Chargers

2010 NFL Preview: San Diego Chargers

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Between now and the September 9th season kick-off, Hank Koebler, IV will be previewing all the NFL teams with new teams being released daily.

2009 Season Breakdown

2009 final record (overall, division): 13-3, 5-1
Division finish: 1st AFC West
Offensive rank (Points, Total Yards, Passing Yards, Rushing Yards): 4th, 10th, 5th, 31st
Defensive rank (Points, Total Yards, Passing Yards, Rushing Yards): 11th, 16th, 11th, 20th

2009 Individual Statistical Leaders

Rushing: LaDainian Tomlinson, 730 yards, 12 TD; Darren Sproles, 343 yards, 3 TD
Passing: Philip Rivers, 4,254 yards, 28 TD; 9 INT
Receiving: Vincent Jackson, 1,167 yards, 9 TD; Antonio Gates, 1,157 yards, 8 TD; Malcolm Floyd, 776 yards, 1 TD; Darren Sproles, 497 yards, 4 TD
Tackles: Stephen Cooper, 71 total tackles; Eric Weddle, 68 total tackles
Sacks: Shaun Phillips, 7.0 sacks, Shawne Merriman, 4.0 sacks
Interceptions: Quentin Jammer, 3 INT, 0 TD; Antonio Cromartie, 3 INT, 0 TD; Eric Weddle, 2 INT, 1 TD

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2010 Season Outlook

Schedule
(* denotes division game)lt;/em>

Key Matchups

September 13 at Kansas City: The Chargers aren't as intimidating as they used to be, and their AFC West divisional rivals will smell blood in the water. The Chiefs hope that their draft class and coaching staff changes will help close the gap between them and the reigning divisional champions. Meanwhile, the Chargers hope that the prolonged holdout of Vincent Jackson doesn't impede their transition to a pass-first team. The Chiefs' passing game looks likely to improve a little bit, while the Chargers' defensive backfield suffered the loss of Antonio Cromartie over the offseason. This will hurt the Chargers most on play-action passes by the Chiefs, as their front seven will be forced to bite on run fakes so they don't run the risk of letting Jamaal Charles run wild over them.

October 31 vs. Tennessee: On Christmas night, the Chargers destroyed the Titans' slim hopes of making the playoffs, continuing the pattern of the Titans' futility against the Chargers. The Titans and Chargers have played 5 times since 2004, and the Titans haven't beaten them once. This could be the Titans' year to turn that tide – the Chargers' defense lost Antonio Cromartie, and their running game has been going downhill for the past couple of years, while the Titans seem to be on their way up. Winning this game would be a huge victory for the Titans, not just literally, but emotionally as well.

November 28 at Indianapolis: The Colts and Chargers always match up well against each other because the Chargers typically have been a team that can both pick you apart in the passing game and stuff the ball up the middle. While this won’t be an easy win for the Colts, the Chargers have shown signs of decline the past few years, and the slump could continue this year. If so, Indianapolis will come away with this victory.

Key Losses

Jamal Williams, NT; Antonio Cromartie, CB; LaDainian Tomlinson, RB; Brandon Manumaleuna, TE

Key Returning Players

Philip Rivers, QB; Marcus McNeill, LT; Antonio Gates, TE; Vincent Jackson, WR; Larry English, LB; Shawne Merriman, LB; Quentin Jammer, CB

Key Draft Picks

Ryan Matthews, RB; Cam Thomas, NT; Darrell Stuckey, FS

Key Free Agent Signings

Nathan Vasher, CB; Tra Thomas, OT

Key Acquisitions via Trade

Jason Campbell, QB

Offensive Overview

Holdouts could quite possibly derail this team's entire season, as both left tackle Marcus McNeill and receiver Vincent Jackson are currently extremely unhappy with their contracts, and general manager A.J. Smith has stated publicly that he is expecting them to miss the first ten games of the season (the maximum a player can hold out without losing credit towards free agency). For a pass-first team, which is what the Chargers have become, to lose their left tackle and top receiver will be crippling. Tight end Antonio Gates has a unique blend of size, speed, and hands, and his presence along with Jackson opens up tons of opportunities for the rest of the Chargers' offense. However, with Jackson holding out, it will be a lot easier to take Gates out of the game by bumping him with a linebacker and covering him with a safety without having to double-cover Jackson as well. Malcolm Floyd and Legedu Naanee are good second and third options, but even with the addition of former Buffalo Bill Josh Reed, the receiving corps will be nowhere near as deadly without Jackson. This will slow the entire offense, especially if McNeill is out as well. So far, the word going around about the Chargers is that they have started contract talks with McNeill again, but he isn't in any rush to sign. They still appear to be miles away from a new deal for Jackson, though, which does not bode well for them.

