Wednesday, September 6, 2006

2006 NFL Preview: San Diego Chargers

By Dave Golokhov

Last Year

In the eyes of many, the San Diego Chargers were one of the best teams to never make the playoffs last year. But with a leaky secondary and incessant implementation failures, the Chargers have nobody to blame but themselves. The offense is now under the guidance of Philip Rivers, but the Chargers can't expect to contend with him in his first starting season.

What We Learned From Last Year

The Chargers looked like such a strong team in the early going last season, but their secondary was really their downfall. They held a fourth-quarter lead in each of their four losses, going into the final frame with the ahead on the scoreboard in three of those losses, but failed to hold on.

The front seven, led by veteran and Pro Bowl nose tackle Jamal Williams, was outstanding. Opposing offenses found little room to run against the stingiest run defense in the NFL, which allowed only 84.3 yards on the ground per game.

Rookie of the year to be Shawne Merriman joined a linebacking corps that already boasted solid veterans Donnie Edwards and Randall Godfrey in the middle, and burgeoning prospect Ben Leber on the outside. "Lights Out" was exactly that, provide a spark on several occasions, along with 57 tackles and 10 sacks.

Up front, the Chargers other first-round pick, Luis Castillo, also played at a high level.

But the main weakness was the secondary.

The grouping was littered with high draft picks, such as first-rounders Quentin Jammer, Jamar Fletcher, and Sammy Davis, but Jammer was the only decent player. He was still beat on several occasions — almost at will of the opposing quarterback. Drayton Florence was also mediocre for a group that was better in run support, than pass defense. The cornerbacks, as a whole, only totaled three interceptions. Furthermore, they had no excuses because the Chargers pass rush was extremely potent with 46 sacks.

The same can be said for the safeties, as Bhawoh Jue, Terrence Kiel, and Clinton Hart gave up a lot of yards in the passing game.

On offense, the Chargers were still a potent bunch, but were not as strong as they slipped from the third scoring offense in 2004 to the sixth scoring offense in 2005.

Drew Brees also wasn't as sharp last year as his breakout season in 2004. That year, he totaled 27 touchdowns versus only seven interceptions, compared to the 24 touchdowns and 15 interceptions he threw last year.

A big reason for the slip was the declining play of the offensive line. The Chargers lost offensive line coach Hudson Houck to the Miami Dolphins in the offseason and his departure was felt. With him, the Chargers allowed only 21 sacks in 2004 (fourth-best in NFL) and without him, Brees felt much more pressure as the line permitted 31 sacks (14th-best in NFL).

A combination of an arduous schedule and shaky play from the offensive line was really the difference between the offenses that the Chargers fielded in the previous two seasons.

LaDainian Tomlinson was still strong as ever, again handling 339 carries and posting a career-best 18 rushing touchdowns.

The third deadly weapon of the offense was Antonio Gates and he too set new career benchmarks for receptions and yards.

Without Drew Brees, the Chargers will take another step back offensively because Philip Rivers has not gotten his feet wet as an NFL starter yet. But the franchise believes in him and he has been a winner at every level of football throughout his career. This will be a developmental season and the Chargers' success is contingent on Rivers leading this team and making minimal mistakes.

This Year

The Chargers have failed to make the playoffs in nine of the last 10 seasons and they don't look to have the poise to end the drought this year.

While they do return a winning team that likely would have ventured into the postseason last year had they not faced an extremely difficult schedule, there is going to be a big drop-off in play at the quarterback position.

Rivers is a proven winner — he led NC State to four bowl games and three wins — and it is only a matter of time before he is a very good NFL starter. But the bottom line is that right now the Chargers will have to endure a level of inconsistency.

Situations like the one that the Steelers went through, where rookie Ben Roethlisberger led them to a 15-1 record and an AFC Championship appearance, are very rare. They should rather expect — and hope for — a season similar to Carson Palmer's first full year of starting in 2004, when the Bengals were 8-8 and Palmer finished the season by establishing himself as a premier quarterback.

