ILB Kevin Burnett.
DE/OLB Larry English, G Louis Vasquez, DT Vaughn Martin, G Tyronne Green, RB Gartrell Johnson, CB Brandon Hughes, SS Kevin Ellison, Demetrius Byrd.
G Mike Goff, C Jeremy Newberry, DE Igor Olshansky, DE/OLB Marques Harris, ILB Anthony Waters, ILB Matt Wilhelm, CB Cletis Gordon.
2009 San Diego Chargers Offense:
A year ago, I predicted that the Chargers would go 9-7 (while other publications had them winning 11 or more games) because of the massive injuries they suffered in the previous playoffs and offseason. LaDainian Tomlinson tore his MCL. Philip Rivers was coming off ACL surgery. Antonio Gates was hampered by a lingering toe problem. And don't forget that Shawne Merriman ripped apart his knee.
While I was right in saying that Tomlinson and Gates would struggle, I was dead wrong about Rivers. Quarterbacks coming off ACL surgery have always struggled the season after, yet Rivers had the best season of his young career. Rivers threw for 4,009 yards, 34 touchdowns and 11 picks on an incredible 8.4 YPA. With a great supporting cast, there's no reason to think that Rivers won't keep playing like a top-five NFL quarterback.
One concern people have with this San Diego team is Tomlinson's health. Tomlinson, coming off an MCL tear and struggling with a lingering toe injury, had the worst season of his career, still managing to rush for 1,110 yards, catch 52 passes for 426 more yards and score 12 touchdowns. However, Tomlinson averaged a meager 3.8 yards per carry, down nearly a whole yard (4.7) from 2007.
If you're a San Diego fan, don't worry about Tomlinson. As of this writing, he's still 29, so he still has a few years left in the tank. That was clearly evident when he looked great in the team's OTAs. It's amazing how different you can look when you're not coming off an MCL tear and you're not hampered with a toe injury. I have Tomlinson ranked especially high in my 2009 Fantasy Football Rankings, and it's very possible that he could lead the league in rushing yards this season.
As with Tomlinson, Gates is now completely healthy as well. Gates had 15 less receptions (60) and 280 less yards (704) in 2008 than he had in 2007, but I'll be shocked if he doesn't bounce back. With Gates, Vincent Jackson, Chris Chambers, Rivers has a very talented trio to work with. Jackson is especially intriguing, as he posts career-highs every season. In 2008, he caught 59 balls for 1,098 yards and seven scores. He's getting better every year, and he's one of the many reasons why San Diego's offense was able to average 27.4 points per game last season (second in the NFL) despite all of the injuries it had.
My only concern with San Diego's scoring unit is the right side of the offensive line. I had the Chargers picking Eben Britton in the final version of my 2009 NFL Mock Draft because right tackle Jeromey Clary is a sieve in pass protection; he surrendered 6.5 sacks and was whistled for six penalties in 2008. At right guard, the Chargers will be going with Kynan Forney, who was inactive all last year.
Luckily, the left side makes up for it. Left tackle Marcus McNeill dropped his sack total from 9.5 in 2007 to just three in 2008, and he was called for just three penalties. Left guard Kris Dielman is one of the best players at his position in the entire league; he hasn't allowed a whole sack since 2006. Nick Hardwick, meanwhile, remains one of the better centers in the NFL, though it should be noted that he has missed seven games in the past two seasons.
2009 San Diego Chargers Defense:
As mentioned above, Merriman's injury was huge. Without their dominant pass-rusher, San Diego's sack total dropped from 42 in 2007 to a laughable 28 in 2008. Fellow rush linebackers Shaun Phillips and Jyles Tucker recorded eight and six sacks, respectively, but for the first time in years, the Chargers lacked a consistent threat who could get to the quarterback.
With a year to recuperate from PCL and LCL surgery, will Merriman help San Diego's defense become a dominant force once again? I'd have to say that's unlikely; even if Merriman is able to take the field in 2009, I can't see him being 100 percent. Even the Chargers themselves aren't confident; they spent the 16th-overall selection in the 2009 NFL Draft on Larry English. English is undoubtedly talented, but 3-4 rush linebackers have been really hit or miss because converting to a new scheme can be really taxing.
