|08-27-2005, 01:04 AM|
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AFC West Preview--San Diego
San Diego Chargers 2005 Season Preview
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Was it simply an aberration, or was last year's 12-4 record and AFC West title the beginning of a new era of good feelings for the San Diego Chargers?
The Chargers entered 2004 with dim prospects indeed, having just come off a miserable 4-12 campaign in '03, sporting no significant additions on a thin offensive line or a ragged secondary, and preparing to feature a rookie at quarterback. What looked like another mark against one of the league's least- respected franchises - the preseason holdout of QB Philip Rivers - ended up being the jumping-off point in the team's best campaign since it won the AFC title in 1994. Rivers' holdout meant that the formerly disappointing Drew Brees would again be the quarterback, and Brees didn't figure on letting his final opportunity slip away.
The Purdue product shocked the NFL world by leading San Diego to a 12-4 mark, firing 27 touchdown passes and just seven picks, and making his first-ever Pro Bowl appearance alongside the likes of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Tight end Antonio Gates emerged as a superstar, catching 81 passes and scoring 13 touchdowns. That piecemeal offensive line, which featured a pair of rookies, stayed healthy and played way over its collective head. And the defense came together under new coordinator Wade Phillips, finishing third in the league against the run and creating enough turnovers to overcome its weaknesses.
Chargers fans are espousing cautious optimism that their beloved team won't turn back into a pumpkin. Marty Schottenheimer's club made no big offseason free agent moves, instead opting for continuity in its quest for another shot at the postseason bracket. San Diego will undoubtedly have its hands full in an improved AFC West, one that includes Randy Moss and the Raiders, a Chiefs team that now has a defensive pulse, and a Broncos club that has been the best in the division in terms of consistency over the past decade.
The Bolts will be fighting against their own checkered history as much as their division foes in vying to maintain their 2004 success, but there is belief from everyone associated with the organization that last year was hardly a one-year whim.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2005 edition of the San Diego Chargers, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2004 RECORD: 12-4 (1st, AFC West)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2004, lost to N.Y. Jets, 20-17 (OT), in AFC Wild Card Game
COACH (RECORD): Marty Schottenheimer (24-24 in three seasons with Chargers, 177-117-1 overall)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Cam Cameron
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Wade Phillips
OFFENSIVE STAR: LaDainian Tomlinson, RB (1335 rushing yards, 53 receptions, 18 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Donnie Edwards, LB (150 tackles, 5 INT)
OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 6th rushing, 16th passing, 3rd scoring
DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 3rd rushing, 31st passing, 11th scoring
FIVE KEY GAMES: at Denver (9/18), at New England (10/2), Pittsburgh (10/10), Kansas City (10/30), at Indianapolis (12/18)
KEY ADDITIONS: RB Darren Sproles (4th Round, Kansas State), WR Vincent Jackson (2nd Round, Northern Colorado), DT Luis Castillo (1st Round, Northwestern), LB Shawne Merriman (1st Round, Maryland), S Bhawoh Jue (from Packers)
KEY DEPARTURES: QB Doug Flutie (released), RB Jesse Chatman (released), WR Bobby Shaw (not tendered), WR/KR Tim Dwight (released), DT Jason Fisk (released), DT Eric Downing (not tendered), LB Zeke Moreno (to Texans)
QB: Drew Brees (3159 passing yards, 27 TD, 7 INT, 2 rushing touchdowns) benefited from a contract holdout by rookie Philip Rivers to win the starting job last season, then parlayed that good fortune into a breakout season. Brees posted a passer rating of 104.8 (his previous high had been 76.9), completed 65.5 percent of his passes, and earned his first Pro Bowl citation. Brees' surprising development means that Rivers (33 passing yards, 1 TD), who threw just eight passes as a rookie, is officially on notice. If Brees continues his strong play, Rivers will likely be traded following 2005. The Chargers like Cleo Lemon, who has never attempted an NFL pass but moves up from the practice squad to third-string status. Rookie free agent Craig Ochs (Montana) could make the practice squad.
