The 2011 season was not kind to the San Diego Chargers as the team fell flat on their faces after a tremendous 4-1 start to the season, losing at one point six straight games on their way to an 8-8 season, causing them to miss the postseason for the second consecutive year.
However, with Phillip Rivers at quarterback, the Chargers will always have a chance and despite some key losses like Pro Bowl wide receiver Vincent Jackson heading to Tampa Bay and running back Mike Tolbert going to Carolina, not to mention the retirement of long-time center Nick Hardwick; the Chargers have the talent to make noise in the AFC West in 2012.
Now that the Chargers have made what is likely their last player acquisition before the start of training camp, here is how I see the position battles ending up. I will include the 45 man active gameday roster, the 53 man team roster, and the 8 practice squad members. Also included is the first member of the usually crowded Chargers IR roster, 5th round draft pick OG Jonnie Troutman. Obviously based on injuries and game plan, there will be slight changes to this list, but this will be the baseline.
45 Man Gameday Roster:
Offense – 21 Players
Quarterback: Philip Rivers, Charlie Whitehurst.
Rivers is probably the most obvious player on the roster. He is the leader of the offense and frankly the whole team. He is tough as nails, as he showed playing on a torn ACL during the 2009 playoffs. In my opinion he will bounce back this season and return to being a consensus top 5 QB in this league. Charlie “Clipboard Jesus” Whitehurst returns after a brief stint with the Seahawks. Whitehurst added some more experience to his resume after playing in 9 games over the last 2 years for Seattle, starting 4 of them. Whitehurst will hopefully only see the field at the end of a few runaway games at the end of the season to give Rivers rest going into the playoffs.
Running back: Ryan Mathews, Curtis Brinkley.
All offseason we have been hearing from Norv Turner that this will be Mathews’ year. He will see an increased workload, especially on 3rd down. If he can stay healthy Mathews has a chance to be a top 3 back in this league this year. Mathews will start every game this year, knock on wood, unless he is injured. Brinkley will be the 2nd running back and spell Mathews for 5-10 carries a game. However if Mathews goes down to injury and cannot start, Ronnie Brown will be starting in his place. Brinkley will be used as the Bolts change of pace back not the backup starter.
Fullback: LeRon McClain, Jacob Hester.
McClain was one of the biggest Free Agent signings by the Chargers this year, and may provide the most impact, literally. McClain will provide the first true blocking FB the Bolts have had since Lorenzo Neal paved the way for LT in his glory days. McClain, who is also a receiving threat out of the backfield and a more than capable runner, will also get a healthy amount of carries near the goal line and on 3rd/4th and short situations. Look for McClain to collect more than a few TD’s this season. Hester will have a reduced role in the offense this season. He will back up McClain at FB and possibly also take a few reps at RB in a power formation with himself and McClain in the backfield at the same time. Hester will however remain a force on special teams and continue to start there.
Tight end: Antonio Gates, Randy McMichael, Ladarius Green.
Behind Rivers, Gates is probably the 2nd most sure thing on this roster. He is a future Hall of Fame TE and is supposedly the most healthy he has been in a few seasons. McMichael and Rosario will battle for this second TE spot. I am giving an early nod to McMichael simply due to his blocking abilities and more experience, however if Rosario continues to impress Norv as he has been, McMichael may slip to the gameday inactive list. Green is the heir apparent to Gates. He is tall, 6’6?, and very athletic. He is a little underweight right now, 235lbs, due to an illness a few months ago, however he is working to get into the mid to high 240?s. Green may start out as more of a WR in red zone packages setting up a twin towers option for Rivers with Green and Floyd.
Wide Receiver: Robert Meachem, Malcom Floyd, Vincent Brown, Eddie Royal, Richard Goodman.
Robert Meachem is Norv and Rivers’ new speedy weapon. Meachem will likely enter the season as the #1 WR and see plenty of long routes downfield. Floyd will be the #1A WR this year. When he is healthy he is one of Rivers’ favorite targets and is very dangerous. Vincent Brown showed great things in limited opportunities last season and with a full off season to get timing down with Rivers, he could be due for a breakout season. Eddie Royal will be more of a Sproles type WR threat. He will be used a lot in the flats and on quick slants where his quickness and shifty moves will give Rivers a great check down option. Goodman will be active almost entirely for his return abilities. Goodman was a top 5 kick returner last year based on average yards per return, and will look to improve on breaking a few more for touchdowns.
Tackle: Jared Gaither, Jeromy Clary, Mario Henderson.
Gaither was nothing short of outstanding last season when he came in to replace McNeil. He will anchor the left side of the line and protect Rivers’ blind side. Clary has the starting spot on the right side right now, but Henderson likely will not be far behind, and if Clary doesn’t improve against speed rushers Henderson may overtake him. Henderson was out of football last season however he is a large body who will be pushing Clary on the right side.
