Coach Norv Turner has the luxury of having one of the top NFL quarterbacks run his varied offense in Rivers. Entering his fourth year as a starter, Rivers is coming off the best season of his career when he set team records for touchdown passes (34) and quarterback rating (105.5). Rivers' uncanny accuracy gives Turner the confidence to put the ball in Rivers' hands no matter the situation. Volek supplies what every NFL team wants -- a backup with starting experience. The team remains high on Whitehurst, but it's obvious his big chance will likely come with another team down the road.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter - RB LaDainian Tomlinson. Backups - RB Darren Sproles, RB/FB Jacob Hester, FB Mike Tolbert, RB Michael Bennett.
Tomlinson returns, eager to prove he has plenty left in his tank after producing a career-low 1,110 rushing yards and having turned 30 in the offseason. But Tomlinson will get plenty of help with Sproles, the electric back who's speed makes him a threat to score a touchdown every time he touches the ball; look for him being involved in more than third-down packages. Hester needs to rebound from a so-so rookie year when he seemed overwhelmed at times. Tolbert needs to show something in camp to earn a roster spot; Bennett is an insurance policy.
TE Antonio Gates
Gates continues to be among the top players at his position in the NFL. He will also be playing for a new contract, which will give him even more motivation. More important is that his toe injury is behind him and he seems primed for a big season. Manumaleuna, although possessing soft hands, is asked to block in this scheme. But don't go to sleep on him, especially in the red zone.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Chris Chambers, Vincent Jackson. Backups - Malcom Floyd, Craig Davis, Legedu Naanee, Kassim Osgood.
Jackson replaced Chambers last year as the Chargers' No. 1 wideout and he responded with a 1,000-yard season. With his size and speed, Jackson could be ready to have his name mentioned among the game's brightest emerging wide outs. But he has had some issues off the field and is being watched closely by GM A.J. Smith as he decides whether he can count on Jackson to be a consistent contributor. Chambers seemed to disappear during long stretches last year and he was also slowed by an ankle injury; he's fit and ready to produce. Floyd gives Rivers a familiar target and a solid one of the red zone. Davis, a former first-round pick, needs to prove he can stay out of the trainer's room or his time may be up in San Diego. The versatile Naanee, surprisingly, has a hard time getting on the field. Osgood contributes on special teams and isn't in the receivers mix.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Marcus McNeill, LG Kris Dielman, C Nick Hardwick, RG Kynan Forney, RT Jeromey Clary. Backups - LT L.J. Shelton, LT Corey Clark, C/RG Scott Mruczkowski, RG Louis Vasquez, RT Corey Clark.
This unit needs to bounce back from a less-than-stellar showing in 2008, especially when it comes to run-blocking. The group is feeling confident with McNeill back from a neck injury and Hardwick another camp removed from his foot injury which kept him from working last summer. The key is the right tackle spot, where Forney or Vasquez will be asked to replace veteran Mike Goff.
NT Jamal Williams
Bingham is being asked to replace Igor Olshansky, as he exited for Dallas as a free agent. Bingham has played well in spurts, but most prove he can do it as a starter. Williams returns for his 12th year and -- his knees willing -- remains the key force in the 3-4 alignment. Castillo was decent last year and not much more -- he certainly didn't play to the rich contract he was given about a year ago as he had no sacks and was neutralized too often on running plays. The key here is Williams, as his play sets the tone and sends ballcarriers into the direction of eager linebackers.
LINEBACKERS: Starters - OLB Shaun Phillips, ILB Stephen Cooper, ILB Tim Dobbins, OLB Shawne Merriman. Backups - OLB Larry English, ILB Matt Wilhelm, ILB Kevin Burnett, OLB Jyles Tucker, OLB Antwan Applewhite.
How Merriman comes back from a serious knee injury will be watched closely in camp. His presence -- if healthy -- gives the entire unit a significant boost. Merriman will command offensive coordinator's attention, which will give Phillips and English, a rookie, more room to roam and create havoc. The inside linebackers are led by Cooper, who led the team in tackles last year despite being suspended for four games. Wilhelm needs a solid camp or he could be sent out the door. The team is hopeful Burnett, a rare free agent signed by the Chargers, can push Wilhelm.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Quentin Jammer, RCB Antonio Cromartie, SS Clinton Hart, FS Eric Weddle. Backups - CB Cletis Gordon, CB Antoine Cason, CB Brandon Hughes, SS Steve Gregory, SS Kevin Ellison, FS Paul Oliver.
Cromartie was a huge disappointment last year, one year removed from leading the NFL with 10 interceptions. He claims to be slowed by a fractured hip, and the team has its fingers crossed that is the case. If Cromartie, who had two picks last year, falters, the Chargers will insert Cason -- he had a solid rookie year as a nickel back. Jammer seldom gets beat deep and is a steady in his run-support. Hart has to prove he is healthy and can play at the level the Chargers expected when naming him the opening day starter last year. If not, Gregory and Ellison, a rookie, will get a long look. Weddle is undersized at free safety and doesn't deliver the big hits which can cause fear for opposing pass-catchers. But he is usually around the ball, although he has a knack for being in the wrong position at critical junctures in a game.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Nate Kaeding, P Mike Scifres, KR/PR Darren Sproles, LS David Binn, KR/PR Cletis Gordon, Antonio Cromartie.
Kaeding is making his mark as one of the NFL's most accurate field-goal kickers; his distance on kickoffs continues to be an issue. Scifres set a team mark last year with his net yardage allowed and was sensational in the playoff game against the Colts when all six of his punts landed inside the Indy 20-yard line. Sproles has proven with his speed that he can be a weapon returning kicks and punts. If Sproles gets dinged, look for Gordon or Cromartie to replace him.