AFC West: San Diego Chargers

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- AFC West

July, 24, 2014
Jul 24
It seems like a football eon ago that then-Denver Broncos coach Josh McDaniels sized up the potential AFC West race and called the San Diego Chargers “kind of the measuring stick.”

That statement came before the 2010 season as the Chargers had won the previous four division titles. It’s also right about the time the winds of change began to roar in earnest in the division, when the foundation was set for what has happened since.

The Kansas City Chiefs won the division in '10. Broncos owner Pat Bowlen fired McDaniels after a 4-12 season marred by Spygate and hired John Elway as the Broncos’ top football executive.

Since then, the Broncos have won three consecutive division titles, one featuring the national phenomenon that was a Tim Tebow-led read-option offense, and two with future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning. And the Broncos' crushing February Super Bowl loss notwithstanding, they are coming off a record-setting 2013 with Manning returning and a free-agency haul that included pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib, safety T.J. Ward and receiver Emmanuel Sanders. The Broncos are poised to be in the league’s championship conversation again.

The Chiefs think they are ready for more, the Chargers were the only team in the division to beat the Broncos last season, and the Oakland Raiders, after a flurry of offseason moves, believe -- at least LaMarr Woodley believes -- they can be a playoff team.

NFL Nation reporters Jeff Legwold (Broncos), Eric D. Williams (Chargers), Adam Teicher (Chiefs) and Paul Gutierrez (Raiders) look at how the AFC West division race will shake out this season.

First Down

What will the Broncos' record be and why?

Jeff Legwold: Look at the Broncos' depth chart, and on paper -- yes, the dreaded "on paper" distinction -- they are better than they were when they finished 13-3 and played their way into Super Bowl XLVIII last season. After the crushing loss in the title game, they didn't go quietly into the offseason. They put together a solid draft class with two potential immediate contributors in cornerback Bradley Roby and wide receiver Cody Latimer. They were also one of the most aggressive teams in free agency, reeling in Ware, Talib, Ward and Sanders. If Ware and Talib, in particular stay healthy (Talib has never played 16 games in a season), Denver's defense will be vastly improved alongside a record-breaking offense that figures to again pile up points. The Broncos finished with five defensive starters on injured reserve last season, and many of the players who were starting on defense down the stretch will be backups this season. Their trek through the NFC West to go with road games against the Patriots, Jets and Bengals gives them a potentially brutal schedule. They could be better than they were last season and not have the record to show for it. That is why 12-4 would be a quality piece of work.

Eric D. Williams: Denver will take a natural slide from its impressive 2013 campaign, but still come out on top of the AFC West at 11-5. Like the rest of the division, the Broncos face a much tougher schedule, with the season opener at home against Indianapolis and games at Seattle, at home against San Francisco, at New England, at St. Louis and at Cincinnati all potential losses outside the division. Though the defense should be better, free-agent additions Talib, Ware and Ward still have to mesh with the rest of that unit. Offensively, Denver's revamped line must do a better job of protecting Peyton Manning.

Adam Teicher: 12-4. It's a bit much to expect the Broncos to match their 13-3 record of last season. A schedule that includes two games against the Chiefs and Chargers and singles against all teams from the NFC West plus New England, Indianapolis and Cincinnati almost guarantees that Denver won't get to 13 wins. But a slightly diminished regular-season record doesn't mean the Broncos won't win the AFC or play in the Super Bowl again. From this vantage point, it's an upset if any team but the Broncos represents the AFC in the Super Bowl this season.

Paul Gutierrez: Sure, no one takes a Super Bowl beating like the Denver Broncos, whose five losses on Super Sunday are by a combined score of 206-58. But in the modern world of the rich getting richer, the defending AFC champs simply got better. Adding a trio of big-name free agents in Ware, Talib and Ward will only make the defense more sound. And the addition of Sanders, who will replace the departed Eric Decker, should help the Broncos' record-setting offense continue to hum along under the direction of Manning. The Broncos are primed for another division title with a 12-4 record, with tough games at Kansas City, at San Diego (the Chargers won in Denver last season), at New England (the Patriots won in OT last season) and at Seattle (remember that 43-8 pasting the Seahawks put on the Broncos in the Super Bowl?).

Second Down

What will the Chiefs' record be and why?

Legwold: There is an air about this team; the Chiefs seem comfortable with where the roster was at the end of the 2013 season going into 2014. They were not all that active in free agency, though they took some swings at a wide receiver or two, including Emmanuel Sanders. If they are the team that went 9-0 before the bye last season, then standing pat is just fine, but if they are the group that went 2-5 down the stretch, then they are not catching the Broncos. They have shuffled the offensive line and seem likely to lean on running back Jamaal Charles again on offense, but they lack pop on the outside, especially if receiver A.J. Jenkins can't lift his game. The defense is solid in the front seven, but in a division with quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers, cornerback Brandon Flowers' release might be the move that eventually stings the most, especially if young cornerback Marcus Cooper, a player Manning targeted repeatedly last season, is not up to the challenge. It all has the look of a step back from last season's 11-5 to 9-7 with the NFC West on everybody's schedule in the division.

Williams: I predict Kansas City falling to 8-8 in 2014 for a couple reasons. The Chiefs lost two of their five starters along the offensive line in Branden Albert and Geoff Schwartz to free agency -- a position group that depends on continuity. Kansas City could struggle to protect quarterback Alex Smith, along with getting enough push to spring loose the talented Charles. Second, look at this season's schedule. Last season, Kansas City vaulted to a 9-0 record in part by facing backup quarterbacks like Jeff Tuel, Case Keenum and Terrelle Pryor. This season, four of Kansas City's first six games are on the road, including stops in Denver, Miami, San Francisco and San Diego. The Chiefs will be fortunate to be at the .500 mark after that treacherous stretch.

