AFC West: Charlie Whitehurst

Free-agency primer: Chargers

March, 7, 2014
3/07/14
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With just under $6 million in projected salary-cap space, the San Diego Chargers are not expected to make a big splash at the start of free agency. But the Chargers could still add a few impact players at a reasonable price if the organization is patient and does its homework.

That said, we take a close look at San Diego's approach heading into free agency.

Key free agents: Chad Rinehart, Darrell Stuckey, Richard Marshall, Reggie Walker, Charlie Whitehurst.

Where they stand: San Diego already took care of the team's top offseason priority, with middle linebacker Donald Butler inked to a multiyear deal before the onset of free agency. The Chargers need help at cornerback, nose tackle, edge rusher, interior offensive line and in the return game. San Diego could look to sign a couple of their own free agents that produced in 2013, including Rinehart, Stuckey, Marshall and Walker. All four players had an impact in the team's surprising postseason run and could return at a reasonable price. The Chargers also need to find a capable backup for every-down running back Ryan Mathews, with veteran Ronnie Brown hitting the market.

What to expect: With a limited amount of cap space, expect the Chargers to be active in the secondary free-agent market, targeting veteran players with a specific skill set who can make an impact. The Chargers benefited from signing two such players to two-year deals last year in tackle King Dunlap and running back Danny Woodhead. San Diego also could look for front-line players who don't receive the type of lucrative offers they expect and want to re-enter the market after a one-year, prove-it deal.
SAN DIEGO -- Terrelle Pryor’s athleticism and ability to extend plays will not be a surprise for the San Diego Chargers, who already had a test run against the Oakland Raiders quarterback last season.

In the 2012 regular-season finale, Pryor threw for 150 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He also ran for 49 yards, including a 3-yard run for a score in a game San Diego held on for a 24-21 win.

[+] EnlargeTerrelle Pryor
AP Photo/Joe MahoneyOakland's Terrelle Pryor, a versatile, mobile quarterback, could prove to be a challenge for the Chargers' defense on Sunday.
So even though the Raiders limp into the AFC West divisional matchup at 1-3, don’t expect San Diego’s defense to take Pryor lightly when the team travels to Oakland on Sunday (11:35 p.m. ET, NFL Network).

“Pryor is still the guy we faced last, so he’s the same,” Chargers safety Eric Weddle said. “He can make plays outside and inside the pocket. He throws well on the run. He’s extremely athletic and fast. They’ve got weapons all over the field. [Darren] McFadden, [Marcel] Reece, and the receivers are fast and can make plays on the ball.

“They’re extremely talented. They’ve been in some tight games. They could have pulled off the Indy game. We’re gearing up for a tough, physical game and one that we’ve got to play at a high level to go win.”

Another reason for concern is San Diego defensive coordinator John Pagano’s group has struggled against mobile quarterbacks so far this season. The Chargers allowed Titans quarterback Jake Locker to throw for 299 yards and a touchdown two weeks ago. Locker also ran for 68 yards, including a 7-yard touchdown run in a 20-17 Titans’ victory.

At Philadelphia in Week 2, Michael Vick threw for 428 yards and two touchdowns. Vick also ran for another 23 yards, including a 2-yard touchdown run, as the Chargers escaped with a 33-30 win.

Pryor didn’t play last week against Washington because of lingering concussion symptoms, but he has been cleared to play and is expected to start Sunday evening.

In three starts this season, Pryor has completed 65.4 percent of his passes, throwing for 624 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. He’s been sacked seven times, and has an 86.7 passer rating.

Pryor’s 198 rushing yards is second among quarterbacks behind Vick (228 yards) in the NFL.

Pagano says his team needs to do a better job staying in their lanes when they rush the passer against Pryor, along with wrapping-up and making sure tackles once he breaks into the open field.

“He’s a guy that’s very athletic, that’s going to move around and create different matchups just from his feet,” Pagano said. “And we’ve got to go out and do a good job, and make sure it’s all about angles. And then we’ve got to go tackle him, get him on the ground and finish.”

