Change was badly needed. The Chargers arguably had the best roster in the NFL five years ago, but it never paid off. The lack of success finally cost general manager A.J. Smith and coach Norv Turner their jobs after another lackluster season in 2012.
The Chargers’ fans demanded new leadership for the stagnant franchise. They got their wish. The Chargers now have some of the youngest, freshest leaders in football as the team moves past the stale days of the Smith-Turner era.
Smith was famous for watching practice from the deck of his office. New general manager Tom Telesco, 40, watches practice from the sideline. There are no messages of pecking order being sent from the general manager’s office. Telesco, in a camp-issued T-shirt and shorts, could easily be mistaken for an equipment manager.
The head-coaching switch from Turner to Mike McCoy, 41, is almost as distinctive as the change at GM. McCoy’s practices have appeared to be crisper and more detailed-oriented than in the past. There isn’t much downtime in San Diego’s practices. Everyone’s moving at all times. That wasn’t always the case under Turner.
“I think we’re getting a lot done,” quarterback Philip Rivers said. “Coach McCoy clearly has a plan. It’s been impressive. ... The big thing is everyone has bought in to him. The reality is we are .500 over the past three years. It was pretty easy to buy in what’s now going on here.”
THREE HOT ISSUES
Philip Rivers threw 15 picks last season to just 26 touchdown passes.
1. The quarterback: Rivers is a major focal point of this training camp. Telesco hired McCoy, Denver’s former offensive coordinator, with an eye toward fixing Rivers. The quarterback has struggled the past couple of years, particularly with turnovers. McCoy and new offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, the former head coach of Arizona, form a strong quarterback-coaching tandem and quarterback coach Frank Reich is also highly regarded. All three men believe in Rivers, and it seems to be paying off. Rivers has looked fantastic in training camp. His confidence is high, and his passes are accurate. It is vital for both Rivers and the Chargers that he has a good season and the team continues build around him. If not, it could be a crossroads season for both the franchise and Rivers’ career.
2. The offensive line: Because of injuries, this unit has been terrible the past couple of years. No matter how much Rivers improves, he won’t have much of a chance if he doesn't have protection. The Chargers' line has four new starters. It is not a great unit, and there will be some growing pains. But the group is getting rave reviews for being athletic and tough. Rivers is impressed and trusts the group. He thinks it’s deeper with players such as rookie D.J. Fluker at right tackle and veterans King Dunlap and Max Starks competing at left tackle. Dunlap is leading the race. But if there are injuries, this group appears better equipped to weather them than last year's squad.
3. The rookie linebacker: The Chargers are thrilled with inside linebacker Manti Te'o. He will start in the team’s 3-4 schemes. He has looked good in training camp and has fit in with the locker room. The hoax he was involved in at Notre Dame is not a factor. The Chargers love the way he works and practices. He is instinctive, and he plays faster on the field than his combine times suggested. The Chargers think Te’o is ready to make a big impact.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
The Chargers are happy with the progress of second-rounder Manti Te'o, who's slated to start at inside linebacker.
I think these players will be the core to one of the better defenses in the coming years. The Chargers are doing backflips over the combination of Liuget and Reyes. Liuget is entering his third NFL season, and Reyes is entering his second. Liuget was terrific all of last season, and Reyes showed serious pass-rush potential toward the end of the season.
While this defense has some holes, there are some exciting pieces here.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
The Chargers are pretty thin in a lot of places. I think this team is on the rise, but it may not be a quick fix. There are too many positions where depth is an issue.
San Diego has dealt with the injury bug already. Pass-rusher Melvin Ingram, the No. 18 overall pick in 2012, suffered a torn ACL in May. Starting receiver Danario Alexander and backup linebacker Jonas Mouton suffered the same injury during camp.
Alexander's and Ingram’s injuries are particularly worrisome. This team can’t afford to lose high-end talent before the season starts. Other positions vulnerable to injuries include the offensive line (even though the depth is better than in the past), defensive tackle, edge rushers and the secondary. There isn’t much wiggle room on this roster.
The Chargers appear to be well-coached. The influx of offensive coaches and the return of several defensive coaches, led by coordinator John Pagano, makes for a nice mix. Most of the new blood was needed on the offensive side of the ball.
The team feels great about Dwight Freeney, who was signed to replace Ingram. The Chargers are convinced Freeney still has something left in the tank and will be a difference-maker.
The Chargers like the progress of nose tackle Cam Thomas, who they think is ready for a breakout year. Coaches and teammates are talking him up big.
San Diego is looking to add depth on the defensive line. Free agent Justin Bannan on is still on the team’s radar. I think we will see the Chargers be active on the waiver wire at a few positions.
Free-agent guard Chad Rinehart is showing solid leadership skills.
The team loves free-agent running back Danny Woodhead. He has been a camp star and should take pressure off starter Ryan Mathews. Expect to see Woodhead used in several different ways. He could be a poor man’s Darren Sproles, perhaps.
Yes, tight end Antonio Gates hasn’t had a superstar season in years because of injuries, but the team likes what they see from him. He may have another year or two left in the tank.
Ladarius Green, Gates’ potential successor, is still growing. But he has shown flashes. He has natural pass-catching ability.
Rookie quarterback Brad Sorensen has been up and down. He has a good enough arm to keep him on the 53-man roster.
Cornerback Johnny Patrick has looked good. He could see a lot of action in nickel situations.
Fifth-round pick Tourek Williams is getting looks at both defensive end and outside linebacker. The team would like for him to contribute at linebacker.
Robert Meachem, a big-money, free-agent bust last season, has been given new life after Alexander’s injury. Still, I have my doubts that Meachem will make much of a difference. He hasn’t been a standout in camp.