Examining Chargers' Offseason and Key Preseason Positional Battles

Justin OnslowContributor IIJuly 8, 2013

Examining Chargers' Offseason and Key Preseason Positional Battles

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    Following years of stability and relative success, the San Diego Chargers bottomed out in 2012, finishing the season 7-9 and well short of the playoff hunt in the AFC.

    General Manager A.J. Smith and head coach Norv Turner had already been on the hot seat after a 9-7 2010 campaign and an 8-8 2011 season, but the Chargers continued giving them chances in hopes of a turnaround. After all, San Diego had the talent to do it.

    But talent is only part of the equation, and Smith didn’t exactly do his part to continue infusing enough of it to sustain consistent success in the league. As such, the general manager was handed his walking papers in favor of 40-year-old Tom Telesco—the youngest GM in Chargers history.

    Telesco may not be a season away from finding himself unemployed, but he certainly doesn’t have a long leash. The Chargers can’t keep hovering around the .500 mark with the talent they currently possess.

    The new GM did a terrific job of revamping the roster this offseason, however. He didn’t make many jaw-dropping moves in free agency, but he did piece together a terrific draft class featuring a few high-impact selections.   

    More on that later.  

    Meanwhile, Turner, who found a new home this offseason as the Cleveland Browns’ offensive coordinator, overstayed his welcome in San Diego. All credit to the Chargers organization for perpetuating stability by allowing him and Smith to ride out their tenures another season, but it was time for both to go.   

    To replace Turner, San Diego brought in former Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy to right the ship. McCoy is no stranger to the Chargers, having piloted the Broncos’ offense against them for the last three seasons, and it likely won’t take the 41-year-old long to mesh in San Diego.

    As McCoy stated after he took the job, he knew San Diego was the perfect fit for him and his family, as quoted in an Associated Press report, via ESPN:

    There was no doubt in my mind when I got back on that plane to go back home. They wanted to keep me here last night. But I said, 'I've got to talk to my wife about this before.' If I made the decision without talking to my wife, I might get in a little trouble. Without a doubt, we knew this was the place we wanted to be.

    McCoy wasn’t alone. Telesco also thought the fit was perfect, and the fates of both men could be potentially linked as they attempt to steer the Chargers back to playoffs and away from the mediocrity that surrounded them the last few years.

    San Diego has a solid core in place, but it needed a strong offseason to get the Telesco-McCoy era started off on the right foot. We’ll take a closer look at those offseason endeavors, including free agency, the NFL draft and a few positions to watch as the season draws near. Read on.

2013 NFL Draft

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    Round 1 (Pick 11): OT D.J. Fluker, Alabama

    Round 2 (Pick 38): LB Manti Te’o, Notre Dame

    Round 3 (Pick 76): WR Keenan Allen, California

    Round 5 (Pick 145): CB Steve Williams, California

    Round 6 (Pick 179): DE/OLB Tourek Williams, Florida International

    Round 7 (Pick 221): QB Brad Sorensen, Southern Utah

     

    Grade: B

     

    Tom Telesco’s first draft didn’t hold many surprises. And considering his inexperience in the position, that was probably a good thing.

    Telesco found tremendous value in the first three rounds, particularly on Day 2 with the selections of Notre Dame inside linebacker Manti Te’o and California wide receiver Keenan Allen.

    Despite Te’o’s shortcomings and offseason drama, he was still widely regarded as a first-round pick. Somewhat thin at the position following the departure of veteran Takeo Spikes, Te’o fills a massive need for the Chargers and should find a terrific fit in the team’s two-gap 3-4 front.

    Allen, who battled injury issues throughout the predraft process and was reportedly red-flagged at the combine for a drug test, exited the 2012 season as a consensus first-round prospect and a candidate to be the first pass-catcher selected in the draft.

    Despite those issues, Telesco found a ton of value in selecting him at No. 76 overall—a spot at which he won’t be shouldered with lofty expectations in his formative years.

    But Telesco’s best pick may have come in the first round—though it wasn’t necessarily a popular selection.

