The San Diego Chargers don't usually get enough credit for the caliber of players that take the field every week, but some of the positional units on San Diego's roster are worthy of high marks next season.
A new season in San Diego means another do-or-die year for a team that regularly dominates the AFC West. This season, however, will be far from easy after all of the division's teams have vastly improved. Some of San Diego's positional units have undergone a makeover, making the possibility of an AFC West division title that much closer.
From kicker to quarterback, here are report card grades for every positional unit on San Diego's roster.
Chargers fans can only hope that the special teams duo of Mike Scifres and Nate Kaeding remains healthy this season. Making it to the field every week will be the biggest challenge for both players.
Scifres has one of the strongest legs in the NFL, and that same leg had to be used for both punts and field goals at one point last season. In the season opener, Kaeding was lost for the season with an ACL injury during the opening kickoff.
When he's healthy, Kaeding is one of the most accurate kickers in the regular season. A career field-goal percentage of 86.5 percent proves that. The playoffs, however, are another story, but that shouldn't take away from his importance to the Chargers. Without the success of these two guys, the Chargers would struggle to get the job done week in and week out.
Eric Weddle has quickly become one of the league's best free safeties. Just this last year, Weddle managed to make it to his first Pro Bowl and sign a contract that earned him the title of richest safety in history. Not too bad for six years in the league.
The one question I have at safety is the guy playing next to Weddle on game day. Right now, we don't really know who San Diego will be handing the job of strong safety to. There are reports that Atari Bigby, who came over from Seattle, is a favorite to get the starting job, but the Chargers did draft a safety in April.
Former LSU safety Brandon Taylor was so valuable to the Chargers that general manager A.J. Smith elected to move up in the draft just to nab him. Taylor has load of talent and potential in San Diego, but I agree that Bigby should be considered a favorite.
Either way, the Chargers have some good vibes in their defensive backfield so far.
When I think of San Diego's cornerbacks unit, I somewhat cringe at the thought of quarterbacks having career passing games against the likes of Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason.
In no way does this mean Jammer and Cason aren't talented, but the Chargers did give up 29 touchdown passes last season.
Jammer is entering his 11th season with the Chargers, and he still hasn't developed into that ball-hawk cornerback every team desires. At the very least, Jammer is a solid tackler who gets his hands on the ball a few times here and there. Cason, however, has gradually picked up his performance and could end up being a formidable foe for opposing receivers.
Sitting behind Jammer and Cason is an exceptionally thin group of backups with little experience. A word of advice to Jammer and Cason: Stay healthy.
A lot of eyes will be watching San Diego's linebacking unit, which features stars young and old. Veterans Takeo Spikes and Shaun Phillips lead this group of talented linebackers with up-and-comers Donald Butler and Antwan Barnes following close behind.
The biggest issue this offseason was San Diego's pass rush, and the front office seemingly addressed that problem with the No. 18 overall pick in this year's draft. Melvin Ingram was a gift where the Chargers selected him, and his presence in this revamped unit only makes them better.
The Chargers also went out and brought in another veteran in former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson.
Obviously, all these guys can't take the field at the same time, but I'm sure new defensive coordinator John Pagano will put the pieces together when each situation calls for it. Is this the year San Diego's defense makes a comeback?
Defense was a top priority at this year's draft for the Chargers, but that was the same for last year's draft as well.
After one season in the NFL, former first-round pick Corey Liuget didn't turn any heads on the defensive line. Hopefully, that first season was just Liuget's way of getting a feel for things at the pro level.
Antonio Garay returns to the middle of San Diego's defensive line along with Liuget and Vaughn Martin. Luis Castillo, a very familiar name to Chargers fans, also returns to San Diego's defensive line after being released in March. Former Connecticut standout Kendall Reyes joins the squad by way of a second-round pick in the 2012 draft.
From what we can see so far, the Chargers have some depth on the defensive line. This is a good thing to have for a group that could really benefit from a rotation.