Impersonating Pryor during this week’s practice has been reserve quarterback Charlie Whitehurst. At 6-5 and 226 pounds, the Clemson product is an underrated athlete, but not exactly as fleet of foot as the athletic Pryor.

“We played Philly earlier this year and did all of that, so I’m kind of used to it,” Whitehurst said. “You’ve just got to stretch real good before you go out there, and run around about as fast

Random thoughts on the San Diego Chargers' 33-28 loss at the Chicago Bears on Thursday night:

There’s no getting around it: San Diego’s first-team offense was awful.

It’s the preseason and I have never been an August alarmist, but the problems that plagued San Diego in Chicago are the same issues that sabotaged the team in recent years. They were the reason why new head coach Mike McCoy was brought in.

San Diego looked good offensively against Seattle last week, but it was a disaster on Thursday night. The first-unit offense committed four turnovers (backup quarterback Charlie Whitehurst was on the field with the rest of the starters for one of them).

Quarterback Philip Rivers threw an interception and lost a fumble on a sack. Turnovers have been a problem for Rivers the past two years. He also hasn’t gotten much protection. That was an issue again Thursday night as Rivers was sacked three times in three series. That’s ridiculous, but it’s nothing new.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Rivers was sacked every 11.9 times he dropped back to pass last season -- the worst rate in the NFL. The pace was much higher in this game. It has to get better or the Chargers and Rivers will falter regardless of the good work McCoy and his staff are doing.
  • Max Starks started over King Dunlap at left tackle. Dunlap started last week and has been the starter most of camp. Dunlap played the second drive and is considered the favorite to win the job. Starks was beaten badly on a play Rivers was sacked and where he lost a fumble on the third drive. The performance could go a long way in giving Dunlap the job.
  • Guard D.J. Fluker, the No. 11 overall draft pick this year, has struggled in pass protection, but has been awesome in run-blocking. That’s the book on him as a rookie.
  • Running back Ryan Mathews looked good. He ran hard and had 45 yards on nine touches. He will be fine if he can finally stay healthy.
  • Whitehurst had a solid night. He completed 9 of 13 passes for 97 yards and two touchdowns. He improved from last week and his performance in Chicago quieted talk that he could be replaced as the backup.
  • Rookie quarterback Brad Sorensen was also good as he went 8-for-14 for 127 yards and a touchdown.
  • The first-team San Diego defense was decent, considering all the turnovers it had to deal with. The unit has some holes, but it’s further along than the offense at this point.
  • The Chargers have been beyond shaky on special teams in two preseason games. They were alarmingly bad in all phases at Chicago. McCoy believes the team will be better in the regular season because of injuries. Guys are playing who won’t be in a few weeks.
  • Rookie receiver Keenan Allen's chances of winning the punt-returning job decreased when he badly muffed a punt and it was recovered by Chicago. Can’t do that, rookie.
  • Running back Danny Woodhead did not play as he comes back from an undisclosed injury. He is expected to make his preseason debut next week.
  • Second-year tight end Ladarius Green had a touchdown catch for the second straight game and he totaled five catches for 78 yards for the night. He is showing he may be a factor this season.
  • Former Green Bay linebacker D.J. Smith continued to look good for San Diego.
  • Key backup cornerback Johnny Patrick was shaken up.
  • Undrafted rookie safety Jahleel Addae continued to make a push to make the 53-man roster.
  • Detroit is reportedly signing defensive tackle Justin Bannan. The Chargers had interest in him earlier this summer and could still use depth on the defensive line.
The NFL Network reported that the Oakland Raiders checked in with running back Darren McFadden about a contract extension.

He is entering the final year of his contract that began with Oakland in 2008 when the Raiders took him with the No. 4 overall pick. The report states McFadden was not interested in an extension at the time.

I wouldn’t take that as a sign that McFadden wants to leave. I know that he has been interested in re-signing but I think he simply wants to see what he can do in his contract year -- especially now that Oakland is going back to the power-blocking scheme that best fits McFadden’s style. He struggled some last year in the zone-blocking scheme.