Guard: Tyronne Green, Louis Vasquez, Brandyn Dombrowski.
Green looks poised to take over the massive hole at LG left by the now retired Kris Dielman. Green will have very big shoes to fill and will be under intense scrutiny. A positive sign is that Green has shown that he is taking this opportunity to start seriously by working out harder than ever this off season and attending a lineman camp. Vasquez, who has been improving each year, has the starting RG position locked down. Dombrowski has been the Chargers utility infielder on the offensive line the past few seasons, however this year he should slide back inside, where he plays better, and be the main backup at either G position.
Center: Nick Hardwick
Hardwick was a key re-signing for the Chargers this year. He has great chemistry with Rivers and is the play caller for the offensive line. With Green and Dombrowski both able to fill in at C in an emergency the Chargers can afford to make Hardwick the only active C on gamedays.
Defense – 22 Players
Nose Tackle: Antonio Garay, Cameron Thomas.
Garay re-signed and will continue to contribute at NT this season. Look for Garay and Thomas to split time more evenly this season which would allow Garay to be more explosive with more rest. Thomas has shown a lot of improvement and has earned more playing time. I am predicting this will be a breakout season for Thomas.
Defensive End: Corey Liuget, Vaughn Martin, Kendall Reyes, Luis Castillo.
Liuget will start at RDE this season just like last year and Martin showed enough last year to start at LDE. This has been shown in OTA’s so far with Liuget and Martin taking the majority of the 1st team snaps. However, look for both Reyes and Castillo to be rotated in regularly. Norv has made a point to say that the defensive line will be rotating frequently to keep guys fresh and to have more specific packages for passing downs vs running downs. Reyes will be used mostly on passing downs, however I am predicting Reyes to push Martin for the starting LDE job and possibly overtake him for the starting spot sometime after the mid-point of the season. Castillo who is returning from injury, will return to form this year and will be very effective at eating up blockers when he is in the game and hopefully help improve the run defense.
Outside Linebacker: Shaun Phillips, Jarret Johnson, Melvin Ingram, Antwan Barnes.
Shaun Phillips had a down year last year but with an improved group around and in front of him, he will bounce back and reach double digit sacks again. Jarret Johnson was an excellent FA signing. He will greatly improve the Bolt’s run defense and provide a great locker room influence, bringing experience and some of that Baltimore Raven’s nasty mentality to our defense which has been lacking personality since Shawn Merriman left. Ingram was the Chargers’ first round pick this season and will be a presence from day 1. With an effective rotation he will likely be in the running for DROY honors. Barnes had a breakout season last year with 11 sacks. He will look to improve on that number this year and will continue to rotate in and pressure the QB.
Inside Linebacker: Takeo Spikes, Donald Butler, Jonas Mouton, Andrew Gachkar.
Takeo Spikes is one of the most solid veterans on the team. He will likely get a few more opportunities to rest this season which should help him out. Butler had a breakout season last year after missing his rookie season to injury. With a full off season this year and another year recovered from his injury he should improve again this year. Everyone is hoping Mouton shows up like Butler did. When Mouton was taken everyone besides AJ Smith were scratching their heads in confusion. That doubt was furthered when Mouton was injured in camp last year and missed the season. Unless Mouton can play at a high level when he is on the field this year, fans will be very upset. Gachkar, like Goodman, will be active for his special teams abilities. Gachkar is a very fast and athletic linebacker who is a special teams demon who should improve as a linebacker with a full off season this year.
Cornerback: Quentin Jammer, Antoine Cason, Marcus Gilchrist, Shareece Wright.
Jammer, understandably, had an off year last season while going through a divorce. This season he is in a better place mentally and will return to form as the starting corner. Cason lost his starting job for a few games last season, due to a number of mental errors, before earning it back near the end of the year. Cason is one of the most athletically gifted players in the secondary and with a full off season, the mental errors should decrease. Gilchrist showed promise in limited reps last season but had typical rookie errors, that may have been increased due to the lockout. With a full NFL season under his belt and the full compliment of camps and training sessions this summer, he should show great improvement. Wright had very limited playing time last season. He is an aggressive corner known more for his tackling and aggression than his interceptions, much like Jammer. Just like Gilchrist, with this full off season he will be much improved and possibly work in more playing time.
Free Safety: Eric Weddle, Darrell Stuckey.
Weddle solidified himself as one of the top Free Safeties in the game last season. He is always in great position and is one of the emotional leaders of the defense. With better talent on defense, especially at strong safety, this season he will only improve. Stuckey can fill in at both SS and FS. He gets the early win over Bigby for backup safety right now due to his outstanding special teams play. Bigby is kind of an unknown right now after having a few unspectacular seasons bouncing around the league.
