Good luck finding a significantly more talented or deeper roster than what the Chargers have in San Diego. The Bolts had nine players selected to the Pro Bowl, and you could make an argument that there should have been even more than nine who could have earned a trip to Hawaii. Year after year, the Chargers have had guys step in when called upon and perform at a high level. That's a testament to the front office's ability to evaluate talent and find players who can fit the scheme:
Marcus McNeill started as a rookie last season for an injured Roman Oben. McNeill played his way to the top of the heap among AFC left tackles. Marcus should continue to dominate for the next decade and will be selected to many more Pro Bowls.
Shaun Phillips had been itching for more playing time, and when tragedy struck Steve Foley, Phillips was given and opportunity to start at Outside Linebacker. He showed his ability to stop the run (a question mark that has since been erased) and displayed pass-rushing prowess that brought him recognition league-wide as a force off the edge. Phillips was tied for second (DeMarcus Ware) among linebackers in sacks behind Shawne Merriman.
Phillip Rivers started his first NFL season last year and made the Pro Bowl in addition to leading his team to a 14-2 record and into the playoffs. The Chargers allowed Drew Brees (an All-Pro QB, mind you) to leave as a free agent and the team did not miss a beat. Rivers is now the face of the franchise and will win many playoff games before his career is over.
Now those are just three examples of how players have come off the bench and became starters; only to find themselves arguably better than the player they replaced in the lineup. Other examples include guys like Mike Scifres, Shawne Merriman, and possibly Stephen Cooper (replacing Randell Godfrey). The Chargers are stacked, and if Rivers or Tomlinson go down, I'm confident that Billy Volek and Michael Turner could adequately replace them for an extended period of time. If Marcus McNeil went down with an injury, its a good feeling knowing you can bring in a seasoned vet like Roman Oben to hold the fort.
But there are some players that the team would be less prepared to lose for an extended period of time. If any of these players went down, the team's fortunes could make a turn for the worse:
1. Jamal Williams - There is no doubt that the defense starts up front, and its cornerstone is Jamal Williams and his All-Pro Nose Tackle abilities. Its not a simple thing to plug in a 330+ pound monster who can consistently fight double teams and still get a push into the backfield. Few players like Williams exist in the league, and even fewer are as good as making plays behind the line of scrimmage and almost single-handily shutting down running games. The Chargers have players behind Williams, but none of them are proven at this level.
2. Quentin Jammer - I don't even want to think about losing Jam. Losing the team's best corner and the secondary's leading tackler would be a huge blow to the defense. Drayton Florence and Antonio Cromartie are talented and athletic players, but Jammer is just about the complete package. He is among the NFL's best corners against the run, and has invaluable experience. He has played against many number one receivers around the league and knows what these players do. Moving Florence to the number one and Cromartie to number two means that they will face challenges that they never had to before.
3. Shawne Merriman - Look at points the defense allowed during the four game stretch that Shawne Merriman was serving his suspension. Shaun Phillips now faces the double-team and that means that our pass rush suffers as a result. Just having Merriman on the field is disruptive to opposing offenses. His intensity and aggressive nature is energy that his team feeds off of. Losing the league's most dominant defensive player puts added pressure on the D across the board - from the defensive line and linebackers, to the secondary.
4. Kris Dielman - The attitude and presence of Kris reverberates across the entire offensive line. They feed off of his aggressive nature and rely on his 'enforcer' mentality. The favorite blocker of LaDainian Tomlinson, losing Dielman means McNeill and Hardwick must step their game up. Unproven backups along the line also present the possibility that the blocking unit suffers in their ability to pass protect and run block. This effects the offense's ability to control the ball and score points, and thats a bad thing.
5. Marlon McCree - As a coach on the field and the quarterback of the secondary, Marlon McCree's role on the defense goes beyond his coverage assignments. He mentors and corrects the young players and provides veteran leadership to the defense. While he certainly has playmaking ability, it's his intangibles that are most valuable. I have my doubts that the backup safeties like Hart and Jue can bring those intangibles to the table. Because the defense asks so much from it's safeties, with McCree on the sidelines, the defense becomes more vanilla if the reserves are lacking in abilities, knowledge, and experience.
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