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San Diego Chargers 2014 Virtual Program: Depth Chart Analysis and More

Max GarlandContributor IIISeptember 1, 2014

San Diego Chargers 2014 Virtual Program: Depth Chart Analysis and More

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    What made the San Diego Chargers one of the NFL's most surprising stories in 2013 is what will challenge the team in 2014: expectations.

    Quarterback Philip Rivers, head coach Mike McCoy and wide receiver Keenan Allen sneaked past opponents last season with an efficient offense run at a “glacial” pace, which masked a suspect defense. At 9-7, they made it into the playoffs before being knocked out in the Divisional Round by the Denver Broncos, the eventual AFC champions.

    Now the book is out on the McCoy-era Chargers, so they won't be sneaking by many teams. But with the addition of highly touted rookie Jason Verrett, the return of Malcom Floyd and Corey Liuget primed for a breakout year, San Diego is not the same team it was last season. In fact, it's better.

    Are the Chargers' offseason improvements enough to overcome the burden of expectations? That's what the San Diego Chargers 2014 Virtual Program is here to answer.

    This program provides depth chart analysis at every position, along with San Diego’s X-factors and biggest games. To wrap it up, we'll touch upon some media quick hits, along with final thoughts on the Chargers' 2014 outlook.

    Let's dive in.

Quarterback

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Depth Chart

    1. Philip Rivers, 11th season

    2. Kellen Clemens, ninth season


    Viewed as a lost cause just one year earlier, Rivers bounced back big in 2013—he led all starting quarterbacks in completion percentage and had 32 touchdowns to just 11 interceptions.

    Rivers is the perfect pilot for McCoy's offense, working the intermediate area of the field and thriving under duress—Pro Football Focus (subscription required) gave Rivers its third-highest grade against the blitz and its second-highest grade when pressured. After the traditional four of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, Rivers is as good as, if not better than, any passer in the league.

    Rivers got off to a fine start in the preseason, completing 15 of 18 passes for 166 yards and one touchdown. He shouldn't have any difficulty putting up a stat line like he did last year. Keenan Allen and Ladarius Green are more seasoned, while Malcom Floyd is back. Also, the offensive line retained all of its key starters. The Chargers' run-heavy offense will prevent Rivers from putting up gaudy passing numbers, but the team remains in good hands with this sheriff.

    Clemens is the quintessential clipboard-holding backup passer. He started nine games for the St. Louis Rams last season and can capably manage a game or two when needed. Rivers has a good track record of durability, so Clemens' on-field services shouldn't be necessary.

Running Back

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    Donald Miralle/Getty Images

    Depth Chart

    1. Ryan Mathews, fifth season

    2. Danny Woodhead, sixth season

    3. Donald Brown, sixth season

    4. Marion Grice, first season

    5. Branden Oliver, first season


    San Diego's most intriguing unit is its three-headed monster at running back.

    Mathews finally stayed healthy in 2013 and was San Diego's heavy lifter in the second half of the season. He is a first- and second-down grinder that is capable of much more.

    Woodhead shines as a back who can catch out of the backfield and provide Rivers with a safety valve. He is one of the NFL's most unique weapons.

    Brown is a three-down back and free-agent pickup from the Indianapolis Colts. The big (for running backs) contract he signed shows that the Chargers are ready to employ a full-scale running back by committee in 2014.

    At first, San Diego’s plan doesn't seem sound—Mathews and Woodhead were excellent last season, so why split up their snaps with the merely good Brown?

    The answer lies in the role of each player—a common Chargers misconception is that Mathews and Woodhead were trading off runs up the middle. Mathews is indeed a between-the-tackles back, but Woodhead is the exact opposite. He carried the ball 108 times and ran a passing route 319 times, while Mathews carried 292 times and ran a passing route 137 times, per Pro Football Focus. Woodhead's role is more Darren Sproles than pre-Falcons Michael Turner.

    The role that Brown will play is Mathews' reliever, which makes sense, considering Mathews' extensive injury history. After he led the NFL in carries last December, Mathews broke down in the playoffs, suffering a left ankle injury versus the Cincinnati Bengals.

    There is a reason San Diego kept giving Mathews the ball last year—Ronnie Brown underwhelmed as the team's third running back, and the Chargers knew they had to find an upgrade for when Mathews needed a breather. Woodhead is good, but throwing him between the tackles is asking for trouble.

    The Chargers backfield is cramped, albeit more like a dormitory than a phone booth. There is room for all three players.