In another AFC West note: U-T San Diego wonders if Charlie Whitehurst will hold off rookie Brad Sorensen to be Philip Rivers’ backup. Sorensen was better than Whitehurst on Thursday night against Seattle.

Whitehurst was playing against better competition and Sorensen probably is not ready to be a backup. If Whitehurst fails throughout the preseason, the Chargers may be more apt to look for a backup quarterback elsewhere.

Solid night in San Diego

August, 9, 2013
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A few thoughts on the Chargers’ 31-10 home loss to Seattle on Thursday night:

All in all, it was a positive night for the Chargers. Only in the preseason can that be said about a three-touchdown loss at home.

The Chargers’ backups were throttled Thursday night. We all know the Chargers are not a deep team. If the injuries continue to pile up, it will be a problem. But the good news is the Chargers' first-stringers looked strong against a very good team in Mike McCoy’s first preseason game.

Sure, teams want to see the entire program do well. But if you had to pick one unit to look good, of course, it would be the frontliners. San Diego hung well with Seattle’s first-stringers. San Diego led 3-0 after the first quarter.

The focal point of the McCoy regime, quarterback Philip Rivers, looked great. He completed 5 of 6 passes and led the Chargers on a 12-play drive that resulted in a field goal. The first-string offensive line, the biggest question mark, did well and running back Ryan Mathews ran with a purpose.

Defensively, San Diego held a potent Seattle attack to no scores on two drives. Key newcomers Dwight Freeney and Manti Te'o both were active.

Rookie receiver Keenan Allen got some action as a punt returner. Expect him to be a big part of the team as a rookie.

Safety Sean Cattouse, linebacker D.J. Smith and tight end Ladarius Green stood out as depth players.

Backup quarterback Charlie Whitehurst struggled as he threw two interceptions. But rookie Brad Sorensen, who was up-and-down in camp, had a nice day. He was 7-for-10 and connected with Green on a 31-yard touchdown.

Links: Deadline looms for Chiefs, Albert

July, 11, 2013
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Denver Broncos

The Broncos need to get a long-term contract done with All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady, writes Mark Kiszla of the Denver Post.

The Broncos are not providing a timetable as to when Matt Russell, 40, and Tom Heckert, 45 -- the top two assistants to football operations boss John Elway -- will be disciplined for their recent DUI arrests. Mike Klis of the Denver Post has the story.

Former Denver center Tom Nalen, recently named to the team's Ring of Fame, ripped the Broncos for the handling of Heckert's DUI arrest. Ryan Wilson of CBSSports.com has the story.

Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs and offensive tackle Branden Albert have until 3 p.m. Monday to come to an agreement on a multiyear contract extension, writes Randy Covitz of the Kansas City Star. After that time, players who have been designated with the franchise tag cannot sign an extension until after the final game of the 2013 regular season.

Oakland Raiders

Maui Prosecuting Attorney John Kim says Raiders linebacker Kaluka Maiava and his 30-year-old brother, Ilima Maiava, have been charged with misdemeanor assault and criminal property damage, a petty misdemeanor, in connection with a brawl at the bar Life's a Beach on March 17.

The decade-by-decade breakdown of the Raiders' history with their 2013 opponents by the team's website continues with a look at the Saints.

San Diego Chargers

Charlie Whitehurst and the Chargers won't be pleased with this ranking of the league's backup quarterbacks by Marc Sessler of NFL.com.
We are starting our annual AFC West positional rankings with a look at the quarterbacks, including the backups. Here we go:

1. Peyton Manning, Denver: Manning showed in his first season in Denver that he is can still be a star after four neck surgeries.

2. Philip Rivers, San Diego: Rivers has been a turnover machine the past two years, but he hasn’t been terrible, either. This is a big year for him.

3. Alex Smith, Kansas City: Smith enjoyed career resurgence in San Francisco. Let’s see if he can keep it up under Andy Reid.

4. Matt Flynn, Oakland: He will soon be 28 and he has started just two NFL games. He was beaten out by a rookie in camp last year. Yet, he gets another chance to show he can be a starter.

