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5 San Diego Chargers
Michael Silver
August 17, 1998
Bobby Beathard has his golden-armed quarterback, beefed-up line and a big back, but who's going to catch Ryan Leaf's passes?
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August 17, 1998

5 San Diego Chargers

Bobby Beathard has his golden-armed quarterback, beefed-up line and a big back, but who's going to catch Ryan Leaf's passes?

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Schedule

Sept.

6

BUFFALO

13

at Tennessee

20

at Kansas

27

N.Y. GIANTS

Oct.

4

at Indianapolis

11

at Oakland

18

PHILADELPHIA

25

SEATTLE

Nov.

1

OPEN DATE

8

at Denver

15

BALTIMORE

22

KANSAS CITY

29

DENVER

Dec.

6

at Washington

13

at Seattle

20

OALKAND

27

at Arizona

Having descended from the Super Bowl to the dregs of the NFL in only three years, the Chargers put their world in Ryan Leaf's hands. They traded three draft picks and two players to snag Leaf with the second selection of the 1998 draft, signed him to a five-year contract that could be worth up to $31.25 million and gave him the starting quarterback's job before training camp was two weeks old.

In an effort to protect their investment, the Chargers dispensed with last season's feeble offensive line, signing three free agents and changing the positions of two holdovers. To take some more pressure off their young quarterback, San Diego paid big money to sign free-agent running back Natrone Means, whom the club had released two years earlier because it didn't like his attitude or his contract demands.

Then, following a spring minicamp, the Chargers did something truly confounding, even by their twisted standards: On June 3 they traded their only proven receiver, Tony Martin, to the Falcons for a second-round draft choice in 1999.

Over the last three seasons Martin averaged 79 catches, 1,100 yards and nine touchdown receptions. The less-than-fearsome five-some left in his wake—Charlie Jones, Latario Rachal, Mikhael Ricks, Webster Slaughter and Bryan Still—combined for 56 receptions, 747 yards and one TD in '97. Around the league, people began to wonder where general manager Bobby Beat-hard and coach Kevin Gilbride were stashing their peyote. Many Chargers were equally baffled. "We were blown away," says one veteran. "We've seen some strange s—-here the past few years, and this was right up there."

In the wake of a 4-12 season, the Chargers felt they could afford to take risks. "At our minicamp Tony was continuing to struggle against bump-and-run coverage, as he did last season," Gilbride says. "Our other receivers looked better than he did—it's as simple as that. Maybe the sum of the group we've got is superior to the individual parts."

Privately, coaching and front-office sources say Martin's effort tailed off as the Chargers went south last year. (Some players dispute this, including another veteran who says, "All I know is, he was our MVP in '96.") The organization's higher-ups were also put off by Martin's decision not to participate in an off-season workout program, and they felt his trade value would drop if they kept him around much longer.

The likely candidate to emerge as a consistent big-play threat is Ricks, a rookie out of Stephen F. Austin who is as raw and physically imposing as the man who'll be throwing him the ball. Beathard, who has made a career out of mortgaging the future on draft day—often successfully, though less so in recent years—dug deep into his pockets to nab Ricks, a 6'5", 237-pounder with two knee surgeries in his medical history. Left without a '99 first-rounder as a result of the Leaf trade, Beathard got Ricks with the 59th selection in the draft by dealing San Diego's first-round pick in 2000 to the Buccaneers.

On a team known for harboring undersized receivers, Ricks stood out from the start, impressing coaches with exceptional catches in practice. A projected starter, he will have to learn on the fly. With Leaf's faith in his ability to throw the ball to tight spots and Ricks's belief that he can pull down anything in his vicinity, the potential for high-risk passes is immense. "Ryan and I have talked about our chance to develop something special," Ricks says. "We're looking to be a tandem like Montana and Rice."

The rest of the receivers aren't in a position to emulate future Hall of Famers. The other projected starter is the 5'11" Still, a second-round pick in '96 (Beathard traded a '97 first-rounder to the Bucs to get him) who has yet to catch a touchdown pass or convince his superiors of his toughness. Slaughter, a 12-year veteran and two-time Pro Bowl selection who is attempting to revive his career after sitting out the '97 season, is fighting for the third receiver spot. He'll be pushed for playing time by the 5'8" Jones and the 5'11" Rachal, a pair of young speedsters from Fresno State. Michael Haynes, a deep threat who has played 10 seasons with the Falcons and the Saints, was a late pickup.

The Chargers, so promising during their 1994 Super Bowl season, have fallen fast and hard. The defense, which revolves around All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau, has little depth. The club's major free-agent signings came on the offensive line—left tackle John Jackson, late of the Steelers; left guard Aaron Taylor (Packers); and center Roman Fortin (Falcons). Raleigh McKenzie moves from center to right guard, and Vaughn Parker goes from left to right tackle. They'll try to spring holes for Means and give Leaf a fighting chance to get the ball to his mostly no-name receivers.

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