PLAYERS TO WATCH IN TRAINING CAMP
--Running back Ryan Mathews: The Chargers spent a bundle to move up the draft and snag this former Fresno State star. And the early returns are encouraging as his coaches and teammates have taken to Mathews, appreciating his work ethic and how he goes about his business. That said, Mathews is being asked to carry a heavy load for a rookie, as all eyes will be on him to resurrect a running game which was horrible last year; the Chargers finished near or at the bottom in every significant running category. Mathews also must replace one of the most iconic players in team history in LaDainian Tomlinson. Mathews should be able to fill the role, but he must prove the leap from the Western Athletic Conference to the NFL isn't too steep. What might be most critical for Mathews is him proving he can handle the pass-blocking duties -- especially if left tackle Marcus McNeill isn't around.
--Cornerback Antoine Cason: Cason, a former first-round pick, didn't develop has the Chargers had hoped last season. He was chased from his spot as the nickel back when his consistency became a problem. But after losing his job he didn't mope too much, and did such an ability to bounce back. Now can he stand tall and start opposite Quentin Jammer at cornerback on a regular basis? That's another Chargers hope after they peddled starter Antonio Cromartie to the Jets. The Chargers brought in some veteran free agents to push Cason, but they're banking on him starting.
--Left tackle Tra Thomas: Not a name expected to see here until recently. But can this 35-year-old spit out another productive season while being trusted with protected Philip Rivers' blind side? Thomas' play relates front and center to Marcus McNeill, a two-time Pro Bowler, not reporting because of a contract dispute. Thomas was signed as insurance and indications are he will be asked to supply much more than that in protecting the team's $92 million quarterback.
Hot seat: Wide receiver Malcom Floyd. The talented and lanky wide receiver has blossomed as another part of the Chargers' impressive passing game. But with Vincent Jackson unhappy with his contract status and possibly not reporting, Floyd must prove he can be a No. 1 receiver. Floyd had his best season last year and has long clicked with Philip Rivers, dating to when they were both backups. So his familiarity with Rivers, and the team's pass-oriented attack, is a plus. Still, can he do it over the long haul for a team that leans so much on its downfield approach?
--ILB Donald Butler and DT Cam Thomas signed four-year contracts. Five of the team's six draft picks are in the fold. The lone one not signed is the most important: top pick Ryan Mathews. Butler, a third-round pick, could play a critical backup role. Thomas could push for significant playing time on running downs.
--Former Chargers coach Don Coryell was remembered warmly at his memorial service. Among those speaking about Coryell after his recent death were Dan Fouts, John Madden and Joe Gibbs. "Don is the father of the modern passing game," said Joe Gibbs, who coached under Coryell at San Diego State. "He was extremely creative and fostered things that are still in today's game because he was so creative. You look around the NFL now and many teams are still running a version of the Coryell offense."
There remains a strong push -- especially from these three members -- to get Coryell inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Ryan succeeded at every level; it hasn't been determined if he can make it in the NFL. But I believe he can be great at the professional level, I really do." -- Former Chargers Pro Bowl FB Lorenzo Neal on the potential of Ryan Mathews, the Chargers' heralded rookie running back.
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