5. Chase Daniel, Kansas City: Scouts like this player and he was sought after as a backup this year in free agency.

6. Brock Osweiler, Denver: The Broncos live Osweiler and think he can be a star.

7. Terrelle Pryor, Oakland: Pryor has potential, but he will be pushed by Tyler Wilson. Right now, it’s Pryor over Wilson.

8. Charlie Whitehurst, San Diego: Whitehurst is a good caddie for Rivers and he fits the team well, but he has limitations.
Nothing personal against Charlie Whitehurst, but the San Diego Chargers might want to think about sending him out at quarterback Sunday at Pittsburgh.

Why subject starter Philip Rivers to such potential punishment given the team's 4-8 record?

The plan is to finish the season with Rivers, but he won’t have much protection Sunday. According to U-T San Diego, the Chargers are likely to be without three starting offensive linemen: Tackles Mike Harris (ankle) and Jeromey Clary (knee) and guard Tyronne Green (hamstring) are not expected to play.

Kevin Haslam replaced Clary and Rex Hadnot replaced Green, but there is no clear replacement for Harris’ spot. The team will work out some linemen this week. Not knowing Rivers’ blind-side protector six days before the game is unsettling to say the least.

Harris replaced Jared Gaither, who is on injured reserve. The Chargers had immense injury issues on the offensive line last season, too. They hoped this year would be different, but this situation is a mess.

Meanwhile, linebacker Donald Butler is expected to miss his second consecutive game with a groin injury.
Click here for the complete list of San Diego Chargers' roster moves.

Most significant move: The Chargers cut former starting fullback (and special-teams ace) Jacob Hester and fellow running back Edwin Baker, a seventh-round pick. The Chargers will go with the likes of Ronnie Brown, Le’Ron McClain, Jackie Battle and Curtis Brinkley early in the season if starter Ryan Mathews (broken clavicle) can’t play in the first couple of games. It was a no-brainer that the team kept kicker Nate Kaeding over Nick Novak. Kaeding, who was replaced by Novak after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in Week 1 last year, was better than Novak in camp and in the preseason.

Onward and upward: The Chargers cut undrafted rookie quarterback Jarrett Lee. The team was high on him, but once again, the team is going with just two quarterbacks: starter Philip Rivers and backup Charlie Whitehurst. Lee is a likely candidate for the practice squad. I can see receiver Mike Willie being put on the practice squad as well. He has potential, but he lacked consistency. I could see Baker as a practice-squad candidate as well. I’d think Hester will get looks elsewhere because of his special-teams availability. Longtime defensive tackle Jacques Cesaire could potentially get looks as the season progresses; there is always a need around the league for a veteran big man. If the Chargers get in a bind, I could see them turning the popular Cesaire, who was a locker-room favorite.

What’s next: Because of injuries, expect the Chargers to look for help at cornerback, tackle, safety and perhaps receiver and running back. Because left tackle Jared Gaither and several cornerbacks are hurt, San Diego could be on the lookout for players who could actually be active in Week 1 at Oakland. One player I fully expect San Diego to target is cornerback Drayton Florence. He’d fit right in as a nickel. Denver cut Florence on Friday. He is a former Charger and San Diego tried to sign him before he went to Denver.

A look at the Chargers 12-10 win at Minnesota on Friday night:

This was the Chargers’ third preseason game, which is supposed to be the game in which the starters play extensively. That wasn’t the case for the Chargers.

Because the offensive line was banged up, the Chargers held out quarterback Philip Rivers as a precaution. Tight end Antonio Gates, who has been dealing with injuries for the past four years, was also a healthy scratch. In all, the Chargers played without six offensive starters.

And it looked like it.

Backup quarterback Charlie Whitehurst and his makeshift line had their issues against the Vikings’ front-line players.

