A Look at the San Diego Chargers Offseason: Part I
As the season ended a game or two earlier than expected, the time has come to give a preliminary look at the San Diego Chargers as a whole. Stepping away from a concrete grading system, we’ll take a look position-by-position at just where San Diego stands with the roster as it presently holds.
As a note: While the playoff match is freshest in everyone’s heads, an attempt not to over-weigh that match will be set down here. When the dust clears and who will and won’t be re-signed is decided, a look at actual personnel moves to potentially shore up areas will be presented in Part Two of the offseason look.
The playoff game wasn’t his best, but one costly interception aside, Rivers did enough for the team to win. The team packaged up a long-term deal that puts him as the face of the Chargers for the foreseeable future. As the third highest vote-getter in MVP voting (albeit just two), the quarterback is just about the most stable position on the team.
Backup Billy Volek is a great addition and he is good enough to hold his own when pressed into duty. However, he's not a threat to try and get himself off the team to seek out a starter’s spot elsewhere.
Possible Needs: What do you think of Charlie Whitehurst? Rivers is young and signed long-term and Volek is one of the better backups and is not likely to depart.
Vincent Jackson put up Pro Bowl numbers and had his stats tempered by sharing the wealth with other quality options. Jackson posted 1,167 yards on 68 catches over the course of the year, including nine touchdowns. He improved on every major statistical category from 2008.
Behind him, Floyd earned the other starter’s role and he evolved into the job after spending the bulk of his career as a high yardage/low reception deep threat.
I have more confidence in Floyd’s capacity to develop into the No. 2 role than I did when the job was first handed him, as he posted at least three catches in the team’s final eight games. As the third, rather than second option in the passing game, he doesn’t need to be a Pro Bowler.
Legedu Naanee is a versatile, albeit less traditional receiver, who can be used in a variety of ways, especially taking screens and other passes that utilize his ability after the catch. He’s a young, low budget guy that may never put up 40-50 catches or 500+ yards, but he is great for his niche.
Buster Davis is essentially un-rateable. He had a good game against Washington in the season finale, snagging six catches, but as the fourth option at best behind Jackson, Floyd, and Gates and still making first rounder draft-pick money, he’s expensive as a depth guy who may develop if he can stay healthy.
Possible Needs: With a lot of size and strength out of the receiving corps, the one thing the team could use is a quicker, shiftier wide out that can line up in the slot and be more productive running slants on quick drops or short timing routes. This would be especially useful if the running game puts up similar numbers in 2010, as it prevents putting a bulls-eye on the quarterback.
Antonio Gates is an elite receiving threat period, not just at his position. He will never be a road-paver, but he has shown more willingness when asked to block this season. With 79 receptions for nearly 1,200 yards, he looks to stamp his place as one of the all-time greats at tight end.
Behind him, Brandon Manumaleuna is a sixth offensive lineman when it comes to blocking. He's a load at 6’2", 295 pounds. He also has shown the ability to occasionally make a catch when called upon, usually utilizing the fact that teams look him off in the passing game. His first year in San Diego without double digit catches stemmed more from the pieces around him than through any fault of his own.
Third on the depth chart is Kris Wilson, who was buried behind the offensive talent in San Diego and was a bit of an unknown until his playoff touchdown. He posted okay numbers in his final year with Kansas City, but he won’t be afforded much opportunity in San Diego
Possible Needs: While essentially set at the position, the one thing they could use is another bigger body with respectable hands. At 6’2", 245 pounds, Wilson isn’t built for big goal line sets. A tight end more in the 6’2" or 6’3", 255-265 pound range would be a nice addition.
As with the rest of the article, this is looking at what the present, not at what is likely in the future.
Ladainian Tomlinson’s had an off year, averaging only 3.3 yards per carry on his way to 730 yards. It was his first sub 1,000 yard season, as well as first sub 50 catch year (he had 20 receptions for 154 yards).
Some was by way of injury, some was because of a patchwork offensive line and no true blocker to ride behind. Ultimately however, he lacked the crispness of years past and posted only one game over 75 yards (a 96 yard effort against a porous Chiefs defense). Its unfortunate, but hard to argue that the miles have finally caught up to him.
Behind him, Sproles had a tough year as well (a sign not all of the ground-game downturn was running back centric). With defenses more aware of the speedster, he was stunted far more often than in years past. In the five games where he carried more than seven times, he never averaged more than 2.9 yards per carry. But as a receiving back he had a career year, putting up nearly 500 yards on 45 catches.
Hester and Tolbert split the fullback duty, with Hester technically being the starter. Neither distinguished themselves as a lead-blocker. With one 15-yard run against Kansas City taken out of the equation, Hester averaged 2.85 yards a carry on 20 attempts. He also averaged about the same yardage per catch with nine receptions.
Tolbert proved more useful with ball-in-hand on limited opportunities. He put up 5.9 yards per carry on 25 attempts, while posting 17 receptions for nearly 200 yards.
Possible Needs: A big body. At halfback they need a big pile-mover who can pick up a first down on third-and-one or two as well as grind out against a front seven when holding on to a lead. The capacity to break tackles rather than slip through gaps is better suited to the team’s current run-blocking situation.
Aside from that, a big fullback that can lead block would be a nice luxury as well.
The unit spent the year banged up and shifting around. The team tied for sixth fewest sacks given up on the year (26) despite a pass-centric attack and immobile quarterback. They were far less effective in run blocking, getting little push and opening up few holes for whomever was running the ball.
