The San Diego Chargers are one of the more intriguing teams entering the 2009 NFL season. Following a 2008 campaign where the Chargers lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Divisional Playoffs, San Diego figures to be primed for another playoff run in 2009.
Despite finishing last season with an 8-8 record and a bit of luck to reach the playoffs, there was no question then, and no question now, that the Chargers are one of the most dangerous teams in the NFL.
The big offseason questions have been answered. Star running back LaDainian Tomlinson agreed to a restructured contract to stay with the team for at least another year, and his sidekick Darren Sproles also will return to the backfield after the Chargers made him their franchise player.
The biggest change for the 2009 Chargers will be on the defensive side. The prolific playmaker Shawne Merriman, who had season-ending surgery to repair two torn knee ligaments after playing in just one game, will return to lead the Chargers' pass-rush.
Opposing quarterbacks shredded the San Diego defense in 2008. With a healthy Merriman on the field, that won't be so easy again. From 2005-2007, Merriman had 39.5 sacks, the most of any player in NFL history through his first three seasons.
In that time, the Chargers as a team finished in the top five in the NFL in sacks. Without Merriman last season, the Chargers had just 28 sacks as a team, tied for 22nd in the NFL. It was a porous defense that ranked 25th overall in total defense and 31st in passing yards allowed.
Needless to say, the Chargers are getting back their most impactful player on defense. It's almost as if the team made a huge free agent splash without even signing a new player. If Merriman is as healthy as he claims to be following a major rehabilitation program, the Chargers could be just as dangerous as they were in 2007 when they were within reach of upsetting the undefeated New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.
The Chargers are hoping that Merriman’s presence alone will act as a catalyst to their defensive unit. Nevertheless, as much as the linebacker has single-handedly anchored the Chargers' pass-rush, he is going to need a supporting cast. Merriman will have his partner in crime, Shaun Phillips, who finished 2008 with a modest seven sacks, but Phillips undoubtedly missed Merriman.
The Chargers will also have rookie Larry English, drafted 16th overall out of Northern Illinois. Many view English as a potential successor to Merriman, who is in the final year of his contract. A defensive end in a 4-3 scheme in college, the question mark is how English will perform in a 3-4 alignment when he will be dropped back into coverage.
Merriman's return is indeed an extraordinary addition to the Chargers, but the team is hardly perfect. Here are some potential issues facing the Chargers this season:
LaDainian Tomlinson's health
Some might say that as Tomlinson goes, so goes the Chargers' offense. Not entirely true. With Philip Rivers' vast improvement as an NFL starter, the Chargers have much more than a one-dimensional offense. Last season, Tomlinson's worst as an eight-year professional, the Chargers still finished fourth in the AFC in total offense and first in points scored.
However, at age 30, Tomlinson is not getting any younger. The veteran running back is going to need another good backup as well as more running room from the offensive line.
Tomlinson was hobbled with a toe injury for most of 2008, and just when it seemed like he was healthy enough for a postseason run, he suffered a detached tendon in his groin while scoring a touchdown against the Colts in the AFC Wild Card Playoff.
Although the Chargers eventually went on to win the game thanks to a stellar performance by Sproles against the Colts' porous run-defense, the loss of Tomlinson proved to be a big blow for the offense in their next game.
The team announced days before the Divisional Playoffs that Sproles would be the team's featured back for at least the next round. Skeptics, who all along had questioned Sproles' ability to be an every-down back in the NFL looked like prophets as the diminutive back was limited to just 15 yards on 11 carries against the Steelers, the NFL's best run-stopping defense.
Though the number of games Sproles has started as a feature back in the NFL represents a small sample size, the skeptics were right. Sproles is not an every-down back. It's going to take a larger supporting cast in the running game in 2009.
Rookie Gartrell Johnson will be given every chance to succeed in a backup role. Sproles will likely remain on the field for most plays as a second back, but Johnson will need to spell Tomlinson as the featured running back.
A fourth-round selection out of Colorado State, Johnson led the Mountain West in rushing last year, averaging 113.5 yards per game. The Chargers are hoping Johnson complements Tomlinson similar to the way Michael Turner did before he left San Diego for a lucrative contract with the Falcons.
Some would argue the reason Tomlinson battled injury throughout last year was due to the play of the offensive line, which did not have its finest season. Had the offensive line been better, Tomlinson might have been looking at a much different personal outcome last season. The team ranked 20th in the NFL in rushing with 107.9 yards per game, after finishing Tomlinson's previous six years in the NFL's top 10.
The offensive line unit dealt with injuries to center Nick Hardwick (foot), left tackle Marcus McNeill (back), and some growing pains with first-year right tackle starter Jeromey Clary. Guard Mike Goff was not retained. Kynan Forney, a nine-year veteran, will be given every opportunity to win the job, as will rookie Louis Vasquez, though Forney likely has the inside track.
Look for fullback Jacob Hester to continue improving as well. Some scoffed when the Chargers didn't offer former fullback Lorenzo Neal a contract this offseason after a one-year stint with Baltimore allowing him to sign with the rival Raiders, but the Chargers would prefer to groom their younger fullbacks to block.
The play of the secondary
Antonio Cromartie was essentially guaranteed a lucrative long-term contract after an impressive 2007 campaign in which he registered 10 interceptions. Negotiations stalled, and for the Chargers, it might be a blessing in disguise.
Cromartie promised a big year, predicting he would break the NFL record with 15 interceptions. Instead, Cromartie was humiliated for much of the 2008 season. No one really knows what happened, although he claims to have been bothered by a fractured hip since the season's opening game.
The Bolts were lucky that Quentin Jammer had his best year as a pro, or who knows what else could have happened to their secondary? Cromartie may be on a short leash in 2009. Antoine Cason, who had an exceptional rookie season, may be his eventual replacement should Cromartie resemble his 2008 form.
At strong safety, Clinton Hart did not have a strong 2008 season. He lost his job in the season's final month and was not replaced adequately at the position by Steve Gregory.
At free safety, Eric Weddle went through some growing pains in his first year as starter, but improved as the season went along.
The Bolts drafted safety Kevin Ellison out of USC in the sixth round and he is viewed as a possible replacement starter for Hart, although Ellison has battled injuries in the latter part of his collegiate career. Weddle could also potentially move to strong safety and Cason could shift to free safety, should the secondary have continued problems from last season.
Whoever starts in the San Diego secondary, the unit is going to need much better production in 2009.
2009 Season Prediction: The Chargers are always in the conversation to contend for the Super Bowl, and if the stars align, that will again be the case in 2009. San Diego is an exceptionally talented team, however, not the most talented in the NFL, or even the AFC.
The Bolts will make the playoffs, but again lose to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship.