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San Diego Chargers 2013 Season Preview
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - If the NFL truly is a war of attrition Mike McCoy and the San Diego Chargers are in full retreat.
McCoy, the former Denver Broncos offensive coordinator, thought he landed in America's Most Beautiful City as the architect of the reclamation product called Philip Rivers. Instead he finds himself in the sequel to "MASH."
In fact, forgive the new Chargers head coach if he's seeing "Hawkeye," "Hot Lips" and "Trapper John" in his sleep these days because he is probably spending most of his time talking to medical professionals.
A tough rebuilding job was only made tougher for McCoy by a host of bumps and bruises during training camp and the preseason.
It all started back in May when McCoy lost emerging outside linebacker Melvin Ingram to a torn ACL during OTAs and things haven't slowed since. From hard- luck wide receiver Danario Alexander's torn ACL to Malcolm Floyd's sprained knee to Eddie Royal's bruised lung and concussion, McCoy has to be wondering if there is a Voodoo doll out there with his name on it.
"It's part of the game," McCoy said when discussing all of his team's injuries. "It's the unfortunate part when you lose the three guys we've lost, but it's an opportunity for the other guys to step up."
No one is going to feel sorry for the Chargers, though, so the mantra has to be next man up and forging ahead with the original plan, keeping Rivers clean in the pocket.
The veteran North Carolina State product is obviously still a talented quarterback but he fell on hard times during the final season of the Norv Turner era, thanks in large part to a porous offensive line.
Losing the team's best offensive lineman -- guard Louis Vasquez -- to AFC West-rival Denver didn't help and mission No. 1 in San Diego has been rebuilding things up front.
D.J. Fluker was the best O-Line prospect left on the board when San Diego picked at No. 11 overall in the 2013 draft and general manger Tom Telesco bit. Fluker has flourished early and looks like he will solidify the right tackle position. Whether veteran tackles Max Starks or King Dunlap can do the same on the left side is another question.
Defensively, the spotlight figures to follow former Notre Dame inside linebacker Manti Te'o, a great college player who fell in the draft because of his strange "catfishing" scandal.
2012 RECORD: 7-9 (2nd, AFC West)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE 2009, lost to N.Y. Jets in AFC Divisional Playoff:
HEAD COACH (RECORD): Mike McCoy (first season)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Ken Whisenhunt (first season)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: John Pagano (12th season with Chargers, 2nd as OC)
KEY ADDITIONS: CB Derek Cox (from Jaguars), OT King Dunlap (from Eagles), LB Dwight Freeney (from Colts), TE John Phillips (from Cowboys), OG Chad Rinehart (from Bills), OT Max Starks (from Steelers), RB Danny Woodhead (from Patriots), OR D.J. Fluker (1st round, Alabama), LB Manti Teo (2nd round, Notre Dame), WR Keenan Allen (3rd round, California)
KEY DEPARTURES: LB Antwan Barnes (to Jets), S Atari Bigby (released), CB Antoine Cason (to Cardinals), NT Aubrayo Franklin (to Colts), OT Jared Gaither (released), NT Antonio Garay (released), DB CB Quentin Jammer (to Broncos), DE Vaughn Martin (to Dolphins), LB Shaun Phillips (to Broncos), LB Takeo Spikes (released), OG Louis Vasquez (to Broncos).
QB: A four-time Pro Bowl pick and a four-time team MVP, Rivers threw for 3,606 yards and 26 touchdowns in 2012, extending his team-record streaks of 3,500- yard passing seasons and 25 touch-down seasons to five. Only five quarterbacks in NFL history can claim five or more consecutive seasons with at least 25 touchdown passes, including Peyton Manning (1998-2010), Brett Favre (1994-98), Dan Marino (1984-88), Drew Brees (2006-12) and Aaron Rodgers (2008-12).
Those numbers clearly illustrate that Rivers is pretty good when hitting on all cylinders and if you can keep him clean in the pocket, he's even better. Rivers really perks up within an up-tempo environment but last season, the shoddy offensive line play caused a breakdown in mechanics for Rivers, who is prone to throwing on his back foot when in duress. Turner, for all his acumen as a play-caller, isn't much of a teacher and that was magnified in 2012. Whether Rivers can learn new things at age 31 should go a long way in determining his future.
"The game is faster. When Philip is in there they play faster," McCoy said when talking about his signal caller. "When the ones are going the tempo of the game is faster."
After an unsuccessful two-year sabbatical in the Pacific Northwest with Seattle, Charlie Whitehurst returned to San Diego in 2012 as the backup. Whitehurst is competent but no one has any illusions about the former Clemson signal caller becoming an NFL starter someday. Rookie Brad Sorensen from Southern Utah is a big, strong-armed project and a nice developmental prospect in the third spot.
RB: If there are teases in the NFL, the oft-injured Ryan Mathews has to headline the list. San Diego is again counting on the former Fresno State star to be the bell cow but have at least amassed some depth behind him with veterans Ronnie Brown and Woodhead. Since being selected with the 12th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, Mathews has been hampered by a host of injuries, including a pair of broken clavicles a year ago. The only year he was healthy (2011) he produced, earning Pro Bowl recognition.
As mentioned there is plenty of checks and balances, though, with veterans Brown and Wooodhead, who was signed from New England in free agency. Brown, a nine-year pro played in 14 games for the Bolts in 2012 and he was utilized primarily for his strength as a third-down back, tying for second on the team with 49 receptions, good for 371 yards. Woodhead may be even better in that role, catching 40 balls from Tom Brady a year ago.
Veteran fullback LeRon McClain remains an accomplished lead blocker.
WR: The Alexander injury, his fourth ACL tear, really hurts and robs the Chargers of a solid vertical threat with length who could really high-point the football and create mismatches downfield.
Floyd hopes to be ready in time for the season opener after suffering a knee sprain in practice back on August 12. The injury occurred after colliding with cornerback Shareece Wright.
"I kind of dodged a bullet with this one," Floyd said. "I thought I did something really bad to it. But it's just a strain. No tears."
Floyd led the Chargers with a career-best 56 receptions for 814 yards and five touchdowns last season. Over his eight-year career, he's been a bit of an underachiever but he is so important for this team now. Floyd is solid but unspectacular and a below average route runner for a guy with his kind of experience.
"I'm not going to put a timetable on anyone's injury because it is not fair to them or the trainers," McCoy said when asked when Floyd will be back. "We're they're 100 percent healthy and ready to practice, that's what they're going to do. They'll be out there whenever they can help this football team on the practice field."
Vincent Brown missed all of 2012 with an ankle injury and will really need to step up now that he is back and ready to go. He might be San Diego's most versatile receiver and an option to take some slot snaps even though his size is best suited for outside the numbers.
Rookie Keenan Allen finished his 2012 season regarded as the best wide receiver in the draft but his 40 times sent him tumbling. If you like him, he's Anquan Boldin. If you don't, he doesn't have the speed to get consistent separation. The film says you should like him. Allen has first-round hands but fourth-round speed and you know what wins out in the NFL.
TE: Antonio Gates isn't what he once was but remains a threat from the tight end position. The ultimate basketball on turf guy, probably because he was once a heck of a hoops player, Gates has patented the "rebound catch," using his body to shield the defender from the football. At this stage the future Hall of Famer is a possession receiver who isn't exactly going to scare people down the seam but he is hardly a concern for San Diego and should remain Rivers' move the chains guy on third down.
Ladarius Green, the Chargers' fourth-round pick in the 2012 draft, is a Gates clone at least in theory. He got an opportunity to learn from Gates as a rookie but remains a raw player with upside as a receiver. The lanky 6-foot-6 Green is strictly a slot guy, however.
San Diego signed former Cowboy John Phillips to serve as more of an in-line option and run blocker.
OL: Drafting Fluker with the 11th overall pick is a big step in making things better up front. He'll step in at right tackle Week 1 and solidify that spot for the next five years or so. Fluker is an especially strong run-blocking prospect although he will probably struggle with the first step of extremely quick pass rushers for the foreseeable future.
Left tackle remains an issue with two veterans, Dunlap and Starks, battling for the spot. At 6-foot-8 and 330 pounds, Dunlap certainly looks the part but he flamed out in Philadelphia and just doesn't have the feet to stand out. Starks is an inch shorter but about 15 or 20 pound heavier and is probably the better run blocker.
Center Nick Hardwick is the leader of the line but didn't play all that well is 2012 and is now 32 years old so you have to figure some decline in play will continue. Free agent Chad Rinehart, who is returning from a broken ankle which cut short his 2012 season in Buffalo, will handle left guard and is a solid mirror pass-blocker inside. Right guard is Jeromey Clary's to lose. At 6-foot-7 Clary is extremely tall for a guard, which could cause leverage issues. Clary struggles in space, however, so he needs to be protected on both sides.
Depth is a problem with former Michigan guard Steve Schilling, Johnnie Troutman, David Molk and Colin Baxter battling for interior jobs and the loser of the Dunlap/Starks battle handling the sing tackle position.
DL: The starting unit is a young, ascending group headlined by former first- round pick Corey Liuget. Liuget handles the right defensive end spot in the team's 3-4 and had a bit of a breakout sophomore campaign in 2012, amassing seven sacks and nine passes defensed en route to being named the Chargers' Defensive Player of the Year. He has been struggling with a balky shoulder in the preseason but when right Liuget also can hold the edge in the running game which is important for any 3-4 end.
Liuget's counterpart on the strong side is former UConn star Kendall Reyes, who put together a solid rookie season a year ago, totaling 5 1/2 sacks and 19 hurries from a more stay at home position.
Nose tackle Cam Thomas is a 335-pound two-gap run-stuffer who spilt time with the departed Aubrayo Franklin last season. With Franklin out of the picture, Thomas needs to prove he is conditioned enough to handle a large number of snaps week in and week out. He certainly has the physical skill to handle the gig.
That depth is another story. Jarius Wynn signed as a free agent from Tennessee, and figures to be a competent swing end for 20 or so snaps a game. Undrafted free agent Kwame Geathers will get every opportunity to earn the backup nose tackle job.