Teicher: 8-8. Kansas City faltered down the stretch last season, winning two of its final eight games. The Chiefs then watched several significant regulars leave through free agency. The Chiefs have holes at wide receiver and in the defensive backfield that they failed to adequately address. That doesn't mean they won't be playoff contenders. Despite the lousy record, the Chiefs quietly finished last season as one of the NFL's better offensive teams. They might be able to score enough points to overcome a shaky defense that couldn't hold a 28-point lead in last season's playoff loss against Indianapolis.

Gutierrez: Are the Kansas City Chiefs the team that made history by becoming the first in NFL modern annals to follow up a two-victory season by winning its first nine games the following season, or are they the club that lost six of its last eight, including a heartbreaking 45-44 wild-card loss to the Indianapolis Colts? Momentum being what it is, and with the Chiefs having a so-so draft coupled with departures of the likes of Albert, defensive end Tyson Jackson and receiver/returner Dexter McCluster, plus a tough schedule, they seem to be on the way back down. As in a 7-9 record. Tough stretches that include games at Denver, against New England, at San Francisco and at San Diego early, and against Seattle, at Oakland, against Denver, at Arizona and at Pittsburgh late will truly tell the Chiefs' tale, even as Charles continues his ascent as one of the game's best all-around backs.

Third Down

What will the Chargers' record be and why?

Legwold: In his first year as Chargers coach, Mike McCoy helped get quarterback Philip Rivers back on track -- though Rivers never really conceded to being off track -- and the Chargers were able to fight through injuries, hand the Broncos their only home loss of the season, and earn a playoff spot. McCoy figures to try to keep Rivers cocooned in a low-risk approach on offense -- their leading receivers in terms of catches last season were a tight end (Antonio Gates) and a running back (Danny Woodhead) -- with a heavy dose of starting running back Ryan Mathews if he can stay healthy. Defensively, new cornerbacks Jason Verrett and Brandon Flowers should help the secondary. As they continue their makeover in the second year of the current regime, most personnel people in the league believe the Chargers are still lacking enough athleticism, especially on defense, to make a significant push in the division race. Add up four games against the NFC West to go with New England and Baltimore and it looks like a 7-9 campaign.

Williams: If they can stay relatively healthy, the Chargers should finish at 10-6 and return to the postseason for a second straight season. San Diego is the only team in the AFC West projected to have all 11 starters on offense return in 2014. Rivers will be given even more freedom to call plays at the line of scrimmage and run the no-huddle offense, which should result in more favorable matchups for the Chargers. But we know San Diego's offense can put points on the board. The key for the Chargers will be improved play in a revamped secondary that includes first-round selection Verrett and free agent Flowers, along with a more potent pass rush with the healthy return of Dwight Freeney and Melvin Ingram.

Teicher: 8-8. The Chargers might be the division's most interesting team. San Diego is the team most capable of catching the first-place Broncos, but also has the best chance of getting caught by the last-place Raiders. If Rivers plays as well as he did last season, it's not out of the question that San Diego wins the AFC West. Like Denver, San Diego might have a better team than it did last season. Signing Flowers filled a big need. But a tougher schedule will keep the Chargers out of the playoffs this time.

Gutierrez: San Diego, under a rookie head coach in the offensive-minded Mike McCoy, won four straight games to end the regular season and sneak into the playoffs at 9-7, and another 9-7 campaign seems to be in the works, even if the Chargers look to be better in 2014. Some of McCoy's moves did have many fans scratching their heads, but there is no debating he was instrumental in Rivers' NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award-winning season. The Chargers added bruising running back Donald Brown to join lightning-quick Ryan Mathews and are excited to see what their receiving corps, highlighted by second-year wideout Keenan Allen, can do if Malcom Floyd is healthy. No, it's not the halcyon and high-flying days of Air Coryell, but with tough games at Arizona, Oakland, Denver, Baltimore and San Francisco, and with New England coming to San Diego, the Chargers will take it.

Fourth Down

What will the Raiders' record be and why?

Legwold: Rookie linebacker Khalil Mack has the look of a potential foundation player in the Raiders defense. If things go as the Raiders hope, he should be in the running for Defensive Rookie of the Year because he's going to get plenty of snaps. But overall this team has put its immediate fate in the hands of veterans with far less of their career in front of them than in their past, led by quarterback Matt Schaub. Raiders coach Dennis Allen keeps saying Schaub is a top-10 passer in the league, but Schaub has always seemed to lack that kind of confidence in himself. But front-seven additions LaMarr Woodley and Justin Tuck, and running back Maurice Jones-Drew are certainly risk-reward moves the Raiders need to work. Tuck is 30, Woodley is 29 and Jones-Drew, who has missed 11 games combined in the past two seasons, just turned 29. The depth chart is still thin, particularly on defense, and an injury or two will have a ripple effect. The schedule's second half also includes two games against the Broncos, two against the Chiefs, and games against the 49ers and the Rams. It all looks like a potential 5-11.

Williams: With the addition of several quality veteran players in free agency on both sides of the ball, Oakland has a chance to reach the .500 mark for the first time since 2011, but I have them finishing 7-9. With an emphasis on running the football led by backs Jones-Drew (who is returning home to Oakland) and Darren McFadden, Schaub should play better. Defensively, with the addition of first-round selection Mack and veteran defenders Antonio Smith (defensive line), Tuck and Woodley, the Raiders should be improved. The concern for this veteran team will be how consistently it finishes teams in the fourth quarter in order to preserve wins in close games.

