AFC West: San Diego Chargers

SAN DIEGO -- An undrafted rookie free agent last year out of Georgia, Kwame Geathers spent the 2013 season on the San Diego Chargers' active roster but rarely played.

[+] EnlargeKwame Geathers
Lenny Ignelzi/AP PhotoDefensive lineman Kwame Geathers says he's worked hard in the offseason to prepare for his second season with the Chargers.
In 16 games, Geathers played a total of 27 snaps, finishing with a combined four tackles. Although he did not play a lot, Geathers said he learned through practice and watching others at his position of nose tackle on the field.

Now, it's time to put those observations to good use. Geathers has been working as San Diego's No. 2 nose tackle in training camp behind Sean Lissemore, and ahead of this year's fifth-round draft selection Ryan Carrethers.

"It's the second year in, so I feel more comfortable out there," Geathers said. "I've been able to learn a lot watching guys like Lissemore and Cam (Thomas) who left. And just going out in practice every day and giving the offense a look. I worked on the little things like pad level, footwork and hand placement. And those are the biggest things I need to continue to work on every day."

Chargers head coach Mike McCoy, who likes Geathers' size at 6-6 and 335 pounds, says the key for the tall tackle is playing at a lower pad level and not getting too high coming out of his stance.

"When you see him play, when he stands up it's tough for him to play," McCoy said. "But when he keeps his pad level down, he's tough to block. So that's something that Don's (Defensive line coach Don Johnson) on him every day. John Pagano obviously is on him to keep his low pad level, and do what he does best."

Family lineage also played a large role in Geathers' development. His father, Robert Geathers Sr., played at South Carolina State and was selected in the third round of the 1981 draft by the Buffalo Bills. His uncle, James "Jumpy" Geathers, played 13 years in the NFL with New Orleans, Washington, Atlanta and Denver.

Geathers' older brother Robert Geathers currently plays for the Cincinnati Bengals as a defensive end.

"It helps a little bit, being able to go home and know you're going to get some football out of it, too," Geathers said. "They're going to talk about it and tell you what you need to do. And just hearing it over and over, hopefully it will stick with you."

Geathers said he understands that he has to make the most of the reps he's getting during training camp, and make it happen once the preseason starts in order to win a roster spot and consistent playing time.

"It's very important," he said. "When you get your opportunity, you have to take advantage of it. You can't look back because there's always the next man up. So you have to go fight for it every day."
SAN DIEGO -- Middle linebacker Manti Te'o hauled in an interception in the flat during team drills Wednesday and was inches from making a similar play Thursday.

[+] EnlargeManti Te'o
Tony Avelar/AP PhotoManti Te'o's play improved in the second half of his rookie season, and he's working on carrying over that comfort level.
Known for taking the ball away from the offense during his time at Notre Dame, Te'o is getting back to that mindset during the San Diego Chargers' first week of training camp.

Teammate Eric Weddle said those two plays are prime examples of impact plays that Te'o did not have the experience to make in his rookie season, and the reason more is expected from him in 2014.

"Those two plays he would have never done last year, just because he didn't know any better, for one,” Weddle said. "Two, he's letting his instincts take over and his feel of the game. He understands what his role is, and it's awesome to watch.”

Te'o said the learning experience and reps gained his rookie season helped him play faster during training camp. He also said he's fully healthy after offseason surgery to fix a fractured foot that slowed him down his rookie season.

And finally, Te'o worked on sculpting his body and leaning down his 6-1 frame to 235 from 240 pounds, the weight he played at during a standout final season at Notre Dame. Te'o said during his rookie season he hovered around 245 pounds.

"It goes back to my senior year in college,” Te'o said. "When I was leaner, I was able to make sure that reaction time when my mind told my body to move was less. And so my body being in good shape, I'm able to react and move when I want to. So when my eyes see something and I want to break on it, I'm able to do that.”

Weddle has noticed the difference.

"He's light years ahead of last year,” the veteran safety said. "Obviously, it's hard to come in as a rookie and play the way you expect to play. You're thinking so much and you're trying to adjust. It's a different animal. The NFL is no joke.

"You live and learn, and you learn from the good times and the bad times. But with Manti it's never about his work ethic. It's never about him being coachable. It's just about him feeling comfortable.”

Te'o missed most of exhibition play and the first three regular-season games of his rookie season with what was initially reported as a sprained foot. Te'o returned against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 4 and was immediately placed in the starting lineup.

He showed rust in the first four games, but his overall play improved the second half of the season. Te'o was fifth on the team last year with 61 combined tackles but finished without a sack, interception or forced fumble in his rookie season.

Te'o led Notre Dame with 113 tackles and seven interceptions his final college season, finishing runner-up to Johnny Manziel in voting for the 2012 Heisman Trophy.

San Diego coach Mike McCoy believes that Te'o can become that type of playmaker again with consistent work at the NFL level.

