The Chargers started the year 4-1 heading into their bye week and looked to be in firm control of the AFC West. They then went on a brutal 0-6 run that all but sunk their season. During that run they dropped overtime games to both the Chiefs and the Broncos. They fought back in the final five weeks to go 4-1, but it wasn’t enough as Denver owned the tie breaker over them. Two main areas failed the Chargers last year in their defense and offensive line. The Chargers defense struggled to get pressure on the quarterback, and stop the run. The offensive line was decimated with injuries, that really derailed the Chargers offense, particularly in the passing game where Phillip Rivers faced quite a bit of pressure. Though the defensive and offensive line issues were the biggest concern an opening game injury to kicker Nate Kaeding forced the Chargers to turn to journeyman kicker Nick Novak. Novak went 27 of 34 overall, but did miss crucial FG’s in both the overtime losses to Kansas City and Denver (he actually missed two kicks versus Denver). Had he been able to connect in either of those games, San Diego would have gone to the playoffs.
NFL Draft: 1st- OLB/DE Melvin Ingram, 2nd- DE/DT Kendall Reyes, 3rd-S Brandon Taylor, 4th- TE Ladarius Green, 5th-G Johnnie Troutman, 7th- C David Molk, 7th- RB Edwin Baker
Now much of the narrative this offseason has been on “how the Chargers can survive without Vincent Jackson“, but honestly that shouldn’t be a concern at all. In 2010, Vincent Jackson due to hold-out, suspension and injury played in just 221 of the Chargers 1104 snaps (or 20%). On top of that the 2nd and 3rd (or top two when Jackson was out) receivers, Malcolm Floyd and Legedu Naanee, and top TE Antonio Gates missed roughly 50% of the season apiece. Despite all of those major absences Phillip Rivers finished atop the league in yards and yards per attempt, while posting the highest completion percentage of his career. Given the additions of free agents Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal, not to mention 2nd year WR Vincent Brown, the Chargers should have little trouble “replacing Vincent Jackson” in their passing attack.
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The Chargers rushing attack looks to be emerging under third year pro Ryan Mathews, Mathews had over 1,000 yards, while scoring 6 TD’s and rushing for an impressive 4.9 ypc. If Le’Ron McClain and Ronnie Brown can replace Mike Tolbert, as a complementary back and short yardage specialist the Chargers should be good in this area.
The main concern going forward is the offensive line. While I wouldn’t consider it a strong unit, it can be average, which should be enough for the Chargers skill players to excel. The main question is can they stay healthy? If the answer is a yes, then San Diego should be looking for a return to the postseason.
-Now Green, a 4th round rookie, is not going to be a starter or a top target of Phillip Rivers, but I think he could be a very nice secondary weapon. Green lacks bulk to hold up as an inline blocker, but he could be devastating as a mismatch nightmare given his speed. With teams primarily focused on the Chargers top targets, Green could find a lot of favorable coverages that Phillip Rivers can exploit.
The defense was an area of concern last year for the Chargers, but it could be looking like a strength again given the development of some of their players and key additions. The defensive line is a prime example of this as established NT Antonio Garay is joined by a promising group of three young defensive linemen. Third year pro Cam Thomas emerged as a very effective rotational player, both in stopping the run and getting pressure on the QB. 2011 1st round pick Corey Liuget had a bit of a rough rookie year, but he was considered more of a raw prospect coming out so it wasn’t unexpected. If he can develop into the player the Chargers expected when they drafted him, he could have a major impact. Rookie Kendall Reyes rounds out the group of promising young talent, and should make an early impact on defense.
The Chargers linebackers are the strength of this defense, and one that will only get stronger with their new additions. Veterans Takeo Spikes and Shaun Phillips lead this group, which also includes ILB Donald Butler, pass rush specialist Antwan Barnes, free agent OLB Jarrett Johnson, and 1st round rookie Melvin Ingram. The addition of Ingram, to go along with Barnes and Phillips, should give San Diego an improved pass rush.
The defensive backfield will welcome rookie Brandon Taylor, who has a chance to develop into a starter as a rookie. He’d go along with a talented young safety in Eric Weddle, and a pair of quality corners in Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason. The coverage fell off last year, but at least some of that could be attributed to a lack of a pass rush. With an improved pass rush, and a defensive line that could limit early down rushing plays forcing more 3rd and long situations, could really help this defensive backfield.
-The Chargers got an absolute steal in Ingram when they selected him in the middle of the first round, as he is a relentless pass rusher and my favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Given their depth at LB and Ingram’s size and skill set, look for SD to get creative with him and move him around the field. Ingram should make a major impact on the Chargers defense, particularly as a pass rusher.
The Chargers (and the whole AFC West) face a tough draw as they have to face the AFC North and NFC South divisions this year. In addition the AFC West may be the most competitive it’s been in years, as the Chiefs have a good bit of talent coming back from injury and the Broncos added Peyton Manning. San Diego has some of the best offensive skill position talent to go along with an All-pro QB and an improving defense. That should be enough for them to retake the division.