Yes, the Chargers lost some valuable experience because of the injuries, but keeping Rivers out of harm’s way was the smart move, especially considering San Diego has already lost starting running back Ryan Mathews (broken clavicle) and No. 3 receiver Vincent Brown (broken ankle).
  • U-T San Diego reports San Diego top pick Melvin Ingram has a bruised tight. Unless there is more to it, I’d think Ingram would have a good chance to play in Week 1 in 17 days.
  • Jackie Battle started at running back and perhaps he will be the first of a committee to play if Mathews isn’t ready to face Oakland in Week 1.
  • It looks like Nate Kaeding is going to hold off Nick Novak in the kicking competition unless the Chargers pull a surprise. Kaeding had field goals of 50 and 54 yards Friday night. If he is out of luck in San Diego, Novak is working to get a job somewhere as he nailed a 45-yarder with four seconds to go to give the Chargers the win.
  • San Diego’s defense is much improved and it is getting turnovers. The Chargers have 10 takeaways in three games.
  • Linebacker Larry English, the No. 16 overall pick in 2009, had his second and third sacks of the preseason.
  • Rookie offensive linemen, left tackle Mike Harris and center David Molk struggled pretty badly. If left tackle Jared Gaither and center Nick Hardwick aren’t back by week 1, the Chargers could have issues. The team is hopeful both will be back soon.
  • Receiver/returner Micheal Spurlock continues to look good and he is a good bet to make the 53-man roster.
Norv Turner made the right call.

Yes, Philip Rivers needs the work to prepare for the regular season but, most importantly, Rivers needs to be upright when the Chargers visit Oakland on Sept. 10 for ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.”

Rivers
Turner changed course and decided that backup quarterback Charlie Whitehurst will start Friday night against Minnesota. This is the pivotal third preseason game. Starters usually play up to three quarters.

However, the Chargers are without starting offensive linemen Nick Hardwick, Jared Gaither and Tyronne Green because of injuries. Having their star quarterback play in a preseason game with 60 percent of his offensive line missing proved to be too risky.

Again, bravo, Norv.

Yes, Rivers will miss the valuable action. Maybe he can play a quarter or so in the preseason finale next Thursday. Early in the regular season, Rivers will find his groove despite missing Friday night’s game. And he will be healthy. His health wasn’t guaranteed if he was thrown into Friday night’s game.

Star San Diego tight end Antonio Gates is also a healthy scratch. Gates has dealt with injuries for the past four years. He looks great this summer. There is no need risking injury now.

In other AFC West news:

Oakland coach Dennis Allen said receiver Jacoby Ford does not have structural damage in his sprained left foot. That is good news for Ford, who missed several games last season due to a similar injury on the same foot.

Chicago reportedly cut backup running back Kahlil Bell. He could perhaps interest the Chargers and Raiders. Both teams have a need at the position.
Three things to watch in the San Diego Chargers’ preseason game at Minnesota on Friday night. Kickoff is set for 8 p.m. ET:

1. Philip Rivers: Rivers has looked sharp in the preseason, but he has been intercepted three times. He threw 20 interceptions last season. He needs to cut down on the picks starting right now. His health is key, too, since Rivers will be playing without starting offensive linemen, Nick Hardwick, Tyronne Green and Jared Gaither.

UPDATE: The Rivers dilemma has been resolved. San Diego coach Norv Turner has decided to sit Rivers because of all of the offensive line injuries. Backup Charlie Whitehurst will play instead of Rivers.

2. Play clean on offense: The Chargers’ entire offense was sloppy last week. It needs to make strides in the most important preseason game.

3. Production by receivers: This is likely the last tune-up for Rivers with his receivers. With Vincent Brown out for about half the season, the rest of the corps needs to step up. Rivers must have good rhythm with his receivers in this game.
Dwayne Bowe might be in Kansas City, but he isn’t with the Chiefs.

The city was abuzz when the holdout receiver arrived on Friday afternoon. There was even a report that Bowe ended his holdout.

That has not happened.

In a conference call with reporters Saturday, a day after an impressive 27-17 preseason win against visiting Arizona -- Kansas City coach Romeo Crennel said he has no update on Bowe.

“It’s just been mentioned that there was a spotting of him, but I have no knowledge,” Crennel said. “No one has told me anything, so if he reports to camp, that will be the first time I see him. We’ll go about business as we need to."