    Alabama offensive tackle D.J. Fluker was arguably the best right tackle prospect in the entire draft class, but at 6’5” and 339 pounds, he doesn’t exactly have the frame or quick feet inherent in prototypical NFL left tackles. Being selected at No. 11, few were enamored with the idea of San Diego playing him on the right side.

    Still, the idea that pass-blockers play left tackle and road-graders play on the right side is tired and worn out. In the modern NFL, the offensive tackle positions are far more ambiguous.

    What Chargers fans can take away from the selection is this: Fluker was the best offensive lineman available at No. 11, and San Diego desperately needed to address its offensive line in any way possible.

    With just three additional picks in the draft, Telesco took a flyer on cornerback Steve Williams (a potential nickel corner candidate this season), a pass-rusher in Tourek Williams and a small-school quarterback prospect in Brad Sorensen.

    As it stands, neither Tourek Williams nor Sorensen are likely to make an impact this season, but then again, late-round prospects aren’t typically expected to. Telesco’s first three picks are what will define his first draft class.

    In all, the Chargers did what they needed to do in the draft. Telesco took a safe approach with high-value selections and filled some big positional needs, ensuring his tenure would start on the right note and San Diego would have some additional talent to work with this season.

More Than a Patch Job

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    If Philip Rivers is to find success and Ryan Mathews is to finally get healthy and stay healthy in 2013, San Diego’s offensive line needs to get much, much better.

    The Chargers’ pass-protection unit allowed 49 sacks last season (29th in NFL), rated dead last by Football Outsiders based on adjusted sack rate.

    The good news? Telesco made an effort to revamp the unit this offseason. The bad? It’s hard to tell what the results will be.

    Adding D.J. Fluker was a terrific move given his run-blocking talent and surprisingly quick feet for a player his size. As it stands, Fluker will likely get the start at right tackle, shoring up a position that will be critical in the success of both the running game and passing attack.

    Nick Hardwick returns at center, and San Diego shouldn’t worry about his contributions. The former Pro Bowler is easily the Chargers’ most consistent offensive lineman, and his presence will help solidify a unit that saw further changes this offseason.

    At left tackle, look for former Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Max Starks to earn the starting role opposite Fluker. While Starks has never been a top-tier pass-protector, he was arguably Pittsburgh’s most valuable lineman outside center Maurkice Pouncey.

    Considering Starks only signed on for one season, Telesco is almost certainly going to be looking for a talented young replacement next offseason. For now, though, he has to bank on Starks to tie down a position San Diego has been unable to effectively fill since the retirement of Marcus McNeill.

    Along with Starks, Telesco also brought in Chad Rinehart, expected to earn the starting role at left guard. Rinehart was another unheralded signing, but he has the talent and experience to at least give San Diego a stop-gap option at the position.

    Right guard is a little more up in the air, though. Former right tackle Jeromey Clary is likely to slide inside to play next to Hardwick, though 2012 fifth-rounder Johnnie Troutman will give him some competition. Troutman missed the 2012 season with a torn pectoral muscle and a knee injury.

    Depth will be a major concern, though. King Dunlap, Colin Baxter and David Molk aren’t exactly in position to challenge for a starting role, and none of the three should be expected to shoulder a heavy burden should one of the aforementioned six end up on the injury report.

    Still, San Diego did the expected in retooling its entire offensive line this offseason. Four new starters surround Hardwick, and while that recipe has the makings of inconsistency this season, it also has the potential to create a much better offensive line going forward.

Fresh Faces at Linebacker

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    Chargers fans have probably heard enough of the Manti Te’o talk at this point. The linebacker’s offseason drama is behind him. From this point forward, he’s nothing more than a football player.

    A football player primed for a starting gig in the NFL this season.

    With Takeo Spikes’ release, the Chargers looked to find a younger replacement in the draft, and they couldn’t have found a much better option in the second round. Te’o may have been exposed in the national championship game, but much of that performance was overblown.

    Te’o isn’t a thumper who is going to run through offensive linemen. He’s not a burner who can be an elite sideline-to-sideline defender. What he is, however, is an extremely solid defender with plenty of upside, and he’ll excel in San Diego’s two-gap 3-4 front.   