Teicher: 6-10. The days of hopeless desperation are coming to an end in Oakland. The Raiders won't be the pushovers they were last season. But they are still not ready to compete with their AFC West rivals. Schaub won't be the answer at quarterback. Instead, he will be another in a long line of failures. Going to rookie quarterback Derek Carr won't solve their problems, at least not this season. By 2015, the Raiders will be a factor in the AFC West race. But despite a major free-agent spending spree, they will still drag the bottom in 2014.

Gutierrez: In the immediate aftermath of the NFL schedule being released back in April, I saw a 5-11 season for the Raiders. Now, after the draft, organized team activities and minicamps? I'll go 6-10. Doesn't sound all that impressive, I know, but it would, technically, be improvement for third-year coach Dennis Allen after consecutive 4-12 seasons. Yes, the Raiders did rebuild both lines with talent and, on the defensive side of the ball, championship pedigree. And they are going with a new quarterback in the battle-tested Schaub. Plus, the veterans Oakland brought in via free agency all have chips on their shoulders. Truly, this is the most talent Allen has had at his disposal. Still, Oakland has the toughest strength of schedule in the NFL, and until it proves differently, it's hard to imagine the Raiders winning more than six games. Where might they scratch out six victories? Let's start with home games against Houston, Miami (in London), San Diego, Arizona, Kansas City and Buffalo and go from there.

Outside linebacker was one of the deepest position groups on the San Diego Chargers' roster heading into the opening of training camp on Thursday.

Still, the team releasing former first round draft pick Larry English was somewhat of a surprise. San Diego struggled with depth at outside linebacker last season, with Dwight Freeney, Melvin Ingram, Jarret Johnson and English all missing time because of injuries.

But those injuries to veteran players provided an opportunity for younger guys like Thomas Keiser and Tourek Williams to develop. And both made an impact for San Diego’s defense in 2013.

The most important takeaway from English’s release is that the Chargers appear confident Freeney will return to the field healthy after suffering a torn quad in Week 4 of last season against Dallas, ending his 2013 campaign.

Freeney was limited during offseason workouts, but vowed to be ready for San Diego’s regular-season opener at Arizona on Sept. 8. Freeney, 34, is the only player on San Diego’s roster who has recorded double-digit sacks in the NFL, so his presence as a pass-rush specialist is important to take pressure off of young players like Melvin Ingram and Jeremiah Attochu.

Also, English’s departure is a sign the Chargers like what they have seen in developmental prospects like Cordarro Law, Keiser, Williams and undrafted rookie free agent Colton Underwood.

Johnson said Williams looked impressive during offseason workouts.

“Tourek is the one that’s been pretty interesting to me, how much he’s gained in the offseason,” Johnson said. “Just how much more mature he is; he’s the one I think is going to have a huge year.”

Lastly, English’s release provides some breathing room in terms of the salary cap for the Chargers. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Chargers are just $94,768 under the cap. By releasing English, San Diego saves $1,542,500 million in 2014 cap space and cash.
Examining the San Diego Chargers' roster:

Quarterbacks (3)

The Chargers kept three quarterbacks on the active roster last year, but could pick up a roster spot if they feel comfortable enough with sneaking Sorensen through waivers and onto the practice squad.

Running backs (4)

Grice is my pick to return kicks as it stands now, but don’t count out Kerwynn Williams or Branden Oliver as possible kick return options.

Receivers (5)

Ex-CFL standout Dontrelle Inman has a shot to earn a job. Rookies Tevin Reese, Javontee Herndon and Micah Hatfield are possible practice squad candidates.

Tight ends (4)

With the development of Green, the Chargers will run two-tight end sets more this season. Johnson also can be used as a fullback. If healthy, Phillips provides depth as a blocking tight end. Ryan Otten also looked promising as a pass-catching threat during offseason workouts.

Offensive linemen (9)

With Jeromey Clary possibly beginning the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list coming off offseason shoulder and hip surgeries, the Chargers have some inexperienced players at interior offensive line in Troutman and Watt. So it will be important for veteran players like Hardwick and Ohrnberger to help those young guys along during training camp. Undrafted rookie free agent Craig Watts could compete for a job on the active roster.

Defensive linemen (6)

Quality depth and experience remains a concern at this position after Liuget and Reyes. Geathers and Carrethers have potential but have to show during preseason play that they can work in as part of the defensive line rotation. Tenny Palepoi and Damik Scafe also have a chance to earn time during training camp.

Linebackers (11)

This is probably the deepest position on defense, and some tough decisions will have to be made here. Thomas Keiser and Tourek Williams, impact players last season, both have a realistic shot of making the roster.

Cornerbacks (4)

It’s hard to leave Richard Marshall off here, but his salary is not guaranteed and Flowers could be his eventual replacement if the Fresno State product does not have a good training camp.

Safeties (4)

Arizona State undrafted rookie free agent Alden Darby flashed during offseason workouts, and has a chance to work himself onto the back end of the roster.

Specialists (3)

The Chargers have an experienced, consistent group of specialists and likely will not make a change here.
» NFC Preview: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

NFL Nation's Eric D. Williams examines the three biggest issues facing the San Diego Chargers heading into training camp.

