NFL Nation: Nick Hardwick

Like most other NFL organizations, the San Diego Chargers are a team that builds and maintains its roster through the draft. General manager Tom Telesco doesn’t necessarily put any more value on securing impact players through the draft, versus trade or free agency.

But annually selecting rookies that can make an impact on a team’s roster is important, particularly when you consider the player will be under the team’s control for at least four years, likely at an inexpensive salary.

So getting detailed medical evaluations and vetting players through the intense interviewing process are the most important things for teams this week at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. Of the 53 players that finished the season on San Diego’s roster, 23 were secured through the draft, compared to 27 free agents, two through trades, and one claimed off waivers.

The Chargers have seven original picks in this year’s draft, one in each round beginning with the No. 25 overall pick. So they will be paying close attention to the more than 330 players invited to this year’s combine.

Along with evaluating draft prospects, Telesco will have an opportunity to meet with middle linebacker Donald Butler's representation as the Chargers try to get him signed to a multi-year deal before he hits free agency next month.

Here are five things to keep an eye on regarding the Chargers.

1. Physical cornerbacks who can turn and run: A major area of need for San Diego is improving the overall talent and depth at cornerback. Last year’s top free agent signee Derek Cox likely will not be back after being supplanted in the starting lineup by Richard Marshall. San Diego’s 2013 fifth-round selection Steve Williams could work into the conversation at corner in 2014. The Cal product sat out his rookie year after suffering a torn pectoral muscle during preseason play. But the Chargers need to add a couple physical corners who can cover -- through the draft, free agency or trade. Some names to keep an eye on include Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert, Ohio State’s Bradley Roby and Florida’s Loucheiz Purifoy. Those players stand out to me because of their length, athleticism and playmaking ability.

2. Edge rushers needed: The Chargers have several veterans at this position, but you can never have enough athletes who can rush the passer. And San Diego struggled at creating consistent pressure, particularly on third down. Three guys potentially available on Day 1 of the draft who could make an impact include Missouri’s Kony Ealy, BYU’s Kyle Van Noy, and Auburn’s Dee Ford.

3. A run-stuffing defensive tackle: San Diego gave up an average of 4.59 yards per carry on defense in 2013, No. 29 in the NFL. Cam Thomas started the most games at defensive tackle, but will be a free agent in March. Sean Lissemore finished as the team’s starter at the end of the season, but needs to add some bulk to effectively fill this position. San Diego could certainly use a two-gap defensive tackle to control the middle of the defense, similar to Dontari Poe in Kansas City. Potential candidates in the draft include Notre Dame’s Louis Nix III, Minnesota’s Ra'Shede Hageman, and Penn State’s Daquan Jones.

4. Improved interior offensive line depth: With center Nick Hardwick contemplating retirement and veteran guard Jeromey Clary a potential salary-cap causality, the Chargers need to add some depth to the interior of the offensive line. Mississippi State’s Gabe Jackson and Stanford’s David Yankey are the top rated guards in this year’s draft. And USC’s Marcus Martin could be the long-term answer for a team at center.

5. Add a couple explosive playmakers: San Diego could use some help in the return game. Keenan Allen should not be the team’s main punt returner. He’s too valuable on offense. And the Chargers could use someone with some juice in the kick return game. Washington’s Bishop Sankey, Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks, and Oregon’s De'Anthony Thomas makes some sense because of their ability to create explosive plays on offense and in the return game. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers needs a few more weapons on offense to make his job easier, and all three of these players would fit the bill.
SAN DIEGO -- For a second straight day, running back Ryan Mathews and center Nick Hardwick did not practice for the San Diego Chargers, creating some uncertainty that they will be available for Sunday’s AFC divisional round contest at Denver.

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Mathews continues to wear a protective walking boot on his ailing left ankle to speed up the healing process. Hardwick sported a baseball cap and jersey while watching his position group go through individual drills during the early stages of practice.

