So we, admittedly, underestimated the commitment required for us both to preview all 32 NFL teams together in a little more than a month. It's tedious, thankless work. So from now on we're splitting the rest of the teams among the two of us to get done twice as quick (and with half the work). It is with that that we're proud to bring to you the 27th of our 32 team previews for the upcoming NFL season, the San Diego Chargers.
TOM'S TAKE: I'd like to thank the Chargers for three things: 1 - Drew Brees, 2 - Donnie Edwards (it's coming), 3 - the best jerseys in any sport.
Many, including me, have been down on the Chargers going into this season because of the uncertainty at quarterback with Philip Rivers taking over for Brees. I'm whistling a different tune now, though -- "Twinkle Twinkle." Seriously, in my mind the only thing keeping the Chargers from completely running away with the division was Philip Rivers -- not that he's a terrible quarterback, just an unknown entity. But so far this preseason, we've been able to get a look at Rivers. And he looks good. With the best running back in the game, the best tight end in the game, and a consistent veteran at receiver, not to mention a very good defense that could make the jump to dominant, Rivers won't need to do a lot to win. And he should win plenty.
LaDainian Tomlinson is my favorite NFL player not on the Saints. He's such a perfect hybrid of runner, receiver, and blocker; it angers me when people drool over Larry Johnson's half of a season or call Shaun Alexander the best back in the league when Tomlinson has done it all for years, including years when the Chargers weren't nearly as good as they are now. There's nothing else I can add about him -- he's basically as complete of a running back as I've ever seen. Rivers will be fine handing off to him and using LT as a safety valve. Likewise, the Chargers' lack of a true iconic #1 receiver is offset by Antonio Gates, who is strong, fast, and gigantic -- a perfect combination for an inexperienced quarterback having trouble discerning coverage in the end zone. All else fails, throw it up and Gates will come down with it. The group of receivers could use some polishing behind McCardell, but the Chargers have enough talent across the entire offense that they'll continue to put points on the board as they have in the last two years. On the line, second round selection Marcus McNeill is threatening to take the starting job at left tackle because of Roman Oben's foot injury. It's a gamble handing the most crucial position on the offensive line to a rookie, but McNeill has looked adept in preseason and has outperformed his competition at tackle, one of the Chargers' deepest units.
The Bolts will also benefit from two emerging defensive ends. Luis Castillo is coming into his own in his second NFL season and was moved from defensive tackle to play end in the 3-4 scheme, where the end has to be bigger and commit more to the run. On the other end is Igor Olshansky, who has displayed an incredible mix of strength and finesse in the offseason and who appears ready to take another step in his development. Behind them, there should be a question mark over who is going to fill Donnie Edwards' void if (when) he leaves the Chargers, but the team is confident in Matt Wilhelm's ability to take over. Still, the Bolts could have the best front seven in the NFL, and one has to wonder whether a change from the consistency of Edwards (who is second in the NFL in tackles over the last seven years) will effect that. Shawne Merriman is an absolute star and will bid for the AFC Defensive Player of the Year award come January.
The problem with the defense in past years has been its secondary -- the Chargers were absolutely dreadful in pass defense last year. Quentin Jammer is finally beginning to find his stride after having a tough time adjusting to the NFL, and the Chargers also brought in Marlon McCree from Carolina and Antonio Cromartie with their first pick in the draft. Both have played lights out in the preseason, and Cromartie will probably be starting opening week. Opposing offenses are going to be in trouble this year -- they've gotten accustomed to passing on the Chargers to avoid the Bolts' run-stuffers, but that might not work this year.
The AFC West is nowhere near the quality people expect it to be, but the Chargers are for real. They should have no trouble cutting through the division and making the playoffs. A caveat, though -- it's never safe to rely on quarterbacks their first time in the playoffs, and the Chargers might be a year (and a playmaking receiver) away from a deep playoff run. But this year they should see 10-11 wins and a disappointing exit from the playoffs.