5 Players Who Need to Step Up in 2013
The draft has come and gone, and the Bolts still don't have a left tackle. The San Diego Union-Tribune seems to offer up a possible solution every day. A. J. Smith often spoke of trying to get the Chargers into "the tournament" each year with the hope that one year they'd break through and win the Super Bowl.
After two straight seasons of missing the playoffs with the man he referred to as "Coach Turner" every chance he got, he broke with his own tradition and tried to make a splash in free agency. That brought disastrous results, including the first losing record since 2003 and an entirely new regime.
So now Tom Telesco is the one trying to build—rebuild would be the more accurate description—a team that will create a window of success for itself. Boltheads can only hope that this one won't get stuck in the window as has every other Charger team.
So what should we expect this season? According to the experts, not very much. Although no one wants to concede a fourth consecutive season without a playoff berth, fans would be more likely to accept a team that seems to be moving towards a title.
As for 2013, here are five Bolts that will need to elevate their performances for the sake of themselves, the team and the fans.
1. Philip Rivers
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Last season was supposed to be Rivers' bounce back season. Every fear I wrote about during the offseason manifested itself in 2011. The porous offensive line play was certainly a factor. How much so depends on who you talk to.
Even after the drafting of D.J. Fluker, the line looks far from solid. When Kevin Acee wondered aloud on NFL Network whether this season was Rivers' final audition, some wondered if the Chargers were setting Rivers up to fail.
Telesco and Mike McCoy have refuted this idea repeatedly, and Acee fully admitted that the theory was purely his own. But there is no question that Rivers needs to take better care of the ball.
A healthy Vincent Brown should help, and rookie Keenan Allen should inject some energy into the receiving corps. However, Rivers needs to improve his decision-making and footwork in McCoy's offense. McCoy is already raving about Rivers' gym rat habits, but this season needs to be significantly better for Philip.
2. Ryan Mathews
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If the Bolts are unsure about Philip Rivers and his 2006-2010 production, what must they think about Ryan Mathews? Mathews was also supposed to have a statement season in 2012, but a car accident and an injury on his very first carry of the preseason set the stage for a nightmare campaign.
After the Chargers won their first two games without him, Mathews returned in Week 3 against Atlanta. His red zone fumble thwarted the Bolts' momentum, and A. J. Smith publicly questioned his ability to hold onto the football.
Mathews and the Chargers looked like they might have finally figured things out when the running back took to the air and scored a touchdown in Week 5 against the Saints that reminded fans of Gary Anderson flying over Dolphins in 1986. But things only went downhill from there.
Mathews still shows flashes of talent but often lacks the field awareness to get through holes. When Rich Gannon quoted Turner saying as much during the December game in Cincinnati, it caused a bit of a stir.
Mathews made his own waves this offseason when he told NFL Network that the team got complacent under Turner.
That news is hardly surprising, but Mathews is not the player to deliver it. He has too much to prove to even come close to the player the Chargers thought they were trading up for in 2010. The most troubling thing about Mathews last season was that that he touched the ball five times on third down the entire year.
3. Derek Cox
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It's unclear who will be lining up on the opposite side of him, but Cox looks to be starting at cornerback this season. Marcus Gilchrist recently admitted that he'd be open to being moved to safety. Quentin Jammer said as much for years, but nothing ever came of it.
However, the team appears to be willing to take a long look at Gilchrist at safety, which means Shareece Wright may get more time at corner. Cox, along with Danny Woodhead, was the only notable signing by the Bolts before the draft.
4. Donald Butler
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Along with Eric Weddle, Donald Butler is the Chargers leader on defense. Now that Shaun Phillips is officially gone, Butler becomes the point man amongst linebackers. Takeo Spikes was let go as well.
Butler has proven himself to be a playmaker after missing his entire rookie season, but he will need to take the next step in his development as the defense continues to be revamped around him.
Butler, whose salary increased from $575,000 to $1.323 million after reaching rookie incentives, is in the last year of his contract. Butler could be the first Charger to be locked up long term by Tom Telesco if he is able to have a strong 2013.
5. Danario Alexander
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After Vincent Brown went down in preseason, the Chargers lacked a go-to receiver. Robert Meachem was signed to be that player but never recovered after dropping a touchdown pass against Cleveland in October.
Alexander, who was only available due to his extensive injury history, was fantastic. Tom Telesco gambled that no one would sign Alexander away this offseason. Fortunately for Charger fans, he was right. But now Alexander needs to prove he can do it again.
Malcom Floyd, Vincent Brown and Keenan Allen should draw away some of the coverage. If Alexander can stay healthy, it will serve as a huge boost to the entire offense.