2011 team previews
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Recent posts by Eli Kaberon
Despite boasting the league's top-ranked offense and top-ranked defense in 2010, the Chargers didn't even give themselves the opportunity to play for a postseason berth in Week 17. An awful 2-5 start to the season, combined with injuries, player holdouts and dreadful play on special teams helped hand first place in the AFC West to the Chiefs. It marked the first time a team other than San Diego had won the division since '05.
The Bolts hope to return to their winning ways, and having a full, healthy roster from the get-go should help them achieve that goal. OLT Marcus McNeill missed the first five games last season before receiving the contract extension he desired, while WR Vincent Jackson didn't suit up for 11 games because of a suspension and demand for more money. Rookie RB Ryan Mathews, All-Pro TE Antonio Gates and big-play WR Malcom Floyd also missed time because of various injuries.
One player in the lineup the entire season was QB Philip Rivers, who solidified his place as one of the league's top signalcallers. Were Rivers on a winning team, he likely would have garnered plenty of MVP discussion after throwing for 4,710 yards and 30 TDs despite the hobbled supporting cast surrounding him. He will be relied on again to carry the team in an up-and-coming division.
After last season's flop, along with postseason failures earlier in his tenure, the pressure is on head coach Norv Turner. Even if distractions lead the Chargers off their path, Turner must make sure it doesn't derail them.
Few quarterbacks in the league are as efficient as Philip Rivers, a reason he leads the pass-heavy San Diego attack. Rivers can make all the throws on the passing tree and has a deep stable of receivers at his disposal, including Antonio Gates, the NFL's premier tight end. Helping him out are a group of running backs with different skill sets and a solid offensive line. Coordinator Clarence Shelmon lets Rivers air it out early and often throughout the game, a wise strategy.
Quarterbacks: If there was any question of who the team leader of the Chargers is, just find the player who returned to the huddle week after week despite a hobbled supporting cast around him. Philip Rivers is vocal in the locker room and a take-charge player on the field, fighting through injuries and motivating his teammates with words and actions. He's also a fantastic passer in the pocket, using great peripheral vision to locate open receivers even when it appears they are covered. In 2010, Rivers led the league in passing yards, throwing for a career-high 294 yards per game, ending the campaign with his third Pro Bowl appearance. Though his delivery never will be considered fundamentally sound, Rivers has the arm strength to throw deep and the touch to drill passes in the middle of the field as well as into the flats. As he goes, so go the Chargers, which means the organization is incredibly thankful that he is durable, starting all 16 games in each of the past five seasons. Backup Billy Volek is best suited with a clipboard in his hands. He understands the offense well, but lacks the arm strength and polish Rivers possesses.
Running backs: After letting Charger legend LaDainian Tomlinson go in free agency and trading up in the first round to select Ryan Mathews with the 12th pick in the 2010 draft, the team figured it wouldn't miss a beat in the run game. That turned out to be true, though not in the manner expected. Mathews missed time with an ankle injury and did not remind fans of L.T., though he did show fantastic balance and the ability to fight off tacklers. He also possesses the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. However, health is a concern, as there are doubts he can hold up for 16 games and become a workhorse. RB Mike Tolbert ended up leading the team in rushing with a punishing style that helped him gain four yards per rush. Despite not getting more than 25 carries in a season prior to 2010, Tolbert adjusted well to his new role and proved to have a nose for the endzone, scoring 11 touchdowns, 10 of which came from five yards or less. He's expected to back up Mathews this season. Rookie Jordan Todman, who boasts outstanding speed and agility, will be used as a change-of-pace back much like Darren Sproles was. FB Jacob Hester is mainly a blocker in jumbo formations.
Receivers: Philip Rivers would prefer to spread the ball around than lock in on one guy, so despite his first-string receivers missing time because of contract issues and injuries, the quarterback still found plenty of targets as the 2010 season went along. That should help the team with his top pass catchers returning, along with some new additions to the group. WR Vincent Jackson, who was given the franchise tag and is back for one more year, should return to his place as the Bolts' top downfield threat. The 6-foot-5 receiver has the size to dominate even well-built cornerbacks, along with speed that makes him nearly impossible to guard when the ball is in the air. Jackson knows how to use his body, shielding helpless defenders and making spectacular catches seem routine. Route running and focus are issues for Jackson, though the latter shouldn't be a problem given the fact that he's playing for a long-term contract. On the other side will be Malcom Floyd, who has the same size and ability as Jackson, but lacks the consistency to be a true No. 1 target. Veteran Patrick Crayton can stretch the field with dynamic speed and is expected to line up in the slot. Rookie Vincent Brown also will be a factor in the passing game. Brown needs to improve his run blocking, but is a well-rounded receiver who can catch any pass thrown his way. Then, of course, there's TE Antonio Gates, arguably the top player at his position in the league. Gates' speed and athleticism make it difficult for linebackers to stick with him, and his 6-4, 260-pound frame, which he knows how to use to his advantage, doesn't allow safeties much of a chance either. If Gates' foot is fully healed, the San Diego passing game might improve over last year's performance.
Offensive linemen: The 38 sacks taken by Philip Rivers in 2010 were not entirely the fault of the O-line. Still, there is major room for improvement. OLT Marcus McNeill has been an elite player in the past but didn't play to that level in '10. He has terrific feet and the strength to hold off defenders, though he did not appear to be at his best after finally agreeing to a new contract with the team. Playing next to McNeill is OLG Kris Dielman, who has played in the Pro Bowl the past four years. Dielman is one of the NFL's top guards, using tremendous strength and physicality to push around opponents. He also plays with a bit of an attitude when finishing off blocks. C Nick Hardwick is an intelligent player who occasionally gets overwhelmed by superior athletes. Louis Vasquez and Tyronne Green each showed ability at right guard, though both need more polish and experience. Vasquez lacks athleticism and has trouble with quicker players, but is very strong and a good lead blocker; Green is still very raw and does not know how to use his body correctly, but the coaching staff sees a lot of potential in the third-year pro. ORT Jeromey Clary is not a premier player, but he is durable and can get to the second level, a reason the team made it a priority to re-sign him this summer.