As a whole, the Chargers are still a few bricks short of a load.

With the likes of up-and-comers Shane Olivea, Kris Dielman, and Nick Hardwick on the offensive line, as well as incoming second-round draft pick Marcus McNeill, the front five should be secure. One caveat, though, is that McNeill has to protect Rivers' blind side right from the get-go because Romen Oben is out for at least the first six weeks with a sting on the PUP list.

Tight end Antonio Gates and running back LaDainian Tomlinson are, quite obviously, the proven commodities.

But even so, the Chargers are still fairly thin at wide receiver. Entering his 15th season, Keenan McCardell leads the group, but he is now 36-years-old. He is still an excellent possession receiver, but his speed declines each progressive season. At his age, most teams would prefer he be the number two wideout because he could hit the wall at any point.

But the Chargers don't have many options. Eric Parker has increased his yardage total and receptions in each of his four NFL seasons, but he has yet to top 57 catches or 4 TDs. Rounding out the below average grouping is Kassim Osgood and Vincent Jackson.

The only big play threat that is available in the passing game is Gates and it is because of him that the Chargers can get by in the regular season with this average group of wide receivers.

On defense, a lethal front seven returns everyone minus Ben Leber, who was pushed to the bench by the end of last season anyways.

Up front, Pro Bowl nose tackle Jamal Williams returns and another year of growth for ends Luis Castillo — a rookie last season — and Igor Olshansky signifies better production.

The linebacking corps is deep, but there is a few concerns about the first line starters. Veteran Donnie Edwards wants out of town and is in the last year of his contract. Sometimes unhappy players will go into a hibernation mode in the last year of their pact in order to prevent any injury that might hamper them in free agency.

The second concern is the recent altercation that Steve Foley had with the police, which resulted in him taking three bullets. Foley was expected to start on the outside, but it is unclear where or if he can return.

This is not good news, especially since Leber departed via free agency, but the good news is that there is depth. Stephen Cooper and Matt Wilhelm are solid prospects in the middle while Shaun Phillips, who finished with more sacks than Foley last season, can start in a pinch. Phillips, a third-year player, was essentially being groomed to replace him.

The secondary will get some help in the form of first-round pick Antonio Cromartie, who is a gifted athlete, but he missed all of his junior season at Florida State with an ACL injury. He is going to be very raw in the early going, but the Chargers hope that they have finally found a reliable starter.

Starters Quentin Jammer and Drayton Florence allow big plays every week and don't often make many of them. It was surprising to see the Chargers sign Jammer to an extension: he only has two interceptions over his last 36 games.

Marlon McCree, a free agent signing, will definitely upgrade the safety spot, but it would be naïve to think that this secondary has vastly improved.

If they have, and Rivers is consistent, and the receivers excel, and Marcus McNeill holds up, and the Chargers have found a way to hold onto fourth quarter leads, then this is a playoff team.

But there are four skeptical "ands" in the previous sentence and there are too many uncertainties for this unit to be making a playoff appearance.

Over/Under: 9

The Chargers were 3-3 in their division last season and unless they can get a sweep from Oakland — which will be an arduous task considering they have to play in The Coliseum on opening night — they will likely finish with the same in-house record. Their out-of-division record is going to be much easier this season with the Chiefs feeling a sense of urgency and the Broncos returning as the West champs, the Chargers will be hard-pressed finishing higher than third. They play: @OAK, TEN, @BAL, PIT, @SF, @KC, STL, CLE, @CIN, @DEN, OAK, @BUF, DEN, KC, @SEA, and ARZ.

Fantasy Sleeper

Carson Palmer's second season in the NFL — his first as a starter — was mired by inconsistency early on, but in his final six games, he caught fire, throwing for 1429 yards, 13 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions. Rivers does not have the same type of offensive line or weapons around him, but he should be a viable fantasy starter by about Week 10.

This is the fourth consecutive season of comprehensive NFL previews by Dave Golokhov. Stay tuned as he brings you previews for all 32 NFL teams! He can be reached at [email protected].

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