San Diego coach Mike McCoy provided no timetable for either player's return. However, McCoy indicated on Wednesday that Mathews was on the same management program by the team’s training staff as the last two weeks, sitting out on Wednesday and Thursday, working as a limited participant on Friday, and playing on Sunday.

Hardwick has yet to pass the NFL’s concussion protocol.

Along with those two, receiver Eddie Royal (toe) and guard Jeromey Clary (shoulder) did not practice. But right tackle D.J. Fluker (ankle) returned as a limited participant after missing practice on Wednesday.

Defensive tackle Sean Lissemore (shoulder) also was a limited participant on Thursday, and left tackle King Dunlap (ankle), defensive end Kendall Reyes (ankle), and safety Eric Weddle (hamstring) were full participants.

Weddle missed practice on Wednesday as a rest day.
CINCINNATI -- Three things to know about the San Diego Chargers' matchup against the Denver Broncos in the AFC divisional round on Sunday at Sports Authority Field:

1. No secrets: These two teams have played twice in the past eight weeks, so they’ve pretty much seen everything the other team has to offer. The Chargers will have some confidence playing at Denver because they won there just three weeks ago, a 27-20 victory in a nationally televised Thursday night contest. San Diego's defense held the Broncos’ Peyton Manning-led offense to its lowest point total of the season. That said, the Chargers also understand that Manning likely will have a few more tricks up his sleeve this time.

2. Streaking: San Diego has won five consecutive games and six of its past seven. The Chargers are playing with a lot of confidence and remain dangerous because of the carefree, energetic way they perform on both sides of the ball. San Diego players said they could see the Bengals tightening up in the second half with the game slipping away. The Broncos are a team expected to go to the Super Bowl, so if San Diego can put pressure on Denver by getting ahead early, perhaps the Broncos could suffer the same fate as last year, when they lost to Baltimore.

3. Veteran leadership: Longtime Chargers such as Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates, Eric Weddle and Nick Hardwick have helped provide focus for this young team, exuding a quiet confidence that shows up on the playing field. As it's done throughout the second half of the season, San Diego does not get rattled when things do not go its way. That ability to handle adversity serves it well in the playoffs. The Chargers essentially have been in playoff mode since Week 14 of the regular season, so they approach each week with a sense of urgency that other teams have failed to match until this point.
SAN DIEGO -- Blocking for San Diego Chargers running back Ryan Mathews is an offensive lineman's dream.

[+] EnlargeSan Diego's Ryan Mathews
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsRyan Mathews has emerged as a running back this season, to the delight of his linemen.
At least that's the way the team's longtime center Nick Hardwick describes it. Hardwick says opposing defenders shy away from contact when Mathews gets his legs churning.

"He is built like a block of granite," Hardwick said. "He is a pretty intense specimen, so when he gets going downhill, he is inflicting some pain on these linebackers and safeties."

Mathews' physical running style is something the rest of the offensive line feeds off of, according to rookie right tackle D.J. Fluker.

"I love blocking for Ryan," Fluker said. "Ryan just makes people look bad on the field. DB's don't want to hit him. They're scared of him because he's physical with them. It's great to see him have a great season. And it's been great to see someone go out there and give everything they have for their teammates."

In his fourth NFL season, Mathews has finally emerged from the immense shadow of being drafted as the replacement for LaDainian Tomlinson as the No. 12 overall selection in the 2010 draft.

The Fresno State product topped 1,000 rushing yards for the second time as a pro, rushing a career-high 236 times for 1,012 yards, averaging 4.3 yards per carry. Mathews has run for 415 yards after contact, which is No. 7 in the NFL.

"It's been good, really good," Mathews said after the Denver game last week, in which he ran for 127 yards. Mathews carried the ball 58 times in two games over four days.

"I'm sore, but that's what they are asking of me, so that's what I'm going to do. I'm just going to keep grinding, and doing whatever this team needs."