Freeney's health: The Chargers have not had a player finish with double-digit sacks since 2011. Dwight Freeney is the only edge rusher currently on the roster to post at least 10 sacks in an NFL season. At 34, Freeney returns to the field from a torn quad injury that cut his 2013 campaign short, and he is expected to be healthy for the regular-season opener at Arizona. Freeney told reporters during offseason workouts in Jun he was healthy enough to play a game at that point in his rehab. However, San Diego coach Mike McCoy needs to make sure Freeney makes it through training camp and the regular season healthy by limiting Freeney's workload during practice and in games. The Chargers need Freeney to set the tone for a young group of pass-rushers. If Freeney can return to his old form, it will take pressure off of young pass-rushers like Melvin Ingram and Jeremiah Attaochu. The Chargers finished tied for 23rd in sacks last season with 35. San Diego was even worse on third down, totaling 10 sacks in 2013, second worst in the NFL.

Find a home for Flowers: John Pagano said he plans to use recently acquired cornerback Brandon Flowers all over the field, but during training camp San Diego's defensive coordinator must find a consistent home for the 28-year-old Pro Bowler. Richard Marshall and Shareece Wright were San Diego's starting cornerbacks at the end of offseason workouts. But with first-rounder Jason Verrett expected to take the field after his rehabilitation from shoulder surgery and Flowers in the fold, Pagano has options on the perimeter of his secondary. The Chargers need more production from a unit that totaled 11 interceptions in 2013. The Chargers allowed an average of 259 passing yards a contest last season, which ranked No. 29 in the NFL. San Diego also gave up 58 passing plays of 20 yards or more, tied for No. 24 in the league. The Chargers did a better job in these categories during the backstretch of 2013, but continued improvement is needed.

Find snaps for Attaochu: Second-round selection Attaochu brings speed and athleticism as a pass-rusher for the Chargers, something the team sorely lacked last season. Pagano needs to figure out how to effectively use Attaochu without giving him too much to think about on the field in terms of scheme, slowing down his play speed. Pagano could look to the way the Seattle Seahawks used speedy edge rusher Bruce Irvin during his rookie season in 2012 as a blueprint for Attaochu. Irvin played in 405 snaps and finished with eight sacks as a rookie, playing mostly on passing downs. The Chargers could use Attaochu in a similar manner and hopefully get the same type of impact.
The San Diego Chargers bucked the trend of playoff-caliber teams adding bigger cornerbacks to their defenses this past offseason.

Denver, the defending AFC champs, signed 6-foot-1 Aqib Talib in free agency and drafted 5-foot-11 Ohio State product Bradley Roby in the first round. The New England Patriots, who played Denver in the AFC title game last season, replaced Talib with one of the best cornerbacks in the game, 5-foot-11 Darrelle Revis.

The Patriots also signed 6-foot-4 Brandon Browner in free agency to play opposite Revis once he serves a four-game suspension.

San Diego’s AFC West rival, the Kansas City Chiefs, released 5-9 Brandon Flowers in a cost-cutting move, and will have a projected starting cornerback tandem of 6-2 Marcus Cooper and 6-3 Sean Smith.

The Chargers recently signed Flowers, cutting 6-1 cornerback Brandon Jones to make room on the 90-man roster. Of course, the Chiefs promptly signed Jones because he fits the team’s profile for a press cover corner.

Teams such as Denver, New England and Kansas City are trying to emulate the success the Seattle Seahawks have had with tall, lanky cornerbacks like Richard Sherman (6-3) and Byron Maxwell (6-1). Over the past two seasons, the Seahawks have the most interceptions (46) during that time frame.

The Chargers are 25th in the NFL the past two seasons with 25 interceptions. With an average of 5-10 and 192 pounds, San Diego has the smallest secondary in the league. However, defensive coordinator John Pagano will rely on an improved pass rush, along with more speed and athleticism in the back end to improve his team’s pass defense.

San Diego hopes to get an impact from first-round selection cornerback Jason Verrett, who fits the team’s profile for a cat-quick cornerback at 5-9 and 190 pounds. Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said before this year’s draft that he believes size is not an issue at the cornerback position. And Telesco can look to past successes with drafting smaller defensive backs in Indianapolis like Tim Jennings and Bob Sanders as evidence of that theory.

“We need guys who can cover people, No. 1, and tackle,” Telesco said in an interview before this year’s draft. “And if they come in a smaller size, they come in a smaller size. If they’re average-sized, they’re average-sized. But if you hold out looking for just Richard Sherman, you’ll be waiting a long time.”

Verrett, who hopes to be fully healthy at the beginning of training camp after offseason shoulder surgery, believes his height will not be an issue.

“It’s just moving my feet and playing a lot smarter on the field,” Verrett said. “I played against a lot of guys that were 6-2, 6-3 (in college). I didn’t really try and get my hands on them too much. And once the ball is in the air, definitely being a competitor (is important).”

[+] EnlargeJason Verrett
AP Photo/Gregory BullJason Verrett expects to be cleared for contact by the time training camp begins next month.
Why size matters

In his return to the NFL, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll focused on developing a defense with an emphasis on speed, ball anticipation and size. That’s particularly evident in the secondary, where Seattle has one of the biggest cornerback tandems in NFL with Sherman and Maxwell.

Carroll brought back the bump-and-run technique made famous decades ago by such physical cornerback tandems as Pittsburgh’s Mel Blount and J.T. Thomas, Oakland’s Mike Haynes and Lester Hayes, and Kansas City’s Dale Carter and James Hasty.

The concept is simple: create pressure on the passer with a ferocious pass rush up front, and make the quarterback complete tough throws over the lanky arms of his rangy defensive backs.

Even though guys like Sherman might get beat by a step or two, with their length, they still have an opportunity to recover and get back in the play.

The best example of that is Sherman’s tipped pass on a Colin Kaepernick offering to Michael Crabtree that linebacker Malcolm Smith intercepted, which sealed Seattle’s trip to the Super Bowl last season. Check out the play here.