RB: There are arguably no offensive weapons in football more valuable than LaDainian Tomlinson (1335 rushing yards, 53 receptions, 18 TD), who wasn't asked to carry the entire load in 2004 but led the league in rushing touchdowns anyway. Tomlinson, who was named to his second Pro Bowl a year ago, has scored 60 touchdowns in just four NFL seasons. San Diego released backup Jesse Chatman (392 rushing yards, 3 TD) after Chatman showed up for training camp out of shape, meaning 2004 fifth-round pick Michael Turner (104 rushing yards, 4 receptions) will spell Tomlinson. Turner started the season finale against the Chiefs last year. Rookie Darren Sproles (4th Round, Kansas State) will be the third-string running back and should see most of his time on special teams. At fullback, Lorenzo Neal (53 rushing yards, 13 receptions) is one of the best in the business. Andrew Pinnock, who was suspended for four games last season for violating the league's steroid policy, will back Neal if the team keeps a second fullback.
WR/TE: The Chargers' receiving corps was supposed to be a major liability in 2004, but the team got just enough production from the unit to keep it afloat. Eric Parker (47 receptions, 4 TD), a former undrafted free agent out of Tennessee, was the closest thing the team had to a No. 1 receiver last season. Parker's productivity was aided when the team traded for veteran Keenan McCardell (31 receptions, 1 TD), who was a reliable possession receiver for the final seven games after being acquired from the Buccaneers in mid-October. Speedster Reche Caldwell (18 receptions, 3 TD) was off to a good start to '04 before missing the final 10 games of the year with a knee injury. Caldwell, holdover Kassim Osgood (15 receptions, 2 TD) and 6-6 rookie Vincent Jackson (2nd Round, Northern Colorado) are in line for backup jobs behind Parker and McCardell. Malcolm Floyd (3 receptions, 1 TD), who caught Rivers' first career TD pass in Week 17 of 2005, could stay on the active roster if the team carries six receivers. San Diego's top target in 2004 was tight end Antonio Gates (81 receptions, 13 TD), who set a record for touchdowns in a single season by a tight end and earned his first Pro Bowl citation. Gates will sit out the first game of the regular season after being placed on the roster- exempt list due to a contract holdout. Backup Justin Peelle (10 receptions, 2 TD) will likely get the start in Gates' place, and 2004 sixth-round draft choice Ryan Krause (5 receptions, 1 TD) will be third on the depth chart following Week 1.
OL: One of the most shocking elements of San Diego's 2004 success was the play of an offensive line that many regarded as the weakest in the league heading into last season. Two rookies - third-round pick and center Nick Hardwick and seventh-round pick and right tackle Shane Olivea - played well beyond expectations on a unit that gave up just 21 sacks. Holdovers in right guard Mike Goff and left guard Toniu Fonoti were solid all season, as was left tackle Roman Oben, who started all 16 games after being acquired from Tampa Bay last June. That entire unit returns intact in 2005. Bob Hallen played in just two games last season but can back up both the center and guard spots. Leander Jordan, who made five appearances as a Charger in 2004, can back up either at tackle or guard. Kris Dielman played in 15 games at guard last season and is a favorite of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, but may have to beat out 2005 draft choices Wesley Britt (5th Round, Alabama), Wes Sims (6th Round, Oklahoma), and Scott Mruczkowski (7th Round, Bowling Green) for a roster spot. Former starting tackle Courtney Van Buren, who missed most of last season with a knee injury, is a long shot to make the roster.