LB: Big things were expected from Ingram this season. The 18th overall selection in the 2012 draft, Ingram compiled 41 tackles, one sack and five passes defensed while appearing in all 16 games and starting twice as a rookie. The 24-year-old was expected to hold down a regular role this season following the departure of veteran Shaun Phillips.
Instead, the injury forced San Diego to bring in Dwight Freeney to man the ROLB. Freeney was obviously a Hall of Fame-caliber 4-3 weakside pass rusher in the Tampa-2 while in Indianapolis but often looked like a square peg being forced into the round hole when the Colts moved to the 3-4 under John Pagano's brother Chuck in 2012. At 33 it's unlikely the light goes off for Freeney in this type of defense.
"Dwight is a Hall of Fame-caliber pass rusher," inside LB Jarret Johnson said. "He's coming from a long career of a four-man rush over a tight front and he's coming to a multiple front and scheme blitz pattern type defense. It's been a change for him and the way he's handled it has been phenomenal."
Johnson is the other outside LB and he didn't flash much in his first season in San Diego a year ago. Johnson, though, is fundamentally sound, instinctive player who is regarded as a leader. He just might lack the top-tier athleticism to really stand out.
Inside figures to be the domain of Teo, who has been hampered by a strained foot in camp, and veteran Donald Butler. There shouldn't be any hesitation with Te'o as a football player but bringing him into any locker room has to be questioned, simply because his behavior during the catfishing scandal turned out to be so bizarre.
Butler is more technique than power, often sidestepping blocks instead of taking them on and shedding so he can get caught up in the wash on occasion. That said, Butler can run and chase sideline to sideline and has excellent range in pass coverage.
"In my opinion there are three or four guys on this defense that if they had the pub or a playoff run they would be Pro Bowl caliber players and Donald Butler is one of those guys," Johnson said. "He has not skipped a beat coming from his production last year and I think it is going to be a big year for him. When we win some games, people are going to know about that guy."
Former first-round pick Larry English has been a disappointment but returns as a reserve on the outside while Bront Bird, a high energy guy is the top option inside off the bench.
DB: It's a little strange to look at the Chargers' defensive backfield and not see Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason at cornerback. The veterans both moved on in free agency during the offseason, opening the door for ex-Jaguar Derek Cox and former third-round draft pick Wright.
The athleticism outside the numbers has probably been upgraded but don't sleep on the experience San Diego lost, especially with Jammer. Cox is the kind of lengthy cornerback teams look for these days and is solid in coverage but doesn't always play as big as he is. Wright, meanwhile, is a raw, speedy guy.
Saints castoff Johnny Patrick, a third-round draft pick in 2011, and rookie fifth-round pick Steve Williams were battling for the nickel job but Williams is expected to miss the entire season with a torn pectoral muscle suffered in a preseason loss to the Chicago Bears.
The leader of the San Diego defensive backfield remains All-Pro free safety Eric Weddle, perhaps the best last line of defense in all of football. Weddle is the rare breed who packs a punch and can actually cover someone. His running mate at strong safety is the talented Marcus Gilchrist, a player with solid ball skills and functional if not unspectacular speed on the back end. Gilchrist spent the majority of his first two seasons as the team's nickel corner so he has a leg up in coverage.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Veterans Mike Scifres and Nick Novak return as the Chargers' punter and kicker. The nomadic Novak, who has been a part of 10 organizations since 2005, replaced Nate Kaeding midway through 2012 and performed admirably. He's not going to remind you of Blair Walsh but the 32-year-old is a competent option for McCoy's first season.
Scifres continues to be one of the better punters in the NFL with a big leg at times. Consistency in regard to hang time is a problem on occasion, however.
Royal is the incumbent at punt returner but sustained the bruised lung along with a concussion during San Diego's practice on August 17. That could open the door for Allen or backup corner Josh Johnson.
Kick returner Richard Goodman set the franchise record for the longest kickoff return in team history (105 yards) against Oakland in 2011 but was hampered by a hamstring last year.
"We've stressed since the first day that there are three phases of the games," McCoy said. "We are not going to say that there is just an offensive and defensive phase. So it's important to understand from day one the special teams has a critical role in the football game. There is going to be guys on the 53-man roster that are here because of special teams."
COACHING: McCoy has already been thrown a slew of curve balls with all the injuries he's faced but he's cobbled together a nice support staff by bringing in former Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt as his offensive coordinator and sticking with Pagano as his defensive mastermind.
McCoy's plan is sound. Build up the offensive line, get Rivers back on track and build from there,
"The players have done a great job learning and we're going to continue to add to it throughout the season," McCoy said when talking about his vision. "We put the base in and as the season moves forward we will continue to add wrinkles and other plays that we have picked-up on during games. Same will go for both the offense and defense."
THE SKINNY: Norv Turner did a lot of damage in San Diego and it's going to take time to get things moving in the right direction again.
The Chargers are no longer one of the most talented teams in football and the era of them being consistent playoff contenders is over. San Diego does, however, play in a weak division with the notable exception of Denver so another year around the .500 mark could produce a second place finish.
08/20 13:17:21 ET