The anticipation to the start of the 2011 NFL season is in the air, as we’re five weeks away from opening kickoff.
But due to the lockout, players will have short time to impress their coaching staffs. A bad day on the practice field will play heavily on whether or not they’re on the opening day roster. Injuries will also play a major role in determining a team's final look.
Before the start of preseason, let’s take a look at my projected starting lineup for the San Diego Chargers.
Philip Rivers is prime to have another 4,000-yard passing season, and that could be enough for him to be recognized as the best quarterback in the league.
You love the air of confidence that surrounds him when he runs onto the field, as there is no question that Rivers is the team leader. Let’s not forget that he played the 2008 AFC Championship Game on one leg with a torn ACL.
Another positive is that Rivers, A.J. Smith and Norv Turner all have a great working relationship with one another. Unity does breed success.
It’s mind-boggling that Ryan Mathews came into training camp out of shape. Last season, the kid put too much pressure on himself to replace LaDainian Tomlinson and never could fully recover from a high ankle sprain sustained in Week 2.
In preseason, Mathews must show a more aggressive running style or risk losing his starting job to Mike Tolbert.
Jacob Hester meanwhile struggled badly with blocking and catching the ball out of the backfield all last season. If he shows no improvement in preseason, then Hester could find himself on the NFL unemployment line this autumn.
The third-down back position is wide open, as Tolbert is too big to be considered full-time candidate and the jury is still out on rookie draft choice Jordan Todman. Ideally, LT would have been the perfect player for this position, but that’s a different story for another day.
The Chargers made a great move by re-signing Malcom Floyd, as it will give him two years to show his true value to the front office.
Teaming with Vincent Jackson, Floyd will stretch the field and open up some space for the running game.
The Chargers are missing a quality third-down receiver, but I’m expecting Patrick Crayton to be more involved after spending a full season in the passing scheme.
And Seyi Ajirotutu needs to become more consistent as he will make a great catch on first down, only to drop a key third-down pass and stall a drive.
A big question still surrounds Antonio Gates regarding his recovery from the foot injury. Thankfully, the Chargers will have five weeks before the start of the regular season to answer that question.
When healthy, Gates is constantly double-teamed by opposing defenses, opening up the middle for the other receivers.
Randy McMichael isn’t Antonio Gates, but he is an experienced TE that excels in Turner’s offensive game plan.
It’s great news that the offensive line will remain intact for another season. Still, the Chargers will need consistent play from T Jeromey Clary or they will have to identify a possible replacement.
Keep an eye on Brandyn Dombrowski, as he has shown the strength and speed to dominate at the tackle position.
The play of the entire defensive front has been impressive all throughout training camp. I don’t anticipate DE Corey Liuget to start in Week 1, but I fully expect him to become a force by the halfway point of the season.
DE Vaughn Martin has a great chance of becoming the Chargers' designated pass-rusher, as Luis Castillo hasn’t been able to consistently put pressure on opposing quarterbacks the last few seasons; but he is a definite run-stopper.
Last season, Antonio Garay was supposed to be a stop-gap until Cam Thomas was ready to takeover but was a beast at the tackle position. Now, Garay is a significant member of the defense.
The more you see Jonas Mouton on the field, the more you feel that he will become a good fit on the defense. The other teams in the AFC West execute the play-action pass perfectly, and his athleticism to cover tight ends downfield is much-needed.
Donald Butler is also having a good camp. He is smart and physical—the perfect characteristics for an inside linebacker. Meanwhile, Takeo Spikes will be a major upgrade over Stephen Cooper at the other inside linebacker position. This unit has shown that they can stop the run and cover receivers downfield.
It’s still unknown on who will play opposite Shaun Phillips at the outside linebacker position however. The health of Larry English remains a question mark, as he still hasn’t fully recovered from offseason foot surgery. Travis LaBoy adds depth to the position, but has the skills to become a full-time starter.
The Chargers aren’t overly concerned with Antoine Cason’s finger injury, as he could play with a soft cast if this was the regular season.
The biggest acquisition for the team is former Pro Bowl S Bob Sanders from the Indianapolis Colts. His main goal is to stay healthy and remain on the field for all 16 games.
His presence in the secondary will take a lot of pressure off Eric Weddle to make the big play.
Who’s been the most intimidating person at Chargers camp? That would be special teams coach Rich Bisaccia.
His voice can be heard throughout Charger Park during practice and his goals are simple: No kick returns for touchdowns or a single blocked punt this season.
This unit will improve with the return of David Binn to the active roster and several key additions (Marcus Gilchrist has shown the ability to return the ball) from this year’s draft. But the Chargers are still looking for a gunner on the punt team to get downfield and pin the opposing team deep in their own zone.