The AFC West is home to some of the deepest and most dangerous rushing attacks in the NFL. In Denver, first-round pick Knowshon Moreno will join with offseason pickups LaMont Jordan and Correll Buckhalter to drive the Broncos. In Oakland, the three-headed monster of Darren McFadden, Justin Fargas and Michael Bush will carry the load. And in Kansas City, two-time 1,700-yard rusher Larry Johnson will spearhead a running game that also features the explosive Jamaal Charles.
DL Vaughn Martin
So for a Chargers team that believes winning a fourth straight division title is priority 1-A, there must be an unrelenting emphasis on shutting down the run. And, as is always the case, it starts with the men up front.
There is already of litany of questions surrounding the D-line. Can new coach Don Johnson adequately replace Wayne Nunnely, who had been the team's longest-tenured coach? Can Jamal Williams, 33, get another strong season out of his creaky knees? And can rookie fourth-round pick Vaughn Martin make a quick transition from Western Ontario to the NFL?
The Chargers won't have the answers to these questions until training camp, if even by then, so the best thing for the team to do is hedge its bet.
Five D-linemen are locks to make the active roster: Jamal Williams, Luis Castillo, Jacques Cesaire, Ryon Bingham and Vaughn Martin. There's also seven-year veteran Ian Scott, who has a leg-up on the sixth spot.
Two players who should be added to the mix are Keith Grennan and Andre Coleman, two gifted young prospects who've spent the bulk of the last two seasons on the practice squad. Grennan and Coleman compare favorably to former Chargers D-linemen John Parrella and DeQuincy Scott, respectively, and could inject the line with a new level of depth and versatility.
Although keeping all eight linemen would force the Chargers to slice a little thinner at a couple other positions, the pros would likely outweigh the cons. Firstly, it gives the team insurance incase Williams breaks down, Martin develops slowly, or Castillo gets bitten by the injury-bug again. Secondly, it allows Coach Johnson to rotate his players more liberally to keep his starters fresh later into games.
Most importantly, staying deep on the D-line allows the Chargers to better handle the strengths of their divisional foes. And as Norv Turner will be the first to tell you, the goal is to win the division first and then take everything else from there.
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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.