    Mathews should surpass 1,000 yards rushing again in 2014, assuming he stays healthy. Woodhead will likely surpass 500 yards receiving again. Brown is going to take a bite out of both players' statistics, as the front office needs to see if he can capably replace the contract-year Mathews for 2015. This is a jack of all trades, master of none group that makes the Chargers stand out from the rest of the NFL.

Wide Receiver

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    Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

    Depth Chart

    1. Keenan Allen, second season

    2. Malcom Floyd, 10th season

    3. Eddie Royal, seventh season

    4. Dontrelle Inman, fourth season

    4. Seyi Ajirotutu, fifth season


    San Diego's wide receiving corps is top-heavy with little upside after Allen and Floyd. Luckily, the Chargers lean on running backs and tight ends in the passing game more than most teams, so depth isn't a necessity here.

    Allen shined as a rookie, comfortably surpassing 1,000 yards as Rivers' No. 1 receiver and nearly willing the Chargers to victory in their playoff loss versus Denver. With an added speed element to his game, Allen is looking to offer more than just excellent hands, size and route running as a receiver. He will again be the Chargers' top target in 2014, even with the return of one of Rivers' favorite targets: Malcom Floyd.

    Floyd is back after missing all but two games in 2013 with a career-threatening neck injury. Tom Krasovic of The San Diego Union-Tribune says he hasn't missed a beat. That's a huge relief for San Diego, as it sorely missed Floyd's field-stretching presence. He might not put up Comeback Player of the Year-worthy statistics, but he will give Allen and the running backs more room to operate underneath. If age hasn't zapped his athleticism, the Chargers offense will flourish.

    Royal scored an impressive eight receiving touchdowns last season after scoring two total in 2011 and 2012. He will have a reduced role in the offense with Floyd back in the fold and might chip in as a punt returner. As far as No. 3 wide receivers go, Royal is about average across the board.

    Inman showed well in the preseason. Ajirotutu is on the roster for his special teams prowess rather than his receiving ability.

Tight End

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    Denis Poroy/Associated Press

    Depth Chart

    1. Antonio Gates, 12th season

    2. Ladarius Green, third season

    3. John Phillips, fifth season

    4. David Johnson, fifth season


    It's only a matter of time before Green usurps Gates as San Diego's premier tight end, but for now the depth chart favors production over potential.

    The 34-year-old Gates had 872 receiving yards last year, which was third-most among tight ends—that's a stat line even Tony Gonzalez would be proud of. In the final eight games of the season, however, Gates averaged just three catches and 27.8 yards receiving. With his athleticism declining, Gates will settle in as an underneath option and red-zone target for Rivers, while Green grabs the highlights.

    Green's hype train is filled with football writers from every corner of the Internet. At 6'6" with a 4.45 40-yard dash, it's easy to see why. Green tallied 376 receiving yards last year with a ridiculous 22.1 yards per catch. While Gates looks to pound defensive backs, Green zips by them and catches anything within the hemisphere. His ability is absurdly tantalizing, and in the right situation he can easily become a Pro Bowl tight end.

    Still, Green's breakout season will be determined by how many balls are thrown his way, not by the amount of fantasy football sleeper articles written about him. And judging by his preseason usage, Green's role could be much more similar to that of 2013.

    Perhaps San Diego wants to keep Green under wraps for the regular season, or maybe the team fears he could get hurt. Either way, his stock is indeed rising, just not as high as everyone might expect it to. Gates and Green splitting 650 receiving yards between them wouldn't be surprising.

    Phillips and Johnson are known more for their blocking than their catching prowess, which relegates them to a brief sentence in articles like this.

Offensive Line

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Depth Chart: First String, Second String

    Left Tackle: King Dunlap, Willie Smith

    Left Guard: Chad Rinehart

    Center: Nick Hardwick, Rich Ohrnberger

    Right Guard: Johnnie Troutman, Chris Watt

    Right Tackle: D.J. Fluker


    The Chargers' offensive line surprised and thrived last season, particularly with its run blocking—that won't change this year. Any pass-blocking deficiencies are masked by Rivers' quick release.

    The left side of the line, plus the center, should be just as good as in 2013. Dunlap is one of the NFL's best run-blocking tackles, and he has shored up his pass blocking enough to stick as Rivers' blindside protector. Rinehart is a versatile run-blocker who was called for just two penalties in 11 games last year. Hardwick is the group's veteran, starting in every Chargers game since 2010—he doesn't have a single weakness in his game.

    Barring injury, the left side is not a point of interest. What will either take the offense to the next level or severely damage it are the starters at right guard and right tackle.

    Fluker imposed his will in the running game as a rookie yet couldn't handle quicker pass-rushers on the edge. The scouting report didn't lie. A full season at right tackle—he was out of his element at left tackle in four games as a rookie—should make Fluker an improved and more seasoned player, but his preseason wasn't a promising sign.

