The Chargers' 2011 regular season started well, as the team came out of the gate 4-1 before their off week. The end wasn't so good, however, as a six-game losing streak following the bye dropped the team from first to last in the AFC West. San Diego finished the year with an 8-8 mark, the same record as the division-champion Broncos, but in second place because of tiebreakers.
The Chargers' 2012 offseason has gone in an opposite fashion. Things started off poorly, with three Pro Bowl offensive players departing early, leaving the team in a major bind. A turnaround in recent days has changed all of that, with a nice run of solid pickups and smart signings. Of the four teams in the division, the Bolts are clearly ahead of the rest in terms of improving themselves since the end of last season.
Since losing OG Kris Dielman to retirement, cutting OT Marcus McNeill because of injury concerns and saying goodbye to WR Vincent Jackson in free agency, the team has rebounded with a string of impressive roster additions. C Nick Hardwick and OT Jared Gaither — the team's top two linemen — were re-signed. WR Robert Meachem was brought in from the Saints to replace Jackson in the lineup. OLB Jarret Johnson, a physical run stuffer who fits the team's 3-4 defense perfectly, was given a four-year deal. And FB Le'Ron McClain was signed, likely as a cheaper replacement for free-agent RB Mike Tolbert.
The PFW spin
Chargers GM A.J. Smith has taken heat in recent years for his failures in adding key players in the offseason. The team has lost some important pieces in free agency and has been unable to replace them through the draft and signings, and as a result, the overall talent level on the roster has dropped. That has changed so far in 2012, as Smith has done well in finding pieces that fit the roster well.
In Hardwick and Gaither, the Chargers retain two key parts on an offensive line that otherwise will be seeing an overhaul. Hardwick has been a starter up front since 2004 for the Chargers, and his rapport with QB Philip Rivers is an important one for the team. With Dielman no longer in the huddle, the center is the new anchor of the front five. Gaither stepped in for McNeill at left tackle toward the end of 2011, and will continue to do so in the coming years. Blocking as a whole improved with Gaither in the lineup, and he seemed comfortable in the offense run by head coach Norv Turner and offensive line coach (and new offensive coordinator) Hal Hunter.
Johnson and McClain, a pair of former Ravens, are not going to be star players for the Chargers. They will, however, be solid role players who should thrive in the role they are assigned to do. Johnson, who has played across from Terrell Suggs in recent years, now will line up across from Shaun Phillips. He is durable (only one missed game in his nine-year career) and consistent (50-plus tackles each of the past five seasons), two things that incumbent OLB Larry English isn't. As a first- and second-down player, Johnson will add physicality to the defense, then be subbed out by pass rusher Antwan Barnes on third downs. McClain will be a terrific lead blocker for starting RB Ryan Mathews, and also can carry the ball in the red zone and be a target in the passing game if necessary.
The big key to the offseason haul for Smith is the addition of Meachem. Though it might be unfair to say he'll be as good as Jackson, the potential is there. A former first-round pick of the Saints, Meachem is big (6-foot-2) and fast (came into the NFL with 4.41 speed) and should thrive with Rivers' strong arm throwing him the ball. Jackson could stretch the field, but he averaged only about three receptions per game during his Chargers career. Meachem should be able to duplicate that, and though it might be a lot to ask him to post 17.5 yards per reception (as Jackson has done for his career), he did post similar stats in a similar offense for New Orleans. Teamed with fellow WRs Malcom Floyd and Vincent Brown, along with TE Antonio Gates and Mathews, the new arrival to the team should be part of a standout offense.
With the early setbacks behind them, the Chargers are having a productive offseason. They can only hope the rest of 2012 continues in such a positive manner.
- Robert Meachem