Camp countdown: In Super Bowl or bust season, Chargers must find a way

This is the 28th in a series of team-by-team breakdowns that will run on SportingNews.com before the start of training camp.

As if it matters, the San Diego Chargers are poised to win a fifth consecutive AFC West title. Yawn. Any success these Chargers have before January is moot. The Chargers — whose 67 regular-season victories since ’04 are third most in the NFL — will be measured by their playoff triumphs.
 
Philip Rivers runs a potent passing game, but running the ball won't be overlooked.
Philip Rivers runs a potent passing game, but running the ball won’t be overlooked.

In fact, anything short of a Super Bowl will be seen as failure. Into this ever-mounting pressure, San Diego will begin its season without two franchise cornerstones — running back LaDainian Tomlinson and nose tackle Jamal Williams.

 
While the rest of the division appears to have improved, it can’t yet measure up to the Chargers’ depth and diversity. So another foray into the postseason — their sixth in seven seasons — is likely. It is there that the core group of Chargers will cement their legacies.
 
"If you want to be remembered," coach Norv Turner said, sounding a refrain he has often voiced to his team, "you have to perform in the postseason."
 

What’s new

Offense: For the first time in nine seasons, someone besides Tomlinson will be the primary ballcarrier. This should have a minimal effect on the look of the offense, though. This is Philip Rivers’ offense, and he has big-play receivers in Malcom Floyd, Antonio Gates and Vincent Jackson, though Jackson’s status is unclear because of a three-game league suspension and contract issues. But the team would like to run the ball more than it did last season, particularly in the fourth quarter.

 
The Chargers moved up 16 spots in the first round to find Tomlinson’s replacement. And Ryan Mathews has many of Tomlinson’s on- and off-field traits that prompted San Diego to invest so much in him. The Chargers also will rely on Darren Sproles at times, particularly on third down. Mathews likely will get about 250 carries this season, and Sproles could have as many as 100. Both will catch the ball plenty, too. The shifty and elusive Sproles will provide a contrast to Mathews, who is at his best between the tackles.
 
Defense: Once the pride of the Chargers’ defense, the linebacker corps is in need of polish. Not an overhaul, just a reassertion of its dominance. Now that Shawne Merriman is in his second year back from knee surgery, he should return to Pro Bowl form and help the Chargers bounce back as an upper-tier defense. A resurgence by Merriman also would benefit fellow outside ‘backers Shaun Phillips and Larry English, the team’s ’09 first-round pick.
 
Cornerback Quentin Jammer might have had his best season in ’09. He should see fewer passes as opponents test Antoine Cason. The trade of Antonio Cromartie to the Jets hastened the ascension of Cason, a ’08 first-round pick.
 

Breakout player

Buster Davis, WR

If he stays healthy, Buster Davis will take minutes from Vincent Jackson.
If he stays healthy, Buster Davis will take minutes from Vincent Jackson.

If he can stay healthy, Davis is poised to become a threat in the Chargers’ offense. A ’07 first-round pick, Davis was limited to 30 receptions for 299 yards in three seasons largely because of injuries. He has had a fantastic offseason, displaying his immense talent and speed. And he could get extended playing time in the wake of Jackson’s suspension/holdout.

 
"This is the best I’ve ever felt, especially my body. But I feel lot more confident, too. My attitude has changed as far as getting down on myself. Especially last year, it was hard not playing, but now I can’t look backward anymore. It’s not about the past. It’s about what’s in front of me. I’m still young. I have a bright future." — Davis
 

Opponent’s view

(An anonymous opponent breaks down the Chargers)

 
"How has this team not won a Super Bowl? Every team has talent. What that team has had four or five years running is ridiculous. I think their window is closing, which probably means they’ll win the Super Bowl this season. …
 
"Forget Tomlinson. You saw he wasn’t the same runner in ’09. They’ll be fine on offense. But is Merriman going to be that great player again? Jammer doesn’t get his due; he gets to everything. But they don’t have anyone who can make plays back there in the secondary. They haven’t been the same since Williams started getting hurt in ’07 and wouldn’t show up some games. …
 
"They’re a little lucky their division is so weak."
 

