- Bill Williamson, ESPN Staff Writer
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ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 10
SAN DIEGO -- Philip Rivers, with the benefit of solid protection, dropped back, scanned the field and let loose with what is very likely the NFL’s prettiest deep ball.
Galloping down the right sideline, Malcom Floyd skied high in double coverage and brought down a spectacular catch, breaking away from coverage and reaching the end zone. A large training camp crowd erupted. It was just another big play from the explosive San Diego Chargers offense during this camp.
The Chargers are not spending the early days of camp worrying about who isn't in attendance and how are they going to survive without them. Instead, the Chargers are acting like a team preparing for a Super Bowl run with the players who are in camp.
“We’re going every day and we’re going hard,” San Diego coach Norv Turner said. "Sure, we’d like everyone here, but they aren’t here and we feel good with what the guys who are here are doing. There is a calmness here.”
The Chargers could be excused if there was a sense of panic at camp. They are practicing without Pro Bowl receiver Vincent Jackson, left tackle Marcus McNeill and linebacker Shawne Merriman, all of whom are holding out. Jackson and McNeill are expected to hold out well into the season. Merriman’s status is less clear.
The attitude in San Diego is not one of a season that is about to be lost. Training camp is being used as a time to get everyone ready for a long run.
“I’m not going to say we don’t miss those guys, because we do,” Rivers said. “I miss throwing the ball to Vincent and I miss standing on the sidelines jawing with Marcus. Those are important guys. But at the same time, we are moving forward. We feel very comfortable with the guys who are here. We’re getting a lot done.”
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Do the Chargers have enough depth to prepare effectively without their veteran holdouts? It is only the first week, but there appears to be little doubt San Diego will leave training camp feeling good about the positions where players are holding out.
The key is San Diego’s tremendous depth. Chargers general manager A.J. Smith may get some grief for not giving in and signing the holdout veterans, but he also has his team in position to survive the losses. San Diego is deep at many key positions. Smith has been careful to mix proven veteran talent with intriguing young prospects.
Last year, the Chargers lost defensive tackle Jamal Williams for the entire season and center Nick Hardwick for virtually the entire regular season in Week 1. The Chargers plugged in people and went 13-3 in the regular season.
“We’ve been through this before in a lot of ways,” Turner said. “We feel good with the young players here.”
Jackson is being replaced by Legedu Naanee and Buster Davis, both of whom are having terrific camps. McNeill is being replaced by Brandyn Dombrowski. He was a valuable injury replacement at guard and right tackle last season. There is also veteran Tra Thomas, who can help as well. Merriman is being replaced by 2009 first-round pick Larry English, who was drafted to replace Merriman in case he departed through free agency. English appears to have made great strides this offseason after a lackluster rookie season.
2. Will Ryan Mathews be up for the challenge of replacing a legend? This is a landmark time in Chargers history. The team is moving away from the LaDainian Tomlinson era. He was cut in February after nine seasons in San Diego. Tomlinson had a Hall of Fame career, but he faltered the past two seasons.
While Tomlinson is still a respected figure in San Diego, it is clear that the Chargers are relieved to move on and help ignite the run game, which ranked No. 31 in the NFL last season.
It’s Mathews’ job in training camp to make the team feel comfortable that he is up to the task of bringing balance back to San Diego’s offense. Mathews was the No. 12 overall pick and people in the organization have been raving about him.
“He does not seem affected by having to replace LaDainian,” Rivers said. “He’s very humble and very confident. It doesn’t seem too big for him. We expect a very productive training camp from him.”
3. Is Antoine Cason the answer at right cornerback? While Antonio Cromartie is far from the legacy player Tomlinson was, he is a high-profile departure. He was traded to the Jets on the first day of the trading season. He is being replaced by Cason, San Diego’s first-round pick in 2008.
The Chargers are excited about the change. Cromartie had 10 interceptions in 2007, but he had a total of five in the next two seasons. Cromartie made many mental mistakes, he was poor against the run and he had some off-field concerns.
The Chargers believe they will be in better shape with Cason, who has been lauded for his intelligence and preparation. Cromartie may be a big name, but the Chargers believe Cason will continue to prove in camp that Cromartie isn’t a big loss.
You would think that the Chargers would be nervous about not having Jackson, McNeill and Merriman in camp. It doesn’t seem like they miss them at all. Practices have been crisp and dynamic. Players are very confident and replacements for each absent player don’t appear to be intimidated at all. The Chargers will surely miss these guys on the field if it gets to that point, but there is no wallowing in the early stages of camp. This team means business.
Merriman needs to be in camp. He is holding out because he wants assurances that the Chargers won’t trade him. He has been upset that he was the subject of trade talk during the past year. The Chargers won’t give him those assurances, but Smith has said he has no current plans to deal Merriman. Merriman really has no leverage here. We all know he’s going to play this year. This is a huge season for the rest of his career. He has to prove he can be a dominant pass-rusher again as he enters the final year of his contract. He is just wasting time by not being at camp.
Quietly, many in San Diego think the offensive line is ready for a big season. The unit may be motivated by critical comments made by Tomlinson. Among his many excuses for his dramatic lack of production last season was the offensive line play. The line isn’t saying anything about it, but the word is this group is very inspired.
The Chargers are excited about inside linebacker Brandon Siler. He came on strong last season and should have a big role on the defense this season.
Look out for linebacker Antwan Applewhite. He was hurt last year, but the Chargers think he could be a secret weapon. He is a special-teams ace and could play a role as a pass-rusher. He is a fierce player.
Turner is excited to have veteran tight end Randy McMichael. The two were together in Miami in 2002-03 and Turner thinks the veteran can help. Known as a good receiver, McMichael is an underrated blocker, Turner said. The Chargers are also high on backup tight end Kris Wilson.
Undrafted rookie receiver Jeremy Williams from Tulane has had a good early camp and is the favorite to be the No. 5 receiver.
While losing Rivers would be devastating, the Chargers have one of the best backups in the NFL in Billy Volek. The guy is a pro and has looked sharp.
Expect big fullback Mike Tolbert to give San Diego a boost in the short-yardage game. The 5-foot-9, 243-pound Tolbert is a load.
The Chargers were thrilled with the play of right guard Louis Vasquez last season as a rookie. The word is Vasquez is continuing to make strides and the Chargers think they have a real find.
6dEric D. Williams