Added receiver Seyi Ajirotutu, who played with Mathews at Fresno State: "He's always been tough. But there's just something about this year that has been special. He's running hard, and everyone can see it. He just looks like a different back, and obviously he's running confident."

Mathews has stayed healthy, and is on track to play a full, 16-game season for the first time as a pro. And he's avoided putting the ball on the ground. Heading into the 2013 season, Mathews had fumbled 12 times, losing seven of them through three seasons. But this year, Mathews has fumbled just twice, losing one of them.

Mathews has five 100-yard rushing games this season, which is tied with Minnesota's Adrian Peterson and Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy for the most in the NFL.

But more than anything, at 26-years old Mathews has shown maturity. He's done a better job of taking care of his body, preparing himself for the rigors of an NFL season with a rigid regimen before the season started, one which included reporting to training camp at the appropriate weight on his 6-foot, 220-pound frame.

"He puts a lot of work in," fellow running back Ronnie Brown said. "There's a lot of stuff that's not seen. People give him a hard time. But he runs the ball hard. He prepares hard in the offseason. And he puts in the work that's necessary, and I don't think a lot of people see that, so it's not appreciated."

Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said he first noticed a confident and decisive Mathews during offseason work by watching his feet. Rivers said Mathews benefitted from offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt streamlining the team's running playbook, focusing on a steady diet of inside and outside zone running plays.

"There have been less schematic things, which gives him a lot of reps at the run packages that we have," Rivers said. "He has been able to rep them over and over and over again, going all the way back to OTAs. As a runner, much like as a passer, if you run it five times you feel decent, but if we throw it 50 times over the offseason then you feel a lot better.

"It's the same way in the running game. If I run inside zone against every look they have 50 times throughout the offseason, I'm going to feel a heck of a lot better about it than if I get a lot of different ones. I think that is one thing I can see. I felt confidence in his feet, confidence in his vision grow over this whole offseason throughout training camp and all year long."

While Rivers has shown the ability to pick opponents apart through the air, Mathews provides the hammer in the run game, keeping defenses honest and closing out games by grinding out first downs to run the clock.

Once considered a good bet to leave town when his contract ends at the end of the 2014 season, Mathews has proved that he's a good fit long term for the Chargers.
SAN DIEGO -- For the first time in many weeks, the San Diego Chargers had all 53 players on the active roster participate in practice Tuesday -- a good sign for a team facing the Denver Broncos, who are undefeated at home.

"The last couple weeks coming out of games we've been fairly healthy," San Diego coach Mike McCoy said. "Every game you're going to have some dings, but nothing serious. So it's been a good couple weeks for us."

Receiver Eddie Royal (toe), center Nick Hardwick (neck), cornerback Shareece Wright (foot) and defensive back Johnny Patrick (ankle) were limited in practice.

Receiver Keenan Allen (shoulder), tackle D.J. Fluker (ankle), defensive end Lawrence Guy (toe), linebacker Jarret Johnson (hand), defensive tackle Sean Lissemore (toe) and defensive end Corey Liuget (knee) were full participants.

Royal had not practiced since injuring his toe against Indianapolis on Oct. 14. Royal missed just one game over the past seven because of the injury, against Cincinnati. With less practice time, Royal said he put in more film study and mental reps to make sure he was prepared to play.

"I just had to study more than normal," Royal said. "Because when you're out there running the plays, you don't normally have to go home and look at it for hours. But now that you're not doing it, you want to make sure that you're detailed in what you're doing. There's a lot of little things that you have to pay attention to when you're not out there practicing every day."
SAN DIEGO – Defensive end Corey Liuget was a surprise addition to the San Diego Chargers' injury report on Thursday, apparently suffering a knee injury during practice. He was listed as a limited participant.

And for a second day in a row, center Nick Hardwick (neck) and receiver Eddie Royal (toe/chest) did not practice. Hardwick is expected to play against the New York Giants on Sunday.