    Fluker becoming Dunlap's right-side clone would not be stunning. He just needs to become competent in pass protection. For now, he’s a powerful run-blocker whom opponents can expose in pass protection.

    Right guard briefly looked like a spot of competition in the preseason. The Chargers are going to stick with the veteran Troutman over the impressive rookie Watt, per The San Diego Union-Tribune’s Kevin Acee. Troutman missed numerous blocks in the exhibition and is best suited as a backup—the sooner Watt develops, the better. Right guard is the Chargers' biggest question mark on the line.

    The depth of this unit is a concern. Willie Smith is a capable swing tackle who can give the Chargers a boost in the running game. After him, there isn't much. Jeromey Clary will start the year on the PUP list and will miss at least six weeks. He started 15 games at right guard and right tackle last year.

Defensive Line

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Depth Chart: First String, Second String

    Left Defensive End: Kendall Reyes, Lawrence Guy

    Nose Tackle: Sean Lissemore, Ryan Carrethers

    Right Defensive End: Corey Liuget, Tenny Palepoi


    This unit lives and dies by the play of Liuget, a 2011 first-round pick with exceptional acceleration and strength. He is one of the NFL's best 3-4 defensive ends at rushing the passer—it showed versus the 49ers in Week 3 of the preseason, as he bullied a usually great San Francisco offensive line. Nine sacks and a Pro Bowl berth are both realistic possibilities.

    The two positions next to Liuget might not be so great.

    Lissemore is a reliable nose tackle who can clog interior running lanes. He dodged a serious ankle injury in the preseason, so he should be ready to go for Week 1. He offers little as a pass-rusher.

    Lissemore must stay healthy; otherwise, the Chargers will have to commit to the rookie Carrethers. Carrethers showed well in the Chargers' final preseason game but still needs time to adjust to the NFL coming out of Arkansas State.

    Reyes is a sieve in run defense, and the Chargers really need to let him run as a one-gap penetrator instead of a two-gap run-stuffer. Reyes doesn't have much upside in his current role, so any additional return the Chargers get out of him would be surprising and incredibly helpful. More double-teams against Liuget should help him out.

    Any additional injuries to the Chargers' already shaky run defense is asking for trouble. This is a very thin unit for San Diego, and health is its first priority for 2014 success.

Linebacker

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    Depth Chart: First String, Second String

    Left Outside Linebacker: Jarret Johnson, Tourek Williams

    Left Inside Linebacker: Manti Te’o, Reggie Walker, Andrew Gachkar

    Right Inside Linebacker: Donald Butler, Kavell Connor

    Right Outside Linebacker: Melvin Ingram, Dwight Freeney, Jerry Attaochu


    Besides the veterans Johnson and Freeney, San Diego's linebackers are young with plenty of talent to spare. Te'o, Butler and Ingram are all 25 or younger and were second-, third- and first-round draft selections, respectively. San Diego needs all three to take a big step forward.

    Te'o showed well as a rookie, getting a plus-5.2 pass coverage grade from Pro Football Focus, which was the second-highest pass coverage grade of any Chargers player.

    Te'o's problem is keeping his feet healthy. A sprained left foot sidelined him for the final two weeks of the preseason, and he sprained his right foot last year, which required surgery. If Te'o is on the field, his tackling will improve, and the Chargers won't be forced to go with a less appealing alternative.

    Te'o isn't the only Chargers linebacker with a recent injury history—Ingram tore his ACL early in 2013 and did little to show his first-round pedigree late in the season. He is a top-flight athlete and solid versus the run—he just needs more pass-rushing moves.

    Ingram has barely played more than one season, so there is room to grow, which is just what the Chargers need. Six or more sacks would be a nice showing this season.

    San Diego signed Butler to a multiyear contract in February. He is an ideal three-down linebacker who can cover tight ends and running backs. San Diego just needs him to stay healthy and improve his technique versus the run. Besides Liuget, he is San Diego's best player in the front seven.

    Freeney will be used often, as he is San Diego's most proven pass-rusher. He generated plenty of pressure last season in four games before suffering a torn quadriceps. At 34 years old, it's unknown how much Freeney has left in the tank. A situational role is best suited for him.

    Most of the backups have NFL experience but don't offer much outside of special teams. The rookie Attaochu has a nice combination of strength and speed—spending a year under the savvy Freeney should help his development. He could push for snaps late in the season.

    This group will struggle consistently generating pressure unless Ingram breaks out. Early lumps are to be expected, but the long-term outlook is promising.