Crennel was asked when he expects Bowe to report. Crennel has no earthly idea. For what it’s worth, it has been widely reported that Bowe will likely report to the Chiefs in early September. The team opens the season Sept. 9.

“I don’t know when it’s going to happen,” Crennel said. “I haven’t had any conversations or anything like that. The way it is, Dwayne can wait until the season starts if he chooses to. It’s kind of up to him. He will report when he wants to, or when he and his people decide they’re ready to come. But in the meantime, I’m going to work with the guys I have here.”

Friday’s fiasco serves as a good lesson. Bowe being in Kansas City meant nothing as far as his reporting goes. He will report when he wants to report, and until then, everything else is simply speculation.

In other AFC West news:

The shoulder injury suffered by Oakland tight end Brandon Myers is reportedly not serious.

Oakland’s game against Dallas will be shown on local television. It will be broadcast on ESPN.

Oakland receiver Duke Calhoun suffered what Oakland coach Dennis Allen said might be a “significant” knee injury Saturday. He had an outside chance of making the team.

U-T San Diego is reporting that the Chargers have cut quarterback Kevin O’Connell. That means backup quarterback Charlie Whitehurst is recovered from a knee injury.

A look at the Chargers’ 21-13 home win Thursday night:

As Philip Rivers’ said in a sideline interview with ESPN, the Chargers’ offense was good and bad. The good was a 23-yard dart Rivers hit tight end Antonio Gates with for a touchdown. Gates is healthy for the first time since 2007 and he has been outstanding in training camp. That was a good sign.

However, Rivers made a mistake later when Green Bay cornerback Tramon Williams jumped in front of a pass intended for new San Diego receiver Robert Meachem deep in Green Bay territory. It was probably just a matter of timing for Rivers and Meachem. However, Rivers threw 20 interceptions last season and he must improve in that area.
  • The San Diego first-team defense looked strong, which is a great sign. It did allow Green Bay to covert on third down on its first two attempts. San Diego was last in the NFL in third-down defense last year. But overall, San Diego’s first unit looked terrific and aggressive on defense. Overall, the Chargers’ first-team offense and defenses looked further along than the Packers' did.
  • First-round pick Melvin Ingram played extensively. He looked fabulous. If San Diego wasn’t shaking with delight over the prospect of having Ingram before Thursday, it should be now. Boy, is he explosive. He forced Aaron Rodgers into throwing an interception and he was all over the place.
  • Undrafted free-agent quarterback Jarrett Lee looked really good for San Diego and outplayed Green Bay backup Graham Harrell much of the night. He made some big league throws. I’d be shocked if Lee doesn’t make the 53-man roster as the No. 3 quarterback behind Rivers and Charlie Whitehurst, who is still recovering from a knee injury.
  • Reserve receiver Vincent Brown worked hard for the final 7 yards of a 27-yard touchdown pass from Lee, and Brown had a good night overall. I think he will be a key contributor in the season.
  • Running back Ryan Mathews hurt his shoulder and was taken out. There is no word on the status. It is not a surprise that he was taken out after the injury even if it was minor. Update: the San Diego Union-Tribune reports Mathews suffered a broken clavicle. He will be out four to six weeks. I will have more this later.
  • Kicker Nick Novak missed a 35-yard field goal attempt, further making Nate Kaeding the favorite to win the kicking competition. Novak replaced Kaeding last season when Kaeding tore his ACL on the opening kickoff of the season.
  • Receiver/returner Michael Spurlock is making a big push to make the 53-man roster. He had two catches for 52 yards.
  • Undrafted free-agent left tackle Mike Harris started for the injured Jared Gaither. Harris had a nice night, which is commendable for an undrafted rookie who started his first preseason game at a premium position. Harris should easily make the team.
  • It was a cool scene to see some San Diego players greet replacement official Shannon Eastin prior to the game. She is the first woman to officiate an NFL game.
SAN DIEGO -- With the outside perception of the San Diego Chargers taking a major tumble, the team, which for so long was built from the inside, changed philosophy in 2012 in a last attempt to keep that proverbial Super Bowl window from slamming shut and causing major upheaval in the organization.

