Are the Chargers better today than they were in the playoffs? It is an interesting question to ponder because for as many changes as the Chargers have made, much of the Chargers roster remains the same. And that in itself could be an improvement. Confused? Let's discuss...
Starting with where the action begins on the gridiron battlefield, the offensive line faced much adversity during the 2009 season, and should be improved this year over the team that we last saw in the playoffs. Last season, the Chargers lost center Nick Hardwick, rookie right guard Louis Vasquez, and right tackle Jerome Clary to injuries for multiple games throughout the season, and left tackle Marcus McNeill was fighting injuries throughout the end of the year. By the January 2010 playoff game against the New York Jets, the Chargers had a hobbled Hardwick starting at center and undrafted Brandon Dombrowski starting at right tackle. The Chargers had serious depth concerns on the offensive line (not much has changed actually), but a healthy group of starters will be a marked improvement over the MASH unit that played much of 2009.
On the opposite side of the line of scrimmage, the problems on the Chargers' defensive line can be primarily blamed on the losses of Jamal Williams and Ryon Bingham. Williams, the anchor of the defense, and his backup were both lost for the season by the end of the first game in 2009, and the Chargers had a rough time filling that void. Ian Scott, Travis Johnson, Antonio Garay, and Aaron Boone were all used in various packages on defensive in the playoff loss to the Jets- hardly a dream team at the defensive tackle position, but a rotation (along with Ogemdi Nwagbuo) that was effective enough until the postseason, where they got manhandled by the Jet's offensive line. This season, following a draft where the nosetackle position was an obvious need but was not addressed until the 5th round, the rotation on the defensive line seems to be here to stay. Rookie 5th round pick Cam Thomas will be asked to be an immediate contributor on a defense that needs to get better at stopping the run, but it is unknown whether he is up to the challenge on a consistent basis. Overall, the defensive line is not worse than it was in 2009, but whether or not it can be significantly better has yet to be determined. And if the Chargers face another team like the Jets in the playoffs, you had better hope that this defensive line can play better.
Continuing with the Chargers' defense, the linebackers and defensive backs each welcome some rookie competition in LB Donald Butler and S Darrell Stuckey. The linebackers also welcome back from injury solid contributors in Jyles Tucker and Antwan Applewhite. Depth was a problem at a number of positions for the Chargers last season, so bringing back players who can contribute in a back-up capacity can be considered an improvement over last season, especially if Merriman's stay in San Diego does not make it far into the 2010 season.
The Chargers secondary may be the team's biggest question mark going into 2010. Generally speaking, with every other position on the team you know what you're going to get. But with the Chargers' defensive backs, you have a new starter at cornerback in Antoine Cason or possible Nathan Vasher, and a battle for the starting safety position opposite Eric Weddle. I'm not ready to call the trading of Antonio Cromartie addition by subtraction, because I'm not confident that Cason will better (although I think he has the talent to surprise a lot of people). At safety, the biggest question is whether or not Stuckey can beat out Kevin Ellison, and prove to be a marked improvement over what the Chargers have had in years past at that position.
Back to the offense, the biggest acquisition for the Chargers in this offseason was the drafting of RB Ryan Mathews in the first round. For a running game that was ranked second-to-last in the league, the addition of Mathews can only be an improvement. I am still of the belief that the problems with the Chargers' running game were equal parts offensive line and running back, but with a healthy offensive line, a fresh running back should do wonders for bringing the Chargers offense back into balance.
The QB position remains basically the same, with Rivers, Volek, and a 3rd stringer who really doesn't matter. The receiving corp remains relatively unchanged (Kassim Osgood was not a productive WR but his exit to Jacksonville obviously hurts our special teams). And speaking of special teams, Kaeding, Scifres, and Sproles all return, bringing with them high hopes for another solid regular season and a post-season that we hope does not come down to a field goal.
So are the 2010 Chargers better than the team that lost to the Jets in playoffs? Based on health alone I would say yes, but health can be a fleeting thing in the sport of football. All things considered, the running game has to be better with the addition of Mathews, because it would be hard to be much worse. Another year with the rotation at nosetackle should be improved as long as Thomas can step up and improve their defense against the run. From a team that went 13-3 last season, to only lead to a quick exit from the playoffs, it's hard to find a position where the Chargers got worse. Can they eliminate the slow start and mental mistakes that have become their trademark in recent years? Only time will tell, but it will make for another entertaining season.
Labels: NFL Offseason 2010
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