DL: The San Diego defensive line didn't generate much in the way of a pass rush last season, but still received generally high marks for its efficiency within Wade Phillips' 3-4 scheme. The key to the unit was and remains nose tackle Jamal Williams (32 tackles, 4 sacks), whose career-high four sacks led Chargers linemen. Right end Igor Olshansky (39 tackles, 1 sack) was a good run-stopper in his rookie season, and will re-claim his position. The starter at left end should be Jacques Cesaire (24 tackles, 0.5 sacks), who was a surprise 12-game starter a year ago and will be asked to take over full-time following the departure of Jason Fisk (30 tackles, 1 sack). First-round draft choice Luis Castillo (Northwestern) should eventually push Cesaire, and his presence could spell the end for one of three holdovers - DeQuincy Scott (19 tackles, 1.5 sacks), Adrian Dingle (6 tackles, 1 sack) or Ryon Bingham. Bingham, a seventh-round draft choice out of Nebraska in 2004, missed all of last season with a torn biceps.
LB: The Chargers count on their outside linebackers to generate a pass rush, and after the team was held to a mere 29 sacks in all of 2004, Maryland's Shawne Merriman was selected with the 12th overall pick of the 2005 draft to help rectify the situation. Merriman, who played defensive end in college, will battle with holdovers Ben Leber (60 tackles, 2 sacks) and Shaun Phillips (26 tackles, 4 sacks) for time on the outside. The other pass rushing slot will be filled by Steve Foley (64 tackles, 10 sacks, 2 INT), who had more than one-third of the club's sacks a year ago and was probably deserving of a Pro Bowl citation. On the inside, both Donnie Edwards (150 tackles, 5 INT) and Randall Godfrey (84 tackles, 2 sacks) are back, with Stephen Cooper (42 tackles) there to fill in if needed. Edwards led the team in tackles and interceptions a year ago. Matt Wilhelm (13 tackles, 1 INT) could stick for a third straight year as backup and special-teamer.
DB: The secondary was thought to be a major liability for San Diego heading into last season, and while that unit didn't necessarily play well (the Bolts were 31st in the league against the pass), it did generate enough turnovers and make enough plays to keep the team's head above the waves. Cornerbacks Quentin Jammer (62 tackles, 1 INT) and Drayton Florence (36 tackles, 4 INT) should be the starters, with former first-round pick Sammy Davis (38 tackles, 1 INT) relegated to a backup role after two inconsistent NFL seasons. Jamar Fletcher (37 tackles, 1 INT) was a significant contributor in his first season as a Charger, and should see time as a backup as well. Free safety Jerry Wilson (74 tackles, 3 INT) and strong safety Terrence Kiel (97 tackles, 2 INT) will re-assume their starting spots, with offseason pickup Bhawoh Jue (32 tackles, 1 INT with Green Bay) and holdover Clinton Hart (24 tackles, 1 INT) in line for backup duties.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Nate Kaeding (20-25 FG, 54-55 XP) had a decent regular season as a rookie, but was the goat following the Chargers' playoff loss to the Jets. If the 2004 third-round pick continues to lose games for Schottenheimer's team, don't be surprised to see San Diego part ways with him. Mike Scifres (43.1 avg.) punted and kicked off well a year ago, and returns in both of those capacities. Rookie Darren Sproles will be asked to fill the sizable void left by Tim Dwight (24.4 avg., 1 TD) in the kickoff return game, and Eric Parker (8.8 avg.) should again handle punt returns.
PROGNOSIS: When minimal changes are made to a team that went 12-4, it is natural to have high expectations of said team the following season. But this is a San Diego club that, frankly, isn't vastly different from the one that went 4-12 in 2003, and thus suspicions remain that Schottenheimer and company could fall from grace in a hurry. Perhaps opponents will be able to figure the Chargers out a bit more easily in 2005, but there is no denying that the team has talent. Tomlinson and Gates are nearly impossible to defend, Brees has learned to play within himself, and the addition of a couple of defensive reinforcements along the front seven - Shawne Merriman and Luis Castillo - should help cover a couple of remaining warts in the secondary. The Chiefs, Broncos, and Raiders may have gotten better on paper, but there is really no telling how all the new faces on all three of those clubs will come together. By the time the others figure things out, San Diego could be off to the races in the AFC West, which means another season of double-digit wins, another division title, and a realistic shot to make some noise in the postseason.
Last edited by Fried Meat Ball!; 08-27-2005 at 01:16 AM..