Potential Retirements Could Determine Bolts' Draft Decisions

After yet another disappointing season for Chargers’ fans to swallow, the indigestion might get worse before it gets any better along the offensive line. For a team that battled injuries and upheaval along that offensive front during the entire 2011 campaign, it may be tough to believe that the coming year could be even more difficult to endure. That may prove to be the case however as there are now rumors around that retirement could significantly deplete the team’s group of blockers.

Given the frightening situation that guard Kris Dielman went through during and following the game in week 7 with the New York Jets, its hard to blame him for considering calling it a career. His concussion incident was scary enough on the field with the 4-time All-Pro wobbling on his feet and nearly falling over following a collision at the line of scrimmage that Sunday. Dielman’s plight got even more terrifying when the 30 year old had a seizure on the flight home following the contest and was subsequently diagnosed with a concussion before being place on season-ending injured reserve (IR).

To his right on the offensive front resides 8-year veteran center Nick Hardwick who is also 30 years of age, but fortunately he has never had any long-term injury issues. Still with his contract set to expire now following the 2011 season, he too has hinted that he may consider retiring. Hardwick told Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune: “I love football. It’s a hard decision. There is a lot that goes into it. It’s heavy. So I’m not willing to think about it right now. You see the older guys, the alumni who have long term issues, and it makes you think. It’s not scary; it’s just part of weighing the decision.”

The final component of the Bolts’ offensive front who may be looking to life after football sooner rather than later is quarterback Philip Rivers’ blindside protector in left tackle Marcus McNeill. Battles with neck and spine issues led McNeill to the IR list this past season and have given him troubles throughout his career. When confronted with reports that he may decide to give up the game, McNeill addressed those questions with the North County Times saying: “Based on things that have happened before, the pain went away and I was able to play at 100 percent. I feel good about playing well into the future. The doctors feel good about it. My family does, too.” He went on to explain why he believes the rumors of his impending retirement may have ramped up following being placed on IR. McNeill said: “I think that was me not being around. People couldn’t get a vibe on how I was feeling and that I was going to be fine. I needed to take some time to myself and just evaluate everything. I’m back now and believe I’ll be better than ever.”

While McNeill may be willing to give it a go for the 2012 season, his replacement Jared Gaither performed quite admirably in his absence for the final month of the season and many believe he is the reason that Head Coach Norv Turner remains employed with the Bolts. Gaither certainly earned himself a secure roster spot with the team for the foreseeable future and could quite possibly give Jeromey Clary a strong competition for the starting right tackle spot during the offseason.

The mystery element along the front line is undeniable, however, and the lack of depth that the Chargers dealt with during the bulk of this past season really showed in Rivers’ play. The issue of continuity is an oft discussed topic, yet it still manages to be overlooked more often than not in determining a team’s offensive success. San Diego may have ranked 6th in the league in total yards per game at 393.1 and tied for 5th in points per game at 25.4, but statistics aren’t always an accurate assessment of a team’s offensive fluidity.

What this uncertainty along the offensive line could do is force the Bolts to strongly consider taking a lineman in the first round for the first time since selecting James Kirkpatrick in 1986. For the most part, many would agree that the Bolts have opted for quantity over quality along the offensive line in recent years and that strategy has left the team with very little capable depth at those five critical positions. With both Turner at the coaching position and A.J. Smith as the team’s general manager being given a pass for the team’s mediocrity over the past two seasons, a change in philosophy seems necessary as the team looks ahead to the NFL Draft in April.

Now it’s your turn. Which player do you think will be most difficult for the team to replace along the offensive line should they choose to retire? Do you think Jared Gaither has earned a place with the Bolts even if McNeill chooses to return for the 2012 season? Is the offensive line the most pressing need facing the team looking forward or does defense remain the biggest concern? Will GM Smith finally look to select a top flight offensive lineman in this year’s draft or will he pick more mid-round talent to protect Rivers? Please sound off in the comments section below!

January 10, 2012

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