Postcard from camp: Chargers
The Chargers aren't worrying about holdouts Jackson, McNeill and Merriman
At corner, Donald Strickland and '08 top pick Antoine Cason may take on big roles
Quarterback Philip Rivers' focus this preseason is to be more patient in the pocket
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Jim Trotter had to say about the Chargers camp in San Diego. For an archive of all camp postcards, click here.
There's nothing charming or picturesque about the Chargers' camp, which is conducted at their year-round facility in Murphy Canyon. Immediately to the south of the two-story complex is a row of office buildings, and across the street there's a storage facility. Yet in some regards it's the perfect backdrop for a team that's all business after losing its playoff opener for the third time in its last five appearances, with each of the defeats occurring at home. The Chargers won't be able to say they were distracted during preparations because 17 of the 28 practice days are closed to the public. The only prying eyes on Friday and Saturday -- besides the media -- belonged to 1,000 pre-selected season-ticket holders who were granted access. What they witnessed were workouts that were relatively short, but fast-paced. If there is a mantra for San Diego this season, it is to start fast and finish strong in the postseason. The team lost three of its first four in Turner's opening season, five of eight to start the next year and three of five to start last season. And, though the Chargers rallied to make the playoffs, their win total once there has fallen each year from two to one to zero. Turner says this could be the best team he's had since arriving in San Diego. The words are sure to follow him all season.
1. There is no public hand-wringing among players and coaches about the absences of left tackle Marcus McNeill, wide receiver Vincent Jackson and linebacker Shawne Merriman (rookie running back Ryan Mathews just signed Sunday). Instead, there is widespread agreement that the team can win a championship without them. "This game is all about the team," linebacker Stephen Cooper says. "You see the Saints -- they had a lot of talent, but when you look at them on paper Drew Brees was really their only big name. Reggie Bush was a big name coming out of college, but what kind of numbers did he put up last year? Nothing crazy. Their guys played their roles and did what they had to do. Their defense caused a lot of turnovers and got the ball back in their offense's hands, and the offense put up points. That's why they won the Super Bowl." There is no chance the Chargers open the year without all three "holdouts." Merriman, who wants assurances he won't be on the trade block from week to week, is expected to return before the middle of August -- sans assurances. But for the sake of discussion, does the team really believe it can win a championship without the three key veterans? Yes, says quarterback Philip Rivers. "The guys that are going to be in their spots can get it done," he says. "We don't know because we haven't asked them to, or they haven't had to. But that doesn't mean they're not capable. I honestly can say if we have those three guys here we're better. But if we don't we can still win it." Adds cornerback Quentin Jammer: "I've seen teams do it with less."
2. Brandyn Dombroski will get the first shot at replacing McNeill. Talk about contrasts. McNeill is a former second-round draft pick who went to the Pro Bowl in each of his first two seasons and is regarded as one of the game's better left tackles. Dombrowski is a second-year pro who wasn't drafted, received a $4,000 signing bonus and spent his first year on the practice squad. The former San Diego State product played solidly in eight starts last season -- one at right guard, seven at right tackle last season -- but this is his first attempt at left tackle at any level. If he struggles, veteran Tra Thomas could take over, although he's well past his prime. Either way, that's a lot of uncertainty protecting the blind side of a QB who signed a $92 million extension last season.
3. Veterans reported on Friday and, during the first 11-on-11 drill, Rivers directed his initial pass to Legedu Naanee. Coincidence? Not for a second. A message was being sent that life will go on without Jackson, the Pro Bowl receiver who is boycotting workouts until he receives a lucrative long-term deal. Naanee grabbed the pass and immediately cut upfield, but no one should fool themselves into believing that he is the second coming of Jackson. The 6-foot-4 Jackson is bigger, stronger and faster -- a matchup nightmare because he has the size and strength to beat press coverage at the line, and the speed to run by cornerbacks playing off coverage. Naanee is better built for the slot, as his numbers attest. Last season he averaged 10.1 yards on 24 catches. Jackson averaged 17.2 yards on 68 receptions to rank second in the league among players with at least 60 catches.
The Chargers have never been active in free agency under general manager A.J. Smith, and this year was no exception. They made a handful of low-level signings in Thomas, wideout Josh Reed and cornerbacks Nathan Vasher and Donald Strickland, but none is expected to start. More notable are the departures: running back LaDainian Tomlinson, defensive tackle Jamal Williams, cornerback Antonio Cromartie and special teams ace Kassim Osgood. The feeling within the organization was that Tomlinson and Williams were past their primes, Cromartie was a selfish distraction, and Osgood didn't fit because he wanted more time at receiver.
Much of the focus will be on Mathews, who'll be asked to fill the sizable shoes of Tomlinson. But defensive tackle Cam Thomas could be equally important to the team's fortunes. "Cam Thomas is everything we thought he would be, in terms of the big body and being more like Jamal," defensive coordinator Ron Rivera says. "When Jamal wasn't healthy, we didn't have that knock-'em-back nose tackle, and that's what we get out of Cam Thomas." The Chargers struggled to consistently stop the run last year after Williams sustained a season-ending injury in Week 1. The 3-4 defense can't be effective without a hog in the middle who can command double teams or push the line of scrimmage backward. San Diego believes the 6-4, 335-pound Thomas has that ability.
Naanee broke behind the defense on a deep post and dropped a perfectly placed pass. It was a tough moment for a player who has so many eyes on him. But, on his next route, Naanee snared a tight spiral on an underneath route, showing strong hands and mental toughness.
1. When the running game struggled last season, Tomlinson pointed to play-calling and Turner's desire to run the offense through Rivers. The comments did not sit well with Turner, who bit his tongue out of respect for the local icon. Yet when asked if there's a possibility he might run Mathews more than normal to prove that the struggles were about Tomlinson and not the play-calling, Turner said: "Maybe subconsciously there is. I hate to get where you personalize something. What you really want to do is have the best team that you can have."
2. 2008 top draft pick Antoine Cason was benched as the nickel cornerback last season, but he's being given the first opportunity to replace the traded Cromartie as a starting corner this year. Why will he succeed at corner when he struggled at nickel? "He's more comfortable," Rivera says. "He plays better from the outside looking in, because he's got better vision for that. You put him in the middle, in the slot, and he's got to see both sides of the field. But as a guy out on an edge, out on that island, looking from outside in, has helped him."
3. Now that Cromartie has been traded to the Jets, more players are expressing their belief that his departure is addition by subtraction. For instance, when asked why the defense would be better with Cason instead of Cromartie, Cooper, the starting inside linebacker, said: "Antoine is very unselfish. He's all about the team. He's not worried about putting up big numbers. He wants to play within the defense and make plays. He wants to make sure that we win games."
4. Free-agent signee Strickland will get the first shot to replace Steve Gregory at nickel back. Rivera says the move will give the defense greater versatility because Gregory can return to safety but still fill in at nickel if necessary.
5. Rookie Darrell Stuckey, a fourth-round pick out of Kansas, has opened eyes. He was so impressive during OTAs that he's getting reps with the first unit in camp. The starting job at strong safety is basically his to lose.
6. Philip Rivers says a focus for him this year is being more patient in the pocket. He said there were times last year, particularly in the playoff loss to the Jets, where he would move 3 yards when he only needed to slide 3 feet. Consequently his ball placement wasn't as precise as he wanted.
7. Why does Turner believe this could be his best team since arriving in San Diego? "It's not spin," Turner says. "We're bigger, we're stronger and we're faster. Some of the guys that we've added and are going to ask to play, they're bigger, stronger, faster. So we have a chance to grow as a team."