Print and Go Back AFC West [Print without images]

Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Camp Confidential: Chargers assume nothing

By Bill Williamson

  Robert Benson/US Presswire
  The return of linebacker Shawne Merriman should bolster the San Diego defense.

Posted by's Bill Williamson

SAN DIEGO -- Philip Rivers admits the San Diego Chargers may have embraced Super Bowl talk in recent years.

The Chargers have been sexy preseason Super Bowl picks the past few years. While they have won three straight AFC West crowns, they haven't been able to get past the AFC Championship Game. Last season, San Diego's year ended in the divisional playoffs after a gallant effort in Pittsburgh.

Camp Confidential: AFC West
• Raiders: Fri., July 31
• Chargers: Tues., Aug. 4
• Broncos: Wed., Aug. 12
• Chiefs:
Thurs., Aug. 20
Training camp index

This year, the Chargers are not really interested in participating in any Super Bowl talk.

"There's nothing to talk about," said Rivers. "We've done all that talking. Now, it's just time to go out week to week and prove it."

This is how linebacker Shawne Merriman puts it: "Nobody is going through their lockers looking for the Super Bowl rings they are going to give us. We're not worried about it. All we are really looking at [is] Week 1. And then, we'll go from there. It's a new attitude. We're just going week to week."

San Diego coach Norv Turner says the attitude is a byproduct of the team knowing that it is good and in its prime. Still, after having to scramble late in the season the past two years to make the postseason, Turner said many on the team are trying not to look ahead.

Fantasy Football: 32 Questions
Tristan H. Cockcroft addresses the issue of whether Darren Sproles will elevate to flex-play status in 2009. Story

"We can play with anybody, they all know that," Turner said. "This year it's just about taking it one step at a time and not getting ahead of ourselves."

Key questions

1. Will Merriman be healthy?

The Chargers were lost on defense much of last season without Merriman. His worth to the defense was dramatically on display when Merriman missed all but one game because of a knee injury.

  Stan Liu/US Presswire
  Injuries have slowed LaDainian Tomlinson the past two seasons.

Merriman, who led the NFL with 39.5 sacks in his first three NFL seasons, is also good in coverage and is an enforcer who sets the tone for the defense. In defensive coordinator Ron Rivera's system, Merriman should be a terror.

By all accounts, Merriman is ready to play. He will be brought along slowly in camp and in the preseason, but he's expected to be at full-go for the Chargers' opening game Sept. 14 at Oakland. If Merriman can stay healthy, San Diego's defense should be much improved.

2. Does LaDainian Tomlinson have anything left?

Tomlinson nearly didn't return this season but the two sides agreed on a restructured contract.

Tomlinson has some things going against him. He just turned 30, which, frankly, is quite old for an NFL running back. He has dealt with injuries toward the end of the past two seasons and he had his least productive season of his eight-year NFL career in 2008.

Can he still produce at a high level? The Chargers believe if Tomlinson can stay healthy he should be fine. The San Diego offensive line is healthy going into this season, which wasn't the case last season, and there's reserve Darren Sproles to ease Tomlinson's load.

3. Can San Diego start fast?

This was a big question last season and the Chargers couldn't figure it out, so it remains. Look, San Diego is significantly better than its competition in the AFC West. If it can start fast, it can run away from the rest of the division.

Rivers admitted that fighting back from a bad start has worn out the Chargers the past two years. In 2007, San Diego was 5-5 before finishing 11-5. Last season, San Diego became the only team in NFL history to start 4-8 and make the playoffs. The Chargers hope their late-season heroics will be supplemented by better early-season play.

Market watch

This is an interesting time in San Diego. The Chargers have a veteran roster, but they are also mixing in some youngsters. The Chargers feel good about their rookie class. There are several rookies who are expected to make immediate contributions.

  Jody Gomez/US Presswire
  Larry English is expected to play a large role in the Chargers' defense.

San Diego came to this realization after the rookies performed so well in the offseason. If they continue to make progress during the rest of camp, San Diego could have as many as three rookie starters.

Top pick Larry English will essentially be a starter, although he may not be in every base package. Yet, the pass-rusher from Northern Illinois will be a major part of the defense. Third-round pick Louis Vasquez, is in a fight for a starting job at guard, and sixth-round pick Kevin Ellison has a chance to start at safety as well. Defensive lineman Vaughn Martin (fourth round) and power running back Gartrell Johnson (fourth round) also have a chance to make an impact as the Chargers slowly infuse their roster with younger talent.

Newcomer to watch

The Chargers have rarely been big players in free agency under general manager A.J. Smith. He'd prefer to build through the draft and he has done a fine job of it. But there is a free agent of note this season: linebacker Kevin Burnett.

The former Dallas role player has a chance to start at one of the Chargers' two inside linebacker spots in the 3-4 defense. Burnett is very strong in pass coverage and the Chargers believe he will improve a pass defense that was susceptible last season. Burnett has to beat out veteran Tim Dobbins, but the Chargers believe Burnett will be an impact player.

Observation deck

Veteran defensive tackle Jamal Williams is performing well in camp and is healthy. The Chargers expect him to be dominant this season. ... The Chargers are expecting good things from cornerbacks Antonio Cromartie and Quentin Jammer. Jammer was good last season, but Cromartie struggled. He was dealing with a hip injury. He has been strong so far. ... San Diego is very comfortable with having defensive end  Jacques Cesaire start in place of Igor Olshansky, who signed with Dallas in the offseason. Cesaire is experienced and Olshansky didn't have a good season last year, so San Diego doesn't think there is a downgrade. ... San Diego is excited about using outside linebacker Shaun Phillips as a roamer in packages where both Merriman and English are on the field. ... Second-year fullback Jacob Hester got stronger in the offseason and looks primed to make strides.