After two playoff-less seasons and a reprieve from ownership, San Diego general manager A.J. Smith made an uncharacteristically heavy play in free agency. Taking advantage of one of the deepest classes in history, the Chargers nabbed more than a dozen free agents to infuse new life into a roster that was still talented but no longer arguably the stoutest in the NFL.

“I love what they have done around here,” said safety Eric Weddle, one of the Chargers' homegrown mainstays. “We hit the lowest of the lows the past two years by not making the playoffs. Getting new blood in here has helped.”

Among the veterans San Diego brought in were running backs Le'Ron McClain and Ronnie Brown, receivers Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal, linebacker Jarret Johnson and defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin.

“The thing about the new guys is they all love football,” San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers said. “They love it. We need guys like that here. … It gives us a new start. Those guys won’t worry about the past. They weren’t here for the slow starts or the six-game losing streak last year. It’s all a new start.”

If this cleansing of the roster doesn’t work, the next restructuring will likely occur up top with the firing of coach Norv Turner and possibly Smith. Yet, in a season of new beginnings, spirits are high.

“I think we can be special,” Weddle said. “There’s still a lot of talent here, with a bunch of new talent. … People may not be expecting much from us this year because we haven’t done anything, so that’s fair. But it’s kind of nice to be under the radar for once.”

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeRyan Mathews
Christopher Hanewinckel/US PresswireThe Chargers aim to lean even more heavily on running back Ryan Mathews this season.
1. Ryan Mathews' workload: Outside of Rivers, there is likely not a more important player in this camp than Mathews. The Chargers all know if Mathews flourishes in his third NFL season, the team will have a strong chance to be successful. Mathews, the No. 12 overall pick in 2010, had a solid second season as he ran for 1,091 yards and averaged a terrific 4.9 yards per carry. This year, the Chargers want to see Mathews become consistent and stay healthy. He will likely be given the chance to to carry the ball 25 times a game, catch several balls out of the backfield and be a factor on third down and in short yardage. This camp is designed to get him prepared for a heavy workload. From what I saw and heard, it seems like Mathews might be up to the task.

“He’s working hard,” Rivers said. “Ryan knows what is expected of him.”

2. Sparking the defense: While the offense in San Diego needs some tweaks, the bigger fixes are necessary on defense, where former linebackers coach John Pagano is in charge of fixing a unit that fell apart last season. He replaces Greg Manusky, who was fired after one season on the job. The biggest issue -- it is a major point of emphasis in camp -- is getting off the field on third down. San Diego was last in the NFL in third-down defense in 2011. It gave up a first down on 49.2 percent of all third downs -- according to ESPN Stats & Information, the worst percentage in the NFL since the 1995 Cleveland Browns. The Chargers have added several pieces to the defense and it has a chance to be much more active -- particularly on passing downs, when No. 1 pick Melvin Ingram will be given a chance to make an instant impact as a pass-rusher.

3. Protect the quarterback: The San Diego offensive line was in shambles for much of last season, and it was a big reason why Rivers struggled for the first 10 games. Mainly due to poor health, San Diego used 13 offensive linemen last season -- literally taking players off the street at one point in November. With Jared Gaither, claimed off waivers from Kansas City, solidifying the left tackle spot, the unit improved dramatically late in the season. Gaither was re-signed and is being counted on to protect Rivers’ blind side. The steady Tyronne Green takes over for the departed Kris Dielman. Green has fared well when he's had to play. If this unit remains in good health, it should protect Rivers well. If not, trouble could persist. So far, the unit looks good in camp.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

The passing game looks to be top-notch. After a sloppy start to last season, Rivers finished 2011 strong. He has looked good in camp, and has an interesting group of receivers. Yes, standout Vincent Jackson is gone, but the Chargers have an ensemble group that includes Malcom Floyd, free-agent signees Meachem (New Orleans) and Royal (Denver) and second-year player Vincent Brown. Together, this group should offer Rivers plenty of help.