Other than that, everyone practiced fully for the Chargers. Coach Mike McCoy said this week that his team is the healthiest it's been all season.

“It’s nice when you can come off of the field like we did the other day after the game and not have to worry about X number of guys being injured,” McCoy said “And on Monday morning worrying about what did the tests reveal. We’ve been as healthy as we’ve been in a long time.”

Left tackle King Dunlap (neck), right tackle D.J. Fluker (ankle), defensive end Lawrence Guy (toe), receiver Lavelle Hawkins (knee) and outside linebacker Jarret Johnson (hand) were full participants.
SAN DIEGO -- A day after his team’s disappointing loss to the Miami Dolphins, San Diego coach Mike McCoy provided some updates on players who suffered injuries against Miami.

McCoy said rookie receiver Keenan Allen, who appeared to suffer a knee injury in the second half, should be available this week. Allen played in 49 of the possible 65 plays on offense for the Chargers.

“He’s fine,” McCoy said. “He’ll be playing, which is great.”

[+] EnlargeKeenan Allen
Kent C. Horner/Getty ImagesChargers receiver Keenan Allen is expected to play in Week 12 after hurting his knee against Miami.
Nick Hardwick missed five plays because of a neck stinger that forced him to miss some practice time last week, but McCoy said his veteran center should practice on Wednesday.

And reserve cornerback Johnny Patrick suffered a concussion and will go through the league’s concussion protocol program this week before being cleared to return to the field. The Chargers said Patrick had a head injury after the game, but did not confirm whether or not he had suffered a concussion.

McCoy wouldn’t say if outside linebacker Melvin Ingram will return to practice this week. San Diego has until Tuesday to decide if Ingram will be allowed to practice with the rest of the team. Ingram began the regular season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list after having surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in May.

If Ingram begins practicing this week, San Diego has 21 days to add him to the active roster or leave him on the reserve PUP list. So the latest the Chargers can activate Ingram is for the Denver game on Dec. 12, nearly seven months after his surgery.

“We’ll look at obviously the best interest of Melvin and the health of his knee,” McCoy said, when asked what will go into the organization making that decision. “And understand what we want to do moving forward with him. And we have a plan in place. We’ll let you know that as soon as we want to let everybody know.”

McCoy said his team will once again work on tackling after his defense struggled against the Dolphins. McCoy said San Diego had 12 missed tackles that led to 92 bonus yards after contact by Miami.

“I know we’re not always going to the ground, but that’s something we’ve been doing from the very first day we put our pads on,” McCoy said. “So that’s inexcusable. We’ve got to clean that up.”

McCoy also shouldered the blame for not telling the offense to spike the ball at the end of the game, which would have allowed the Chargers to run a few more plays while the team was driving for the winning score.

“We need to spike that,” McCoy said. “That was a mistake we made. And there’s no excuses for that, we just didn’t get it done.”

For the second time in three weeks, McCoy said quarterback Philip Rivers and receiver Vincent Brown were not on the same page, leading to another interception, this time a pick by Miami cornerback Brent Grimes in the opening quarter on Sunday.

“It was a double move,” McCoy said. “It was a slant-and-go, and he jumped inside of the corner when he’s got to go outside.”

OLB Jarret Johnson still out

November, 13, 2013
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SAN DIEGO -- The line to the training room is getting longer for the San Diego Chargers.

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Outside linebacker Jarret Johnson, who missed last week’s game against Denver with a lingering hamstring injury, remains out. Also not participating in the early portion of Wednesday’s practice were fullback Le'Ron McClain (ankle), left tackle King Dunlap (head/neck) and center Nick Hardwick (neck stinger).

With Dunlap and Hardwick unavailable, the starting offensive line working together during individual drills included D.J. Fluker at left tackle, Johnnie Troutman at left guard, Rich Orhnberger at center, Chad Rinehart at right guard and Jeromey Clary at right tackle.

Outside linebacker Melvin Ingram remains on the physical unable to perform list and was an observer at practice. New addition outside linebacker Adrian Robinson was at practice and is wearing No. 99.

