C.J. Spillman made a quick ascension up the depth chart in 2009. It started when he beat the odds to make the final 53-man roster as the team's sixth safety. He climbed one rung on the ladder when the Chargers released veteran Clinton Hart on Oct. 14. Spillman got even more run when Eric Weddle missed a couple weeks with an ankle injury late in the season.
With each opportunity, Spillman earned a little more confidence from the coaching staff.
Now, entering his second season, Spillman must overcome a numbers game even more crowded than the one he faced as a rookie.
Steve Gregory, who played most of last season as the nickel back, returns to his more natural role as a strong safety. Also joining the mix at strong safety is fourth-round pick Darrell Stuckey and 2009 draftee Kevin Ellison.
That leaves Spillman jockeying with Weddle and Paul Oliver for playing time at free safety. It also leaves six viable candidates at a position where the Chargers figure to keep no more than five players.
Spillman will have to leapfrog somebody to survive another season. It's possible he could pick off Ellison, who is strong against the run but limited in coverage, but Ron Rivera may not green-light a roster move that weakens an already suspect run defense.
Spillman could grab an edge over Gregory, the most athletically limited of San Diego's safeties, but Gregory's experience and high IQ make him a tough out.
If Spillman ousts anybody, it will be because of his work on special teams. The Chargers are looking for a special-teams demon to fill Kassim Osgood's shoes and Spillman is as good a candidate as anybody.
Because Spillman was on the active roster for the entire 2009 season, he is not eligible for this season's practice squad. If San Diego cannot find a place for him on the 53-man roster, the Chargers will lose a talented developmental prospect.