By Jeff Risdon
2012 Record: 7-9
Point Differential: 0
Turnover Margin: +2
Sack Differential: -11
Passer Rating: 12th
3rd Down: 15th
QB: Philip Rivers has been the man here for many years now, but this season is a definite make-or-break for his future. From 2006-2010 there was great debate whether Rivers belonged in the “elite” category. That argument seems preposterous now. His decline over the past two seasons has been stunning to watch. Rivers can still light up bad defenses, but he has really fallen off against strong units like Denver, Cincinnati and Baltimore.
Some of this is certainly a byproduct of being an immobile pocket passer behind a very suspect line. He suffered 49 sacks in 2012, including six against Baltimore and seven against Carolina. When he’s had time, Rivers can still dial up the magic. He steps into his throws with confidence and delivers a crisp ball with excellent touch. The problem arises when he’s pressured, especially when the pressure comes from the defensive line and not a blitz. The eyes are quicker to look down and he has developed the habit of wildly chucking the ball in the general direction of a receiver. The pressure is getting to Rivers more. That has led to an unacceptable level of turnovers: 35 INTs and 24 fumbles in the last two years.
Rivers is still the face of the team and a fiery leadership presence. What’s changed is the cast around him, which doesn’t seem to respond as well to his churlish brogue and sour body language when adversity strikes. It will be very interesting to see how he mixes with new Matt McCoy, who was hired as the Chargers' head coach in no small part to try and salvage Rivers’ declining career. The arm talent is still there, and at 32 Rivers should still have some good years left. The vertical offense that new OC Ken Whisenhunt favored with the Arizona Cardinals should play to his strengths as well. But if the spiral continues, the Chargers could very well spend significant resources finding his replacement in the next offseason.
His eventual replacement is not currently on the roster. Backup Charlie Whitehurst scurried back to the comfort of San Diego after bombing in a foray as the Seahawks starter. He’s never thrown a regular season pass in five seasons as the #2 to Rivers, and at this point is more regarded for his Jesus-like appearance than his football acumen. Many (myself included) posited that new GM Tom Telesco would draft a QB in April to groom, and they did just that with Brad Sorensen from Southern Utah. He fits the Rivers bill of being big, strong-armed, and confident, but he’s a 25-year old rookie from a small school with poor pocket presence.
RB: Ryan Mathews continues as one of the NFL’s great teases. The 12th overall pick of the 2010 draft, Mathews has been highly productive as both a runner and a receiver. His 2011 breakout campaign validated his lofty draft status, bagging almost 1100 rushing yards on just under five yards per carry while also hauling in 50 receptions. Yet he missed two games that year and also put the ball on the ground five times. In his other two seasons he has started just nine games each time and has just one 100 yard outing. Mathews suffered from the poor line play last year, as he often found himself dodging a pursuer almost as soon as he got the ball. His confidence clearly suffered, and he lost reps as a result. Both fumbling and durability remain big questions going forward as well. With improved line play and sustained good health, Ryan Mathews can absolutely be a very good NFL back, but neither of those are a given in San Diego in 2013.
Ronnie Brown spotted Mathews throughout the season and returns to that role once again. Brown actually had more catches (49) than rushing attempts (45) last year, settling into the 3rd down back role as a frequent target of harried attempts by Rivers. At 32 and seemingly in the NFL for far longer than eight seasons, don’t expect much more from Brown this year. Tiny Danny Woodhead comes over from New England to fill much the same role, a bit of redundancy that seems wise for a Super Bowl contender but frivolous for a playoff longshot. It seems even more ponderous considering Edwin Baker, the team’s 7th round pick in 2012, is also 5’8”. Power backs Jackie Battle and Curtis Brinkley have both moved on, which means the short-yardage back figures to be fullback LeRon McClain. Way back in 2008, McClain was exceptional in that role, but that was five years and two teams ago. What’s always been odd about McClain is that for as successful as he was as a runner that year, and as much braggadocio as he emits about it still, he’s never been a particularly effective run blocker.