Sherman was beat by a step on the play, but his length allowed him to knock the pass down.
Maxwell also uses his length to pick off Eli Manning on a shallow cross, which you can check out here.

How to play big

The Chargers have to compensate for their lack of size by playing with great anticipation. And doing that requires good film study, understanding receiver splits, down and distance and what route concepts teams like to run in certain situations.

Few are better at putting this all together than San Diego safety Eric Weddle.

Playing against a much bigger pass-catcher in Dallas tight end Jason Witten, Weddle twice shut him out on third down last year in a win against the Cowboys.

The Chargers played with three safeties, three cornerbacks and a middle linebacker, using a four-man rush, something you might see a lot of this year in passing situations. Check out the video here (starts at the 8-minute mark).

Weddle said better communication will be the key this season in improving San Diego’s play in the back end of the defense, something the young secondary struggled with in 2013.
LaDainian TomlinsonLisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images  
Score: Chargers 48, Broncos 20
Date: December 11, 2006. Site: Qualcomm Stadium

Voters got it right, picking LaDainian Tomlinson breaking the single-season touchdown record in the San Diego Chargers' 48-20 win over the Denver Broncos that clinched an AFC West title as the franchise's most memorable play.

Tomlinson scored three touchdowns in the game. The record-breaker came on a 7-yard run with just over three minutes left. Tomlinson took a handoff from Philip Rivers running to his left, bounced outside and evaded a tackle to reach the end zone.


Which is the most memorable play in Chargers' history?


Discuss (Total votes: 30,070)

Tomlinson finished the season with 31 total touchdowns, earning league MVP honors.

Certainly, Dennis Gibson's pass deflection against Pittsburgh served as a watershed moment in franchise history because it clinched San Diego's first Super Bowl appearance. However, that moment lost some luster when the Chargers were overwhelmed by San Francisco 49-26 in the big game.

The other candidate for most memorable was Kellen Winslow Sr.'s valiant performance in San Diego's 41-38 overtime win against Miami in a 1981 AFC divisional playoff game. Winslow finished with 13 receptions for 166 yards and a touchdown, but more importantly, blocked a field goal at the end of regulation that allowed his team to earn the win in overtime.

While Winslow's effort might have been the most impressive by a San Diego player in franchise history, it does not match what Tomlinson's performance meant to the franchise in terms of historical significance.

We also would be remiss in not mentioning a performance that did not make the cut -- running back Keith Lincoln's jaw-dropping 329 yards from scrimmage in San Diego's 51-10 dismantling of the Boston Patriots in the 1963 AFL title game, the franchise's only league title.

However, Tomlinson's record-breaking performance stands apart from the others for a few different reasons. The moment represents one of the shining accomplishments of the Chargers' return to a winning franchise during the decade of the 2000s.

Tomlinson's single-season-record 31 touchdowns still stands. His 145 rushing touchdowns ranks second all-time in NFL history, and Tomlinson is perhaps the best player in franchise history.
San Diego Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano established creating turnovers as a point of emphasis for his unit during the offseason.

Pagano’s defense finished with just 17 turnovers forced last season, third fewest in the NFL. However, the Chargers did improve in that statistic during the backstretch of 2013, forcing 10 turnovers over the final six games. San Diego finished 5-1 over that stretch.

The Chargers also forced six turnovers in the postseason, ranking second behind the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks (eight).

Over the past two seasons, the Chargers created 45 turnovers. The Seahawks, considered the league’s best defense, forced 70 turnovers over that time frame.

Led by Philip Rivers, the Chargers have one of the best offenses in the NFL. If Pagano’s unit does a better job of getting after the football, San Diego will have more opportunities to put points on the board and a shorter distance to drive for scores.

Pagano began each practice that was open to reporters during the offseason with a turnover circuit, and coaches implored all 11 defenders to rally to the football during team drills. At times last season, the Chargers had issues with effort, giving up explosive plays due to poor tackling.

“The biggest thing that we've been doing this offseason is focusing even more on technique and fundamentals,” Pagano said. “We're doing more drills together as a unit. We're doing tackling circuits. We're doing pass-rush circuits. And we're doing turnover circuits.

“That's how we start practice every day. And those things are the things we need to improve on defensively to be a top defense.”
LaDainian TomlinsonLisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images  
» VOTE HERE » NFC Plays: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

This is the last of three plays nominated as the most memorable in San Diego Chargers history. We have also featured: Kellen Winslow’s blocked field goal against the Miami Dolphins in the AFC Divisional playoffs and linebacker Dennis Gibson batting down a pass by Pittsburgh's Neil O'Donnell intended for running back Barry Foster on fourth down in the 1994 AFC title game, sealing a trip to the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history. Please vote for your choice as the Chargers’ most memorable play.

Score: Chargers 48, Broncos 20
Date: December 11, 2006 Site: Qualcomm Stadium.

Running back LaDainian Tomlinson broke Shaun Alexander’s single-season touchdown record of 28 with three touchdowns in a 48-20 win against Denver in a win that clinched an AFC West title. The performance was a coronation of perhaps the greatest player in San Diego Chargers history.


Which is the most memorable play in Chargers' history?


Discuss (Total votes: 30,070)

The record breaker came on a 7-yard run with just over three minutes left in the game. Tomlinson took a handoff from Philip Rivers running to his left, bounced outside and evaded a tackle to reach the end zone. Tomlinson finished the season with 31 total touchdowns, earning league MVP honors.

