Behind Enemy Lines: AFC West rival San Diego

They say there is no off-season in the NFL so we turned to San Diego Chargers team expert Michael Lombardo to find out what is going on behind enemy lines in San Diego as training camp draws near to understand how they fare at wide receiver, what rookies can make an impact, the safety position, understanding the Michael Turner situation, and how good Shawne Merriman could be.

What can be expected of the wide receivers in San Diego now that the veteran leadership of Keenan McCardell has been removed from the mix?

Michael Lombardo: The Chargers have not had a wide receiver go for more than 1,000 yards since 2001, and that streak is in no jeopardy this season. Vincent Jackson provides a big-play presence and is a terrific red-zone target, but he lacks consistency; Eric Parker is a move-the-chains guy who doesn't scare defenses; and first-round pick Craig Davis needs to avoid nagging injuries if he hopes to excel as the third receiver.

McCardell was the unquestioned leader of this bunch and his clubhouse presence will be missed, but the team was unwilling to pay more than $3 million for an extra receivers coach.

On a team that appears to have few roster spots open, does an undrafted free agent have a shot at making the squad?

Michael Lombardo: San Diego has a reputation for giving undrafted free agents a fair shake, as more than 15 such players lined up for the Chargers last season. The sledding will be especially tough this year, but there are spots to be won in the secondary and on the defensive line. As of now, defensive end Andre Coleman and cornerback Anthony Arline have the best chances of pulling an upset.

The safety position has been a troublesome spot for the Chargers – is Eric Weddle the answer and what rookie do you expect to make the biggest contribution?

Michael Lombardo: Eric Weddle is not the answer at strong safety. He is a nice complementary player who should bolster the nickel and dime packages with his versatility, but he is not a significant improvement over last season's starter, Terrence Kiel.

The rookie who will make the biggest impact is Davis, as the Chargers are counting on him to contribute immediately. He will line up all over the field and will get a chance to return punts. He should finish the season with more than 30 receptions and some significant contributions on special teams.

What was the idea behind keeping Michael Turner and not trying to get whatever they could from a running back in his walk year?

Michael Lombardo: For the first time since taking over as general manager, A.J. Smith is in win-now mode. It is not that the window of opportunity is closing, rather that the window is as open as it's ever going to get. That is why the team traded four draft picks to move up and select Weddle, and why Smith kept Turner instead of peddling him for picks that would have likely come in the 2008 draft.

Turner is powerful runner and an excellent change of pace to the shiftier LaDainian Tomlinson. Also, Turner has value as a kick returner. It is important to have a strong insurance policy behind Tomlinson, because the Chargers run much of their offense through the running back position.

Shawne Merriman has been a terror at outside linebacker - can he be even better in the coming year?

Michael Lombardo: Merriman can indeed get better, even if he doesn't improve on the 17 sacks he posted last season. Teams are going to try to spread the Chargers' defense out and force Merriman into coverage to neutralize his pass-rushing ability. If Merriman can triple his 2006 interception numbers (from one to three) and double his pass break-ups (from seven to 14) that would go a long way towards making him the league's best defender.


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