Strong Safety: Brandon Taylor.
The Chargers traded up in the 3rd round for Taylor, so there was obviously something they really liked about him. With how high he was drafted, the Chargers are expecting him to be the answer at SS that has been missing since Rodney Harrison left. Taylor is a great tackler and very effective in run support. If he can prove to be effective on special teams as well, the starting job is his.
Special Teams – 3 Players
Punter – Mike Scifres.
Scifres is a beast. He is one of the best punters in the league, and as he showed in game one of last season, he can even kick some pretty good field goals in a pinch.
Kicker – Nate Kaeding.
Nick Novak performed admirably in Kaeding’s absence last season, but if Kaeding is truly healthy again, the job is his. Kaeding is the most accurate regular season kicker in NFL history, and if he is back to full strength there is no reason not to go with him. Kaeding will have to get his mind right for the playoffs however. The Chargers will make the playoffs again this year, and Kaeding is quite possibly the worst kicker in playoff history.
Long Snapper – Mike Windt.
Windt had some big shoes to fill with the departure of longtime long snapper David Binn. Windt did a great job sending all of his snaps on target last season. The Chargers brought in another long snapper, Nick Guess, but he is just a camp body and, barring injury, will be released during the pre-season.
53 Man Roster -
All 45 players listed above, plus:
Runningback: Ronnie Brown.
Brown will be the replacement for Mathews should he not be able to start. Brinkley will handle change of pace duties but Brown will be the replacement starter.
Wide Receiver: Roscoe Parrish.
Parrish will be the alternate to Goodman for returner. Should Goodman be injured, Parrish will be activated.
Tight End: Dante Rosario.
Like I stated above, depending on camp this could be McMichael, and it could very well change week to week. Norv is very high on Rosario and he will not be released.
Offensive Tackle: Stephen Schilling.
Schilling did well enough to not stand out when he had to fill in last year. He is likely the best tackle not on the 45 man roster so he will stay on the 53 man roster in case of injury.
Outside Linebacker: Larry English.
English could be active depending on how camp goes and how healthy he stays. However based on the players I believe should be on the 45 man roster, there is no room for English who has underachieved and been injured too often. He will get a chance when someone else is injured.
Inside Linebacker: Demorrio Williams.
With Mouton earning a starting role and Gachkar being such a demon on special teams, Williams will have to wait on the 53 man roster until there is an injury.
Strong Safety: Atari Bigby.
As I stated earlier, Stuckey gets an early nod over Bigby due to his special teams prowess and familiarity with the system. Bigby will have to show something special in camp and the pre-season to make the 45 man game day roster.
Practice squad predictions are always a lot of guess work, especially now that teams can have so many players on the roster during the summer. However the practice squad will likely be more important than ever this season with the new partial season IR allowing players to be placed on IR for part of a season, rather than losing the whole year. Here is my best guess at the 8 practice squad members:
Quarterback: Jarrett Lee
Lee split time at QB during his time at LSU. He has been solid so far during off season sessions and will likely be held on too on the practice squad.
Runningback: Mike Hayes
Hayes will beat out Baker to make the team. Hayes is shiftier, has better balance, and is a much better receiver out of the backfield. In my opinion the RB position is the hardest spot on the team to predict right now as it is crowded with solid talent. With that being said, I am driving the Hayes bandwagon and sticking with him.
Wide Receiver: Taylor Embree
Embree will in all likelihood outshine the other handfull of UDFA WR’s the Bolts signed. They will keep him on the practice squad as insurance for the oft injured receiving crew the Chargers have.
Offensive Tackle: Mike Harris
Harris is a huge body at 6’5? 326 out of UCLA. He is a solid tackle and you can never have enough linemen on your team.
Outside Linebacker: Darryl Gamble
Gamble was a fan favorite in preseason and will add good depth should English head to IR again.
Inside Linebacker: Bront Bird
Bird is another solid backup who will be kept for depth this season.
Cornerback: Arthur Hobbs
Hobbs is a local kid who has shown promise in camp. With CB being another position that see’s a lot of injuries, keeping Hobbs is good insurance.
Safety: Sean Cattouse
Cattouse is a huge safety at 6’3? 218. He is athletically gifted and was solid in coverage for Cal with 7 interceptions and 24 passes defended for his career in college.
Guard: Johnnie Troutman.
Troutman was San Diego’s 5th round pick in the draft. He was a road grating run blocker in college and a solid pass protector. He had pectoral surgery shortly after the draft and will be out for his rookie season. There were other offensive lineman rated higher than Troutman when he was taken and the Chargers already knew he would not be able to play this season, so the front office must have seen something they liked.
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