WR/TE: Much was made of the potential disaster in letting Vincent Jackson depart via free agency, but the Chargers still have a talented cast of receivers. They just lack the dynamic presence that Jackson offered, but with a year to adjust and a new offense in place, they should fare better in 2013.
Malcolm Floyd led the team in receiving a year ago, and that figures to be the case once again. The hope is that he will surpass the 56 catches and 814 yards that represented the apex for the team. Those are unusually low figures for a team leader, especially one with a decent quarterback. Floyd never quite accomplishes as much as most think he should, be it recurring injuries or surprisingly unrefined route running for an 8-year veteran. He’s got great length and decent long speed, plus he seldom drops a ball he can reach. Floyd has just 5 drops against 136 receptions in the last three seasons. But Floyd offers nothing after the catch and is too easily bulled off course in man coverage. The change in offense and coaching is either going to facilitate the breakout season that many have been forecasting for years now or Floyd being a perennial disappointment, albeit one too talented and productive to merely write off.
Danario Alexander brings a sizzle factor to the team. Blessed with excellent vertical speed and great length, Alexander is a legit downfield threat with excellent coordination. His seven TDs tied for the team lead and his 17.8 yards per reception was easily tops amongst Chargers. He was clearly Rivers’ preferred target late in the season. The issue with Alexander is durability; he has never played more than 10 games in a season, a result of five knee surgeries that includes two torn ACLs. It’s great to have Alexander as an option, but depending on him to play more than half a season is foolhardy. To address that issue, the Chargers drafted Keenan Allen in the third round. Allen was widely speculated to be a first round talent, but a troublesome knee injury of his own and a poorly timed failed drug test caused him to plummet on draft weekend. The Cal product fits the Chargers bill of being long limbed and sure handed. He’s not a downfield threat but could emerge as an excellent option in the intermediate game, particularly across the middle. Regrettably, Allen continued a terrible offseason by showing up in public in a Raiders cap weeks after the draft. That’s a cut-able offense to many Chargers faithful and a bad sign that the maturity level may not be up to snuff.
Vincent Brown is the closest thing the Chargers have to a slot receiver, though he is also an outside receiver. Norv Turner’s offense filled the slot role with tight ends, but Brown could wind up seeing more looks lining up inside going forward. The only receiver among the top four shorter than 6’2”, he was poised for a strong second season after flashing talent as a rookie. Unfortunately he missed 2012 with an ankle injury that stymied his progress. Brown earned his way up the depth chart by being thorough and reliable. The same cannot be said of free agent flop Robert Meachem, who caught just 14 passes in his first year after signing a four-year/$26M contract. Meacham was signed ostensibly to replace Jackson as the sideline deep threat, but he proved incapable of digesting the offense and developed zero chemistry with Rivers. He is now the highest-paid 5th receiver in league history, and he only holds onto the #5 role if similarly disappointing Eddie Royal doesn’t pass him…which he might, as Royal played his best football down the stretch while Meacham was chained to the bench. Former Seahawk Deon Butler is also in the depth mix, and it’s a safe presumption that at least one of Royal, Meachem, and Butler will not make the team. Of the deeper camp bodies, only Mike Willie stands any chance of sticking to even the practice squad behind the cluster above them.
Antonio Gates remains a potent force at tight end. He’s never really fully recovered from a toe injury that hit him a couple years ago, but Gates can still pressure a defense and reliably move the chains. At this point in his Hall of Fame-worthy career, Gates is more of a possession receiver. He has preternatural ability to present his large frame as a target, and he and Rivers have been in perfect sync for almost a decade now. Gates is no longer a premier fantasy tight end, but that doesn’t mean he lacks intrinsic value in San Diego.
They’ve been trying to find “the next Gates” for a few years now, knowing that the icon cannot last forever. It sure appeared as if San Diego found him in Ladarius Green, their 4th round pick in 2012. A lanky 6’6” form Louisiana Lafayette, Green played almost exclusively from the split slot in college and caught everything near him as a Rajun Cajun. But the NFL game proved a major challenge as a rookie, and he was on the field for less than 40 snaps. Green must show significant improvement in cam or else he could quickly fall into the “supersized, slow WR” purgatory of Dorin Dickerson and Shawn Nelson. As insurance against that, the Chargers signed former Cowboys TE John Phillips. He is easily the best in-line option and run blocker of the group. Phillips accrued just 30 catches in four years in Dallas but was an unquestioned stud in preseason games. If you’re looking for a surprise breakout player in San Diego this year, Phillips is a savvy choice. Undrafted free agent Dallas Walker should make the practice squad and could be a viable option in 2014 and beyond if he can add some much-needed weight.
