With little activity in free agency and the return of Shawne Merriman, the San Diego Chargers' starting lineup has very few vacancies.
Nevertheless, there are several key positions to keep our eyes on during training camp and preseason play.
Here are five key battles to watch as we move closer to the start of training camp at Chargers Park.
Strong Safety: Clinton Hart-Kevin Ellison-Steve Gregory
Hart is on the hot seat entering 2009.
Sure, he wasn't the only defensive player who regressed in 2008, but he stands to lose the most if he has a disappointing camp. After picking off five passes in 2007, Hart failed to tally a single pick in '08. A hand injury made him a liability in the running game and the Chargers' tendency to get burnt by opposing tight ends didn't help his cause.
The Chargers think they've found a gem in Ellison, a sixth round pick out of USC. He's big, physical and reminds me lots of Rodney Harrison.
Ellison's career at Southern Cal was derailed by knee injuries, but one look at this hit (although it was a penalty) shows you the kind of wood he can lay over the middle. Charger fans have been waiting for a big hitting safety for a long, long time.
Gregory has provided some nice depth in the Bolts' defensive backfield the last few years, mainly out of nickel and dime packages. But in last week's OTA's, Gregory was getting more snaps with the first team than both Hart and Ellison.
Inside Linebacker: Kevin Burnett-Tim Dobbins-Matt Wilhelm
There won't be a consensus winner at this position. Burnett will likely be called on to play about 40-45 percent of defensive snaps.
Since Donnie Edwards left following the '06 season, the Chargers have lacked an inside linebacker that can be a force in pass defense. Wilhelm was asked to be that guy, but failed miserably in 2008, eventually being replaced by Dobbins.
Dobbins is lauded for his intensity on special teams, but made the biggest defensive play in the Chargers' upset of Indianapolis in the playoffs.
Remember it was Dobbins that sacked Peyton Manning to force a Colts punt. After the punt, the Chargers tied the game and won it in overtime.
Third Receiver: Malcom Floyd-Buster Davis-Legedu Naanee
We know Vincent Jackson and Chris Chambers will be Philip Rivers' primary targets at wide receiver. But what about the slot?
In an earlier article, I expressed concern about Floyd missing minicamp. Since then, Floyd has signed his tender, keeping him in San Diego for '09. He's a huge target, averaging over 17 yards a catch in 2008.
But the Chargers still have an investment in Buster Davis, who has suffered through two injury plagued campaigns to start his career. If this isn't a make-or-break year for Davis, I don't know what is.
It's hard to know what the Chargers really have in Davis because he's hardly been in uniform. Davis could also help spell Darren Sproles in the return game, especially if Sproles has a greater role in the offense.
As for Naanee, the Bolts love the former fifth round pick's versatility. He only has 16 catches in two years and has to be considered an outsider for the spot. But fans remember Naanee for his clutch reception in the final minutes of the 2007 AFC Divisional Playoffs at Indianapolis.
Naanee is certainly one to watch, but will need Floyd and Davis to falter to earn the majority of the snaps in the slot.
Right Guard: Kynan Forney-Louis Vasquez
Mike Goff's departure via free agency means that his right guard spot is up for grabs.
Goff was solid for most of his five years at starter, but Forney and Vasquez could provide an upgrade in the running game.
Forney was resigned by the team after spending all of last year in a reserve role. He's blocked for potent ground attacks in Atlanta, so his experience makes him the favorite to win the job.
Vasquez, a third round pick out of Texas Tech, is Forney's closest competitor.
Defensive End: Jacques Cesaire-Ryon Bingham-Vaughn Martin
The departure of Igor Olshansky to Dallas leaves a sizable hole on the Bolts' defensive line.
While Olshansky suffered a poor 2008, he was still a huge body that commanded attention in past seasons. Cesaire and Bingham are a pair of veterans whose work have often gone unnoticed.
Cesaire's exploits in pass rush may make him the favorite. While 10 career sacks may not be much to write home about, it's pretty impressive considering Cesaire was usually only on the field in passing downs.
Much like Gregory in the secondary, Bingham has been used everywhere on the Chargers' defensive line in the last three seasons. He's often played nose tackle when behemoth Jamal Williams needed rest, but Bingham is no stranger to the end position. At over 300 pounds, Bingham's size makes him more valuable on rushing downs.
Me, like most Charger fans, quickly raised their eyebrows over the selection of Vaughn Martin in the fourth round of this year's NFL Draft. Out of Western Ontario, Martin tips the scale at more than 330 pounds and can best be described as a project.
Despite his size, Chargers coaches spoke highly of his athleticism following minicamp. A 38 score on the Wonderlic also indicates that Martin could learn the ropes faster than expected. He may not see the field this much, but look out in 2010-2011.
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