    The Notre Dame product won’t have to worry about taking on a lot of blocks in the scheme. Instead, he’ll be able to utilize his best assets as an instinctual run-stuffer and agile drop-zone defender.

    2010 third-rounder Donald Butler will return to play next to Te’o—another Chargers linebacker ESPN’s Bill Williamson believes to be a top-10 linebacker in the AFC West.

    I’m inclined to agree given Butler’s tremendous production through two NFL seasons. In 2011 and 2012 combined, the Washington product tallied 173 tackles, five sacks, four forced fumbles and two interceptions, quickly establishing himself as a cornerstone in San Diego’s linebacking corps.

    With youth and upside at both positions, defensive coordinator John Pagano won’t have to worry about effort from his inside linebackers. Butler and Te’o have a lot to prove in leading the Chargers’ defense.

    He may have to worry, however, about the production he can expect from his outside linebackers.

    The 18th pick in the 2012 draft, Melvin Ingram was expected to be a major contributor as a pass-rusher in San Diego’s 3-4 defense this season. He was largely ineffective in 16 games last year, but the belief was that Ingram was poised to make major strides in his second NFL campaign.

    Unfortunately for both Ingram and the Chargers, the second-year player tore his ACL in practice this offseason and is expected to miss at least most of the 2013 season.

    To replace him, Telesco signed former Indianapolis Colts defensive end and recent outside linebacker convert Dwight Freeney.

    The 33-year-old only recorded 12 tackles and five sacks for the Colts last season, but he does have an additional year of experience under his belt. A former standout pass-rusher in Indianapolis’ 4-3 front, he found himself out of position in 2012, adjusting to a stand-up role that can prove taxing for aging defenders.

    Still, the minutia of the differences between 3-4 and 4-3 fronts is trivial. At its core, pass-rushing in either scheme is predicated on instincts, aggressiveness and physical talent. Freeney has all three in spades.

    Freeney is in line to start at right outside linebacker this season, but the left side is still very much up in the air. Between Jarret Johnson, Larry English and Thomas Keiser, there isn’t much to be excited about.

    Then again, Pagano is a terrific defensive coordinator who understands how to get his best players in the right positions. In the modern NFL, few teams employ their base defense more than half of their defensive snaps, and the position shouldn’t be a glaring concern with plenty of untested depth to experiment with.

    Johnson will likely get the start on the left side, but he only accounted for 1.5 sacks in 15 games last season. If the Chargers are to improve upon their 38 sacks of a season ago, the 31-year-old is going to have to make some positive strides in 2013.

    Linebacker shouldn’t be considered a weak positional group this year, but there are certainly some question marks. Hopefully the additions of Te’o and Freeney will be enough to get by.

Secondary Switches

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    San Diego finished 18th in passing defense last season, but that’s likely to change in 2013—one way or another.

    Quentin Jammer (now with the Denver Broncos) and Antoine Cason (who signed with the Arizona Cardinals) saw their way out of town following up-and-down 2012 campaigns, and the Chargers saw it fit to start fresh at the position this offseason.

    Telesco brought in former Jacksonville Jaguars corner Derek Cox to fill one of those spots, likely to tie down the No. 1 cornerback position this season. Cox wasn’t one of the bigger names on the free-agent market, but according to AdvancedNFLStats.com, he did rank 22nd in the league at the position in 2012.

    Cox has notched 12 interceptions in 48 NFL games, but he has also struggled with injuries the last two seasons. Provided he can stay healthy, his side of the field shouldn’t be a major concern.

    2011 third-rounder Shareece Wright is in line to fill the other starting cornerback spot opposite Cox. Wright has seen limited action in his two NFL seasons, but with Marcus Gilchrist moving to safety this year, he’s arguably San Diego’s best option right now. It will be Wright’s job to lose.

    The rest of the cornerback depth chart is up for grabs, though. San Diego signed former New Orleans Saints cornerback Johnny Patrick this offseason, but he hasn’t exactly done much in his short NFL career to warrant an immediate role in the secondary.

    As such, Steve Williams—San Diego’s fifth-round pick this year—is in good position to fight for the nickel corner role ahead of Patrick and 2010 undrafted free agent Cornelius Brown.

