San Diego Chargers' Biggest Roster Battles
An NFL team only has 53 spots with only 25 starters (11 offense, 11 defense plus kicker, punter and long-snapper).
Some starters and roster spots are a given (Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates, Eric Weddle, etc.), but there are few guarantees in life, including a place with the final 53, let alone as one of the select starters.
Which roster spots and which starting positions will be the most contentious during Chargers' training camp and leading up to the preseason?
Let's take a look.
With the praise that new Chargers head coach Mike McCoy tossed around at newly acquired running back Danny Woodhead, one might assume Ryan Mathews should be a little worried about his starting status.
Even if Woodhead performs spectacularly during practices, it would be difficult to remove Mathews as the No. 1 running back. However, even if Woodhead does get the nod over Mathews to start games, the touches each gets would not be affected much as this will turn into a running back-by-committee system.
It will be interesting to see how the wide receiver depth chart plays out.
San Diego will probably carry six receivers with 11 receivers currently on the Chargers roster. Four of those spots are almost a guaranteed lock (Malcom Floyd, Danario Alexander, Keenan Allen and Vincent Brown), but the final two are up in the air.
Eddie Royal, Robert Meachem and Richard Goodman might be returning veterans, but if Luke Tasker can excel on special teams like his famous former All-Pro father, Steve Tasker, he could bump someone out.
The Chargers brought in Rich Ohrnberger during free agency, but Johnnie Troutman was drafted in the fifth round last year.
Both are Penn State products, with Ohrnberger selected by New England in the fourth round of the 2009 draft. Troutman was Ohrnberger’s backup at Penn State during Ohrnberger’s senior season. A weight-lifting injury caused Troutman to miss his entire NFL rookie year, but the coaching staff has announced the starting guard position would be an open competition.
Troutman is a strong run blocker, but he did not allow a sack his final three seasons at Penn State.
Chad Rinehart was added through free agency and it looked like the former Buffalo Bill was a lock to start at guard, especially considering he was brought in right after Joe D’Alessandris was hired as the new offensive line coach.
D’Alessandris was Rinehart’s position coach in upstate New York.
After San Diego selected D.J. Fluker in the first round of the draft, however, questions swirled around the future of former starting right tackle Jeromey Clary. General manager Tom Telesco told season-ticket holders that Clary could change positions.
He is not expected to go to left tackle, so that means a move to guard. Clary would be a big guard (6’6”, 320 lbs.), but he would also be a veteran on a line expected to have three players with fewer than 20 starts in the NFL (King Dunlap has 19 starts).
Clary is better at run-blocking than pass protection. Moving him inside limits the speed-rushers beating him around the edges and gives San Diego a massive right side of the line with Fluker (6’5” 339 lbs.).
The situation at left tackle for San Diego has been called the worst in the NFL by ESPN’s Matt Williamson.
The options are King Dunlap, Mike Harris, Kevin Haslam or undrafted free agent Nick Becton.
Dunlap played multiple spots along the line for the Eagles last year and has 19 starts under his belt.
Harris was rated the worst tackle (right or left) in the NFL last season by Pro Football Focus.
Haslam was an undrafted free agent out of Rutgers who signed with Jacksonville after the 2012 draft and started three games for San Diego last season at left tackle. In those three games (at Pittsburgh, vs. Carolina and Oakland), Rivers was sacked nine times.
Becton played one season at left tackle at Virginia Tech.
Unless another option reveals itself (Max Starks?) Dunlap should be the first option at left tackle. It may be another long season for quarterback Philip Rivers, though, with Dunlap protecting his blindside.
No. 3 Wide Receiver/Starting Slot Receiver
Vincent Brown was a third-round draft pick two years ago out of San Diego State.
Keenan Allen was a third-round draft pick in April out of Cal.
Brown’s rookie season was a tough transition due to the fact he did not have training camp because of the lockout. He started to gain chemistry with Rivers as the season progressed and finished with 19 receptions for 329 yards and two touchdowns. Of his 19 catches, 17 resulted in first downs.
In the first preseason game of 2012, Brown had four receptions for 81 yards and one touchdown. In the third quarter of the second preseason game, Brown broke his ankle while hauling in an 18-yard touchdown pass. He also had another catch for 13 yards in that game, but the injury kept him out for the regular season.
