Showcasing Biggest Strengths and Draft Needs of San Diego Chargers

Adam WellsFeatured ColumnistDecember 26, 2012

Showcasing Biggest Strengths and Draft Needs of San Diego Chargers

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    Some teams in the NFL tend to play above their expectations. They find a way to win a lot of games, even when hope appears lost. The San Diego Chargers are definitely not one of those teams. 

    In fact, over the last eight years, a strong case could be made that the Chargers have been the most disappointing franchise in the NFL based on the level of talent they have and the expectations entering the season. 

    In 2012, the Chargers didn't even try to flirt with contention before falling apart. They came out of the gate with a 3-3 record and that was as good as it got, as they endured a four-game losing streak starting on November 11 that would seal their fate. 

    Wholesale changes must come to San Diego soon, or else this still talent-rich franchise will languish in mediocrity for years before the bottom drops out and a full-scale rebuild has to take place. 

    Let's take a look at where the Chargers are at right now, and what they need to do when the 2013 draft rolls around in April to get this team back in contention in the AFC West. 

Quarterbacks

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    Everything starts and stops with Philip Rivers for the Chargers. His career trajectory has mirrored the path this franchise has been going down since he took over as starting quarterback in 2006. 

    This year, Rivers has still been as inconsistent as any quarterback in the league. He has been solid overall, with 24 touchdown passes, 15 interceptions, 3,455 yards and a completion percentage of 63.7.

    It would be a surprise to see the Chargers cut bait with Rivers, or make him compete for a job in 2013. His biggest issue has been finding time to throw, as he has been sacked an NFL-high 47 times entering Week 17. 

    The Chargers are built around Rivers. He has thrown all but one of the team's passes in 2012. He is going to be the starter next season. 

    Charlie Whitehurst is the backup quarterback, so the Chargers could conceivably look at finding someone else in free agency or the back half of the draft, but given how durable Rivers has been throughout his career, no one else will see the field in the immediate future. 

Running Backs

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    The Chargers actually have really good depth at the running back position, but no one has emerged as a true No. 1 starter due to injuries, inconsistent play on the offensive line and/or lack of ability to carry the full load. 

    Ryan Mathews was supposed to be the workhorse for this team when he was taken with the No. 12 pick in the 2010 draft. He looked the part in 2011, with 1,091 yards and six touchdowns on 222 carries in just 14 games. 

    But that was as good as things got for Mathews. He has yet to stay healthy for an entire season, missing a total of nine games since coming into the league. His performance took a huge step back in 2012, with his yards per carry falling all the way to 3.8 with just one touchdown. 

    Behind Mathews are Jackie Battle and Ronnie Brown, both of whom are signed to one-year contracts that expire after this season. 

    Battle is built more like a fullback, with a big body and power-running style that is used to barrel over opponents.

    Brown can still be a piece that you build the running game around, but he is never going to be the player who carries the ball 10-15 times. He is more of a third-down back at this stage of his career thanks to his ability to block and catch passes out of the backfield.  

Wide Receivers and Tight Ends

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    This area is a clear strength for the Chargers. They have plenty of power at the top, with good depth down the line and some room to improve with players currently on the roster. 

    Obviously, the star of the bunch is Antonio Gates. The tight end is in an interesting spot right now, as he will turn 33 before the start of the 2013 season, and his performance has been slipping in recent years. He is signed through 2015 and tied for the team lead in touchdown catches, but he is clearly not the dynamic weapon he once was. 

    At the wide receiver spot, Malcom Floyd is signed to a very reasonable contract through 2015 and his performance is still very good. He leads the team with 15 catches of at least 20 yards and is second with five touchdown catches. 

    Danario Alexander is a budding star. He leads the team with 17.3 yards per reception and is tied with Gates for the team lead with six touchdown catches. At just 24 years old, he has the potential to grow and be a consistent 1,000-yard performer in this offense. 

    Robert Meachem has gotten lost in the shuffle this season, but he is still a very good slot receiver in the right system. Eddie Royal just has to stay healthy and he can be a strong No. 3 or 4 receiver in any system. 

