San Diego Chargers

10 Biggest Issues Facing the San Diego Chargers This Offseason

Ashkan KargaranContributor IIIJune 15, 2014

10 Biggest Issues Facing the San Diego Chargers This Offseason

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    The San Diego Chargers exceeded expectations last season when they snuck into the playoffs and even upset the AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals.

    Their flaws, though, were exposed in the second round against the eventual AFC champion Denver Broncos. Secondary issues, a lack of a pass rush and an inability to score quickly on offense, were just some of the issues that plagued the Chargers during their 2013 season.

    The Chargers are a team on the upswing, but they still have many areas, namely on the defensive side of the ball, that need improvement if they want to finally hoist the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the season.

    Issues are ranked based on to what degree they weaken the team, as well as the likelihood of a solution for said issues.

Honorable Mentions

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    Loss of Ken Whisenhunt

    The Chargers may have had an atrocious defense last season, but their offense was brilliant. Under new offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, Philip Rivers revived his career and led his team to the postseason.

    Whisenhunt is now the head coach of the Tennessee Titans. One of the main reasons he landed that job was his ability to "fix" Rivers and the Chargers offense. Rivers doesn't like the term "fix," but that is, in essence, what Whisenhunt did after former Chargers head coach Norv Turner "broke" the Pro Bowl quarterback.

    Under Whisenhunt, Rivers returned to being a top-tier quarterback by calling less seven-step-drop plays and more quick throws so that the offensive line could protect their signal-caller. Rivers was also given more leeway at the line of scrimmage to change calls based on what he saw out on the field.

    Another strong suit of Whisenhunt's play-calling was his heavy reliance on running the ball in order to open up the passing game. Ryan Mathews had a breakout season and new addition Danny Woodhead became a fan favorite due to his toughness while carrying the rock.

    Whisenhunt's replacement, Frank Reich, has some big shoes to fill this season. Fortunately, the ex-quarterback has a good relationship with Rivers and will be able to lean on No. 17, as well as head coach Mike McCoy, a former offensive coordinator himself, to shoulder some of the play-calling.

     

    Tight end

    Antonio Gates will go down as a Hall of Famer and one of the best tight ends in NFL history when he decides to retire from the league. After years of incompetence, Gates was a main cog in the revival of the Chargers franchise, along with LaDainian Tomlinson and others.

    With that said, Gates has been showing his age in recent seasons. He had a great start to the season last year, but he slowed down as the season progressed. That's not to say that Gates is washed up.

    He will still make plays for this team and will still command double-teams. Though he is known for his playmaking abilities, there is something to be said about Gates being ranked 133rd out of 135 tight ends in run blocking, per Pro Football Focus.

    Charger fans shouldn't be too worried about the decline of their beloved legend, though. Why?

    Ladarius Green.

    At 6'6", 240 pounds and a 4.45 40-yard dash time, the young man is a physical specimen. He had some big plays for the team last season and will hopefully continue progressing into Gates' successor. Although his sample size is small, Green made the most of every opportunity and continued to get better as the season went on.

    He will need to improve on his run blocking if he wants to be considered elite. Only time will tell what the ceiling is for Green, but the man whom Charger fans affectionately call LaMOARius should be in line for a breakout 2014 season.

     

    Backup Quarterback

    The Bolts lost their backup quarterback, Charlie Whitehurst, to the Tennessee Titans this offseason. Whitehurst was poached by Whisenhunt after he accepted the head coaching offer from the Titans. While this is not a big deal, the man whom Chargers fans call Clipboard Jesus has been a valuable resource for Rivers throughout his career.

    Also, the fact that Whisenhunt brought Whitehurst along for the ride to Tennessee has to mean something, even if it's just to light a fire under Jake Locker.

    San Diego signed Kellen Clemens to replace Whitehurst as Rivers' backup. The Chargers are also grooming 2013 seventh-round pick Brad Sorensen for the role.

Kick Returner

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Considering where the Bolts began most of their possessions on offense during 2013, the offense should be given ever more credit. The Chargers began their drives at the 21-yard line following a kickoff, ranking them 24th in the league.

    The committee of Eddie Royal, Danny Woodhead, Ronnie Brown, Lavelle Hawkins and Keenan Allen did not get the job done when their numbers were called to return kicks, as well as punts.

    The team is hoping that their seventh-round pick, Tevin Reese, out of Baylor will be able to make some plays and help out the field-position battle. Reese is known for his speed and athleticism, traits he hopes will transfer to the professional level.

    In an interview with Michael Gehlken of the Union-Tribune, Reese stated, "I really want to be a return guy," Reese said. "I wanted to do it all throughout college. I did it throughout high school and I was good at it. I'm ready to get back out there and return some kicks."

Wide Receiver

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    After Malcom Floyd went down with a neck injury against the Philadelphia Eagles in the second week of last season, the team didn't know who would step up to fill the role left behind. Floyd was the team's No. 1 receiver and had the most chemistry with Rivers outside of Gates. He would miss the remainder of the season due to the neck injury, which almost ended his career altogether.