Offensive lineman Mike Remmers also practiced for the first time since suffering an ankle injury against Jacksonville last month.
 
SAN DIEGO -- At 4-4 overall at the midpoint, the San Diego Chargers are about where they should be heading into the season's backstretch.

Quarterback Philip Rivers' bounce-back season has been one of the main storylines for this team, along with the return of a competitive spirit established by first-year head coach Mike McCoy.

Still, the Chargers face a daunting schedule if they want to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2009. San Diego still has five AFC West division contests left -- two each against division leaders Kansas City and Denver.

 
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Observed in the locker room after the San Diego Chargers' 24-6 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Rivers
A reflective Rivers: Philip Rivers talked about becoming the second player in franchise history to eclipse the 30,000-yard passing mark with his effort against Jacksonville. Rivers has 30,023 yards, joining Dan Fouts, who finished his 15-year career as the Chargers all-time passing leader with 43,040 yards. “It’s kind of a ‘wow’ to myself when it hits you,” said Rivers, who received the game ball from coach Mike McCoy in the locker room. “It’s humbling when you hear that. And the first thing that comes to my mind is how many guys are involved in that happening. You don’t throw 30,000 yards to yourself. There’s a lot of guys that have been on the receptions end of it. No. 85 [Antonio Gates] has been on the other end of a lot of them. And then there’s a lot of guys up front that have protected for you to get the ball off.” One of those offensive linemen is longtime center Nick Hardwick. “It’s just a pleasure to work with such a great guy, a great teammate and true friend,” Hardwick said. “He’s the most competitive person I’ve ever been around. It’s a real honor.” Rivers also confirmed that his wife, Tiffany, did not give birth to the couple’s seventh child while he was in Jacksonville.

Still work to do: While players look forward to having some time off during the bye week, players understand there’s more work to do. Defensively, the Chargers have not given up a touchdown in 11 quarters, and did not allow a touchdown in back-to-back games for the first time since the first two weeks of the 2002 season. But, as safety Eric Weddle said, it’s better for players to learn from their mistakes by winning instead of losing. “The games and plays that you learn from help build your identity and who you are,” Weddle said. “So for us to play like we’ve played the last two and a half games is big -- and not reading the press and feeling like we’re all that -- but just staying closed-minded, staying the course and staying focused. It’s really a testament to these guys, the older players getting the young players right and the coaches coaching us up. Look at the guys that we had out there, and we’re playing lights out. It’s exciting, but we have to keep going upwards. We can’t take a step back.”

Last time Fluker played left tackle? Try high school: You can’t blame rookie offensive lineman D.J. Fluker for feeling a little uncomfortable moving over to left tackle in the opening quarter after King Dunlap left the game with his second concussion of the season. Fluker was drafted as San Diego’s long-term answer at right tackle, and had not played left tackle since his high school days in Foley, Ala. “I was a little nervous,” Fluker said. “So I had to kind of calm down, and the coaches just told me to be patient and it will come. And eventually that happened. I got beat a couple times, but I haven’t been over there for so long. Other than that, I think I did OK.” For the most part, San Diego’s offensive line kept Rivers clean, holding Jacksonville to just one sack.

OAKLAND, Calif. -- It’s not uncommon for first-year coaches to have the type of see-saw season the San Diego Chargers are currently experiencing under Mike McCoy.

At 2-3 after a disappointing 27-17 loss to AFC West division rival Oakland, the Chargers have yet to win or lose two in a row through five games.

In order to develop into a championship-caliber team with sustained success, McCoy understands his team has to do the little things. And that means the Chargers can’t turn the ball over five times and expect to win.

The Chargers can’t have a 37-yard field goal blocked. Good teams don’t fail to recover a fumble defensively deep in their opponents’ territory.

Playoff teams get into the end zone on fourth-and-1 from the other team’s 1-yard line. Good teams don’t fall behind 17-0 to a team they’re favored to beat by five points.