    While Gilchrist’s move to safety does leave San Diego a little thin at cornerback, Mike McCoy views the move as a chance to get his best players on the field, as quoted by Ricky Henne of Chargers.com:

    We’re trying to find the best players to go out there and play. He’s played obviously there before.  During the offseason when we got here we talked about position flexibility and possibly putting him back there.  So we let him work there for a while and see how comfortable he is and see what we think as a football team.  He’s done a nice job so far.

    With Gilchrist joining standout free safety Eric Weddle and backup Darrell Stuckey at the back end of the defense, San Diego shouldn’t have a hard time finding the right pieces to field serviceable nickel and sub packages this season.

    As is the case with their offensive line and linebacking corps, the Chargers’ secondary could be very good in 2013. It could also be pretty bad. Only time will tell.

    But San Diego fans can take solace in the team’s willingness to make some big changes to shake things up. If McCoy and Telesco prove to be the right men for the job, these positional changes will only highlight their forward thinking.

2013 Schedule

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    2013 San Diego Chargers Schedule
    Week Date Opponent Time (ET) TV
    1 Sept. 9
     vs. Houston Texans 10:20 p.m. ESPN
    2 Sept. 15
     @ Philadelphia Eagles 1 p.m. CBS
    3 Sept. 22
     @ Tennessee Titans 1 p.m. CBS
    4 Sept. 29  vs Dallas Cowboys 4:25 p.m. FOX
    5 Oct. 6  @ Oakland Raiders 4:25 p.m. CBS
    6 Oct. 14  vs. Indianapolis Colts 8:40 p.m. ESPN
    7 Oct. 20  @ Jacksonville Jaguars 1 p.m. CBS
    8 Oct. 27  BYE WEEK N/A N/A
    9 Nov. 3  @ Washington Redskins 1 p.m. CBS
    10 Nov. 10  vs. Denver Broncos 4:25 p.m. CBS
    11 Nov. 17  @ Miami Dolphins 1 p.m. CBS
    12 Nov. 24  @ Kansas City Chiefs  1 p.m. CBS
    13 Dec. 1  vs. Cincinnati Bengals 4:25 p.m. CBS
    14 Dec. 8  vs. New York Giants 4:25 p.m. FOX
    15 Dec. 12  @ Denver Broncos  8:25 p.m. NFLN
    16 Dec. 22
     vs. Oakland Raiders 4:25 p.m. CBS
    17 Dec. 29
     vs. Kansas City Chiefs 4:25 p.m. CBS

     

    *For a complete look at San Diego's 2013 schedule, check out NFL.com.

Season Outlook

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    The Chargers made several organizational changes and big moves on both sides of the ball this offseason. They’ll face plenty of uncertainty entering the 2013 slate.

    Fortunately, few teams face friendlier schedules this year, and with a solid core of talent already in place, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Chargers regain their poise in the AFC West.

    Apart from two divisional matchups with the Denver Broncos and contests with the Houston Texans, Washington Redskins, New York Giants and Cincinnati Bengals, there isn’t a lot on the schedule that would suggest San Diego can’t tally at least 10 wins in 2013.

    But as is often the case in today’s NFL, success starts and ends at the quarterback position. If the Chargers are to regain their form this season, Philip Rivers has to improve on his disappointing 2012 campaign.

    Last year, Rivers threw 15 interceptions on the heels of a 20-interception campaign in 2011. While he’s one of the most talented signal-callers in the league, he’s also suffered from an inconsistent offensive line and a young receiving corps dinged up by the free-agent departure of Vincent Jackson and health issues of Antonio Gates at the starting tight end spot.

     

    Prediction: 10-6, Second in AFC West

    Realistically, San Diego could win anywhere from six to 11 games this season. There really is that much ambiguity surrounding a team that faces some major changes this season.

    But the Chargers have never been a team short on talent, and fans should have faith in what Telesco and McCoy have done with the roster. It may be wise to err on the side of caution when looking ahead to the season, but “cautious optimism” may be the best phrase to describe the feel of this Chargers squad.

    In any case, look for San Diego to top both the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West standings en route to a second-place finish and a potential wild-card berth.