What took place after Tomlinson crossed the end zone for the record-breaking touchdown showed what the future Hall of Fame running back symbolizes for the franchise. The entire offense rushed to Tomlinson to congratulate him, lifting him on their shoulders and carrying him off the field.

“Once I got over the pylon, my initial thought process was to bring every guy on the offensive unit over to share that moment,” Tomlinson said. “When we’re old and can’t play this game anymore, them are the moments we are going to remember, that we’ll be able to tell our kids, tell our grandchildren. We can talk about something special that we did. We made history today.

“There’s no better feeling than to share it with the group of guys that’s in that locker room.”

Tomlinson finished his career as the franchise’s all-time leader in rushing yards (12,490), yards from scrimmage (16,445) and touchdowns (153). Tomlinson totaled 47 100-yard rushing games while with the Chargers, made five Pro Bowls and twice led the league in rushing yards.

He is No. 5 on the league’s all-time rushing list with 13,684 yards in 11 NFL seasons.

“He is the finest running back to ever wear an NFL uniform,” Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer said.
Dennis GibsonJEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images
» VOTE HERE » NFC Plays: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

This is the second of three plays nominated as the most memorable in San Diego Chargers team history. We will feature: Kellen Winslow’s blocked field goal against the Miami Dolphins in AFC playoffs; linebacker Dennis Gibson’s batted down pass by Neil O’Donnell on fourth down, sealing a trip to the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history; and running back LaDainian Tomlinson breaking Shaun Alexander’s single-season touchdown record of 28 with three touchdowns in a 48-20 win over Denver that clinched an AFC West title. Please vote for your choice as the Chargers’ most memorable play.

Score: Chargers 17, Steelers 13
Date: Jan. 5, 1995 Site: Three Rivers Stadium.

The play has been dubbed by Chargers fans as the “Immaculate Deflection” -- a spin-off of the “Immaculate Reception,” Franco Harris’ shoestring catch that lifted the Pittsburgh Steelers to a win over the Oakland Raiders in the 1972 AFC playoffs.


Which is the most memorable play in Chargers' history?


Discuss (Total votes: 30,070)

Leading 17-13 with a minute left at their own 3-yard line, Chargers linebacker Dennis Gibson batted down a fourth-down pass by Neil O’Donnell intended for running back Barry Foster, sealing a trip to the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history.

The Chargers came into the contest as heavy underdogs on the road at Pittsburgh. How confident were the Steelers that they would defeat the Chargers? Pittsburgh players had already hatched a plan for a Super Bowl rap video.

But Chargers defensive coordinator Bill Arnsparger put a stop to that with an effective game plan that bottled up Pittsburgh’s potent running game for most of the day.

The Steelers dominated play in the first half, but led only 13-3. Allowed to hang around, the Chargers made a run in the second half. Stan Humphries threw 43-yard touchdown passes to tight end Alfred Pupunu and receiver Tony Martin, giving the Chargers all the scoring they would need.

The Steelers’ final drive began at their own 17-yard line. O’Donnell methodically marched Pittsburgh’s offense on 10 plays down to San Diego’s 3-yard line. With Pittsburgh unable to run the football, O’Donnell had one of his best days as a pro, completing 32 of 54 passes for 349 yards and a touchdown.

But on the crucial play on fourth down, O’Donnell never saw Gibson lurking behind Foster, who jumped in front of the Pittsburgh running back to bat down the pass in the end zone, clinching an improbable victory for the Chargers.

“You could see people crying as they walked out,” Gibson told U-T San Diego. “The emotional letdown was overwhelming.”

More than 70,000 fans showed up at Jack Murphy Stadium to celebrate the win with the team the following day.
Kellen WinslowAP Photo
» VOTE HERE » NFC Plays: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

This is the first of three plays nominated as the most memorable play in San Diego Chargers team history. In the next three days, we’ll feature: Kellen Winslow’s blocked field goal against the Miami Dolphins in the 1982 AFC divisional playoffs; linebacker Dennis Gibson’s batted-down pass by Neil O’Donnell intended for running back Barry Foster on fourth down, sealing a trip to the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history in 1995; and running back LaDainian Tomlinson breaking Shaun Alexander’s single-season touchdown record of 28 with three touchdowns in a 48-20 win over Denver that clinched an AFC West title in 2006. Please vote for your choice as the Chargers’ most memorable play.

Score: Chargers 41, Dolphins 38
Date: Jan. 2, 1982 Site: Orange Bowl

The AFC divisional round matchup between San Diego and Miami was the signature game for Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow. Dealing with dehydration, cramping in his legs and a pinched nerve, Winslow blocked Uwe von Schamann’s 43-yard attempt at a winning field goal with 38 seconds left in regulation. That allowed the Chargers to win the game in overtime on a Rolf Benirschke field goal.

Winslow finished with 13 catches for 166 yards and a touchdown. Physically drained, Winslow was helped off the field by two teammates after the game, which was played in hot and humid conditions in Miami that lasted nearly five hours.


Which is the most memorable play in Chargers' history?


Discuss (Total votes: 30,070)

Things looked bleak for San Diego in the fourth quarter. The Chargers trailed 38-31 with just under five minutes remaining, and the Dolphins had a chance to put the game away on a long drive that pushed to San Diego’s 21-yard line.

However, San Diego linebacker Louie Kelcher stripped running back Andra Franklin of the ball on a run up the middle, recovering at his team’s 18-yard line.

With new life, Dan Fouts marched the Chargers 82 yards, tying the game at 38-all with a 9-yard pass to rookie running back James Brooks.

Miami quarterback Don Strock gave his team a chance to win the game in regulation, driving the Dolphins to San Diego’s 25-yard line with four seconds left.