Nick Hardwick is a Pro Bowl center when healthy, but he has been out or slowed for much of the last two years. The other "sure bet" element is Marcus McNeill, a 26-year old Pro Bowl tackle. These two are young, proven, and a great foundation when Hardwick is healthy.
Luis Vasquez should evolve into a solid starter. He was hurt to start the year and is still learning the offense> But he held down the starter’s role as a rookie for the duration and with another year of development he should be a good addition.
Around these three were an array of players who shifted positions and who worked to try and maintain some cohesion. Scott Mruczkowski, Brandon Dombrowski, and Jeromey Clary were the mainstays among the position-shifters.
All are solid backups who can spot-start, but none should be in there for 16 games. This especially goes for Clary, who on a completely healthy roster is the team’s starting right tackle.
Possible Needs: A starting right tackle. With a healthy Hardwick, a solid, but unspectacular Dielman, and another year’s development for Vasquez, the middle should be solid.
The capacity to put a true starter at right tackle gives them great depth and versatility among the team’s backups and should dramatically improve the run blocking.
Antonio Cromartie was selected as an alternate for the 2010 Pro Bowl after he also nearly lost his starting role to Antoine Cason early in the year. His coverage skills showed improvement and his athleticism is fantastic. He is a poor tackler however, and followed up his 10 pick 2007 season with half that total in the last two years combined.
On the other side, Quentin Jammer is one of the more unsung players on the team. He is one of the more physical cornerbacks and loves to hit. The later stages of his career could easily see a transition to safety with his skill-set. He isn’t the ballhawk Cromartie can be, as he has never snagged more than four picks in a year, but is a solid and a stable element to the team.
Antoine Cason challenged Cromartie for a fleeting moment for the starter’s job, then proceeded to lose his nickel-role to safety Steven Gregory. More than any other defensive position, cornerbacks tend to take time to develop and might not be stars right out of the gate. With a few flashes, Cason showed the capacity to develop and rates an incomplete for now.
Possible Needs: Really dependent on Cason’s development. The team’s five-deep safety roster handles depth at defensive back well, so an eventual successor to 30-year old Jammer if Cason doesn’t evolve into a starter, or a coverage/nickel guy if he can.
Kevin Ellison will not be unseating Troy Polamalu, but he is a good hitter and the team’s run defense improved considerably when he came in and Clinton Hart went out.
Eric Weddle at free safety is not the roving cover-guy like Ed Reed, but is stable and is a good blitzing safety. He's a bit of a tweener and makes for a good steward of the role.
Steve Gregory and Paul Oliver are not threats to take either starting role, but perform well as extra DB’s in nickel and dime packages, with Gregory especially solid as the team’s fifth DB on the depth chart.
Possible Needs: Adequate everywhere but also unremarkable in the same. Something closer to a true coverage guy at free safety is probably the more beneficial option. Perhaps undrafted rookie CJ Spillman can develop there?
Very tough to judge, as the top two tackles saw virtually no time (backup Ryon Bingham injured before the regular season started, starter Jamal Williams out after one game). The rotation of replacements did well enough for the team to survive, but barring something drastic (like an unexpected retirement) rookie project Janadian footballer Vaughn Martin is probably the only one in the equation, and is very much a project.
On the outside, the team has three prototypical 3-4 ends in Castillo, Cesaire, and Boone. None are pass-rushing threats (and you won’t want any dropping into coverage in a zone-blitz), but at 290, 295, and 304 pounds, they are good at taking up blockers and clogging outside lanes.
Possible Needs: An heir apparent to Jamal Williams. He’ll be 34 when the 2010 season rolls around and has creaky knees and an injury history. Bingham is an adequate backup, but has a 4-3 build and is not suited to starting in the role.
Martin has the frame but is too raw to pile ones hopes on for a position so vital to this formation of defense. Should Martin show he can be the guy, then a depth guy at end is also on the billet.
The deepest area of the team’s defense, the quartet served as more an active rotation than a true starter/backup situation.
Brandon Siler comes away from 2009 as the highlight player of the position. A special teams and depth guy when the year started, he received additional opportunities through injuries and used it to springboard to the front of the depth chart.
Behind him, Kevin Burnett came into the team as the only free agent signing of the offseason. He and Siler combine with Burnett handling more obvious passing situations and Siler more in place in run-focused situations.
On the other side, Tim Dobbins helps in the rotation. Dobbins earned his way as a depth guy to see added time as the team let former starters go.
Cooper has seen the most starting time of any, but he is a little undersized at 235 pounds and as the only middle linebacker over 27 (he's 30) he could see a few of his snaps going to the other three.
Possible Needs: While covering tight ends is an issue with the team, the questionable situation at nose tackle means a hard-banging run stuffer in the mold of a Rey Maualuga would probably benefit the team more in terms of being a complete/rounded defense with Tim Dobbins as the only one presently over 240 pounds.
On paper, this should be the absolute strength of the defense, but the translation into 2009 did not fare too well. Shawne Merriman spent the year trying to regain his old form and never quite did. He battled injuries that sidelined him for two games, but also slowed him for the rest. On the year he tallied 36 tackles (26 solo) and four sacks.
Besides him, Shaun Phillips also had a down year with seven sacks, but has proven consistent as a complimentary pass rusher, with at least seven sacks in each of his five years as a starter.
Rookie Larry English showed flashes behind the two. He had the athleticism but not the technique, batting down passes but unable to penetrate for more than two sacks.
Possible Needs: Working again off the assumption of this article (judging positions based on who is on the roster) the development of English and/or a return to form of Merriman rank far ahead of any potential additions.