Folks covering the team were convinced late last season that coach Norv Turner and G.M. A.J. Smith were on the outs in San Diego. After a 4-1 start, the Chargers dropped six straight games in October and November. While they closed strong with victories in four of their final five, owner Dean Spanos’ January 3 announcement that Turner and Smith would be retained was something of a stunner.
The Chargers missed the playoffs for a second straight season.
San Diego has a fresh outlook on 2012 after a fairly aggressive spring. And there’s little doubt that this year will be Turner’s last if the Bolts miss a third consecutive NFL postseason.
Quarterback Philip Rivers was uncharacteristically turnover prone in 2011, but the Chargers still think of his presence as an organizational strength. Rivers, historically, is an efficient and accurate thrower who excels in Turner’s vertical-based offense. San Diego has big outside receivers who can run in Malcom Floyd and offseason addition Robert Meachem, and 32-year-old tight end Antonio Gates looked as fresh as ever late last season.
The Chargers are counting on a big step forward from third-year tailback Ryan Mathews, who possesses elite running talent and steadily improving versatility, but has yet to put it all together for a 16-game stretch.
San Diego’s front seven projects as its defensive strength. Defensive end Corey Liuget, and linebackers Donald Butler and Melvin Ingram were all recent high draft picks to whom the Bolts will look for growth and playmaking ability. Takeo Spikes, Shaun Phillips, and newly acquired Jarret Johnson are the veteran mainstays at linebacker. Situational pass rusher Antwan Barnes quietly racked up 11 sacks a year ago.
Free safety Eric Weddle is the Chargers’ top defensive back, and he responded to a 2011 contract extension by setting a career high with seven interceptions.
Rivers must cut down on turnovers, and Mathews must show better durability for San Diego to realize its offensive potential. The receiver corps looks explosive on paper, but heavy offseason transition is a bit of a concern. Gone is longtime No. 1 receiver Vincent Jackson, and in are slot man Eddie Royal and vertical threat Meachem.
Right tackle Jeromey Clary has been San Diego’s weak link on the offensive line for sometime. But he returns as a virtual lock for a Week One starting job.
Cornerback play is the biggest question mark in San Diego’s secondary. 33-year-old Quentin Jammer can no longer run with the league’s top young deep threats, while Antoine Cason’s consistency leaves much to be desired. Strong safety has been a revolving door in San Diego since Rodney Harrison departed.
Smith couldn’t bring himself to match Jackson’s $55 million-plus price tag, so the seven-year Charger departed for greener pastures in Tampa Bay. On the same day Jackson signed with the Bucs, Meachem received a four-year, $25.9 million commitment from the Chargers. Royal finalized his three-year, $13.5 million pact two days later.
More offseason turnover took place on the offensive line. Stalwart left guard Kris Dielman retired at age 31 due to concussions, and the Chargers hope 2009 fourth-round pick Tyronne Green will fill the void. Left tackle Marcus McNeill was released in mid-March. San Diego will replace him with talented but enigmatic 26-year-old Jared Gaither, who finished last season successfully protecting Rivers’ blind side.
Ingram was San Diego’s first-round pick, and his versatility should lock him in as an every-snap player as a rookie. Ingram can play outside linebacker, defensive end, and defensive tackle in sub-packages. The Chargers tied for 24th in the league in sacks last season, so the Ingram pick satisfied their need for a pass rusher.
On offense, the Chargers will hold training camp competitions at backup tailback and left guard. Veteran free-agent pickup Ronnie Brown knows Turner’s offense and looks like the favorite to hold down primary backup duties behind Mathews. Green will have to hold off Brandyn Dombrowski and Steve Schilling at guard.
More competition will take place on defense. Cam Thomas could push aging Antonio Garay for the starting nose tackle job. The defensive end positions will be hotly contested from a group that includes Luiget, Vaughn Martin, Luis Castillo, Jacques Cesaire, and rookie Kendall Reyes.
In the back four, Atari Bigby and third-round pick Brandon Taylor are the leading contenders at strong safety. Cason will get another run for his money at cornerback from 2011 second-rounder Marcus Gilchrist.
Although Oakland seems a small step behind the pace entering training camp, the AFC West could end up going to any of the four division members. The Raiders have an established Pro Bowl quarterback and potentially game-breaking rushing attack. The Chiefs boast a bright young defense and dangerous offensive backfield/line combination. The Broncos won a playoff game in 2011, and now have Peyton Manning.
We ranked the Chargers as a middle-of-the-pack team for 2012 because Turner has been on the job for five seasons, and San Diego’s final-year positioning has essentially gotten worse on an annual basis. Some of it has to do with bad luck. Most of it has to do with underachieving, and we’re not sold that the ’12 Chargers are good enough to push the envelope they’ve established in the AFC.