OL: What was a longtime strength for this franchise has become an unmitigated disaster in the midst of a massive overhaul. The good news is, to quote the great old Howard Jones song, things can only get better.
Drafting DJ Fluker with the 11th overall pick is a big step in making things better up front. Thus far the Chargers seem content on keeping him at right tackle, where he can thrive in the NFL. Fluker might be the best run-blocking tackle prospect I’ve ever seen. He is big, he is naturally strong, he is fierce, and he is technically proficient as a run blocker. His pass blocking issues preclude him from being a great prospect and will keep him anchored on the right side, but what an anchor he can be there.
The rest of the line is a patchwork quilt of castoffs, has-beens, and never-will-bes. Center Nick Hardwick really fell off in 2012, and at 32 years old it’s not likely that he can climb back to up to his former self. His pass protection up the gut was a constant issue, and his range as a run blocker diminished as well. The team respects his grizzled veteran status and he is still adequate in man-on blocking, but his best days are well behind him. Free agent Chad Rinehart will start on one side of Hardwick, and if the former Bills guard is fully recovered from a broken ankle that cut his 2012 campaign short, he represents progress. Rinehart is a bit of an anomaly as a pass blocking specialist of a guard, but the Chargers will take what they can get at this point. If he can alleviate some of the up-the-gut pressure on Rivers and keep the throwing lanes cleaner, Rinehart is worth every penny. He began OTAs on the left side and fared better there in his Bills tenure.
That leaves left tackle and right guard. Massive King Dunlap has the inside track to start at left tackle, a job he could never really fulfill in Philadelphia. At 6’9”, Dunlap is evidence that there is such a thing as too much length; his waist is so high that he continually struggles with leverage and maintaining blocks on the edge, particularly against shorter players. He gave up 5 sacks and 18 QB hurries last year despite missing 3 full games and parts of 3 others. To hedge their bets, San Diego signed former Steeler Max Starks to compete at left tackle. Like Dunlap, Starks is very tall and really struggles against quickness. His pass protect numbers look better than the reality, as a mobile Ben Roethlisberger continually bailed him out. Philip Rivers, alas, has the escapability of a manatee. If the tiebreaker is run blocking, Dunlap will win the spot. Starks is better at recovering from getting beaten initially, however.
Right guard is Jeromey Clary’s job to lose. At just under 6’7” he’s unusually tall for a guard, which (stop me if you’ve read this recently…) leads to leverage and pad level issues. Clary is fairly effective when he gets to be the aggressor and can face his mark heads up. Trouble arises when he has to move beyond a step before making first contact, and that rears its head more frequently against odd-man fronts. Steve Schilling and Johnnie Troutman are also in the mix. Schilling is a short-armed, blue-collar leaner who has spent most of the last two years on the practice squad. He won’t be outworked but his talent and athletic ability are limited. He’s the type of player that can clear waivers and make for a quick replacement for any injuries, a malady that has ravaged this unit for the last few seasons. Troutman was a 5th round pick in 2012 out of Penn State. He’s more of a run blocking specialist but he brings savvy and decent ability to recover block in the passing game.
Troutman and the loser of the left tackle battle figure to be the active backups. Michael Harris will have to dramatically improve to make the roster again, while David Molk and Colin Baxter figure to battle for the interior inactive/practice squad spot. The depth remains troublesome, but the starting five could perk up with Fluker, Starks, and Rinehart and good health.