Assuming the Chargers are able to accumulate a sack total in the low-to-mid 30s, the pass defense will once again struggle. The team finished 31st versus aerial attacks last year; Antonio Cromartie was torched consistently, while strong safety Clinton Hart was a disappointment as well. On the bright side, Eric Weddle played well as a second-year safety, while Quentin Jammer logged the best season of his NFL career in 2008. Antoine Cason, meanwhile, showed promise as a rookie, and should be able to step in for Cromartie if he continues to be a liability in coverage.
As for the run defense, the Chargers were a mediocre 14th, surrendering 4.1 yards per carry. The problem here was the unceremonious decline of 3-4 end Igor Olshansky. Olshansky, once considered a solid player, was so brutal that the team let him walk without much thought. Unfortunately, the Chargers didn't really acquire anyone to take his place next to Luis Castillo and Jamal Williams, two of the better 3-4 linemen in the league.
San Diego's sole free-agent acquisition was inside linebacker Kevin Burnett, who will play next to Stephen Cooper. Burnett was lost in Dallas' 3-4 scheme, so I wouldn't hold my breath and expect him to make a huge impact.
2009 San Diego Chargers Schedule and Intangibles:
The Chargers have exceptional special teams. Thanks to Darren Sproles, they've scored on three returns since 2007 (one last year), while giving up just one to their opponents in the same span.
Nate Kaeding, usually really reliable, was just 3-of-8 from 40-49 yards last year. Still, Kaeding managed to connect on 27-of-32 attempts, marking the fifth time in as many years that he logged a kicking percentage of 80 or greater. Punter Mike Scifres, meanwhile, was the MVP of San Diego's victory over Indianapolis in the playoffs, pinning the Colts inside their own five on what seemed like a dozen occasions.
At first glance, it looks as though the Chargers may have the easiest schedule in the league because they have the luxury of beating up on the Raiders, Broncos and Chiefs twice. They also get the Browns, Bengals, Dolphins (at home) and Redskins (at home). However, they do have tough battles against Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Tennessee and the Giants.
2009 San Diego Chargers Positional Rankings (1-5 stars):
2009 San Diego Chargers Analysis: The AFC West is such a cakewalk that the Chargers could take September and October off, finally show up in the first week of November and win enough games to clinch the division by Christmas. In fact, I'd be willing to take a bet where I choose San Diego's win total over the combined number of Oakland, Denver and Kansas City victories (getting the positive side of the juice, of course). Hopefully, Bodog is reading this.
But even if the Chargers were stuck with three tough divisional opponents, they'd still be good enough to claim their divisional crown. Unlike last year, the Chargers are healthy and ready to go. They have a great shot at winning the Super Bowl, and if you can find 12:1 odds or better, I'd definitely take it.
I never would have guessed that the Chargers were considering Larry English. I like the pick, so that's the good news. The bad news is that the English selection probably means that San Diego isn't confident that Shawne Merriman can be 100 percent in 2009.
This was a typical solid draft by A.J. Smith. Smith, who clearly understands positional value, went front seven or offensive line - both of which were needs - with his first four picks. Taking Gartrell Johnson confused me a bit, but Smith found three solid values in the later rounds.
The only real problem I have with this draft is that San Diego didn't address the right tackle position, which is a spot they really needed to upgrade.
Grade given on 4/27/09: B
2009 NFL Draft Picks:
16. Larry English, DE/OLB, Northern Illinois
I'm not going to bash this pick. A.J. Smith knows what he's doing, and I guess Shawne Merriman's knee is a huge concern. Still, I don't see how you don't uprade Jeromey Clary at right tackle. (Pick Grade: B)
78. Louis Vasquez, G, Texas Tech
This isn't great value, but the Chargers really needed to get some help up front. (Pick Grade: B)
113. Vaughn Martin, DT, Western Ontario
A Western Ontario guy before a Miami player? You never would have expected this a few years ago. The Chargers need a successor for Jamaal Williams, and you can never have enough defensive line depth. (Pick Grade: A)
133. Tyronne Green, G, Auburn
A late-second, early-third guy, so this is great value. The Chargers really needed to bolster their offensive line going into the 2009 NFL Draft. (Pick Grade: A)
134. Gartrell Johnson, RB, Colorado State
Gartrell Johnson ran a poor 40, so I'm happy to see that didn't affect his draft status. The Chargers needed to find some insurance for LaDainian Tomlinson. This is a slight reach, but I can't really argue this pick. (Pick Grade: C)
148. Brandon Hughes, CB, Oregon State
You can never have too much corner depth. So, even though Brandon Hughes doesn't address an immediate need, he was a solid choice because he provides solid value in Round 5. (Pick Grade: B)
189. Kevin Ellison, SS, USC
A.J. Smith makes another solid pick. No surprise there. Kevin Ellison addresses a position of need and provides very good value here. (Pick Grade: A)
224. Demetrius Byrd, WR, LSU
Glad to see Demetrius Byrd was drafted after suffering a horrible accident a few weeks ago. Not a bad Round 7 gamble. (Pick Grade: B)
Given up for dead countless times, the Chargers somehow rallied and beat a self-debacling Broncos squad in Week 17 to claim the AFC West. Though an 8-8 record was a disappointment for most Charger fans, I thought it was about right, given that Shawne Merriman was out for the year, and Philip Rivers, LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates all dealt with major injuries in the prior offseason. There's no reason to believe San Diego won't bounce back in 2009.
