San Diego entered the offseason coming off a 13-3 year with three predominant holes—a starting running back, cornerback depth, and a bigger body in the nose tackle rotation.
San Diego filled out depth at corner while upgrading the nickel position when they signed free agents Nathan Vasher and Donald Strickland.
The needs at running back and nose tackle were addressed when San Diego selected Fresno State running back Ryan Mathews in the first round and 330-pound North Carolina alum Cam Thomas in the fifth round.
With those needs addressed, San Diego’s lineup looks more geared towards the types of smaller complaints that cannot be avoided in the imperfect world that is the current NFL landscape.
So what are those needs, and what might San Diego do to address them at this late hour?
Third/Slot Wide Receiver
San Diego is very talented at the top with Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd. Both look to be a 1,000 yard-each tandem for the next few years as long as the Chargers can keep both under contract. Behind them, however, the position gets interesting.
Former first-round pick Craig “Buster” Davis is the most pure receiver behind Floyd and Jackson, but injury and slow development make it difficult to rely on him as anything more than a deep reserve until he can prove himself.
With only 10 receptions in five games for 111 yards over the past two years is not that kind of proof.
Legedu Naanee is proving himself a versatile and valuable option that has worked himself onto the field far more often than Davis. He is a probably the best candidate should San Diego elect to run a wildcat variation, while also displaying great ability after the catch.
Unfortunately, he is still an instinct-over-technique guy, whose route running is extremely raw. He can make good things happen when he gets the football in his hands, but how the team goes about doing that can be limited on traditional passing plays.
So how does San Diego address the position?
A true slot receiver is less of a concern for the team than most because of the receiving abilities of Darren Sproles and Antonio Gates, which reduces the number of three wideout sets the team needs to run.
But depth is still a concern.
Naanee is the receiving equivalent of a change-of-pace running back, not suited to stepping in for a full-time role while Davis has the potential, but cannot be counted upon.
The team may have taken steps to address it in the moments following the final rounds of the NFL draft when it signed undrafted free agent wideout Jeremy Williams.
He is not the tiny speedster one would envision of a traditional slot-receiver at 6’0’’, 205 lbs., but compared to the current top three he is far more suited to that role.
He is a wideout whose third-round talent was marred by injury that dropped him out of the draft picture (despite a fourth- or fifth-round projection) and made most of the top-five lists among undrafted talent.
In addition to being a decent fit in the slot and providing depth, Williams also gives the team another potential return threat in the event Darren Sproles cannot be signed after the 2010 season ends.
Luis Castillo and Jacques Cesaire combine as a solid, but unspectacular, pair of workmanlike ends that fit fairly well into the 3-4 alignment. While it would be nice to have a more dynamic end that will make plays behind the line of scrimmage, that is more of a luxury than a need.
But behind the pair, Alfonso Boone is something of a question mark. He was a solid pickup when San Diego’s defensive line depth was getting ravaged and even chipped in three sacks (one less than Shawne Merriman).
Yet for the value he provided last year, Boone is a 34-year-old, 300-pounder who should be a reserve rather than rotation guy fairly soon.
The options for this position grow very interesting. San Diego’s injury woes last year gave them a host of reserve linemen that tread the line between end and tackle.
With the team well stocked at the top of the 2011 draft despite this year’s numerous trade-ups, the position becomes a top candidate for a second-day selection by the team.
As insurance however the team also should look to either Vaughn Martin or Travis Johnson to take over that third position in the rotation.
The sudden depth available for a nose tackle rotation including Cam Thomas, Ogemdi Nwagbuo, Aaron Garay, Ian Scott, and Ryon Bingham means they have become nonessential at the position.
Johnson and Martin are both fairly tall (6’3’’ and 6’4’’ respectively) with good wingspans and decent mobility for their size.
That combination of good length and speed is underutilized as a middle-clogging zero-technique, but in wrapping up the outside and chasing down running backs it would be on display fully and make a great contrast to the blue-collar play of Castillo and Cesaire.
San Diego was a mid-ranked team in terms of sack totals in 2009 with 35, however 14 of those occurred in a three game flurry between weeks seven and nine.
Across the other 13 games, the team averaged 1.6 sacks per game (a pace that would have left them tied for 29th with the Detroit Lions at 26 sacks).
San Diego’s inability to get pressure consistently could grow to be a disadvantage as the league grows more and more pass-happy.
A big reason for last year’s decline was the combination of Jamal Williams’ season-ending injury and Merriman’s string of smaller playable injuries.
Without a clog in the middle to tie up extra blockers, offenses were free to put an additional body on Merriman or Phillips and keep the San Diego pass rush slowed.
Given what has transpired thus far this offseason, it would appear San Diego’s primary solution has been to shore up the nose position and bank of Merriman’s return to form.
If it works San Diego will benefit well from not making a knee-jerk reaction in pursuit of a rookie replacement for Merriman.
Should he fail to return to dominance, however, the Chargers will have to look elsewhere to find a way to put pressure on the opposing quarterback.
The best solution given the personnel at hand would be to risk the ire of Merriman by increasing Larry English’s workload in obvious passing situations.
English is still very raw as a smaller school defensive end converting to outside linebacker. He doesn’t have the size and pure strength of Merriman, which could allow him to be pushed around somewhat by a power running game.
While he refines his technique, however, he already has the tools to be a potentially solid passing-down specialist. He lacks technique and vision in coverage, but his speed and athleticism already make him better at staying back in coverage than the bull rush-focused Merriman.
He was already highly successful at attacking the quarterback coming into the league, and that is where his game needs the least refinement. He won’t drive a lineman into the backfield like Merriman in his prime, but adds more of a speed-rush element that can be highly disruptive.
English is likely more of a complimentary OLB that will probably never develop into a 12-15 sack powerhouse across his career, but for 2010, he and Philips may just be the better pair when knowing that the other team is going to pass.
For a few years now, San Diego fans have been clamoring for an upgrade at the right tackle position while Chargers brass remains confident in developing youngster Jeromy Clary.
Clary is a capable lineman who has solid technique and versatility. Unfortunately, he is somewhat lacking in terms of strength and lateral movement, which makes him vulnerable in both the running game and against speed rushers.
Brandyn Dombrowski filled in well when Clary was injured, and though his quickness and burst off the line are still limited, he has a good frame and gets solid leverage.
This means that while Clary is a better overall blocker now, it might behoove the team to work Dombrowski into a more prominent role.
There will be growing pains in the start to the year while Dombrowski develops better instincts, but with a relatively easy opening schedule this could be the ideal way to not be hamstrung by growing pains.
The payoff could be a more athletic, versatile starting tackle by playoff time that can perform as well as Clary in pass blocking, while adding better pop and drive in the running game.
Another potential option for the position could be the as-yet unsigned Ciron Black, who passed through this past weekend undrafted.
He was at one time a potential third-round candidate who fell hard due to poor measurables and concerns over dedication and conditioning.
Because of those knocks he would not have been on the radar as a candidate to draft, but his high boom-bust potential could make him a great value as an undrafted signee.
If the fact that he emerged from draft weekend unclaimed can light a fire under his poor work-ethic. Then, perhaps, San Diego could develop a bargain that may lack the tools to be a Pro-Bowler, but provide a solid all-around lineman.
At the very least, the team would be bringing on board another potential multi-position reserve that could give the team depth along both tackles (while ill-suited to the left at a pro level, he does bring experience there) as well as guard.