Rushing YPC: 5th
3rd Down: 29th
DL: The starting threesome is a young and reasonably talented line. Corey Liuget, Kendall Reyesand Cam Thomas are all above-average at their positions and could get even better. Liuget has the highest ceiling. The right end comes off a very strong second season, bagging seven sacks and breaking up 9 passes while also providing good run support from the edge. He’s a quick bull with an excellent nose for the ball and good anticipation of the play. His play got overshadowed by JJ Watt’s superlative campaign, but in many years Liuget’s 2012 would have qualified for All Pro merit. The 2011 first round pick thrived under John Pagano’s ascension to Defensive Coordinator, and he could have an even bigger 2014.
Reyes impressed as a rookie. He consistently knifed his way into the backfield, getting 19 QB pressures and 5.5 sacks from the left side. Like Liuget, he’s smart and also quick for his size. If he can keep his pads down against the run and figure out how to avoid wham blocks better, Reyes also has Pro Bowl potential.
Between them lies Thomas, a loquacious dancing bear coming off his best season. After sharing the role with Aubrayo Franklin, now Thomas is the man. He will need to prove he can handle the uptick in snaps, both from a conditioning perspective as well as mentally staying dialed in longer. If polled, opposing offensive linemen might rate Thomas as the most annoying opponent for his nonstop woofing and frequent post-whistle activity. He penetrates better than most noses, but staying occupied longer with blockers against the run would help.
Franklin is gone, as is Vaughn Martin. That leaves the depth up front painfully thin. Jarius Wynn signed as a free agent from Tennessee, and he can play either end spot somewhat capably in small doses. Expect to see him at left end in four man fronts with the nearly 300-pound Reyes kicking inside. The only other lineman with any NFL experience at all is Damik Scafe, who got in for a handful of plays at the end of last season after spending most of 2012 on the practice squad. Massive Kwame Geathers has a chance to make a quality reserve nose tackle if he can stay in shape and keep the pilot light on his motor lit. Eventually signing a low-priced veteran cut by another team in preseason is a distinct possibility here. That could be prevented if an undrafted rookie like Jamarkus McFarland or Brandon Moore steps up, renewing their Oklahoma vs. Texas rivalry battling for the same roster or practice squad spot.
LB: This unit took a big hit when 2012 1st round pick Melvin Ingram tore up his knee in the first week of OTAs. Ingram was up and down as a rookie but appeared poised to make a big step in his second season. Instead, his injury forced the team to seek out the services of Dwight Freeney to man the ROLB gig.
You are forgiven for thinking that Freeney is a strange fit in San Diego. The former Colt thrived in the 4-3 alignment for a decade, but he struggled in the Pagano 3-4 scheme last year. You know, Colts coach Chuck Pagano, brother of Chargers DC John Pagano. Yet Freeney found no teams willing to ante up for his services until the desperate Chargers came calling. Now he gets a second chance to prove himself in the 3-4. Freeney was still moderately effective as a pass rusher, notching five sacks and 34 QB pressures. Those numbers are down but not dramatically from his prior couple of seasons. What killed Freeney in the 3-4 was his run defense. Playing in space took away his primary asset, his incredible burst off the snap. By playing him standing up or further outside, it forced Freeney to read and react more than just attack. I suspect he’ll be more comfortable in his second year in the scheme, but a 33-year old who is shorter and heavier than most guys playing the position doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.
I would be more optimistic if the Chargers had a more viable pass rushing threat on the other side than Jarret Johnson. The former Raven was solid in his first season in San Diego, playing better than his meager numbers (40 tackles, 1.5 sacks) would indicate. However, those numbers are completely inadequate even with the ends providing excellent pass rush in front of him. Johnson is a consummate professional with excellent awareness and toughness, but he’s topped 4 sacks just once in 10 seasons and has forced just 9 turnovers in the last 6 seasons. He’s a good role player opposite an impact talent, but the Chargers lost that potential when Ingram went down.
Maybe Larry English will shock the world and finally demonstrate why the Chargers made him the 16th overall pick of the 2009 NFL Draft. Four injury-plagued seasons have produced 8 sacks, one forced fumble, and less than 75 tackles. Observers close to the team say he played his best football last December, but the bar for that accomplishment was pretty low. Could a disappointing first rounder rise up and look great in a contract year blessed with good help? Absolutely it is possible. Unfortunately the Chargers are somewhat dependent on it, and that is not an enviable position. Sixth round pick Tourek Williams is the next in line, and he does have surprise potential. Williams has a lightning first step and closes quickly and with force, but he needs to learn to anticipate plays better and use his hands to even try to get off blocks. He could fill a pass rush specialist role while mentoring under Freeney.