    An unlikely hero came to save the season: rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen. A third-round draft pick out of Cal, Allen immediately became Rivers' top receiving target and filled the playmaking void left by Floyd's injury.

    Royal had a tremendous start to the 2013 season, scoring five touchdowns in the first two games, before cooling off with a nagging toe injury that kept him out of practice for a majority of the year. He ended the season with a total of eight touchdowns.

    Outside of Allen, and an early surge by Royal, the Chargers had no other threat at the wide receiver position. The team was hopeful that third-year receiver Vincent Brown would have a breakout season after missing the previous year with an ankle injury. Unfortunately, Brown finished the year with 472 yards and just one touchdown in 16 games.

    The Chargers are hoping Floyd can come back healthy this season and help Allen shoulder the load. The team is also hopeful that good health and another season of rapport with Rivers will help Royal consistently sustain his productivity.

Tough Division

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    As long as Peyton Manning is in your division, making the playoffs will not be easy. Throw the resurgent Kansas City Chiefs on top of that mix and you have an even tougher task.

    The AFC West sent three teams into the postseason last year, a feat that hadn't been seen since 2007.

    The Chargers went 4-2 against their division, with the majority of those games in the second half of their season. If the team hopes to make the playoffs again this year, it will need to repeat its divisional success.

    The Broncos have reloaded and are hoping to get over their Super Bowl hump. The Chiefs will be in year two of Alex Smith and Andy Reid and will hope to have the same success as last season. The Oakland Raiders now have Matt Schaub under center and are looking to have a successful season after years of dismal results.

    Making the playoffs will not be easy in this division. The Chargers need to start the season strong against non-division opponents and continue to have success against their AFC West rivals.

Offensive Guard

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The Chargers' success last season was, in large part, due to their efficient and sustained drives. The drives were effective thanks to Rivers and the running game, and those two aspects of the offense would not have worked without the outstanding job done by the offensive line.

    But the offensive line would not have been what it was without its mastermind: offensive line coach Joe D'Alessandris.

    Alessandris, or Coach D for short, turned a makeshift group of castoffs into a powerful machine. King Dunlap, Chad Rinehart and Jeromey Clary were names that teams had almost no interest in prior to the 2013 season.

    San Diego's first-round selection, D.J. Fluker, was seen as a right tackle who had to play guard because of his large size and apparent lack of quickness. Nick Hardwick was the only positive in a group that was seen as a weak spot for the team, and even Hardwick had his doubters due to injuries and the prospect of entering his 10th season.

    All of these thoughts were erased, thanks to Coach D. He, along with Whisenhunt's play-calling, turned the Chargers offense into a force to be reckoned with. It ran the ball with authority and kept Rivers cleanalmost the exact opposite of the previous season.

    However, with all these positives, the Chargers' inability to score quickly was in large part due to their inability to give Rivers enough time to throw the deep ball. Rinehart played well when healthy, but he missed five games due to a foot injury. There is a reason they had to rely so heavily on the run and quick passing plays: offensive guard, and in particular, Jeromey Clary.

    According to Khaled Elsayed of Pro Football Focus, Clary's "run blocking was so bad and often why running plays broke down." John Gennaro of Bolts from the Blue has a nice breakdown of exactly why Clary needs to go.

Defensive Coordinator

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    It's been well-documented that the Chargers had an awful defense last season. The defense couldn't stop the run, and it definitely could not stop the pass. The unit seemed to give up the big play at the worst possible time. According to Football Outsiders, the Bolts ranked last in the NFL in defensive DVOA.

    John Pagano took a lot of heat for his defense's poor play all of last season. Deciding if the blame should go to the players or the defensive coordinator seems to play out like a chicken versus the egg debate. Did Pagano have the talent necessary to field a competent bunch? Were the players put in the right situations to make plays?

    There are advanced stats that support both sides, pro-Pagano, per Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus (via Jay Stokes of SB Nation) and anti-Pagano, per Football Outsiders (via Dan Pizzuta of Cover 32). With the recent additions through the NFL draft, as well as players returning from injury, next season will be Pagano's make-or-break year.

Inside Linebacker

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    John Cordes/Associated Press

    Manti Te'o's rookie season was filled with scrutiny. Surprisingly, his personal life was not the story. Te'o suffered a foot injury in the first preseason game last season and did not see the field until Week 4 against the Dallas Cowboys. He finished the season with 61 tackles and four passes defended in 13 games.

    That's not bad for a rookie who was limited during the offseason, right?

    Well, if you ask the Chargers' fanbase, you would get a mixed reaction. Many fans felt as though the second-round pick showed traits that cannot be fixed by experience and teaching.

    Things such as size, strength, quickness and tenacity were at the top of the list. Many felt as though Te'o just didn't have the build to take on offensive linemen at this level, especially without a Haloti Ngata-type nose tackle to command double-teams.

    Others, though, believe that rookies should be held to different standards, especially when they miss a large portion of the growing process in the preseason. Te'o seemed to play better as the season progressed and should be able to post better numbers than he did last season after undergoing offseason surgery to repair his broken foot.