Cornerback

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Depth Chart

    1. Brandon Flowers, seventh season

    2. Shareece Wright, fourth season

    3. Jason Verrett, first season

    4. Richard Marshall, ninth season

    5. Steve Williams, second season

    6. Chris Davis, first season


    The additions of Flowers and Verrett suddenly make this group of cornerbacks a viable one. The two oft-burned veterans, Wright and Marshall, were at the top of the depth chart in 2013. It's a decent top four that would benefit from Verrett growing into the No. 2 role by the end of the season.

    After being cut by the Chiefs in June, Flowers is ready to show that his underwhelming 2013 was due to Kansas City's press-man scheme rather than his skill. He is far and away the Chargers' best cornerback. His one-year contract could be a steal.

    Verrett is the team's highly touted first-round pick. He will start the year in sub-packages as he gets used to game speed. At his best, Verrett is a small, quick corner who sticks to receivers like glue and impresses in run support. He only played a few snaps in the preseason due to surgery.

    Wright and Marshall will benefit from smaller roles. Williams was a 2013 draft pick who still needs development. Davis played well in the preseason. He is best known for his game-winning touchdown return versus Alabama.

Safety

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    Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

    Depth Chart: First String, Second String

    Strong Safety: Marcus Gilchrist, Jahleel Addae

    Free Safety: Eric Weddle, Darrell Stuckey


    San Diego should enjoy quality safety play this season.

    Weddle is the Chargers' best defender by far and led the team in tackles last year. The two-time Pro Bowler hasn't missed a game since 2010. His presence in pass coverage is why the Chargers are able to get away with subpar cornerback play.

    Gilchrist was a refreshing surprise in 2013—he converted from cornerback to strong safety and adapted well, particularly in run support. As Bleacher Report's Matt Miller noted, he needs to make quicker decisions in coverage. He should be more comfortable playing the position this season.

    Addae and Stuckey are fine backups. Addae, a 2013 undrafted free agent, saw frequent playing time near the end of 2013 and impressed. His status as a backup is just a formality—the Chargers use plenty of three-safety packages. Stuckey is a special teams ace.

Special Teams

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    Denis Poroy/Associated Press

    Depth Chart

    Kicker: Nick Novak, seventh season

    Punter: Mike Scifres, 12th season

    Long Snapper: Mike Windt, fifth season


    Novak made all 11 of his attempts from 40 yards or more last season. Scifres has been with the Bolts since 2003. In kickoff and punt coverage, Ajirotutu, Stuckey and Weddle are the top dogs.

X-Factors

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    Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

    Melvin Ingram

    Ingram is the only Chargers edge-rusher who can generate pressure besides the aging Freeney. "Can" is the key word here—Ingram has the ability to dominate an offense, but he hasn't shown it in his small sample of regular-season games.

    The Chargers cannot afford to have Ingram become Larry English 2.0—they need him to be the player who controlled 49ers Pro Bowler Joe Staley for all 16 games.

    A breakout season from Ingram would give the Chargers the type of edge-rusher they haven't seen since the days of Shawne Merriman. Opposing quarterbacks had an average quarterback rating of 96.4 versus the Chargers last season, which was fifth-worst in the NFL. Passers have the green light to take their time throwing against San Diego—in a division where the Denver Broncos loom large, that cannot be understated.

    Te'o or Butler's ascension would also help the San Diego defense. However, neither player has as low of a floor and as high of a ceiling as Ingram does.

     

    Ryan Mathews

    It is safe to say Mathews is not the second coming of LaDainian Tomlinson. Still, he is the most important player in the Chargers offense not named Rivers.

    San Diego placed sixth in the NFL with 486 rushing attempts in 2013. Mathews had 285 of those carries. The offense also averaged 6.6 plays per drive and had an average drive time of three minutes and 13 seconds, both first in the league. Mathews led the NFL in carries last December, during which San Diego went 4-1 and squeezed into the playoffs.

    Rivers may be the star of the team, but Mathews' ability to wear down a defense defines how the Chargers like to play.

    If Mathews goes down with an injury—not a bold scenario—San Diego will have to rely on Donald Brown and Danny Woodhead to pick up the slack. Brown has never surpassed 134 carries in a season. Woodhead's career high is 106.

    A healthy Mathews means the Chargers can continue their grinding style of football. That means fewer chances for offenses to take advantage of their defense.

     

    Jason Verrett

    San Diego's recent history of drafting cornerbacks is poor. Quentin Jammer lasted a long time with the Bolts, but he never made a Pro Bowl. Antonio Cromartie had one great season before going to New York. Antoine Cason did little.