Things look a lot rosier inside, where Donald Butler is a rock-solid player and rookie Manti Te’o offers a lot of potential. It will be very difficult for teams to run between the tackles with these two crashing the A and B gaps. Both are instinctive, heads-up backers with good tackling form. They are a young duo that can anchor the middle for years.
Butler missed his rookie season with an injury but has played well in his two healthy seasons. He’s not a powerful player but Butler excels at football geometry. He is gifted at sidestepping a block at the last second, or peeling out of traffic and chasing down the play outside. Range in coverage is a definite strong point as well. With Takeo Spikes moving on, Butler will have to take on more of a leadership role. Te’o is the celebrated 2nd round pick, notorious for his brutal game against Alabama, a poor workout, and the fake girlfriend scandal. All that noise has obscured the fact that Te’o is a very gifted inside linebacker. He has range limitations against both the run and pass, but inside the box Te’o is a power-packed monster. Other than the Bama debacle Te’o was excellent against the run, a thumping hitter and form tackler that patrols the middle with his head up. He’ll likely never match the INT total from his final Notre Dame year, but Te’o is opportunistic and aware in coverage.
With Shaun Phillips and Spikes moving on, the depth is very thin. Jonas Mouton provides baseline level depth across the linebacking corps. He can play any spot for a drive or two at a rudimentary level but shouldn’t be relied on for anything more than that. His best spot is inside on the strong side. Andrew Gachkar played sparingly as a lightweight 7th round rookie. Moving outside, former Panther Thomas Keiser has primarily been a special teamer or a game day inactive in Carolina. Packers discard DJ Smith and practice squad journeyman Phillip Dillard are the targets that undrafted free agents Devan Walker, Daniel Molls are trying to usurp in camp.
Secondary: It’s going to be strange watching the Chargers defense line up without Quentin Jammer at cornerback, but the longtime Charger signed with rival Denver in May. What will be even more stunning is that Antoine Cason is also gone, removing both starting corners from the San Diego defense. They will be replaced by Shareece Wright and Derek Cox. Wright has looked competent in very limited usage his first two seasons, but stepping up to fill Jammer’s shoes is a big leap. While letting go of a declining veteran--and make no mistake Jammer was definitely in decline--is a necessary evil, expect some serious growing pains as Wright learns on the fly.
Former Jaguar Derek Cox was signed to man the other starting spot. He recovered well from a torn ACL in 2011 and was solid in coverage last year. He’s got good length at 6’1” but doesn’t always play to his size. Cox did show good ball skills a year ago with 4 INTs (matching his 2010 total) and 11 PDs, but too often he tries to play the ball instead of the receiver. Detroit and Tennessee exploited this to great ends, and Cox has been around long enough that this malady is unlikely to remedy in the new locale. Saints castoff Johnny Patrick, a 3rd round pick in 2011, has the early leg up for the nickel corner spot. Considering he couldn’t handle the dime role in New Orleans, a better option must emerge for the Chargers quickly. Rookie Steve Williams, a 5th rounder from Cal, fits the profile of a slot corner. Small but cat-quick and feisty, Williams could easily emerge as the top inside option. He was one of my favorite picks of the 5th round and has the potential to really help this defense right away. Another to watch is undrafted rookie Josh Johnson from Purdue, a player I felt should have been drafted no later than the 5th round.
Marcus Gilchrist is also an option at corner, but it appears he is set to play the strong safety spot. That is his best positional fit, mitigating his lack of stickiness in coverage and playing to his toughness and short-range cover skills. He’s undersized as a safety but his run support is quite good. Gilchrist hasn’t quite found a permanent role in his first two seasons, and this is probably his best chance at establishing himself as a fulltime starter. At minimum, he will be on the field a lot because of his versatility. That’s the optimist talking; the glass half empty set would counter that if he’s not better than Brandon Taylor at safety, he’s not coming close to living up to his second round draft status. Both points of view are valid.