    BFTB's Kyle Posey does a fabulous job of breaking down Te'o's game film when the Chargers played the New York Giants in Week 14. You can also take a gander at the comments section to truly gauge what fans think of Te'o.

Strong Safety

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    Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

    The Chargers go into the season with plenty of question marks in their secondary, to say the least. Their Pro Bowl free safety, Eric Weddle, is the only bright spot in a unit that was historically bad last season.

    The Chargers played the majority of the year with Marcus Gilchrist at strong safety, and he had a hand in a defense that ranked dead last in the NFL in defensive DVOA. The team drafted Brandon Taylor out of LSU in 2012, but injuries have kept Taylor off the field. Gilchrist eventually moved to the slot and held his own.

    His replacement at safety was Jahleel Addae, an undrafted rookie out of Central Michigan. Addae brings a hard-hitting toughness that was lacking in the secondary and can make a big play every now and then. He is progressing by shadowing his mentor, Weddle, in nearly every aspect of the game.

    If the Chargers want to improve their secondary from last season, which shouldn't be too hard considering how historically bad they were, the team will need to see Addae flourish as a consistent starter.

Outside Linebacker

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    USA TODAY Sports

    San Diego's atrocious defense had holes at all three levels: defensive line, linebackers and the secondary. You can't blame one aspect without taking a look at another. One thing was for certain: The Chargers had a tough time applying any type of pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

    The committee of Larry English, Jarrett Johnson, Tourek Williams, Thomas Keiser, Reggie Walker, Melvin Ingram and Dwight Freeney did not get the job donewith the latter two missing almost the entire season due to injury.

    The return of a healthy Freeney and Ingram should light a spark for a team that is heavily reliant on pressure created by the outside linebacker due to their 3-4 defensive scheme.

    Freeney, though, is 34 years old and entering his 13th season, a rare combination for an effective football player. Ingram helped the pass rush immediately when he came back in Week 14 against the New York Giants. His presence alone helped the defense, even if his stats don't show it.

    Second-round pick Jeremiah Attaochu will bring some much-needed athleticism to the position, and the team hopes he can help Ingram slow down the opposing quarterbacks who had a field day against the Chargers' 31st-ranked pass defense, per Football Outsiders.

Nose Tackle

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    The Chargers defense had many flaws, as stated throughout this entire slideshow, but the second most glaring weakness was at the nose tackle position. Cam Thomas, Sean Lissemore and Lawrence Guy were not enough to prevent opposing offenses from doing whatever they wanted against the Chargers. So how did the Bolts go about improving this?

    By drafting a 6'1", 333-pound monster named Ryan Carrethers from Arkansas State with their fifth-round pick.

    Carrethers, a former heavyweight wrestling champion, hopes to bring his athleticism to a team that desperately needs help in the middle of their defensive line. Having defensive ends Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes on opposite sides of him will definitely help Carrethers in his progression.

    The Chargers are hoping that Carrethers' size and strength will help command double-teams and allow their linebackers to attack the gaps, stop the run and get pressure on the quarterback. The big man hopes to emulate Pro Bowl nose tackle Vince Wilfork. When asked what he admires most about the Patriot, Carrethers said, "It’s his relentless effort, and his capability of movement at that size."

    If Carrethers can make an impact next season for the Bolts, look for the defense to make a large improvement in both their run and pass defense.

Cornerback

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    If you've been paying attention, or if you followed the team last season, the No. 1 issue facing the San Diego Chargers should come as no surprise: the cornerback position.

    Take a look at the picture above. It was a site all too familiar for Charger fans: cornerbacks not only getting beat but also getting beat badly.

    The group of Shareece Wright, Richard Marshall, Johnny Patrick, Marcus Gilchrist, Crezdon Butler, Marcus Cromartie and Derek Cox was absolutely putrid.

    They were so terrible that lining up in the correct formation was seen as a remarkable feat. The cornerbacks managed to accumulate a total of three interceptions for the entire seasonfive if you want to include Gilchrist, who played a large portion of the year at safetylet that sink in for a moment.

    Cox, the prized free-agent acquisition of GM Tom Telesco, was so bad that he was not only benched the final five games of the season, but he was also immediately cut from the team after the season. Imagine how poorly you had to play to get benched as the big-name addition on a team that was ranked 31st in passing defense.

    The Chargers drafted Jason Verrett out of TCU with their first-round selection in the 2014 NFL draft and hope he can, at the very least, help them become a league-average secondary. Verrett may be undersized, but he has great instincts and speed that should vault him into the starting position by the beginning of the season.

    Wright showed the tiniest glimmer of improvement toward the end of the season when he helped the Chargers defeat the Cincinnati Bengals in the first round of the playoffs. The Chargers need Wright to make some sort of leap in production if they want to turn this defense around next season.

    The team also has hope that second-year cornerback Steve Williams will be able to contribute after "redshirting" his rookie season due to a pectoral injury.

    It's almost impossible for the cornerbacks on this team to perform worse than they did last season. With the addition of Verrett, Attaochu at OLB and Carrethers at NT, the Chargers' pass defense should, at the very least, be a competent NFL secondary.

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