    Will Verrett break this disappointing trend?

    What is working in his favor is the addition of Flowers. Flowers can handle No. 1 receivers, so Verrett won't have too much on his plate as a rookie. However, that plan goes flying out the window if Flowers' poor 2013 wasn't a fluke.

    Even if Flowers returns to his usual self, a one-two punch at cornerback is much more threatening to the Broncos than one good corner and a band of misfits. Early returns from Verrett would boost the confidence of San Diego's defense and its front office.

Biggest Games

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    Denis Poroy/Associated Press

    Week 7 vs. Kansas City Chiefs

    If the Chargers and Chiefs truly are battling for second place in the AFC West, then their first matchup at San Diego will be crucial.

    The Chargers offense versus the Chiefs defense will be stacked with Pro Bowl talents, but the opposite units will be just as important, if not more so.

    Kansas City's offensive line lost two key starters in tackle Branden Albert and guard Geoff Schwartz, while the Chargers haven't had a quality edge-rusher since Shaun Phillips. Whichever side exceeds expectations will have the advantage.

    The loser of this game will be playing catch-up until the Chiefs and Chargers' second matchup in Week 17. By then it could be too late.

     

    Week 13 at Baltimore Ravens

    San Diego can't sleep on this game.

    Even though the Ravens are coming off a disappointing 2013, they should never be considered pushovers. Any other week the Chargers would be fully aware of this but not in Week 13. Games versus the Patriots, Broncos and 49ers the next three weeks will cast an imposing shadow—it won't be easy for San Diego to focus exclusively on Baltimore.

    A win for the Chargers here would be nothing extraordinary, but a loss would be disastrous. The team would have to make up lost ground by stealing at least one game from one of three Super Bowl contenders. Not easy.

     

    Week 16 at San Francisco 49ers

    Just a few weeks ago, the Chargers battered the 49ers' first-team offense with a tenacious pass rush from Liuget and Ingram in preseason action.

    Can lightning strike twice?

    An imposing game from the Chargers defense is required for a Week 16 win. San Francisco will have NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith rounding into game shape at this point, which won't make things easy for San Diego's offense.

    Liuget must be at his peak in this match. We've seen him bottle up San Francisco's running game before. We've seen him take down Colin Kaepernick. Now let's see it in a game that counts.

Media Quick Hits

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    Donald Miralle/Getty Images

    Ryan Wilson of CBSSports.com picks the Chargers to win the AFC West, citing Peyton Manning's health as an issue that could derail Denver's season.

    Solomon Wilcots of NFL Network says the Chargers will go back into the playoffs if the secondary improves. He says that all depends on how good Flowers is in a Chargers uniform.

    In the same video, Shawne Merriman says that he wants to see what happens with former offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt now in Tennessee and if the Chargers' offense can stay on track despite the loss.

    LaVar Arrington picks the Chargers to finish third in the AFC West. He said on NFL Network that defense is crucial in the division and the Chiefs have the advantage over the Chargers in that category. Eric Davis says the Chargers will make the 2014 playoffs in the same video.

    Out of 11 analysts on NFL.com, only Dave Dameshek picked the San Diego Chargers to win the AFC West. Everyone else picked the Broncos.

    Bleacher Report's Ryan Riddle projects the Chargers to finish at 6-10 due to their tough schedule.

    Pat Kirwan of CBSSports.com says the Chargers will make the playoffs and finish again at 9-7.

Season Outlook

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    Denis Poroy/Associated Press

    2013 was a minor miracle for the Chargers, as the team's expectations were so low. The offensive line was in shambles. Floyd was the team's only viable receiver, and Rivers was coming off his worst season as a pro. A record of 6-10 would not have been surprising.

    In 2014, San Diego making the playoffs for the second straight season isn't that far-fetched. The Chiefs are hurting on offense, and matchups against Oakland, Buffalo, Jacksonville and St. Louis are all winnable. Outside of New England, Denver and Indianapolis, there are no safe bets to clinch a playoff berth in the AFC, so the Chargers should have two wild-card spots to work with.

    If the Chargers plan on going deep into the playoffs, however, they're going to have to fare well during the brutal December stretch of New England, Denver and San Francisco. Getting out of that alive with a winning record would mean the Chargers can compete with anyone. After all, they will definitely see the Patriots or Broncos in January. If they see the 49ers in the postseason, that's probably a good thing.

    Put the Chargers down at 10-6, even though their schedule is no cakewalk during the second half of the season. San Diego's offense is uniquely devastating, and its defensive ceiling is much higher this year. It all begins Monday night.

     

    Depth chart data is via OurLads.com. All statistics are via Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.

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