There is no question whatsoever about Eric Weddle in the other safety spot. Many argue he’s the best safety in the league today, and they have a strong argument. The good folks at Pro Football Focus have rated Weddle higher than any other safety for the 2012 season, and he was in the top-5 in 2011 as well. There really isn’t much that Weddle doesn’t excel at; he can cover, he can fill the gaps against the run, he has excellent range going both backwards and to the sidelines, he can even blitz a little. When you watch the Chargers it’s really amazing to follow Weddle as he patrols behind the linebackers. It’s rare when he isn’t right where he should be, when he should be. About the only quibble with any validity is that Weddle could force more turnovers. Other than a 7-INT outburst in 2011, he’s never picked off more than 3 passes or forced more than 2 fumbles in any season, and he has just three fumble recoveries in six years.
The aforementioned Taylor played little as a rookie last year before tearing his ACL. His surgery was not until January, which leaves his availability for 2013 in doubt. This opens the door for special teamer Darrell Stuckey and rookie free agent Jahleel Addae to get reps in camp and preseason and hopefully impress enough to stick as a viable reserve. Stuckey is more likely but don’t overlook Addae, who had a knack for big plays at big times while at Central Michigan.
Special Teams: Mike Scifres and Nick Novak return as the punter and kicker, respectively. Novak took over for Nate Kaeding midway through last season and didn’t miss a beat. Kaeding had battled leg injuries the past few seasons and saw his kickoffs and range declining (he retired in May), but the veteran Novak had a strong San Diego debut. Scifres continues to be one of the better punters in the league with a booming leg. His relative lack of hang time allows more return opportunities than most punters, which requires the Chargers to have strong coverage units. The churning at the back side of the depth chart leaves those roles wide open and could cause issues during the regular season.
Eddie Royal did very little as a punt returner, but he has shined in that role before and gets another crack at it. With Micheal Spurlock and Chris Carr both departing, reserve wideout Richard Goodman looks to be the primary kick return option after sharing the role last year. The average starting field position battle off kicks could stand to improve.
Forecast: The Chargers reign as viable AFC contenders is over, and now the Bolts find themselves in the middle of a transition period. This season determines whether it’s a retooling on the fly or a complete rebuild in San Diego. The coaching staff and front office were overhauled, and the franchise is clearly better for those long-overdue moves. Now the impetus is on quarterback Philip Rivers and an underrated young core of defenders to show they can avoid a steep decline and stay in the playoff picture late in the season.
The schedule makers did the Chargers no favors. The road games are frontloaded. Following the opener hosting Houston, San Diego plays seven of their next ten games on the road. Additionally, they drew what figures to be their tougher opponents as home games. Every non-divisional home foe won at least eight games last year. Weeks 2 and 3 see cross-country roadies to Philadelphia and Tennessee, while their Week 8 bye is sandwiched around trips to Jacksonville and Washington. It’s a very formidable schedule.
How they fare against that depends on how well Rivers plays behind a retooled line, and how well the running game can relieve pressure. Much also relies on the revamped secondary, a proposition of which I’m much less optimistic. I think the regime change makes a positive impact, and I don’t think the impact of being unyoked from widely reviled GM AJ Smith and widely panned Coach Norv Turner can be overstated. That bump in energy is good for an extra win or two. Unfortunately, between the difficult schedule and the glaring lack of depth at so many positions, those extra wins get washed out by additional losses. I see the Chargers struggling out of the gate once again, the nasty legacy of Norv Turner lingering. San Diego will hit their bye at 2-5, and could very well be underdog in six of the next seven games. If Rivers isn’t his old self and the defense isn’t forcing turnovers or getting off the field on 3rd downs, a huge problem last year beyond the Ray Rice debacle, the Chargers could very well be contending for the first overall pick in the draft. I don’t think it will be that bad, but unfortunately they appear bound to be selecting in the first ten picks in the 2014 NFL Draft. San Diego finishes 5-11 in the first year of the Mike McCoy era.
San Diego Chargers