This isn't the best defensive line San Diego has put out there in recent history, but the possible emergence of players like Liuget and Reyes make me wonder what's in store for this unit.
Kris Dielman's retirement this offseason was a huge physical and emotional loss for the Chargers on the offensive line. In Dielman, San Diego lost one of the most experienced players on their line and a true team leader.
However, the show must go on no matter how thin the supporting cast is. The good news is that Nick Hardwick decided to stick around, which gives the Chargers a leader to turn to on the line.
Jared Gaither is another name that could provide veteran leadership on this squad. Gaither was a late signing last season, but his contributions proved worthy as San Diego chose to re-sign the six-year pro.
The rest of the line remains the same from last season, with the exception of the void left by Dielman at left guard. The Chargers have options both young and old, but none of them could even come close to Dielman. Depending upon how the new guard handles the position, it's safe to say that the offensive line will be rocky at times.
Keeping that same nagging foot injury healthy is going to be the biggest concern for Antonio Gates in his 10th season. If you follow the Chargers closely, you'll be on the edge of your seat every week when that injury report comes out, hoping Gates' name isn't on it. But that's rarely the case with plantar fasciitis.
Thankfully, the Chargers have a good No. 2 in veteran Randy McMichael. The combination of these two veterans makes the tight end position a rewarding asset to this team.
Also, keep an eye on rookie tight end Ladarius Green. While Green may not see a lot of playing time in 2012, he's still a work in progress worth nothing.
San Diego's receiving corps got quite the makeover this offseason. Vincent Jackson may not be in town anymore, but two new faces could help fans easily forget the loss of their two-time Pro Bowl receiver.
With Jackson's departure came the arrival of Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal. Both players are relatively young with different strengths. Meachem, a product of New Orleans' aerial attack, offers the Chargers a solid No. 2 receiver opposite Malcom Floyd. Meachem may not dazzle with his stats on paper, but you have to keep in mind that he played in an overcrowded offense filled with numerous weapons.
Floyd, Meachem and Royal make up a young, hungry group of receivers for the Chargers, and don't forget the success Vincent Brown enjoyed in his rookie season. The experience may not be all there, but this group of receivers certainly looks better than groups in recent years.
With Ryan Mathews scheduled to take on a heavier workload in 2012, the third-year running back may finally live up to the hype that unofficially dubbed him LaDainian Tomlinson's replacement.
But with great power comes great responsibility, and that means better ball control for a guy who has fumbled five times in each of his last two seasons.
On paper, Mathews has shown a definite improvement in his game since his rookie season. On the field, Mathews looks even better as he hits the hole with power and blazing speed.
So, what's the big deal about this season?
For starters, this will be the first season Mathews takes the field without a legitimate No. 2 behind him. The Chargers have some young backs waiting in the ranks, but none of them have truly proved they're ready to contribute in the running game. The addition of Ronnie Brown is intriguing, but there are a lot of doubts if he can get anywhere close to the success he had with the Miami Dolphins in his younger years.
On the other hand, this is also the first season Mathews will have a true fullback leading the way in the ground game. Le'Ron McClain helped clear the path for another youngster in Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. That worked out pretty well last time I checked.
Remember when Lorenzo Neal cleared the way for Tomlinson back in the day? Another perfect match.
Despite a surprisingly terrible season from Philip Rivers in 2011, the Chargers can rest assured that one of the league's best quarterbacks will return to form. Even with sub-par numbers last season, Rivers still managed to represent the AFC in the Pro Bowl.
At 30 years old, Rivers will be entering his ninth season in the league, making the window of opportunity all that more important as he enters his prime. While Rivers has accumulated numerous accomplishments in his NFL career, an illustrious Super Bowl title continues to evade him.
Backing up Rivers will be a familiar face in former Seattle Seahawks quarterback Charlie Whitehurst, who played for San Diego from 2006 to 2009.