Over the offseason, the Chargers added former Jaguar and Eagle Tra Thomas, who will likely fill in at left tackle until McNeill rejoins the team. Left guard Kris Dielman held his own in pass protection, but was merely OK in the run game. Center Nick Hardwick really wasn't that good of a run-blocker either, but his pass-blocking was nice. He missed the first 13 games of the season with an ankle injury last year, so he will be better now that he is back to full health. Right guard Louis Vazquez had a rough rookie season last year, but the Chargers are sticking with him as the starter and hoping a year of experience under his belt will lead to improvements in his game. Right tackle is a position that is in flux right now. Starter Jeromey Clary saw his season come to an end in Week 10 after an extremely serious ligament strain in his left ankle, but was playing really well before that. The Chargers hope he is fully recovered, but if not, they will likely turn to Brandyn Dombrowski, who started eight games, but is pretty weak in run blocking and decent against the pass rush. San Diego often used tight end Brandon Manumaleuna in the role of a sixth offensive lineman to bolster their weak running game. Without him, their line will be even worse than it was last year, when they were unable to open up any holes for running backs LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles, and both were held to under four yards per carry on the season. Instead of making major moves along the offensive line, San Diego simply cut Tomlinson and drafted Ryan Matthews to replace him so that the small but explosive Darren Sproles doesn't have to shoulder a starter's workload. The Chargers hope promising young fullback Mike Tolbert will open holes for Matthews and Sproles the way Lorenzo Neal did for LaDainian Tomlinson. However, as long as Jackson is out, the entire offense will be crippled because the line is built mainly for pass-blocking, and they don't run-block well at all. If opposing defenses don't have to focus on Jackson, they'll be able to clog up the few holes that the Chargers open up.

The only way this offense gets anything done is if quarterback Philip Rivers starts to spread the ball around, something he hasn't had to do often in his career. Last year he almost exclusively targeted Gates and Jackson, and would dump the ball off to Sproles if neither of them was open. Rivers has all the physical tools of a great NFL quarterback, but he needs to progress through all his reads and find whoever's open if he wants to keep San Diego's offense from being in the league's bottom five, which is where it appears to be headed without Jackson.

Defensive Overview

This defense suffered big-time from the Week 1 loss of nose tackle Jamal Williams. His replacements Ogemdi Nwagbuo and Ian Scott got blown off the ball way too easily, which is the kiss of death for a 3-4 defense. A 3-4 is predicated on the nose tackle's ability to consistently command double-and-triple-team blocks and clog up the middle. If this doesn't happen, the entire defense falls apart. Thanks to the Chargers' skill at all the other positions on defense, they were able to still maintain fairly respectable rankings, but they would have been assertive and dominant if they had better nose tackle play. This year, rookie Cam Thomas is expected to be the immediate starter, but there isn't really a quality nose tackle behind him if he doesn't transition to the NFL as quickly as the Chargers are hoping he does. If Thomas does start occupying double-teams, then defensive ends Jacques Cesaire and Luis Castillos will be freed up to return to dominance.

Linebacker is an area of strength on the Chargers' defense. At outside linebacker, Shawne Merriman plays pretty well, and Shaun Phillips is absolutely great. Although Merriman is planning on holding out for all of training camp, last year's first-round draft pick Larry English will be ready to fill in for him in the event that the holdout continues into the regular season. At inside linebacker, Stephen Cooper, who has led the Chargers in tackles for three years in a row, is guaranteed a starting spot, and the other inside linebacker position will be occupied by a rotation between Kevin Burnett and Brandon Siler.

