Early Predictions for San Diego Chargers' 2014 Training Camp Battles
If the San Diego Chargers are to repeat their surprising playoff success from last season, it will be through tough offseason competition for starting roles at positions of need.
It will be up to each and every player to push each other to succeed, as forces and events beyond the players' control are conspiring to stymie the development of the young and capable team that won the final four games of the 2013 season to sneak into the playoffs.
The Chargers are tied for the fourth-toughest schedule in 2014 based on opponents' winning percentages from 2013, per ESPN.com. They cannot afford to have any missteps against the NFC West or even within their own increasingly competitive division. They will also need to prove they can take care of business during games in which they are the favorites.
The Chargers unfortunately played down to their opponents on occasion in 2013. As CBS Sports' John Breech noted, the Bolts lost three games to the Oakland Raiders, Washington Redskins and Houston Texans; these three teams combined to go 6-38 against the rest of the league.
The offseason brought changes to the coaching staff as well. Former offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt turned the Chargers' offense around last season and parlayed his success into a head coaching job with the Tennessee Titans. The Chargers now turn to quarterbacks coach Frank Reich to lead the offense.
This team cannot afford to tread water if it wants to build upon its success from last season. There are several positions up for grabs, many of them on defense, as the Chargers look to evolve through competition between younger players and veterans looking to hold down their starting positions.
The Chargers desperately need to revamp their secondary if they are to make another playoff run this season.
Jason Verrett, the Chargers' first choice in the 2014 NFL draft, will command most of the attention in this training camp battle.
He brings a sterling collegiate pedigree—six interceptions and an NCAA-leading 22 passes defended in 2012 for TCU, per Sports-Reference.com—and unbelievable quickness to the Bolts. However, he isn't practicing as he recovers from shoulder surgery, according to Tom Krasovic of U-T San Diego. It is a distinct possibility that Verrett will miss a major portion of the offseason workouts.
The knock on Verrett is his short stature (he's listed at 5'9"), but few of the Chargers' cornerback incumbents have a distinct size advantage over him. The tallest corner on the current roster with veteran experience is Crezdon Butler, who stands 6'1". Shareece Wright and Richard Marshall, the two corners with the most starting experience for the Bolts, are both a shade under 6 feet.
This will be the training camp battle to watch if Bolts fans are looking for unheralded players or young upstarts to make a name for themselves.
The cornerback group played so poorly as a whole last season—Derek Cox could have hardly been out the door faster—that defensive coordinator John Pagano isn't likely to have many favorites heading into training camp this year. Marcus Cromartie, Brandon Ghee, Steve Williams and Butler will all have a chance to impress this offseason.
Verrett's limited practice time will likely render him unable to make a run at a starting outside corner job. However, he will see plenty of time on the field in the pass-happy NFL and should find himself gunning for a full-time role on the outside as the season progresses.
Wright and Marshall will hold down their roles on the outside for the time being, while Verrett and Williams will line up against the slot receivers in the nickel and dime defenses.
I want to become a starter. That's one of my goals. ... Help the team in any way possible. If I don't get the starting job, it's not because I'm not going to bust my behind. When I do get my shot to step on the field, I'm going to be ready.
In the same article, Gehlken notes that Addae has added bulk in the offseason and now weighs in at 200 pounds.
The 2013 undrafted free agent wasted very little time making his mark in San Diego. He made the final 53-man roster at the start of the 2013 season, and his playing time increased as the year went on. He's an extremely quick safety with a prototypical headhunter mentality, which served him well on both defense and special teams in his rookie campaign.
His main competitor will be Marcus Gilchrist, a lock at starter in 2013 who has proven to be quite versatile in his own right. Despite beginning his career as a cornerback, Gilchrist made a smooth transition to safety and finished third on the team in total tackles in 2013. He was part of an overall dismal secondary, but neither Darrell Stuckey nor Brandon Taylor was able to unseat him from his starting role.
These safeties are battling for the right to start alongside Eric Weddle, an All-Pro free safety and one of the premier defensive backs in the NFL. Weddle led the Chargers with 115 total tackles last season; a safety with that level of production is never in danger of losing his starting job.
If Addae can prove that the added bulk won't hinder his ability to cover receivers, he is the best option to play alongside Weddle. The weight gain should help him when moving down into the box to defend against the rush. This would allow Weddle to play his "center fielder" role and stay deep to defend against possible play-action calls.
