SAN DIEGO – They made highlight-reel receptions, blowing by corners and snagging footballs with just one hand. The problem was that the San Diego Chargers receivers also stumbled out of breaks and dropped passes with no defenders in sight. This was the first day of training camp and the receiving corps played like it.
While no unit is expected to be perfect from the get-go, there's a little more pressure on this particular group as San Diego looks to replace contract holdout Vincent Jackson(notes) – the team's No. 1 receiver and one of the league's best deep threats.
Jackson used his huge frame (6-foot-5, 230-pound) and leaping ability to terrorize defenses again last season, averaging an outstanding 17.2 yards per catch. Among the options expected to help fill Jackson's void is another 6-foot-5 receiver who averaged 17.2 yards per catch last season: Malcom Floyd(notes). The sixth-year target began his career on the practice squad and battled injuries and crowded depth charts before breaking out last season with 45 catches, 776 yards and a touchdown.
"You've got to start with Malcom Floyd," Chargers coach Norv Turner told the team's website, "who's having his best camp ever."
Floyd will be given the first chance to show that he can consistently draw double teams like Jackson did last season. If he can, it'll help not only him but the rest of the receivers as well.
"I feel like, with me being a deep threat, it naturally pushes a safety toward you," Floyd said. "I felt a little bit of it last year, and I'm excited to get a couple of more opportunities to do it this season.
"I'll hold down the fort – while [Jackson]'s gone. But we will miss him."
Floyd won't bear the burden alone. The Chargers also have one of the league's best tight ends in Antonio Gates(notes), who finished with just 10 fewer receiving yards than Jackson last year. In addition, they added veteran Randy McMichael(notes) to the group and have been experimenting with three tight-end sets this offseason.
"I don't think anyone is going to have to do anything extra, everyone will just have to be more focused about doing their job," said receiver Legedu Naane, who will likely start in place of Jackson as the team's "Z" receiver. "Philip [Rivers] is really good about getting guys the ball if they're open. And that's your job. We're focusing on everyone doing their job and not trying to do too much – that's where you get in trouble."
Gates, fresh off a five-year contract extension, agreed. After finishing with a career-best 1,157 yards last season, his focus isn't on individual attention.
His focus is on helping his team get over the hump and head to a Super Bowl.
"We've got guys – Malcom Floyd and Buster Davis and Legedu Naane and Josh Reed(notes) – who can make plays," Gates said. "Collectively, we try to go out to be the best passing team. We don't really think of ourselves as individuals."
It's easy to have that confidence when you're playing alongside Rivers, one of the league's top young passers. In a recent interview, Rivers said that he was relishing in the fact of becoming a stable force for a changing offense – one that will also lack longtime back LaDainian Tomlinson(notes), who'll be replaced by rookie Ryan Mathews(notes).
"I'm super optimistic about the receivers," Rivers said. "Reed played a bunch in Buffalo, and we've seen the sparks from Buster and Naane. They haven't been asked to play that role consistently yet, so it'll be good to see how they respond. They all do things differently – and do them well. Jackson is more, 'Hey, I'm running by you.' Naane's tough after the catch, and Buster can really run."
Davis has been the biggest disappointment among the receivers. He has struggled to stay healthy and struggled with consistency on the field since being selected in the first round in 2007. His competition with Reed will be one of the more interesting battles for the Chargers during training camp. Reed has been more consistent than Davis, but he has never cracked 600 yards receiving in a single season.
This season will be both of their best opportunities to break out. With Reed on a one-year deal and Davis' rookie contract running out in two seasons, it could also be their last chance. Davis feels good about his progress.
"I know by the way Philip looks at me in practice," Davis said, "he wants me out there on Sundays."
On the first Sunday of the season, Rivers will certainly look to Gates as his best option. He won't draw double coverage consistently like Jackson did, though, and defenses won't fear the Chargers in the same way until one of the receivers emerges.
- Malcom Floyd