Not usually a part of San Diego’s field goal block unit, a weary Winslow took the field because of his imposing, 6-foot-6, 250-pound frame. The Chargers' defensive line got some penetration, and Winslow leaped, tipping the ball with an extended right hand.

“It was the biggest thrill of my life,” Winslow said. “I felt like I scored three touchdowns.”

The Chargers failed to advance to the Super Bowl the next week, losing to Cincinnati 27-7 in the AFC Championship Game played in minus-50-degree temperatures.
Pleased with the overall depth he has defensively, San Diego Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano believes there will be some intense competition for starting jobs once training camp opens July 24.

Only three starters can be written in pen defensively: safety Eric Weddle, middle linebacker Donald Butler and defensive lineman Corey Liuget. You could add a fourth, Melvin Ingram, because of the way he changes San Diego's defense when he's healthy.

But that leaves seven to eight starting jobs up for grabs, according to Pagano, who talked about his defense in a conversation with Darren Smith of The Mighty 1090 AM radio. You can listen to the conversation here.

[+] EnlargeSan Diego's John Pagano
AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi"I got my 11 in mind right now," Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano said. "But I'd probably say that there's seven to eight that depends on the competition we have, and the depth we have."
“I got 11 in my mind right now,” Pagano said. “But I'd probably say that there's seven to eight that depends on the competition we have, and the depth we have. It's good to have these deals to make sure we get the most competition out of these guys. I mean there's going to be a lot of challenges this year, and it makes us better. Depth is probably the biggest asset of any National Football League team.”

Pagano confirmed that Virginia Tech product receiver Eddie Royal was helpful in recruiting his former college teammate cornerback Brandon Flowers to San Diego.

However, Pagano also said that what the organization had to offer, including quarterback Philip Rivers and a winning environment, helped Flowers make a decision to sign with the Chargers.

“I think you have to sell it,” Pagano said. “Everybody says it comes down to money at the professional level. But at the end of the day it's about somebody being excited about their job, and happy about where they want to be, where they want to play and what gives them the best opportunity to win.

“You look at the San Diego Chargers right now, the first thing you see when you walk into that building is Philip Rivers. And when you have a guy like that, you have an opportunity to win a lot of football games. And to me that was very important to him.”

Pagano said Flowers will be used in a number of positions on the field.

“We're going to use him inside, outside, on top, on bottom -- we're going to use him wherever we can,” Pagano said. “He's going to do a lot of things for us. He's going to come in and compete with those guys. We've gotten a lot faster defensively. And those are two things -- the athleticism and the speed defensively -- coaches cannot coach.”

Asked about the nose tackle position, Pagano indicated that Sean Lissemore is the starter, but that he's not as concerned with that position because the Chargers will play base defense about 30 to 35 percent of the time.

Kwame Geathers and Ryan Carrethers are slotted in behind Lissemore heading into training camp.

“Sean Lissemore is our guy right now,” Pagano said. “He can play inside and outside. And then you have two young players who are big, strong, powerful players and can do a lot of different things. So I think the biggest thing is all three of them had a great offseason, and that's going to help us tremendously.

“The big thing that everybody has to understand is that we were in sub defense -- and that's either five defensive backs or six defensive backs that puts you into an even front -- and we were probably in that roughly 65 to 70 percent of the time. So 30 percent of the time we are in base defense.”
San Diego Chargers cornerback Brandon Flowers talked with Chris Ello and Ben Higgins of Xtra 1360 AM radio about signing with his new team. Check out the audio link here.

Flowers said that the opportunity to play against his old team, the Kansas City Chiefs, weighed in his decision to sign with the Chargers.

“That definitely played in the decision,” Flowers said. “Just the way I play the game, I always felt like it would be fun. I never got that chance to play against an old team. Once I was on a team for my whole life, I was on that team for good.

“So just going back to play against some of the fellas and some of the coaches, it will definitely be fun. But I respect everybody in that program. They run a great program in Kansas City, and they have great fans in Kansas City. But just for personal reasons I think it will be fun to line up across those guys.”

Flowers said he was caught off guard by Kansas City releasing him in a cost cutting move earlier this month.

“It’s a business,” he said. “And in this business you have to roll with the punches. Once the release happened, my phone and my agent’s phone was a hotline. A lot of teams were calling, and a lot of teams were trying to bring me in because they’re not used to getting a six-year starter this late that can maybe fall into their lap.”

Flowers said during his visit to San Diego, he spent quality time with his former teammate at Virginia Tech, receiver Eddie Royal. And Flowers credited Royal with making him feel comfortable and selling the Chargers to him as a landing spot.

“It was a crazy experience with guys on the phone for three days straight nonstop,” Flowers said. “I knew what teams I wanted to play for. And if I could come to terms with those teams, I definitely wanted to make it. And San Diego was one of the top teams I wanted to play for.”
SAN DIEGO -- Jarret Johnson missed a total of five games in 2013 for the San Diego Chargers because of hamstring and hand injuries -- the most games the outside linebacker missed in a single season since entering the league in 2003.

Before last season, Johnson was Mr. Durability, playing in at least 15 games for 10 straight seasons. Johnson said his goal heading into the 2014 season is getting his body back to the point where he can play through nagging injuries and still be effective.

[+] EnlargeJarret Johnson
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsJarret Johnson and the Chargers will be aiming to put more pressure on opposing QBs in 2014.
“Based on last year, I had the most injuries that I’ve had that kept me out of games, so I just wanted to get healthy and get stronger,” Johnson said. “And that’s still my focus going into this last month being home, is working on flexibility, strength and all of that stuff because that’s what keeps you healthy.”

