When looking closely at the San Diego Chargers' roster for 2009, few, if any, starting positions seem to be up for grabs. But while it may be clear who the starting 22 will be on opening day, there are several backup roles that will be hotly contested this training camp.
One area of a team that often gets overlooked is those key reserves in the sub-packages, such as nickel cornerback and passrusher, as well as third receiver and third down back. These reserve players often play a lot, sometimes as much as 60% of a teams total offensive or defensive snaps. In a sense, these players can almost be considered starters.
For the top three position battles in '09 we will look at one starting position and two pivotal reserve positions, or sub-package starters.
1. Offensive Right Guard.
The favorite - Kynan Forney
The challenger - Luis Vasquez
Forney is known as a very solid run blocker, as he helped pave the way for the Atlanta Falcons number one rushing attack in 2004 and 2005, and was named a Pro-Bowl alternate in 2005. With a full training camp under head coach Norv Turner, the feeling is that Forney will be an upgrade from the previous year.
Challenging Forney will be 2009 third round draft pick Luis Vasquez of Texas Tech. Vasquez was one of the more highly touted guards in this years draft, with one web site even ranking him as the 52nd best player overall (he was taken 78th overall). Vasquez is big (6'5", 333lbs), strong (39 reps in the bench press), physical and nasty.
Bottom line—Expect Forney to hold off a strong challenge from Vasquez and be the opening day starter, but don't be surprised if Vasquez is starting by season's end.
2. Third Wide Receiver
The favorite - Malcom Floyd
The challengers - Legedu Naanee, Buster Davis
The third wide receiver for the San Diego Chargers is almost a starter, as Norv Turner often trots out three and four wide receiver sets. Before getting hurt towards the end of last year, fifth year pro Malcom Floyd was starting to emerge. The 6'5" Floyd saw his first action against New England last year and over the next nine weeks caught 27 passes for 465 yards and four touchdowns.
Challenging Floyd will be a pair of 2007 draft picks. Buster Davis, the teams first pick in '07, has been unable to stay healthy and been a dissappointment, yet has shown flashes in the past. This is most likely a make or break year for him.
The bigger challenge could come from the team's '07 5th round pick, Legedu Naanee. When Floyd went down in '08 Naanee filled in, and showed flashes of being a big time play-maker. Naanee has the bulk to catch passes in traffic and the speed to get deep. Also, his quarterback has spoken highly of him recently (always a good sign for a receiver).
Bottom line - Look for Naanee to be the primary number three receiver, with Floyd and Davis battling for playing time.
3. Third down back
The favorite - LaDainian Tomlinson
The challenger - Darren Sproles
For many Charger fans, it seems absurd to suggest Tomlinson won't be the three down back he has always been. He is one of the best receiving backs of all time, once catching 100 passes in a season. On top of that, Norv Turner has already stated that he expects Tomlinson to get back to carrying the ball 320 or more times this season.
What Turner didn't say is how many total touches he expects Tomlinson to have. The scenario that could quite possibly play out is for Turner to make Tomlinson more of a two down back this year. Turner could shift to a game plan that has Tomlinson starting the game, getting rotated out early, and being used as the "closer" to finish out games.
Tomlinson is still one of the premier backs in football, capable of grinding out tough yardage or making a jump-cut and going 50 yards. What he is probably not anymore is the all-world, one-of-a-kind runner/receiver capable of 40 touches a game for 16 games, plus the playoffs.
That takes us to Sproles. The Chargers used the Franchise Tag on Sproles this off season, and it wasn't for him to return kicks. Sproles is electric, capable of going all the way every time he touches the ball. He has also shown that he can run it inside just as effectively as he can run draws and off-tackle plays. He's also the best screen runner in the game.
What Sproles is not is an every-down back, at least not for 16 games. The Chargers don't think he is, but they do understand his importance to this team.
Bottom line - Tomlinson's role as the lead back is not going to change. Norv Turner has already said he expects Tomlinson to be a 20 - 25 carry per game back. What will change is how Tomlinson is used.
He will still start the games but get more breathers, especially on third down. This is where Sproles comes in, as he will assume the lead role as the third down back, and where he is most dangerous.
The Chargers return most of their starters, so not a lot of spots are open for competition, especially amongst the starters. They do, however, need to make decisions at a few key "sub-package starter" spots. The decisions they make at these spots could mean the difference between a fourth straight AFC West title, or a Super Bowl crown.