San Diego Chargers: The 5 Key Players to the 2011 Season

Andrew LongworthCorrespondent IMay 8, 2011

San Diego Chargers: The 5 Key Players to the 2011 Season

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    SAN DIEGO, CA - DECEMBER 16:  Quarterback Philip Rivers #17 of the San Diego Chargers speaks to his teammates in the huddle during their game against the San Francisco 49ers at Qualcomm Stadium on December 16, 2010 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Don
    Donald Miralle/Getty Images

    Despite statistics that suggested Pro Bowl-caliber talent on both sides of the ball, the San Diego Chargers finished the 2010 season at 9-7 and well under their expectations.

    Often it would be special teams flubs or early turnovers that would create holes too deep for the Bolts to overcome, not to mention a slew of untimely injuries that at times left Phillip Rivers with a corps of wide receivers he wouldn't meet until game day.

    While the Bolts still managed to finish strong, this was a testimony to an overall sound team effort that, with the exception of Philip Rivers, boasted no real All-Pro candidates. By now, we are well aware what we can expect from most players.

    Then there are the other guys, those players who will need to rise to the occasion in 2011 if the Chargers are to rise themselves, in this case to the next level of Super Bowl glory.   

    Pictured here are players who might need Pro Bowl-type seasons  if the Chargers are not only to win the AFC West, but make a run deep into the playoffs.

Ryan Matthews, Running Back

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    CINCINNATI - DECEMBER 26:  Ryan Matthews #24 of the San Diego Chargers runs for a touchdown during the NFL game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on December 26, 2010 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  The Bengals won 34-20. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Get
    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    With all of his ability, Ryan Matthews will need to learn one simple truth if he is to survive in the NFL and eventually flourish as a cog within the well-oiled offensive machine that is the San Diego Chargers.

    Protect the football.

    Matthews cam slam through any hole on the offensive line and deliver punishment to any player on the defense, from the biggest defensive lineman to the dinkiest corner. And yet, all of this will do him little good without the football in his hands.

    Though Ryan Matthews split the duties with Mike Tolbert last season, primarily carrying the load in the second half when a fresh between-the-tackles runner was required, it’s a safe bet he will be asked to start for the Bolts in 2011.

    Considering the gamble A.J. Smith took when he moved up in last year’s draft to snag him, anything less than a starting role is simply inconceivable.

    Matthews will be given each and every opportunity to succeed, and he certainly has the makeup to become an excellent tailback. This year might very well mean make or break for Matthews and the Chargers. 

Corey Liuget, Defensive Line

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    NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 28:  Corey Liuget, #18 overall pick by the San Diego Chargers, holds up a jersey on stage during the 2011 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall on April 28, 2011 in New York City.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
    Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    Rarely have hopes been so high for a late first-round draft pick. It is one thing to be a top-five pick and being brought up nice and easy with teams who have less chance of winning a Super Bowl than a carousel horse has of winning the Kentucky Derby.

    The Chargers are not in the business of dwelling with perennial bottom feeders. They are contenders aching to break out of the "almost" label, dying to build a trophy case that will shed the loser label once and for all.

    In that regard, Liuget will be essential to their plans.

    He will be part of the NFL’s No. 1 ranked defense, although clearly one that’s been missing vital ingredients for years.

    A pass rush that can only bring pressure through various blitz packages will deliver its share of sacks and turnovers, but will also leave holes in the defense that can too easily be exploited by the Tom Bradys and Ben Roethlisbergers of the AFC. This is something the Bolts D has learned the hard way.

    If Liuget is indeed legit, the Chargers’ defense will be tougher for opposing QBs to read. If the Chargers can get consistent pressure from a three-man rush, the Chargers will start creating the turnovers they need so desperately later in the game instead of the need to rely on three- and sometimes even four-and-outs.

    Liuget’s job will be a thankless one. While Cam Newton, under less pressure, will be designing his first mansion in the Charlotte area as the Panthers wrack up the losses, Liuget will be carrying the weight of the world and the hopes of an entire franchise on his shoulders.

Larry English, Outside Linebacker

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    SAN DIEGO - DECEMBER 05:  Darrius Heyward-Bey #85 of the Oakland Raiders is pursued by Larry English #52 of the San Diego Chargers in the second quarter at Qualcomm Stadium on December 5, 2010 in San Diego, California. The Raiders defeated the Chargers 28
    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    Meet Liuget’s new partner in crime, Larry English, the Bolts’ longtime underachieving outside linebacker and former first-round draft pick, a guy who probably performed the first backflip of his life when Liuget was drafted.

    With Merriman out of the picture, Shaun Phillips on the other side of the line and now Liuget anchoring the defensive line, this might be English’s last chance to prove he is bust material for the Hall of Fame instead of the list of first-round tank jobs selected by the Bolts in their draft history.

    Here is a guy with one of the highest ever scores on the Wonderlic Test among linebackers, the dreadful player’s aptitude test that is the closest instrument to determining a player’s cerebral intangibles. With his physical and mental capacities beyond any doubt, it is now time to translate these attributes into much needed tackles and sacks for the Chargers D.

    In two years, English has recorded five sacks and 53 tackles, numbers he should supersede in this year alone if the Chargers defense does what it should.

    With Shaun Phillips turning 30 and not re-signed beyond next year yet, 2011 will prove to the Chargers whether English can be that alternative and that steal they thought they’d picked in 2009.

    With a good outside rush from both OLBs, the Chargers’ D could be even more devastating than they were last year.

    In plain English: English must finally graduate from the ranks of the potentials to the constellations of stars for the Chargers to be dominant.

Jordan Todman, Running Back

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    EAST HARTFORD, CT - NOVEMBER 27:  Jordan Todman #23 of the Connecticut Huskies carries the ball around the Cincinnati Bearcats defense on November 27, 2010 at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut. The Huskies defeated the Bearcats 38-17.  (Photo
    Elsa/Getty Images

    If—and this is a big if—Darren Sproles can be resigned, Jordan Todman will be able to learn the NFL at his own leisure while watching the Chargers’ entertaining high-octane offense from the best spot on the field, up until it is his time to contribute to it.

    If Sproles isn’t re-signed, then Todman could very well be the Chargers’ most important sixth-round pick ever. He could very well be the next all-around back handling rushing, receiving and return duties sooner than he and the Chargers would have wished.

    Sproles has been an integral part of the Chargers’ offense virtually since the day he’s been drafted. Although Sproles is only five and a half feet tall, there is little doubt that he will have big shoes to fill should the Bolts not re-sign him.

    Todman appears to be the best bet to fill that void should it be needed.

Marcus McNeill, Left Tackle

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    KANSAS CITY, MO - OCTOBER 25:  Marcus McNeill #73 of the San Diego Chargers looks on from the bench during the game against the Kansas City Chiefs on October 25, 2009 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    For the running game to thrive again like in the unforgettable LT years, another LT, in this case the left tackle, Marcus McNeill, will have to play like his old dominant self if the Chargers are to put up the points needed to carry them to Hardware Land.

    For the longest time, the left side with Dielman and McNeil was the crown jewel of the Bolts’ offensive line. It can be again if McNeill can play at a Pro Bowl level, a good possibility now that his contract woes have been settled.   

    One can never underestimate the value of a good left tackle, especially in a pass happy offense like the Chargers’.

    One can only speculate just what could have happened if McNeill had been available for the entire season. Phillip Rivers, for one, is not someone who would like to imagine life in the NFL again without Marcus McNeill.