Good teams aren’t lucky; they create their own luck. And if San Diego wants to be considered a good team, then the Chargers need to win the games they are supposed to, like the one they lost to Oakland on Sunday night -- even on the road.

“We’re a good football team,” McCoy said. “You’ve just got to keep playing, and that’s what we’re doing. You’ve just got to keep playing and keep going. Don’t worry about one play -- one score. That’s why you play for 60 minutes.”

Moral victories are for weak-minded people. The NFL is a bottom-line league, and if you have more losses than wins over a few seasons, you likely will not be in the league long.

So even though the Chargers rallied from a 24-3 deficit in the fourth quarter to actually have a chance to tie the game at 24-17 with a little over 10 minutes left, the fact is the Raiders dominated play on both sides of the ball for a majority of the contest.

“I’m not going to make excuses, if that’s what you’re looking for,” San Diego offensive lineman Jeromey Clary said. “We’re all pros here. And we’re expected to perform at a high level.”

The Chargers have experienced leaders on both sides of the ball who know what it takes to win in the NFL, including quarterback Philip Rivers, center Nick Hardwick, tight end Antonio Gates, safety Eric Weddle and outside linebacker Jarret Johnson.

[+] EnlargeMike McCoy
Howard Smith/USA TODAY SportsThe Chargers have yet to string together consecutive wins under new head coach Mike McCoy.
And they have some emerging young talent, including receivers Keenan Allen and Vincent Brown, defensive tackle Corey Liuget and linebackers Donald Butler and Manti Te'o.

However, this team has yet to develop a consistent blueprint to winning that allows them to reel off a streak of four or five wins in a row.

“No excuses, we got beat tonight,” McCoy said. “We came out, and we were outplayed in all three phases. It was tough to go on the road and turn the ball over the way we did and win a football game on the road against a good team.

“Too many big plays -- but it all starts with just executing the system that’s in place. There was a lack of execution. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, but we just have to keep working.”

Rivers had a September to remember, but a game to forget opening up the month of October. He threw for over 400 yards for a second straight game, completing 36 of 49 passes for 411 yards and three touchdowns.

But Rivers also had three costly interceptions, after throwing just two interceptions in the first four games.

Like the rest of his teammates, Rivers knows he has to perform consistently at a high level for this team to develop into a consistent winner.

“Certainly as an offense, when you turn it over five times, you’re not going to win usually,” Rivers said. “You very rarely overcome it, and then we found ourselves down 24-17 with 10 minutes left.

“That doesn’t make us feel any better. There was a lot more than just turnovers, but certainly on offense, we’ve got to make sure we don’t turn the ball over.”

Hardwick ready for Raiders' Week

September, 30, 2013
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SAN DIEGO -- Nick Hardwick, a 10-year veteran who has spent his entire career with the San Diego Chargers, said there’s very little explaining to do in the locker room about the team’s next opponent: it’s Raiders week.

“Everybody knows it’s Raiders week,” Hardwick said. “This is a special week here. It gets a little extra special attention, so guys are ready. We’re going to build off this win moving forward, and just go in with a good, aggressive attitude, and a good fighting spirit, and be ready to win again.”

The Chargers travel to Oakland to take on the Raiders for the team’s first AFC West division matchup. Oakland holds a 58-47-2 advantage in the series, which dates back to 1960. However, the Chargers have won the last three games, including the last two in Oakland.

At 2-2 this season, San Diego players know how important it is to get off to a good start within the division.

“It’s going to be huge,” running back Danny Woodhead said. “It’s a divisional game, which those go even further because you have two against each team. They’re very important, and we just got to be ready. We’ve got to take every single day that we have, starting today, to prepare and watch film -- just know what they’re going to do so we’re ready on Sunday.”

With the Oakland Athletics hosting the first round of the American League division series against the Detroit Tigers this weekend, the Chargers will have to deal with the dirt infield at the Oakland Coliseum. But good footing is the least of Hardwick’s concerns.