Greg Manusky replaces new Panthers head coach Ron Rivera as defensive coordinator, but not much should change in terms of scheme. The team still will run a 3-4 and be aggressive by disguising looks while bringing constant pressure. Unlike the offense, the defense was remarkably healthy in 2010, which allowed young starters to blossom into impact players and solid veterans to go about their business. One area in which to improve will be forcing turnovers, as the Chargers were below-average last season. Replacing departed free agents and integrating rookies into the lineup also will be among Manusky's challenges.
Defensive linemen: Though not the most well-known lineman on the team, NT Antonio Garay is the most important one of the bunch. The big man can take on blockers, create disruption in a quarterback's face and slow down running games. His work allows DE Luis Castillo to thrive. A phenomenal athlete who uses finesse and speed to make plays, Castillo has been known to take plays off, but is tough for offensive tackles to defend one-on-one when motivated. At the other end spot, both vet Jacques Cesaire and rookie Corey Liuget will see time. Cesaire isn't flashy, but gets the job done. He does lack the size and nose for the ball Liuget has, a reason the first-rounder's snaps should rise as the season progresses. Backup DE Vaughn Martin has a chance to be dominant if he were violent on a consistent basis. Too often he gave up on plays when he was blocked, though he made enough of an impression on coaches that they played him more as the season went along. DT Cam Thomas, a rookie in '10, is a long-term project with potential who needs experience to learn the tricks of the trade.
Linebackers: Anchored by OLB Shaun Phillips, the Bolts' LB corps is among the NFL's better units. Phillips has a polished combination of power and speed and boasts a variety of moves to get to the quarterback. He's also a disruption in the running game with his ability to make plays in the open field. Across from Phillips will be a rotating cast of bodies. Free-agent pickup Travis LaBoy is an active player who occasionally can be caught out of position but has a nose for the quarterback. Larry English was drafted to be the heir apparent to Shawne Merriman, but with only five sacks in his first two seasons, the time is now to show his potential. He's a smart and physical player who missed half of the '10 season with a foot injury. Inside, the team signed Takeo Spikes, who played under Manusky last season with the 49ers. A seasoned vet, Spikes no longer "wows" anybody with his skills, but he is solid in every aspect of the game and is rarely out of position. There is playing time to be had next to Spikes, and a host of young players, headlined by '10 third-rounder Donald Butler, competed for the job in camp. The team drafted Jonas Mouton in the second round, hoping he can be a versatile player who can contribute both as an inside and outside 'backer as well as on special teams.
Defensive backs: In 2010, the secondary had speed, size, athleticism and ability. One thing it lacked: toughness. It was with that in mind that the team signed Colts castoff Bob Sanders before the lockout began. Sanders has played only nine total games the past three seasons and is a constant injury concern. However, when he is on the field, he will bring physicality to the run defense and great knowledge of the game in pass coverage. He'll team with returning safeties Eric Weddle and Steve Gregory to form a fantastic rotation. Weddle is a big hitter who occasionally finds himself out of position because of his lack of foot speed, but the team invested heavily in him this summer. He is great in run defense, a complement to Gregory, a strong safety who excels when the ball is in the air. Lockdown CBs Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason both are former first-round picks who have lived up to their potential. Jammer is a physical player who likes to bump receivers at the line and knock them off their route. He's also very good at reading quarterbacks and tackling in the open field. Cason was a starter for the first time last year, moving from the nickel back job after San Diego traded Antonio Cromartie to the Jets. With terrific speed, Cason showed an ability to defend both deep and shallow throws, and he thrived with the ball in the air, finishing with 17 passes defensed. Rookies Marcus Gilchrist and Shareece Wright also will play vital roles. Gilchrist is an active defender with good closing speed; intelligence is also a major plus and he'll be able to grasp the defense from Day One, either as a corner or safety. Wright, a cornerback, has fantastic press-coverage skills and top-end speed.
Starting in training camp and lasting through the entire 2010 season, special teams for the Chargers were anything but special. Because of injuries, the team employed five different long-snappers, and that was just the start of the problems. There were issues in every area of the unit, a major factor why the team missed the playoffs. PK Nate Kaeding made 23-of-28 field-goal attempts; however San Diego's opponents didn't miss any of the 16 kicks they tried. Kaeding has range up to 50 yards but cannot be counted on to make kicks in pressure situations. P Mike Scifres had four punts blocked thanks to the revolving door on the line in front of him, though he still possesses a strong and accurate leg. Coverage teams were a major issue, with opponents taking back three kickoffs and one punt for touchdowns in '10. On returns, the team lost their primary kickoff and punt man in Darren Sproles, so expect rookie Marcus Gilchrist and CB Antoine Cason to try to fill those spots.
With the division's best player in Philip Rivers, a return to the top of the AFC West standings is not out of the question. The Chargers showed with their aggressive approach to free agency that they are ready to win now. It will be up to Norv Turner to make sure that his roster maintains focus from the beginning of training camp throughout the entire season, as slow starts and lackadaisical efforts in big games have been the team's downfall in recent years.
To order the digital edition of Pro Football Weekly's 2011 NFL Preview magazine, visit the PFW Store. The publication contains scouting reports on all 32 teams, rosters, depth charts, positional grades and 2010 week-by-week stats. Also, the magazine includes PFW's exclusive player rankings feature, ranking the top players in the league by position and overall.