The biggest hole in the Chargers' defensive backfield is at strong safety. In only nine starts last year, rookie Kevin Ellison racked up fifty-two tackles and could have been considered the frontrunner for the starting spot coming into training camp. Unfortunately, Ellison was arrested this offseason after police found approximately 100 unprescribed Vicodin pills in his car, and the Chargers cut ties with him. Currently, the only player on the Chargers' roster with NFL playing time at strong safety is Steve Gregory, who has started nine games in his four years in the league. Rookie Darrell Stuckey from Kansas is expected to push him for a starting job. At free safety, Eric Weddle is the unquestioned starter, and he is pretty much a pure coverage safety, not a big hitter. Cornerbacks Antonio Cromartie and Quentin Jammer were an impressive duo, but Cromartie was traded to the New York Jets this offseason. In his stead, 2008 first-round pick Antoine Cason is expected to start. Cason has outstanding agility and speed, so the Chargers' starting cornerback tandem should see very little, if any, drop-off in performance after Cromartie's departure. However, the loss of both Cromartie and Ellison will likely lead to depth issues in nickel and dime packages, making the Chargers more vulnerable to three-wide sets.

Special Teams Overview

The Chargers' kickoff coverage was excellent, ranking 11th in average kickoff return distance allowed despite ranking 25th in average kickoff distance. In the offseason, they lost Kassim Osgood, an excellent special teams coverage player, so their kickoff coverage will likely suffer a bit of a decline. Their punting coverage, however, can't get much worse than it was last year. Although they had the 10th-best average punt distance, which allowed their coverage team to get farther downfield while the punt was still in the air, they allowed the second-highest average yards per punt return.

Darren Sproles had an impressive kickoff return average of 24.1 yards, but despite returning one punt for a touchdown, he had a mediocre punt return average of 7.0 yards per return. This is because Sproles builds up speed as he runs, so kickoff returns give him more space to get up to full speed than punt returns do. While he's more than serviceable as a kickoff returner, the Chargers might want to upgrade in the punt return game.

Placekicker Nate Kaeding nailed 32 of 35 field goal attempts last year, which on the surface appears to be an impressive number. However, his stats show that nineteen of his attempts were inside the thirty-yard line. He was four for four from the 30 to 39-yard line, but nine for twelve from outside the forty yard line. His career numbers suggest a major drop-off when he gets outside of the 40-yard line. A career 87.2 percent kicker, he has made 96.8 percent of attempts from 20 to 29 yards. Similarly, he has made 95.3 percent of field goal attempts from 30 to 39 yards. From 40 to 49 yards, his numbers drop drastically to 72 percent, and he has only made 69.2 percent of field goal attempts of 50 or more yards.

Head Coach: Norv Turner

Turner only has a career winning percentage of 47.3%, but that includes a two-year stint with the Oakland Raiders in 2004 and 2005 that certainly dragged his average down. He has an impressive 66.7% winning percentage in San Diego in his three years there, but a lot of that stems from beating up on a weak conference. His Chargers teams have started off slow and gotten hot towards the end of the season, only to lose in the playoffs, where Turner has a 3-3 record as the Chargers' head coach. Given that Turner's predecessor Marty Schottenheimer was fired on the heels of a 14-2 season because the Chargers failed in the playoffs, it's hard to believe that Turner's job is safe just because of the three-year contract extension he signed. He can still be fired at any time if he disappoints in the playoffs again. However, the contract extension just guarantees that the Chargers will have Turner's services for cheaper than market value if he does indeed win a Super Bowl this year.

Top 2011 Free Agents

Jeromey Clary, OT; Jacques Cesaire, DE; Stephen Cooper, ILB; Kevin Burnett, ILB; Brandon Siler, ILB; Eric Weddle, FS

Season Prediction

2nd AFC West

While a ten-week Jackson holdout would completely sink this team's hopes of playing some January football, they'll still be hard-pressed to win the division. The main issues aside from holdouts that prevent them from winning the AFC West are (in no particular order): the way the Broncos have completely reloaded their defense, the Chargers' loss of depth and two starters in the defensive backfield, the lack of certainty about San Diego's nose tackle position, and the Chargers' offensive line's inability to run-block. It looks as if the Chargers' rein over the AFC West has come to an end, and they will be a long shot to make the playoffs. With so many key players set to become free agents in 2011, it appears as if the Chargers' window of opportunity was closing, and is closing a year earlier than it should have thanks to holdouts. - Hank Koebler, IV

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