"He did a nice job last year, but there were times when he played a little slow -- and he'd tell you that from watching the film after the season was over,” McCoy said. "Now he understands the scheme a lot better than he did last year, because he's played. He's definitely playing faster this year, which is what you would expect.”

Te'o says that comfort and experience should lead to a better production in his second season.

"It's all about knowing where I got to be and why I got to be there,” Te'o said. "Knowing how the offense is trying to attack us as a defense, and knowing the different places I got to be at. It's definitely good.”
SAN DIEGO -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of San Diego Chargers training camp:

" Antonio Gates showed he can still make it happen in the middle of the field. The 33-year-old tight end twice beat the first-team defense for big gains during team drills, using soft hands to make an impressive catch against safety Jahleel Addae on a crossing route.

Later during practice, Gates beat Jarret Johnson and Eric Weddle down the sideline for a touchdown. Gates, who did not work at all during the offseason, has looked in shape and explosive through the first week of training camp.

" On the injury front, receiver Vincent Brown missed his fifth straight practice because of a calf injury, and he wore a walking boot on his right foot during practice.

San Diego coach Mike McCoy did not provide an update on the injury, other than saying that Brown would be back in uniform when he’s healthy.

“He has the same diagnosis that he has when he first injured it,” McCoy said. “And he’ll be out there when he’s ready to go.”

Cornerbacks Marcus Cromartie and Brandon Flowers also did not practice. Offensive lineman Jeromey Clary remains on the active, physically unable to perform list.

McCoy said Flowers just had a rest day on Thursday.

Defensive lineman Corey Liuget tweaked his right ankle during one-on-one pass-rush drills, but had it retaped by a trainer and returned to the field. Center Nick Hardwick suffered what appeared to be an elbow injury and did not finish practice.

“I made the decision after he got dinged there to hold him out the rest of the practice,” McCoy said about his starting center. “He wanted to go back in, but we held him out.”

Also, for a second straight day, rookie cornerback Jason Verrett was limited to individual drills. Verrett ran sprints at the end of practice.

" Undrafted rookie free agent cornerback Greg Ducre made a nice interception on an out route intended for receiver Torrence Allen thrown by Brad Sorensen. The former University of Washington player also had a nice pass breakup during team drills later in practice.

Another rookie who continues to make his mark is second-round selection Jeremiah Attaochu, who had back-to-back sacks working with the second unit during team drills.

" Up next: The Chargers practice at 5:50 p.m. ET on Friday in a practice at Chargers Park that is closed to the public. The Chargers hold their annual FanFest on Saturday at Qualcomm Stadium. Doors open at 12:45 p.m. ET.
SAN DIEGO -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of San Diego Chargers training camp:
  • The Chargers took Tuesday off after five days of practice opening this year's camp, including three straight days in pads. Players looked forward to the time off after Monday's two-hour practice but also understand they need to put in the work in order to get ready for a marathon season.

    "It sucks going through it, but when Week 14 and Week 15 of the season hits, you remember days like this when you were in grind mode, and it helps out a lot," left tackle King Dunlap said.
  • San Diego coach Mike McCoy remarked that he was OK with the temperatures, which hovered around 80 degrees at practice time.

    "We go to certain places on Sunday at 1 o'clock in the afternoon, whether it's at home or on the road, and there's going to be some hot afternoons in September," McCoy said. "So we've got to get used to it. It's good for the conditioning level of the players."
  • One of the more interesting things in camp has been watching veteran cornerback Brandon Flowers go against second-year receiver Keenan Allen in 1-on-1 drills.

    Allen appeared to get the better of Flowers in the first two days of training camp, but Flowers has more than held his own lately with his physical style. The daily matchups can only help Allen for some of the tougher matchups he will face during the season, including Arizona's Patrick Peterson, New England's Darrelle Revis and Seattle's Richard Sherman.

    Flowers said going against Allen, Malcolm Floyd and Eddie Royal in practice also will help prepare him to face some of the best receivers in the league.

    "Keenan is a great receiver in this league," Flowers said. "He really came on strong last year. He's a guy that keeps every DB on his toes because his release move is so deadly. With his frame he can go and high-point the ball. So if I do this good work in practice against Keenan, the game shouldn't be too hard at all.

    "We're challenging each other out here. We're trying to get better every day, because if you don't and come out here kind of sluggish, the opposite side of the ball will dominate you."
  • Former Chargers defensive lineman Jacques Cesaire is working with the Bolts during training camp as part of the Bill Walsh NFL Minority coaching fellowship. Joining Cesaire with the Chargers as part of that program are former NFL receiver and USC product Keary Colbert, and Jonathan Webster, who currently serves as defensive backs and special teams coach at Northwest Mississippi Community College.
  • Up next: The Chargers practice at 2:50 p.m. ET Wednesday and 12:20 p.m. ET Thursday. Both practices take place at Chargers Park. Wednesday's practice is closed to the public.
Examining the San Diego Chargers' roster:

Quarterbacks (3)

Nothing has changed here. Sorensen still clearly the No. 3 quarterback at this point.

