Wednesday, July 30, 2008 Updated: August 18, 8:20 AM ET
Camp Confidential: Chargers primed for Super Bowl push
By Bill Williamson ESPN.com
Shawne Merriman (left) and Norv Turner hope to build on the momentum of last year's playoff run.
SAN DIEGO -- Whenever Shawne Merriman feels the urge to push himself, all he has to do is show up at the San Diego Chargers' practice field.
The chance to challenge himself is always available.
"Look at all that talent on offense," Merriman said. "We have the players here that make you push yourself. We have guys who make you want to get better and who help you get better."
Merriman also can count on his teammates, who comprise what is arguably the finest roster in the NFL, to make another push for the Super Bowl. Although the window of opportunity isn't closing, the team knows the time is now. In 2006, the Chargers won 14 regular-season games, and last season they advanced to the AFC title game.
"This is our best opportunity," Merriman said. "I don't want to say there is urgency because every year you try to make it your time, but I really think this year is our best opportunity. We have to do something about it."
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The standout linebacker said the Chargers' goal is to have a fast start in Year 2 of the Norv Turner era. Last year, the Chargers stumbled out of the gate at 1-3 before rebounding to win 10 of their final 12 regular-season games. Merriman said that if the Chargers are to make it to the Super Bowl, they must resist talking about the Super Bowl. He said that last year that the team got caught up in the Super Bowl hype after the 14-win season in 2006.
"All we have to do is try to win every game, and all we need to worry about is Carolina in the opener," Merriman said. "We know all we have to do is go out and do it. We have the talent to do it."
1. Will the Chargers be healthy enough to make a Super Bowl run?
When we last saw the Chargers, they hung tough at New England in the AFC Championship Game but lost 21-12. Four key starters -- quarterback Philip Rivers, running back LaDainian Tomlinson, tight end Antonio Gates and center Nick Hardwick -- suffered injuries during the playoffs, seriously dampening the Chargers' chances. Rivers and Tomlinson appear fine, but questions remain about the health of standouts Gates and Hardwick, who are healing from a toe and foot injury, respectively, and could start the season on the sideline. If no other Chargers suffer significant health setbacks before the regular season, injuries shouldn't hurt the team's chances.
2. Is Turner the right man for this job?
Without a doubt, yes. The choice to hire Turner drew criticism after Marty Schottenheimer was fired following the 2006 season. The anti-Turner talk reached a fever pitch after the Chargers started 1-3 last year. The Chargers head coach deserves a lot of credit for turning around the season after the firestorm and for leading the Chargers to the AFC title game. Turner seems completely in control of the team, and the team appears to trust its coach.
3. Can the Chargers start better this season?
The one negative about the 2007 version of the Chargers was their slow start. A fast start is the theme of this camp. The team knows what it has to do and wants to avoid the early-season drama of last year. The Chargers realize they are, by far, the class of the AFC West, and they should cruise to another division title. That goal will be easier to attain if the Chargers start fast. In their first five games, the Chargers have a chance to do some damage. They have home games against the Panthers and the Jets and have road contests at Denver, Oakland and Miami before playing at home against New England.
Vincent Jackson had 18 catches for the Chargers last season.
Just when you thought the Chargers had all the offense they could handle, Vincent Jackson showed he could be the team's next Pro Bowl skill position player.
"Vincent is a talented guy," Rivers said. "We saw it last year, and he is doing well in camp. He can do a lot of great things."
If Gates is unable to perform early in the season, Jackson should be able to pick up some of the slack. At 6-foot-5, 241 pounds, Jackson is a big target with very good speed. Jackson is entering his fourth season with a full head of steam. Jackson was a star in the Chargers' three postseason games last year, with 18 catches, 300 yards and two touchdowns.
Teamed with veteran receiver Chris Chambers, Jackson is sure to get plenty of single-coverage situations he can exploit with his size, speed and athleticism. It wouldn't be a surprise if Jackson were to emerge as one of the better receivers in the game.
Newcomer to watch: Rookie running back Jacob Hester has the team excited. The Chargers traded up in the third round to take the former LSU running back, and they don't regret it.
Hester is a versatile player who is working at both running back and fullback. He could back up Tomlinson and could get playing time at fullback as well. Even though Hester is small, he is a tough, smart player.
He fits the mold of a player general manager A.J. Smith likes. Expect to see Hester worked into the offense.
First-round pick Antoine Cason has had a good first week at camp. He is a smart player who is competing to be the team's nickel cornerback. If Rivers does go down, the Chargers are confident that Billy Volek can handle the job as he did in the playoffs at Indianapolis last season. Even though he's very small, explosive returner Darren Sproles will get a chance to back up Tomlinson as he battles with Hester. Watch for Sproles to get some action in third-down situations. The team is very happy with the progress of second-year player Eric Weddle, who is now in the starting lineup as a safety. Some in the organization believe he's on the verge of becoming a star. If Hardwick can't play when the season kicks off, veteran Jeremy Newberry could get the call at center. The team is very confident in the experienced player.
Bill Williamson covers the NFL for ESPN.com.