Johnson is part of a deep rotation at outside linebacker for the Chargers that includes Dwight Freeney, Melvin Ingram, Jeremiah Attaochu, Larry English, Thomas Keiser, Tourek Williams and Cordarro Law -- all players competing for playing time heading into training camp.

Johnson’s strength is setting the edge and defending the run as an outside linebacker, but he still understands the Chargers need to get better at getting after the quarterback. San Diego finished tied for 23rd in the league in sacks last season with 35. Even worse, the Chargers had just 10 sacks on third down in 2013, second worst in the NFL.

“Sacks are the reward for pressure,” Johnson said. “But that’s today’s game. It’s a quarterback-driven league. And if you can’t affect the quarterback through coverage and pressure, you’re not going to be successful on defense.

“The days of two-back powers and leads -- all the stuff that was very popular when I came into the NFL -- that’s not so much the game today. It’s very multiple, very complicated spread [concepts]. And if you can’t affect them, you’re going to be hurt.”

Along with improved depth at edge-rusher, another thing that should help San Diego defensively is knowledge of scheme. Johnson said that defensive coordinator John Pagano did not strip down the playbook during offseason workouts.

Instead, Pagano picked where the team left off at the end of 2013 -- when San Diego had its most success defensively -- allowing players to continue to fine tune concepts that worked well at the end of last season.

“A lot of times defensively you stay pretty vanilla, and then the complicated stuff comes later in the season,” Johnson said. “This year we kind of installed a lot of stuff and worked on a lot of stuff that we finished off with during the regular season.

“So it’s kind of nice to have that creativeness and a full playbook. You’re not just calling seven or eight plays. You might be calling two or three times more than that. It was good to work on stuff this early.”

Johnson said the expanded playbook during the offseason was a result of Pagano liking how his defense played at the end of last season, and having confidence in his players executing the system on the field.

“We had some success late in the year being very multiple and moving around -- a lot of moving parts,” Johnson said. “And hopefully we’ll pick up with that.”
ESPN NFL Insider Field Yates provided some details on cornerback Brandon Flowers' one-year contract with the San Diego Chargers.

According to Yates, Flowers will earn a $1.5 million base salary and a $1.5 million signing bonus for a total of $3 million in guaranteed compensation. Flowers also can earn up to $2 million more in incentives if he plays in 92.5 percent of the defensive snaps and the team reaches the AFC Championship Game, bringing the maximum total value of the contract to $5 million.

Once he signs the deal, Flowers will become the second-highest paid corner on the roster. Rookie Jason Verrett will make the most this season ($4.48 million), followed by Flowers ($3 million), Brandon Ghee ($875,000), Richard Marshall ($855,000) and Shareece Wright ($645,000).

San Diego’s last foray into free agency for a cornerback did not go so well. Derek Cox signed a four-year, $20 million deal in 2013, but was eventually replaced in the starting lineup by Marshall down the backstretch of last season due to poor play.

The Chargers cut Cox this year, saving $4.25 million in cash and creating $3.9 million in dead money. Cox made $6 million in seven starts last season.

Chargers general manager Tom Telesco expects better production from Flowers.
The first day of organized team activities (OTAs), all San Diego Chargers first-round draft selection Jason Verrett could do was watch.

He stood on the sidelines holding his helmet as the coaching staff put the rest of his teammates through individual and team drills out on the field.

Verrett had shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum in March, and worked through a rehabilitation program with the team's training staff this offseason. But by the end of San Diego's offseason workout program, Verrett's injury had progressed to the point that he could take part in his position group's individual drills, including catching the ball with his injured shoulder.

[+] EnlargeJason Verrett
AP Photo/Gregory BullJason Verrett expects to be cleared for contact by the time training camp begins next month.
Initially, Verrett said he wouldn't be ready to fully participate in practice until August. But the way his rehab is progressing, there's a chance the TCU product could be ready by the start of San Diego's training camp at the end of July.

Verrett has yet to be cleared for full contact.

"I'm feeling good," Verrett said, when talking with reporters on the final day of minicamp. "I've been running around lately these last few days, and I've been able to do individual drills. And I'm going to be ready when camp gets back."

Verrett indicated his range of motion is improving and the shoulder is feeling stronger. He even threw out the first pitch at a recent San Diego Padres game using the injured shoulder, although he dribbled the throw to the plate.

Verret plans to stay in town and train with teammate and mentor Eric Weddle, which should help him mentally get ready for the start of training camp. Players report to Chargers Park on July 23. The first practice of training camp is July 24.

"These next five weeks are going to be very important," Verrett said. "So I just want to take advantage of it and get ready for camp."

Because of the injury, Verrett has not participated in team drills during practice. So while he has taken mental reps from the sideline, there's still a steep learning curve Verrett will have to overcome when training camp begins.

However, Weddle knows John Pagano's defensive system intimately, and should speed up that process for Verrett.

"It will be good for him to work with me and get him up to speed as much as possible so he can come out and try and make an impact for us," Weddle said. "He's a talented kid. He has a great mindset, and is mentally ready for this moment, and what the NFL brings mentally. So that's exciting for an older guy, knowing that his head is in the right place."

Verrett said he's looking forward to training camp, now that he's closer to being fully healthy.

"It's slowly coming," Verrett said. "My first day when I was doing individual drills it was kind of like, ‘Wow, I'm out here.' And now the fact that I'm five weeks away from being able to get in and get those reps, it's exciting.

"It's not too much pressure, I'm just excited to be out there. I'm a competitor. So I'm ready."