Versatility Nets Defensive Depth

The San Diego Chargers harbor impressive depth at every level of the defense. While GM A.J. Smith and Ron Rivera deserve plenty of credit for this, the real praise goes to the offense, where rampant versatility allowed the team to keep only 21 players on that side of the ball.

The offensive depth chart shows a virtual skeleton crew, but there is plenty of meat on these bones.

The Chargers will roll with just two quarterbacks, two halfbacks, four wide receivers and eight offensive linemen, a tactic that freed the team to supercharge the defense with 29 players.

It's a ploy being used elsewhere, as well, as the Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints are all keeping at least 30 defenders; those teams are a few of the NFL's most successful.

It all goes back to the cliché: "The more you can do, the longer you'll stick around." Only in this instance it is: "The more an offensive player can do, the more defensive players you can keep around."

San Diego has many offensive players used to multitasking. FBs Mike Tolbert and Jacob Hester can both slide into the halfback position, allowing the Chargers to keep only two true halfbacks (Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles).

On the O-line, Brandyn Dombrowski, Scott Mruczkowski and Tyronne Green are all capable of offering quality snaps at a minimum of three positions. That allowed the Chargers to carry just eight players at a position where many teams keep nine or ten.

The versatility even extends to the pass-catchers. Because TE Antonio Gates often lines up as a wide receiver, San Diego feels more comfortable keeping only four true receivers. The Chargers have carried five receivers in the past, although that fifth WR was special-teams ace Kassim Osgood. Now the Chargers will look for defenders to fill the bulk of those special-teams roles.

While stacking the special teams is well and good, the purpose of this imbalanced roster is to help a defense that ranked No. 16 overall last season -- only two playoff teams ranked lower, although oddly enough, those teams went to the Super Bowl.

Nonetheless, the Chargers are counting on an improved defense, especially if the offense loses some of its punch without Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill.

Ron Rivera's crew is deep at every level. He has eight defensive linemen at his disposal, a welcome situation after that unit played shorthanded for much of last season. He also has ten linebackers, including six outside linebackers; this provides excellent injury insurance, especially in the short-term with Shawne Merriman battling an Achilles injury. Finally, the team has 11 defensive backs, allowing it to match up with even the most wide-open of offenses.

The special teams -- and game-day inactive list -- will be filled mostly by defenders. But this year, if the injury report follows suit, the Chargers will be ready for it.

Is 29 defenders too many for the Chargers to keep? Discuss 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. You can see more of his updates by following him on twitter.

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