Expectations lower, but Chargers remain a threat

Kevin Fishbain
Expectations lower, but Chargers remain a threat

For the first time since 2006, the editors here at Pro Football Weekly did not predict the Chargers to win the AFC West. That kind of sentiment seems to be music to the ears of the Chargers’ franchise.

Some things have not changed in San Diego. Philip Rivers is still the quarterback, Norv Turner remains the head coach — and he is still in a familiar place, on the hot seat, and many starters return. But after back-to-back seasons of missing the playoffs (a first for the Chargers since 2002-03), expectations are finally low — well, lower.

As written in "Whispers" earlier in July, there is a relaxed atmosphere in San Diego with the attention in the division focused on Peyton Manning and the Broncos. The Chiefs are a sexy “sleeper” pick with Jamaal Charles and Eric Berry returning.

It would be wrong for anyone to discount the Chargers. In fact, considering the lingering question marks about Manning’s health as well as the Broncos’ defense, it’s not ridiculous to think the Chargers are still the team to beat in the AFC West.

Last season, the Eagles “won” free agency, adding key veteran parts, but the abbreviated offseason kept Philly from putting it all together until it was too late. The Chargers loaded up on veterans this offseason, but in a different manner. They added starters and players who add depth, but no “stars,” ie: no player that would conjure up a “Dream Team” moniker for the Chargers.

GM A.J. Smith has made it clear that adding depth was important to the club, and he did so in a big way.

At running back, Ryan Mathews is expected to be the bellcow, but he also has a long injury history, and Mike Tolbert is now in Carolina. No problem — enter veteran backs Le’Ron McClain, Ronnie Brown and Jackie Battle along with rookie Edwin Baker.

After losing WR Vincent Jackson in free agency, the Chargers didn’t simply replace him. They added Robert Meachem, Eddie Royal, Roscoe Parrish and Micheal Spurlock. Malcom Floyd has played one 16-game season in his career, and the Chargers have options if he gets dinged again. With the experience added at wideout, and the hoopla surrounding Royal in the spring, it’s easy to forget that Vincent Brown showed flashes as a rookie last season. Rivers will not be lacking weapons this season.

At tight end, Antonio Gates has missed nine games over the past two seasons, and rookie Ladarius Green and veteran Dante Rosario provide extra insurance.

The O-line still might be a weak spot, especially after the retirement of Pro Bowl OG Kris Dielman, but the Chargers added OG Rex Hadnot, OT Mario Henderson and OT Phil Trautwein. Depth, depth and more depth.

The D-line got an infusion of talent with second-round DE Kendall Reyes and veteran NT Aubrayo Franklin. Jarret Johnson comes over from Baltimore and will start in a linebacker group that has newcomers Demorrio Williams and Melvin Ingram, the team's first-round draft pick, among its reserves.

And a new player will start at strong safety, either Atari Bigby or rookie Brandon Taylor.

This is a veteran-laden team that returns plenty of starters, but starters with injury histories. What is possibly the deepest team that Turner has had in San Diego is one in which the bar has been set low.

Defensive coordinator John Pagano will need to get improvements in third-down defense and in the red zone especially, and the hope is that rookies Ingram and Reyes will help spark the team’s pass rush. The O-line will need to play better, and pressure will be on OLT Jared Gaither to stay healthy.

The offense, though, could be a juggernaut. Rivers has countless weapons at his disposal and is intent on making last year’s turnover problem an issue of the past. Aside from the Chiefs (who struggled against the run), the AFC West is not known for strong defenses heading into 2012.

With crossover scheduling against the AFC North and NFC South, the schedule doesn’t do the Chargers a whole lot of favors (including a four-game stretch starting Nov. 18 that sees them play at Denver, at home against the Ravens and Bengals and then at Pittsburgh).

Last year, Turner’s Chargers finally got off to a good start (4-1), but a six-game losing streak that included two overtime losses and five losses by seven points or less, did them in. This year, the normal pressure that comes with the expectation of winning the division isn’t in San Diego, even if the pressure on Turner hasn’t gone anywhere.

With one of the league’s best quarterbacks, a running back primed to break out and depth all over the gridiron — especially at wide receiver and linebacker — the Chargers are built to return to the postseason.

Don’t sleep on the Chargers, a team that is more than happy to see the prognosticators and cameras fall in love with Denver this summer.

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