use him in a variety of positions. San Diego must discover which position fits Oliver best so he can use the offseason to get comfortable in that role.

5. QB Charlie Whitehurst -- Whitehurst deserves to be seriously considered for the starting nod in Week 17. As the Chargers learned in the season finale against the Denver Broncos in 2005, it makes no sense to put a franchise quarterback in jeopardy in a meaningless game. So, assuming the Week 17 showdown is not for the AFC West title, it makes sense to give Whitehurst the first start of his career.

There is no reason to start backup Billy Volek; he's a nine-year veteran who is already established in the league and comfortable in Coach Turner's offense. Instead, the Chargers should give the strong-armed Whitehurst an opportunity. He may prove he is ready to compete for the No. 2 job; if nothing else, he may increase his potential trade value if the Chargers decide to shop him in the near future.

Who are the young players you want to see in action over the final three games? Click here to talk about it in the message boards.

Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the 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.

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