Offensive Line

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    If you want to blame one specific group for the Chargers' problems on the offensive side of the ball, look no further than the big men up front, blocking for Philip Rivers and opening holes for Ryan Mathews. 

    As previously mentioned, Rivers has been sacked more than any other quarterback in the NFL. The beating he has taken makes his overall numbers look even better than they appear on the surface.

    Digging deeper into the stats, Football Outsiders lists the Chargers offensive line as 21st in adjusted sack rate and in the bottom half of the league in adjusted line yards at left end, left tackle, guard and right end. 

    The one spot the Chargers are set is at right tackle, with Jeromey Clary as the starter and Kevin Haslam backing him up. The foundation of this team has broken down in recent years, which has led to the deterioration of the passing and running games. 

    When the Chargers start making out their 2013 draft needs list, offensive line has to be right at the top. They need to start building a power team up front that can get the skill players back to the level they are still capable of playing at. 

Defensive Line/Linebackers

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    The Chargers have invested a lot of time, money and high draft picks to improving their defensive line, just trying to find the pure pass-rushing specialist they had when Shawne Merriman was at his peak. 

    Corey Liuget and Melvin Ingram are first-round picks on the line, while Kendall Reyes was a second-rounder brought in to add upside and depth in the trenches. Those efforts have led to some reward, as the team ranks ninth in the league in sacks, with Liuget and Reyes combining for 12.5. 

    Ingram, who is technically listed as a linebacker but plays on the line in the 3-4 scheme, has been lost on an island. He was supposed to be a pass-rushing specialist, yet he enters the final game of the regular season with just one sack and one forced fumble. His development in 2013 will be critical for this defense. 

    Against the run, the Chargers have been outstanding. They are fourth in the league in rushing yards allowed, fifth in yards per attempt and tied for seventh in rushing touchdowns. 

    Their linebacking corps, even with Ingram struggling, has been fairly consistent. Shaun Phillips is their best pass-rusher, totaling 9.5 sacks through 16 games. Takeo Spikes is still a valuable asset, even if he isn't the playmaker he once was. 

    They could stand to get some more youth at linebacker, as their best players are all on the wrong side of 30. 

    There is a strong foundation in place on this defensive line. If Ingram takes a step or two forward next season, the Chargers could have the best defensive front in the NFL. 

Secondary

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    If there is one thing the Chargers need to do with their secondary in the offseason, it is find physical, in-your-face cornerbacks who are going to challenge opposing receivers off the line of scrimmage. 

    Right now, they are way too finessed in that regard. They try to play the ball more than the player, which has led to middling results on the field. They are allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete nearly 62 percent of passes, with an average of seven yards per attempt and 26 touchdowns. 

    Quentin Jammer has been the No. 1 cornerback on this roster for years, but he has never played like the kind of defensive back you want to build a secondary around. He is very good at finding the ball in space. Too often, though, he gets beat because he is so aggressive going after the ball. 

    The good news for the Chargers is that they have a lot of players still in their mid-20s with upside, and the freedom to look at the draft to make an upgrade or two, even if it isn't in the first round. 

    Second-year cornerback Marcus Gilchrist has the best chance to take a step forward in 2013.

    Safety Eric Weddle is great at reading a quarterback's eyes to find the ball. 

    Upgrades are necessary, particularly at the lead cornerback spot. Jammer keeps getting older and his production drops. 

Special Teams

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    Special teams has been an area of strength for the Chargers. Kicker Nick Novak will be a free agent at the end of the season, but with him making 17 of his 19 attempts, it is hard to see the Chargers letting him walk. 

    Punter Mike Scifres ranks fifth in average yards per punt and net yards per punt. He signed a six-year contract in 2011 that will keep him with the team through 2016. 

    Richard Goodman doesn't have enough kick returns to qualify for the league lead, but if he did, his 27.6 yards per return average would rank sixth in the NFL, just behind Cleveland's special teams star Josh Cribbs. 

    Michael Spurlock ignited a fire returning punts for this team, as he averaged 19.2 yards per return. Granted, the sample size isn't that big with just nine returns, but that kind of average is incredible. He will be a free agent after the season, though he comes cheap and has proved to be an asset.