Bottom line

There is little reason to believe San Diego can’t follow the Colts’ path to a Super Bowl victory — as in, just keep reaching postseason and eventually win. But the Chargers no longer can be considered the most talented team in the NFL, as they have more roster holes than in the past.
 
However, the team still has several core players — including a franchise quarterback — in their prime and a number of young players who got experience last season because of the rash of injuries the team sustained. It might be imprudent to continue to give this group the benefit of the doubt, but it is hardly a stretch to predict the Chargers have a shot at going deep into the postseason.
 

Depth chart

* – Unsigned player whose status is unclear

OFFENSE
QB: Philip Rivers, Billy Volek
FB: Mike Tolbert, Jacob Hester
RB: Ryan Mathews, Darren Sproles
WR: Vincent Jackson*, Buster Davis
WR: Malcom Floyd, Legedu Naanee
TE: Antonio Gates, Kris Wilson
LT: Marcus McNeill*, Tra Thomas
LG: Kris Dielman, Brandyn Dombrowski
C: Nick Hardwick, Scott Mruczkowski
RG: Louis Vasquez, Tyronne Green
RT: Jeromey Clary, Dombrowski

DEFENSE
DE: Luis Castillo, Alfonso Boone
NT: Antonio Garay, Cam Thomas
DE: Jacques Cesaire, Vaughn Martin
OLB: Shawne Merriman, Antwan Applewhite
ILB: Stephen Cooper, Brandon Siler
ILB: Kevin Burnett, Donald Butler
OLB: Shaun Phillips, Larry English
CB: Quentin Jammer, Nathan Vasher
CB: Antoine Cason, Donald Strickland
SS: Steve Gregory, Darrell Stuckey
FS: Eric Weddle, C.J. Spillman

SPECIAL TEAMS
K: Nate Kaeding
P: Mike Scifres
KR; Darren Sproles
PR: Darren Sproles
LS: Dave Binn

This is the 28th in a series of team-by-team breakdowns that will run on SportingNews.com before the start of training camp.

As if it matters, the San Diego Chargers are poised to win a fifth consecutive AFC West title. Yawn. Any success these Chargers have before January is moot. The Chargers — whose 67 regular-season victories since ’04 are third most in the NFL — will be measured by their playoff triumphs.
 
Philip Rivers runs a potent passing game, but running the ball won't be overlooked.
Philip Rivers runs a potent passing game, but running the ball won’t be overlooked.

In fact, anything short of a Super Bowl will be seen as failure. Into this ever-mounting pressure, San Diego will begin its season without two franchise cornerstones — running back LaDainian Tomlinson and nose tackle Jamal Williams.

 
While the rest of the division appears to have improved, it can’t yet measure up to the Chargers’ depth and diversity. So another foray into the postseason — their sixth in seven seasons — is likely. It is there that the core group of Chargers will cement their legacies.
 
"If you want to be remembered," coach Norv Turner said, sounding a refrain he has often voiced to his team, "you have to perform in the postseason."
 

What’s new

Offense: For the first time in nine seasons, someone besides Tomlinson will be the primary ballcarrier. This should have a minimal effect on the look of the offense, though. This is Philip Rivers’ offense, and he has big-play receivers in Malcom Floyd, Antonio Gates and Vincent Jackson, though Jackson’s status is unclear because of a three-game league suspension and contract issues. But the team would like to run the ball more than it did last season, particularly in the fourth quarter.

 
The Chargers moved up 16 spots in the first round to find Tomlinson’s replacement. And Ryan Mathews has many of Tomlinson’s on- and off-field traits that prompted San Diego to invest so much in him. The Chargers also will rely on Darren Sproles at times, particularly on third down. Mathews likely will get about 250 carries this season, and Sproles could have as many as 100. Both will catch the ball plenty, too. The shifty and elusive Sproles will provide a contrast to Mathews, who is at his best between the tackles.
 