Texans sign CB Cletis Gordon
Chargers cut CB Cletis Gordon
Eagles sign ILB Matt Wilhelm
Chargers cut ILB Matt Wilhelm
Falcons sign C Jeremy Newberry
Chargers re-sign WR Malcolm Floyd
49ers sign DE/OLB Marques Harris
Saints sign ILB Anthony Waters
Chargers re-sign CB Cletis Gordon
Chiefs sign G Mike Goff
Chargers sign ILB Kevin Burnett
Cowboys sign DE Igor Olshansky
Chargers cut ILB Anthony Waters
Chargers tender WR Malcolm Floyd (2nd round)
Chargers re-sign G Kynan Forney
Chargers franchise RB Darren Sproles
Right Tackle: Starter Jeromey Clary yielded 6.5 sacks and was penalized six times. The Chargers need better production out of the right tackle slot.
Defensive End: Igor Olshansky was a monumental disappointment for San Diego this season. He's a free agent anyway, so someone like Fili Moala could be an option in Round 3.
Strong Safety: Clinton Hart was benched in 2008. The Chargers will be looking for an upgrade in the early rounds of the 2009 NFL Draft. Drafted Kevin Ellison
Right Guard: Mike Goff, a free agent, just turned 33. He struggled in 2008 and will need to be upgraded. Drafted Tyronne Green and Louis Vasquez; re-signed Kynan Forney
Running Back: Personally, I don't think LaDainian Tomlinson is done, but the relationship between he and general manager A.J. Smith is so strained that he could be traded this offseason. If that happens, the Chargers will draft either Chris Wells or Knowshon Moreno at No. 16. If not, they'll select a running back later on as a replacement for Darren Sproles, though Moreno and Wells could still be options. Franchised Darren Sproles; drafted Gartrell Johnson
Nose Tackle: Jamal Williams turns 33 in April, so a successor could be considered in the middle rounds. Drafted Vaughn Martin
Inside Linebacker: San Diego's current inside linebackers are adequate, so look for an upgrade only if the team can get its hands on a top talent like Rey Maualuga at No. 16. Signed Kevin Burnett
Return Specialist: Only if the Chargers can't retain Darren Sproles. Franchised Darren Sproles
2009 NFL Free Agent Signings:
Kevin Burnett, ILB, Cowboys. Age: 26. - Signed with Chargers
San Diego Chargers Free Agents:
Salary Cap (As of Feb. 8): $14 million
Darren Sproles, RB. Age: 26. Franchised by Chargers
Darren Sproles will never be an every-down back in this league, but he's such a great weapon to have on offense and special teams. He's a threat to go the distance at any time, as the Broncos found out on Week 17.
Divisional Rival History: Denver Broncos: The home team has won 12 of the last 16 meetings, although San Diego has claimed five of the previous six, the lone exception being the Ed Hochuli Bowl. Kansas City Chiefs: The host has been victorious in 16 of the previous 22 battles, while 10 of the last 15 have been decided by five points or less. San Diego won both meetings by a single point last year. Oakland Raiders: Not even close. The Chargers have won the previous 11 meetings. That number will increase to 13 in the near future.
Features to be Posted This Offseason:
2009 NFL Draft Grades (Pick-by-Pick NFL Draft Grades as well - Live on Draft Day!)
I had the Panthers taking a right tackle with the last pick of the second round for weeks. I thought it would be David Sharpe, but Moton is a good pick and is a physical blocker to open holes for Christian McCaffrey.