With training camp just under way, and the preseason right around the corner, hopes have never been higher in sunny San Diego.
And why shouldn't they be? The Chargers are coming off a season that saw them advance further than they had ever done since their Super Bowl season of '94 and they won their first playoff game in over a decade.
But like all teams around the league, the Chargers need to address certain questions about their team if they hope to be making a February visit to Tampa Bay.
Here my five burning questions the Chargers need to answer before the start of the season, if they hope to make this season as "Super" as they hope to.
1. Who will be the third cornerback?
With the departure of talented, but mistake prone, CB Drayton Florence to Jacksonville, and the two starting CB jobs locked up by Quentin Jammer and Antonio Cromartie, the Chargers need to find out who will be the third CB early on, so that they can get as much time with the first team as possible, in preparation for the season.
Why It Matters
The Chargers have established themselves as part of the NFL's elite, joining New England and Indianapolis, respectively. It is these two teams that make the need to find the third CB so urgent. Both of these teams have a trio of talented receivers and like to use them as often as they can.
If the Chargers hope to advance to the big game, they will need to beat at least one, if not both, of these teams to get there. The right corner will go a long way to accomplishing that.
Cason, the big-play corner from Arizona, was the Chargers' first-round pick in last April's draft, and he has really impressed the coaching staff in offseason workouts. Cason just ended a short holdout and was there for the first full-team practice. He figures to run with the first-team defense and is the lead candidate for the job. If he does win the battle, the Chargers' defense will feature three first-round cornerbacks.
Oliver was a fourth-round supplemental draft pick for the Chargers in 2007. Oliver saw limited time in preseason and was relegated to the practice squad. Oliver has made strides this offseason, while impressing the coaches. Oliver is also seeing time as the backup safety.
Gordon, a three-year undrafted veteran saw the most playing time of his career last season, as he contributed on special teams and saw time at corner in certain situations last year. Gordon, whose nickname is "Flash", has the ideal size and speed to play corner, though his lack of experience hurts him.
The Winner: Antoine Cason
The Chargers didn't draft him in the first round if they weren't going to play him. Expect for him to see a lot of time in preseason and be the third corner on opening day.
2. Who is backing up L.T.?
Why It Matters
With LaDainian Tomlinson suffering the first injury of his career—and he's not getting any younger—they need a competent backup to come in and spell him when needed. L.T.'s most important carries will be taking place in the postseason, and the Chargers would like to make sure their star is fresh for the playoffs. They don't want him taking any unnecessary damage.
Sproles is a special-teams ace that proved he was a threat to take it all the way last season. Just ask the Colts. Sproles has blazing speed, but is too undersized—5'6", 180lbs—to be the bruising backup the Chargers need to wear down defenses when L.T. wants a breath. While Sproles will play an important part in the Chargers' offense, don't expect him to be the pounding defenses in the middle while L.T. is on the sideline.
The Chargers gave up a lot to take Jacob Hester in the third round of last April's draft, but the team considers him worth it. Hester impressed scouts and coaches with his versatility, as he can do anything asked of him: catch, run, block. Hester fits very well into Norv Turner's offense, which requires a pass-catching H-back, and Hester figures to be that guy. Hester also has the size to pound the middle and wear defenses down.
The fifth-round pick out of UTEP proved himself an effective runner, as well as receiver. Like Hester, Thomas has the size the Chargers want at 6'2", 215lbs. The Chargers hope Thomas has as much success as the last fifth-round back they picked, one Michael Turner.
The Winner: All of Them
The Chargers figure to use a running-back-by-committee approach to their backup situation. Sproles and Hester will both play special teams and can be used effectively on offense in certain situations. Meanwhile, Thomas shows similarities to Michael Turner (besides the initials) and figures to have a part in the offense as well.
3. Who replaces Stephen Cooper?
Starting MLB Stephen Cooper is out with a four-game suspension for testing positive for a recently banned stimulant. His absence leaves one of the opening spots open for the first month of the season.
Why It Matters
The linebackers are the strength of the Chargers' defense, and Cooper's production (he led the team with 179 tackles last year) will be hard to replace. The 3-4 defense goes as far as their front seven goes, and without Cooper, the entire defense could suffer. They need to find an adequate replacement in time for the start of the season.
Smith, one of the Chargers' two free-agent signings has the veteran experience the Chargers need to fill Cooper's role. He also has experience in the 3-4, as he started for the 49ers the past year.
The Chargers' 2006 third-round draft pick has first-round talent, but he missed all of last year with an injury he suffered in college. Waters was recently put onto the Chargers' PUP list because of recent surgery on his knee. While Waters has the talent to start, him missing time because of the surgery hurts his chances to start on opening day.
The Winner: Derek Smith
With his starting experience and veteran leadership Smith is the safe choice and the most likely to win the job.
4. Is Jeromey Clary the answer at RT?
Former starter Shane Olivea was let go in the offseason and signed with the Giants. Unproven Jeromey Clary will take his place on one of the most talented offensive lines in football.
Why It Matters
Everyone knows the game is won in the trenches, and the elite teams usually have the best lines in the game. If Clary is unable to do the job the Chargers expect him to do, the whole offense, and the team's Super Bowl hopes, may suffer because of it.
What To Expect
After several disappointing performances, Olivea was replaced by Clary, who started all three playoff games. He performed well in all three contests and has thus proven to be capable of starting. Don't expect him to miss a beat. He should continue where he left off.
5. The Injuries
Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates, LaDainian Tomlinson, Nick Hardwick, Jamal Williams, and Nate Kaeding all are coming off injuries, and everyone, except Kaeding, required surgery. All six of theses players are starters and play at a Pro-Bowl-caliber level.
Why It Matters
If any of these players are slowed by injury, the team will take a huge step back. Everyone except Rivers is considered as a top-three performer at their respective position, while Rivers is at least top 10 and the vocal leader of the team.
What To Expect
Tomlinson, Rivers, and Kaeding are all reportedly back to a 100 percent and are better than ever. Jamal Williams is easing his way back into practice, as he only participates in certain drills, and he conditions when he sits out of one. He expects to be back to 100 percent by the season opener.
Gates and Hardwick are where the most concern lies. Gates is reportedly making a faster recovery than expected and could be ready for the start of the season. Hardwick is healing at the rate expected of him and could also be available for the opener, although it is unlikely.
The more likely situation is that he could miss up to the first month of the season, possibly returning in the sixth week. Jeremy Newberry was brought in to fill in for Hardwick if he is unable to go.
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