Addae's size, dreadlocks and utter disregard for personal safety are reminiscent of Bob Sanders, whom the Chargers tried to pair with Weddle in 2011.
No. 2 Wide Receiver
There is no doubt that Keenan Allen will continue as Philip Rivers' No. 1 target in the wide receiver corps this season. However, the contest for the No. 2 receiver spot is wide open.
Vincent Brown—injured for all of the 2012 season—established himself as a solid option in 2013. He racked up 41 catches for 472 yards and a single touchdown. He has yet to prove he can find the end zone consistently, though, as he's scored just three touchdowns in 30 career games.
Malcom Floyd is looking to complete a comeback season of his own after missing 14 games in 2013 with a neck injury. The career Charger has brought in 239 receptions for 4,133 yards and 25 touchdowns in nine seasons.
Floyd has finally been cleared for contact, according to Eric D. Williams of ESPN.com. This will give him the entire offseason to re-establish himself as Rivers' best downfield option.
Both wideouts will face challenges from the mercurial Eddie Royal, who accounted for 631 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in 2013.
The veteran depth at this position makes it extremely unlikely that Seyi Ajirotutu or the several undrafted free agents on the current roster will make a serious run at a starting wide receiver spot.
Royal is the likely winner in this battle. Floyd will have to work hard just to prove that the neck injury is no longer a risk factor, while Royal can focus on building on his solid numbers from 2013. Brown has youth on his side, but Royal is 28 years old with a wealth of experience as he enters his prime.
The Chargers will hope for more production from the outside linebackers this year as they look to bolster a pass rush that produced just 35 sacks in 2013.
The Bolts' pass rush was devastated by long-term injuries to Dwight Freeney and Melvin Ingram last year. They appeared in a combined eight games last season but never saw the field together. Ingram suffered an ACL tear before the season began and didn't return until late in the season, while Freeney went down with a torn quad against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 4.
General Manager Tom Telesco isn't assuming both players will bounce back this year. He essentially confirmed there will be a training camp battle for the starting job by trading up to select Jeremiah Attaochu out of Georgia Tech in the second round of this year's draft.
Last year, Telesco moved up in the second round of the NFL draft to select Manti Te'o out of Notre Dame. By season's end, Te'o was firmly entrenched as a starting inside linebacker alongside Donald Butler. Telesco would be unlikely to make a move for Attaochu if he didn't have big plans for him at outside linebacker.
Attaochu—who racked up 31.5 sacks as a Yellow Jacket—is confident he will reward Telesco's faith. He proclaimed that he will be an "amazing player," according to U-T San Diego's Nick Canepa.
Attaochu will make a huge push for a starting spot, but Ingram and Freeney are the likely starters to emerge from this position battle. Ingram showed an excellent motor upon his return from injury last year, and Freeney's veteran experience and pedigree (108 career sacks) will ensure he gets first crack at revitalizing the pass rush.
This training camp battle may prove to be very different from the others mentioned.
Just two players set to make a push at nose tackle have NFL experience: Sean Lissemore and Kwame Geathers. With the lack of depth on the squad, as well as the NFL's ever-increasing proclivity for throwing the football, the nose tackle position is likely to become a spot where there is a heavy rotation among players.
In this case, it's more about who the Chargers will throw into the fray most often or trust on critical downs.
Lissemore is the incumbent, as he took over starting defensive tackle duties from Cam Thomas (now with the Pittsburgh Steelers) last season. Few human beings on the earth can deliver a bigger push for a starting role than Carrethers. CBS Sports' Bruce Feldman named the former Arkansas State defensive lineman one of the craziest athletes (referring to physical ability, not mental stability) in college football in 2013.
Carrethers is a monster in the weight room who did whatever was asked of him at Arkansas State. His willingness to learn and fit into new schemes will serve him well. He hopes to continue his role as the linchpin of the defense just as he did in college, per Hayley Elwood of Chargers.com.
"I was the anchor, the go to guy (in college),” he said. “When they needed something done they would look to me, both on and off the field, and hopefully that’ll continue in the NFL.”
Lissemore will likely hold on to the starting job, but Carrethers should overtake Geathers as the second option and push for the starting role throughout the season.