Running backs (4)

Kerwynn Williams and Branden Oliver have shown flashes, but I still think Grice is ahead at this point.

Receivers (5)


Inman has been the most consistent of the young receivers trying to make the back end of the roster. Seyi Ajirotutu is still in the mix, and rookies Tevin Reese, Javontee Herndon and Torrence Allen all have made plays.

Tight ends (4)


You could go with three tight ends here in order to pick up another receiver.

Offensive linemen (9)


With Jeromey Clary still on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list and not practicing, the Chargers need depth here.

Defensive linemen (6)

Tenny Palepoi and Damik Scafe and Chas Alecxih have made good impressions.

Linebackers (10)

Williams has been one of the more impressive young players in camp. It will be hard to keep Thomas Keiser off of the roster after how he played last season.

Cornerbacks (5)


At times, Marshall has been the best cornerback in camp. He's playing with a lot of confidence right now.

Safeties (4)

These four appear to be clearly ahead of rookies Alden Darby and Adrian Phillips.

Specialists (3)


Interested to see how rookie punter Chase Tenpenny performs in exhibition play if he gets an opportunity.
SAN DIEGO -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of San Diego Chargers training camp:
  • Ball magnet Eric Weddle showed why he’s one of the best safeties in the game, twice corralling interceptions during team drills and running them back for scores. The first pick came on an out route thrown by Philip Rivers intended for Keenan Allen in the red zone that Weddle stepped in front of for a turnover. And the second occurred later in practice on an errant throw down the middle of the field. Even though the team drills aren’t full-go, Weddle talked about why he ran both interceptions back to the end zone. “I’ve been in the end zone a few times in my career, so I like to feel that I can get in there if I get a pick,” Weddle said. “It’s just always if you get a pick let’s go run it in. They’ll sub you out. Just get that feeling of the guys blocking for you, and go score. Don’t settle for running out of bounds. Don’t settle for a 20-yard gain. Let’s try and go get points on the board.”
  • Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes were both a force up the middle rushing the passer during defensive drills, much like the duo performed last season. But a couple of undrafted rookie free agents also flashed during inside pass-rush drills -- Tenny Palepoi and Jeremiah Sirles. Both players showed the ability to push the pocket from the interior against second-and-third unit offensive linemen. Defensive linemen like Sean Lissemore, Lawrence Guy, Kwame Geathers, Damik Scafe and Ryan Carrethers rightly remain ahead of Sirles and Palepoi on the depth chart. But the play of that young duo shows the overall improvement of San Diego’s defensive line so far through the first four days of camp. Along with those interior pass-rushers, second-round selection Jeremiah Attaochu is being given a lesson in how to get to the pass-rusher off the edge of the defense by going against two of the more mammoth tackles in the NFL in King Dunlap and D.J. Fluker. And although he’s struggled at times against the bigger offensive linemen, Attochu’s motor keeps churning. “That’s as big as it gets,” Attaochu said. “So I’m just working my technique against that, and trying to get around those guys. They’re like mountains.”
  • Offensive lineman Jeromey Clary (shoulder, hip) remains on the active, physically unable to perform (PUP) list. His replacements, Johnnie Troutman and Chris Watt had to leave the field at the end of practice on Saturday due to dehydration but returned to practice on Sunday. Inside linebacker Andrew Gachkar (unknown) and center Nick Hardwick (rest) also returned to the field after missing practice. Receiver Vincent Brown (calf) remains out. Outside linebackers Jarrett Johnson and Dwight Freeney, along with tight end Antonio Gates took rest days. “They kind of did some things on the side, just the three of them, with strength and conditioning just to rest them,” San Diego Chargers coach Mike McCoy said about the veteran trio. “They’ve played plenty of football in their lives. So we’ll just keep them fresh.”
  • The Chargers installed red zone offense and defense for the majority of the team drills during Sunday’s practice, a point of emphasis after the team’s struggles on both sides of the ball last season. “Like every practice, there was plenty of give and take,” McCoy said. “The defense created some turnovers there. There were some big plays by the offense. We did a nice job at times of stopping the run, and then the last period the offense did a nice job of running the football.”
  • “He actually asked me as soon as we picked him on the first day, ‘Can I go back on punt returns?’ So we’ll see what happens down the road.” -- Chargers head coach Mike McCoy on first round selection Jason Verrett returning punts for the first time during training camp on Saturday.
  • The Chargers practice at 8:50 a.m. ET on Monday and will take Tuesday off. Monday’s practice is closed to the public.

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- AFC West

July, 24, 2014
Jul 24
11:00
AM ET
video
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.

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

Freeney
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.
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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.

Flowers
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.

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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  
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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.

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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.
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Dennis GibsonJEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images
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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.

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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.

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