“We like what we have there,” Turner said. “We like all the pieces. We think we can get some things done in the passing game.”

If the Rivers-led passing attack is back at an elite level, the Chargers will be a threat to win every game. When Rivers is on, San Diego has a chance to score every time the offense hits the field.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The Chargers must prove they are totally past their doldrums. The team feels good about itself, but it does every summer. We will not know if San Diego is out of its funk until it’s out.

Yes, the depth looks good, but will it be enough if injuries pile up for a fourth consecutive year? Yes, cutting down on turnovers is a point of emphasis in camp, but once the season starts, will the hard work pay off or will the killer interceptions and fumbles continue?

It has gotten to the point where we can’t trust this team until it shows it is has indeed rebounded.

OBSERVATION DECK

    [+] EnlargeEddie Royal
    AP Photo/Lenny IgnelziReceiver Eddie Royal, an offseason pickup, appears to have clicked with Chargers QB Philip Rivers.
  • Tight end Antonio Gates is turning heads on a daily basis. After dealing with foot-related injuries for four years, Gates is finally completely healthy. He’s slimmed down and he is making a lot of plays. If his health remains, the 32-year-old should make a huge impact.
  • Denver might have lost interest in Royal, but there is a place for him San Diego. Expect Royal to get a lot of work. He has impressed the coaching staff this summer and I expect him to be as favorite a target for Rivers during the season as he has been this summer.
  • The Chargers love what they see in Johnson. He is tough, smart and excellent against the run. They think he can bump the defense up a notch.
  • Linebacker Donald Butler looks good after a strong 2011 season, which was essentially his rookie season because he was injured in 2010. He is just another fascinating young defensive piece on this team.
  • Undrafted rookie quarterback Jarrett Lee looks like a keeper. He got extra work because of a knee injury to Charlie Whitehurst. I could see Lee making this roster. The Chargers were burned last year when they tried to sneak undrafted rookie quarterback Scott Tolzien onto the practice squad; he was claimed by San Francisco. If Lee continues to impress, I think the Chargers will find room for him on the 53-man roster. They need to develop a young quarterback at some point and Lee might be it.

  • The Nate Kaeding-Nick Novak battle at kicker will go down to the wire. If Kaeding stays healthy and kicks well in the preseason, he should win the job.
  • The Chargers love the skill level of Meachem. Perhaps he was lost in the shuffle of the dynamic offensive weaponry in New Orleans. He’ll get his shot in San Diego.
  • The Chargers are pumped about McClain, a free-agent pickup from Kansas City. He will play a lot and should be in the mix for some carries. They like the veteran stability he brings to the offense.
  • Center David Molk, a seventh-round pick, is getting some second-team reps. He may have a future.
  • The Chargers are very happy with pre-camp signings Franklin and running back/special-teamer Jackie Battle. Though they both signed late, I see them both being contributors.
  • Keep an eye on ex-Chief Demorrio Williams. The linebacker has been a camp stud, boasting terrific speed. The Chargers like him in coverage.
  • The Chargers will keep their eyes open for help at certain positions, including cornerback and offensive line, as the summer progresses.
  • Third-round pick Brandon Taylor, a safety, might not make an instant impact, but Taylor has impressed and will get some valuable time behind veteran pickup Atari Bigby, who himself has been outstanding this summer.

  • Brown has been getting looks as the third-down back and will be an occasional Wildcat threat.
  • Running back Curtis Brinkley flashed talent at times last season, but because of the logjam at running back, he is a long shot to make the team.

  • Rookie tight end Ladarius Green has nice receiving skills. I can see him making an impact behind Gates and Dante Rosario (a very nice backup). Green, a fourth-round pick, needs to learn to block at an NFL level, but he has terrific hands and natural size.
  • Undrafted rookie tackle Mike Harris has taken advantage of an early camp injury to Gaither, getting some reps with the first team. The UCLA product has a chance to make the team. Rivers has joked that Harris has gotten more first-team reps than any undrafted rookie tackle in the history of the NFL.

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