San Diego Chargers 2011: 5 Players Who Could Have a Breakout Season
The San Diego Chargers are looking to get back to the playoffs after missing out for the first time in five years. Holdouts, injuries, turnovers and miserable special teams' play cost the Bolts their fifth straight AFC West title last year.
This season, the Chargers want to avoid their unenviable habit under head coach Norv Turner of starting the season off slowly. Indeed, Turner's job may finally be on the line should the Bolts play down to their poor starting form once again.
To buck that trend this season, the Chargers need to jump from the gate and hit the ground running. What follows is a list of five relative unknown or untested Chargers' players who are poised for a breakout season. Any one of these players could help lead the Bolts back into the promised land of the playoffs and beyond.
5. Safety Darrell Stuckey
Darrell Stuckey begins his second year with the Chargers, after being selected in the fourth round in the 2010 NFL entry draft. As a Kansas Jayhawk, Stuckey compiled 295 career tackles—second all-time for Kansas’ defensive backs behind former NFL great Leroy Irvin. He also led the team in tackles—the first non-linebacker to achieve the feat since 2000.
As a Charger, Stuckey played in only one game as a rookie—a brief special teams appearance in the 27-20 loss to Seattle last year. With the signing of Eric Weddle to a long-term contract and the addition of Bob Sanders from Indianapolis, Stuckey does not look to get many reps on the first team any time soon.
However, when the Chargers go to a nickel package, look for Stuckey to step in and make his mark. Should Sanders or Weddle go down with injury, Stuckey may be forced into the limelight sooner rather than later. Until that time look for Stuckey to make plays on special teams this year. He is one ferocious tackler.
As with most pros, their second year in the NFL is the telltale season as players become familiar with the game and tend to show the biggest improvements of their careers. Stuckey has shown a propensity for playing well in the college ranks, and his transition to the pros will either come to fruition or be shown a bust this season. I expect we will see more of Stuckey as this season progresses.
4. Wide Receiver Seyi Ajirotutu
Chargers’ fans got a glimpse of Seyi Ajirotutu’s talents last year due in part to injuries at the wide receiver position and the holdout of Vincent Jackson. Ajirotutu amassed 13 receptions for 262 yards and a 20.2 yards-per-catch average to go along with two touchdowns in 2010.
The return of VJ and a healthy receiving corps means Ajirotutu is back at the end of the depth chart once again. That may not be enough to keep him out of the lineup all season, though. Should any of the starting wide receivers falter, Ajirotutu will be more than happy to step in and show what he is capable of. At six-feet-three-inches, Ajirotutu is the third-tallest receiver on the Chargers’ roster. His quickness and dependable hands make him a superlative target for quarterback, Philip Rivers.
I expect Ajirotutu to improve on last years numbers this year and perhaps even take over the third wide receiver position before the end of the year. He is just too good to keep on the sidelines.
3. Defensive End Corey Liuget
We are already aware of the hype surrounding the Chargers No. 1 draft pick, Corey Liuget. That he should have gone to a team that plays the 4-3 instead of the Charger 3-4, and that he is too short to play defensive end in the pros, is all well documented. But the Chargers were fortunate that Liuget was available for the 18th overall pick in the 2011 entry draft and they were wise to select him.
Liuget has all the tools to fill a big hole for the Chargers at defensive end. He is quick, strong and has a nose for the ball carrier. In his first performance as a Charger, Liuget has already shown the capability to get into the opponents backfield and disrupt the running game as well as applying pressure on the quarterback on passing downs. The Chargers are hoping Liuget will draw double-team coverage this year, helping to open up holes for the linebackers to get to the passer.
While Liuget is in his first season, he is the only Chargers' rookie that has a legitimate chance of making a real impact this year. I look for this guy to quickly become a fan favorite much like Antonio Garay did last year with his breakout season.
2. Outside Linebacker Larry English
After being drafted 16th overall by the Chargers in 2009, Larry English played in every game including the playoffs for the Bolts his rookie year. By all accounts his play exceeded expectations and English was touted as the heir apparent for the once-great Charger linebacker, Shawne Merriman.
Fast forward one year and the talk around town is not whether English is the next great Charger linebacker, but whether or not he is a complete bust. Repeated injuries and a second season that saw him garner a paltry 12 solo tackles and three sacks in only eight games (two starts) means there are more questions surrounding English than answers.
He has recently come off the Physically Unable to Perform list (PUP) and has resumed practicing with the second team. English has demonstrated that when healthy, he can be a force at the outside linebacker position. If he can stay away from the injury bug this year, there is no other reason why English can’t live up to his potential and make an impact for the Chargers with a breakout season.
1. Running Back Ryan Mathews
All eyes are on Ryan Mathews this year. The second-year player showed signs of being the Chargers No. 1 back at the end of last season by making the last game of the year his best. Against Denver, Mathews racked up 120 yards on the ground and scored three touchdowns—both season bests.
Injuries and turnovers plagued Mathews in his rookie campaign including two fumbles in that Denver game. This year he came to camp limping and out of shape—not the best way to report for a running back with something to prove. However, his injury seems to be mostly behind him and his practices of late have been very physical.
Should Mathews stay healthy for the entire year, he will undoubtedly help the Chargers’ mediocre running game and could very possibly have an outstanding year. Certainly, if the Chargers have any hopes of going deep into the playoffs, they will need a solid and consistent running game to keep the offense from being a predictable, pass-only attack. Mathews may just be the right back at the right time that helps lead the Bolts to the next level.