Defense: Once the pride of the Chargers’ defense, the linebacker corps is in need of polish. Not an overhaul, just a reassertion of its dominance. Now that Shawne Merriman is in his second year back from knee surgery, he should return to Pro Bowl form and help the Chargers bounce back as an upper-tier defense. A resurgence by Merriman also would benefit fellow outside ‘backers Shaun Phillips and Larry English, the team’s ’09 first-round pick.
 
Cornerback Quentin Jammer might have had his best season in ’09. He should see fewer passes as opponents test Antoine Cason. The trade of Antonio Cromartie to the Jets hastened the ascension of Cason, a ’08 first-round pick.
 

Breakout player

Buster Davis, WR

If he stays healthy, Buster Davis will take minutes from Vincent Jackson.
If he stays healthy, Buster Davis will take minutes from Vincent Jackson.

If he can stay healthy, Davis is poised to become a threat in the Chargers’ offense. A ’07 first-round pick, Davis was limited to 30 receptions for 299 yards in three seasons largely because of injuries. He has had a fantastic offseason, displaying his immense talent and speed. And he could get extended playing time in the wake of Jackson’s suspension/holdout.

 
"This is the best I’ve ever felt, especially my body. But I feel lot more confident, too. My attitude has changed as far as getting down on myself. Especially last year, it was hard not playing, but now I can’t look backward anymore. It’s not about the past. It’s about what’s in front of me. I’m still young. I have a bright future." — Davis
 

Opponent’s view

(An anonymous opponent breaks down the Chargers)

 
"How has this team not won a Super Bowl? Every team has talent. What that team has had four or five years running is ridiculous. I think their window is closing, which probably means they’ll win the Super Bowl this season. …
 
"Forget Tomlinson. You saw he wasn’t the same runner in ’09. They’ll be fine on offense. But is Merriman going to be that great player again? Jammer doesn’t get his due; he gets to everything. But they don’t have anyone who can make plays back there in the secondary. They haven’t been the same since Williams started getting hurt in ’07 and wouldn’t show up some games. …
 
"They’re a little lucky their division is so weak."
 

Bottom line

There is little reason to believe San Diego can’t follow the Colts’ path to a Super Bowl victory — as in, just keep reaching postseason and eventually win. But the Chargers no longer can be considered the most talented team in the NFL, as they have more roster holes than in the past.
 
However, the team still has several core players — including a franchise quarterback — in their prime and a number of young players who got experience last season because of the rash of injuries the team sustained. It might be imprudent to continue to give this group the benefit of the doubt, but it is hardly a stretch to predict the Chargers have a shot at going deep into the postseason.
 

Depth chart

* – Unsigned player whose status is unclear

OFFENSE
QB: Philip Rivers, Billy Volek
FB: Mike Tolbert, Jacob Hester
RB: Ryan Mathews, Darren Sproles
WR: Vincent Jackson*, Buster Davis
WR: Malcom Floyd, Legedu Naanee
TE: Antonio Gates, Kris Wilson
LT: Marcus McNeill*, Tra Thomas
LG: Kris Dielman, Brandyn Dombrowski
C: Nick Hardwick, Scott Mruczkowski
RG: Louis Vasquez, Tyronne Green
RT: Jeromey Clary, Dombrowski

DEFENSE
DE: Luis Castillo, Alfonso Boone
NT: Antonio Garay, Cam Thomas
DE: Jacques Cesaire, Vaughn Martin
OLB: Shawne Merriman, Antwan Applewhite
ILB: Stephen Cooper, Brandon Siler
ILB: Kevin Burnett, Donald Butler
OLB: Shaun Phillips, Larry English
CB: Quentin Jammer, Nathan Vasher
CB: Antoine Cason, Donald Strickland
SS: Steve Gregory, Darrell Stuckey
FS: Eric Weddle, C.J. Spillman

SPECIAL TEAMS
K: Nate Kaeding
P: Mike Scifres
KR; Darren Sproles
PR: Darren Sproles
LS: Dave Binn

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