In the continuation of my Countdown to (Preseason) Kickoff series, here's a breakdown of six players who need to shape up soon. The Chargers are deep on talent (for most positions), so anyone who isn't pulling their weight may find themselves gone.
1. Shawne Merriman: Why not start with the most obvious one. It's simple: Contract year. Declining numbers. Holdout. Merriman already has too many ticks in the negative column. He is now a year removed from his major knee surgery, which should work in his favor, but the odds are stacked against him.
Merriman put up four sacks last year. He didn't force a single fumble. Merriman used to strike absolute terror into the hearts of offensive lineman and quarterbacks alike. If he doesn't get back to that place and start helping out this defense again, he will be out. Fast.
2. Nick Hardwick: This one hurts me to say, because Hardwick is one of my favorite players. He is a solid center, and is clearly the foundation of this offensive line. When he went down in the season opener against Oakland last year, the line had no direction. It may be naive to think this, but this could have been a large part of why San Diego's running game was so dismal last year.
The one thing Hardwick has working against him is injury. He hasn't played a full season in years, and if he can't play 12-14 games this year (plus potential playoff games), San Diego could be shopping for replacements sometime in the very near future.
3. Seyi Ajirotutu: Everyone who has seen the rookie crop play knows that Jeremy Williams will be the guy tapped to take over the empty wide receiver spot on the active roster. He clearly has what it takes to contribute now.
With that having been said, though, Ajirotutu has been a bit impressive. He has gotten up to make some catches, and has even made one or two grabs in double coverage.
However, Ajirotutu is very raw. He isn't quite at the point where he can contribute actively to the team, and it seems possible that he may not even make it to the practice squad.
But this is expected. Undrafted rookie free agents don't often make it. At least not the first time.
4. Jaques Cesaire: There are so many defensive ends on the roster right now, it makes my head spin. Travis Johnson, Alfonso Boone, Vaughn Martin, Ryon Bingham, etc, etc. The question is, what separates Cesaire from the rest of the pack?
Nothing. The only major difference here is that Cesaire has been with the Chargers longer than any of the other active defensive ends. The problem is, though, he is being outperformed by all the hired help.
Cesaire is used in a deep rotation now, and, should one of the other players step up, he could find himself elbowed out of the rotation all together.
5. Kevin Burnett: Burnett is a good player. Should the Chargers decide that he isn't in the future plans of the organization, he could fetch some value on the trade market.
So, Burnetts problem is not necessarily a talent issue (although he leaves something to be desired every now and then). It's the fact that the younger talent that he was a stop gap for is ready, namely Brandon Siler. Siler came up big last year, especially in the key game against Dallas. He is a stud in run support, and has made big strides in his pass coverage. He is ready to take over as a starting middle linebacker.
Burnett could be kept around for depth, but, knowing the way AJ Smith operates, he may be more in favor of bringing in a young (and cheaper) player to back up and develop behind Siler.
6. Vincent Jackson: Don't tell me you didn't see this one coming. Yes, he is a Pro Bowl player. Yes, he has had two straight 1,000+ yard seasons. Yes, he is one of the biggest receiving threats in the league.
That having been said, Jackson is a head case. He has two DUIs to his name, which have led to a three game suspension in 2010, and is now threatening to hold out through most of the regular season.
This decision is really contingent upon how Malcolm Floyd performs at the number one spot. If Floyd steps up and puts up 300+ yards in the first four or five games, Jackson could be shipped before the trade deadline. San Diego will have no trouble finding a landing spot for him (as Seattle and Washington are both continuing to express interest in the embattled wide receiver), and he could fetch as much as a first round pick.
*Originally written for NFLTouchdown.com*