“It doesn’t matter,” Hardwick said. “You just go out and fight, and that’s all you can do. I mean, who cares if it’s dirt, or gravel or grass. I mean you’re just there to punch the guy in front of you. There’s nothing special about it. If we player harder than them, we play tougher than them, we’re going to win.”

Along with San Diego’s first AFC West division contest, placing more importance on this game is the fact that five of the Chargers' final eight games of season are against division opponents. San Diego wants to get a division game in the win column during the first half of the season.

“The No. 1 goal in a division is you’ve always got to win your division,” San Diego coach Mike McCoy said. “The only way you’re guaranteed to get into the playoffs is to win your division. So anytime you play against a division opponent, there’s that kind of professional hatred that you have for a team. You’re going to play those three teams twice a year, and you’ve got to knock them off.

“So it’s a big opportunity for us. We’ve got to build off of what we’ve done the past, couple weeks and continue to get better. It’s going to be a tough test for us in Oakland.”

Nick Hardwick returns to action

September, 26, 2013
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SAN DIEGO -- The San Diego Chargers got a bit of good news Thursday, with veteran center Nick Hardwick returning to the field for the early portion of practice.

Hardwick watched the early portion of Wednesday’s practice with his left leg wrapped, and was a limited participant with a shin issue.

However, starting left tackle King Dunlap (concussion), left guard Chad Rinehart (toe) and right guard Jeromey Clary (clavicle) remain out, and were not suited up for practice. Clary again watched his position group from the sideline.

Receiver Malcolm Floyd (neck) and cornerback Shareece Wright (hamstring) also were not suited for this morning’s practice.

Middle linebackers Manti Te'o (foot) and Donald Butler (groin) both participated in individual drills.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray is really high on the San Diego Chargers’ interior offensive line.

The trio of left guard Chad Rinehart, center Nick Hardwick and right guard Jeromey Clary have been quite good so far at giving quarterback Philip Rivers time to work.

Casey
“When you watch them on film, (the interior line) is like a fortress for him and he’s standing back there, and if no one’s getting close, he’s making all the throws,” Gray said. “...The last two games, they’re not letting anyone come in there.”

But the Titans' top interior rusher, Jurrell Casey, doesn’t necessarily see things the same way.

“I’ve been looking at them, they’re decent," Casey said. “I wouldn’t say they are anything different than the other players that we’ve played against so far. Coaches are going to do what they do, pump them up, pump them up. But I look at every guy the same, they’re just another person in front of me. There should be no reason we don’t get push up the middle.”

If the Chargers' interior line plays the way Gray says its played, the Titans will need consistent pressure from their edge rushers: Derrick Morgan, Akeem Ayers and Kamerion Wimbley.

There could be a weak spot at right tackle.

San Diego's rookie starter D.J. Fluker missed Thursday’s practice with a concussion. His backup is Michael Harris, a second-year player who came into the league undrafted out of UCLA.
NFL players, especially starting players, rarely look forward to preseason action.

However, that’s not how King Dunlap feels. The Chargers’ starting left tackle -- he is holding off Max Starks for the job -- wants to get on the field and see how he and his fellow starters do in what is a transitional year for the Chargers’ offensive line. Only center Nick Hardwick is a returning starter at his normal position.

The Chargers play Seattle on Thursday night at home. The Seahawks have a strong pass-rushing unit and a top-line defense. Dunlap is looking forward to facing them.

“I really want to see how we do against a good defense and a good pass-rushing team,” Dunlap said. “That will be a big test. We can then come back to practice and work on the things we did well and didn’t do well on. It’s important to face a good defense early to see where you are at.”

There is no question San Diego’s offensive line is one of the team’s biggest question marks. However, I get the sense that the team is confident the unit will be improved in 2013. We will get the first chance to judge, along with Dunlap, after the Seattle game.

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