The Chargers, despite spending their first three draft picks on defense for the second consecutive year, will aim to outscore the opposition in 2012. Philip Rivers looks for a bounce-back year, a goal made more obtainable thanks to added depth at offensive line and receiver.
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The healthy return of Antonio Gates also will spark the passing game. Pro Bowler Ryan Mathews provides balance, even more so now that road-grading fullback Le'Ron McClain is on board, but Mathews broke his collarbone in the team's first preseason game and is likely to miss the start of the regular season. With Norv Turner calling the plays, San Diego figures to field an elite scoring machine.
A.J. Smith moved like a man whose job is on the line ... because it probably is. His list of veteran free-agent additions reached double digits for the first time in his decade-long tenure as general manager. Robert Meachem, Jarret Johnson, Le'Ron McClain and Atari Bigby should all be opening-day starters.
Smith was also aggressive in retaining his own players, agreeing to new deals with Jared Gaither, Nick Hardwick, Antonio Garay and Luis Castillo. Despite all the positive work, the loss of Pro Bowler Vincent Jackson stings.
Free safety Eric Weddle was a Pro Bowler for the Chargers in 2011.
San Diego caught a huge break when Melvin Ingram from South Carolina fell to No. 18, instantly upgrading the team's pass rush. UConn defensive tackle Kendall Reyes and LSU safety Brandon Taylor also will help fortify a defense that could not get off the field last season. Fourth-rounder Ladarius Green from Louisiana-Lafayette is a pass-catching tight end who will have an immediate role on offense.
The Chargers, who have gone a pedestrian 6-6 inside the division over the last two seasons, will face each of their division foes once in the first six weeks. The bye comes in Week 7, followed by a stretch at Cleveland, home against the Chiefs, and at Tampa Bay.
That soft sledding is followed by a rough patch that features four straight games against 2011 playoff teams: the Broncos, Ravens, Bengals and Steelers. The final two games are against two of the Chargers' fiercest rivals -- the Jets and the Raiders. Overall, the Chargers have the sixth toughest schedule in the league.
BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER
Philip Rivers, quarterback. Rivers has more talented pass-catchers at his disposal than ever before, even with the loss of Jackson. If he can cut down on his turnovers, he has a chance to be in the MVP conversation.
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER
Eric Weddle, safety. Weddle proved his big contract was money well spent by earning first team All-Pro honors in 2011. He is a ballhawk in centerfield and could be even more dangerous now that San Diego has upgraded at strong safety.
WILL WIN DIVISION IF ...
From 2006 to 2009, when the Chargers won four straight division titles, they went 20-4 in the division. Over the last two years, San Diego is just 6-6 in the AFC West. The Chargers must reassert themselves inside the division. The test won't take long, as five of the team's first 10 games are inside the AFC West.