Allen entered the 2013 draft with a first-round grade by many scouts, but slipped to the third to the Chargers. Speculation on his slide out of the first two rounds centered on a slow 40-yard dash time (4.71 seconds at his Pro Day) and lingering injuries (he tore his PCL in October and was unable to participate in most scouting drills.)
Winner: Philip Rivers and the passing offense.
Whether it’s Brown or Allen, Rivers will be happy to have a slot receiver capable of producing. Is that too much of a cop-out? OK, fine. Brown should get the nod while Allen assimilates to professional football.
No. 2 Tight End
Future Hall-of-Famer Antonio Gates is still the No. 1 tight end as long as his foot and toe hold up.
The Chargers let go of Randy McMichael and Dante Rasario, but added John Phillips and Dallas Walker in free agency along with undrafted free agents Ben Cotton and David Rolf.
Meanwhile, Ladarius Green returns for his second season.
Phillips (6’5”, 291 lbs.) is a great blocker. He also lined up at fullback when he was with the Cowboys. He does have 30 career receptions in 48 games, but his real value is toughness on the edge as an extra blocker.
Green only caught four passes his rookie year, but the ball was only thrown his way four times. At 6’6 and 240 pounds, Green is lengthy and is a large target for a quarterback. He is not much of a force as a blocker, though, but, then again, neither Gates has never been known for his blocking.
Winner: Phillips…for now
Phillips will help on short yardage and run plays, and is not a complete joke as a receiver. He will get the nod as Gates’ backup while Green gains more and more experience. Do not be surprised if Green starts to be more of a weapon as the season progresses.
Brandon Taylor was drafted in the third round last year to eventually be San Diego's starting strong safety.
He waited and watched and learned behind veterans Atari Bigby and Corey Lynch. Taylor had an opportunity late last year to prove he was the heir apparent to the spot, playing in four games with one start, then he tore his right ACL against the New York Jets.
Marcus Gilchrist was a situational defensive back for the past two seasons with San Diego, subbing in on nickel and dime packages. He was expected to fight for a starting cornerback spot, but because he played safety and corner while at Clemson, he will be in the mix at strong safety.
Sean Cattouse was an unrestricted free agent a year ago. While at Cal, he played at free safety and strong safety as well as cornerback. He spent the year on the practice squad and was finally activated for the final game of the season. Cattouse did not register a tackle in the game.
San Diego added Jahleel Addae as an undrafted free agent this year. Addae was a defensive leader while at Central Michigan. At 5’10” and 195 pounds, Addae is a hard-hitting safety who can also be asked to cover.
The Chargers want Taylor to be the guy, but he could miss the entire offseason while healing from knee surgery. Addae is a strong possibility, but Gilchrist gets the advantage as the veteran with better coverage skills.
Antonio Garay is gone, as is Aubrayo Franklin.
It looks like the starting nose tackle position belongs to Cam Thomas by default.
Thomas, who stands 6’4”, weighs 335 pounds and is about to enter his fourth year out of North Carolina, has 47 tackles in 38 career games. In his second season in San Diego, Thomas led the defensive line with four sacks. He has six career sacks.
The Chargers brought in two undrafted free agents, Georgia’s Kwame Geathers and South Carolina’s Byron Jerideau.
Thomas, Geathers and Jerideau will all get significant playing time, but the undrafted free agent from USC will be the opening day starter. Jerideau is considered the strongest player in South Carolina history and ran his 40-yard dash in 5.12 seconds.
No. 2 Cornerback
Derek Cox was added via free agency to start at one cornerback position.
But who will play opposite him?
Since Marcus Gilchrist is going to win the strong safety spot (at least until Brandon Taylor recovers from knee surgery), there is one less candidate to choose from.
The Chargers used a fifth-round selection to pick up Steve Williams out of Cal although his size (5’9”, 181 lbs.) makes him a liability on the outside against bigger receivers.
Shareece Wright has the size (5’11”, 182 lbs.) desired and the knowledge of the scheme that is crucial for success. Wright is about to enter his third season and has everything lined up for him to excel.
Wright is going to have the opportunity to shine because quarterbacks will throw to his receiver the majority of the time. There are two main reasons why QBs will target him. First, he is relatively inexperienced with only 17 games under his belt. Secondly, quarterbacks will throw away from Cox. Wright could put up big numbers or he could get pulled in favor of Marcus Gilchrist and San Diego puts Brandon Taylor or Jahleel Addae at strong safety.