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2012 NFL Season Preview

CBSSports.com Staff
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By Clark Judge | Senior NFL Columnist

Offense

Since the 2010 departure of LaDainian Tomlinson, the Chargers have been all about Philip Rivers, and while he's had his moments the Bolts have not. Dating back to the last game of the 2009 season, a playoff loss to the New York Jets, the Chargers are 17-16. Worse, they missed the playoffs the past two years. That might cost some head coaches their jobs, but Norv Turner has been given another season to put these guys back on top -- and he'll try to do it by having Rivers take advantage of an assortment of new weapons.

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San Diego Chargers
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2012 Schedule • Roster
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The loss of star receiver Vincent Jackson was a blow, but San Diego recovered quickly by signing free-agents Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal. Then it added Roscoe Parrish, and -- kaboom! Just like that -- the Chargers have depth where there wasn't much before. I don't know if Meachem is Jackson, but I'll take his numbers and those of Royal's vs. Jackson in Tampa Bay. Now, throw in Malcom Floyd and tight end Antonio Gates, and the Chargers have targets galore for a quarterback looking to redeem himself.

Retaining left tackle Jared Gaither was critical, partly because he played so well down the stretch protecting Rivers' back and partly because the Chargers lost left guard Kris Dielman. Adding Le'Ron McClain and Ronnie Brown as safety nets for Ryan Mathews was smart, too, and look for Mathews to be more of a factor this season. Still, it all comes down to Rivers. If he plays as he did in 2010, the Chargers make a run at the top.

Defense

If there was one shortcoming that characterized the last two Chargers' clubs it was impact players on defense. They had virtually none. Yeah, I know, safety Eric Weddle produced a lot of takeaways and made the All-Pro team, but he wasn't the game changer that, say, a Shawne Merriman or Shaun Phillips or Rodney Harrison was years ago, and it showed in opponents' ability to convert third downs. They turned 49.2 percent of them into firsts, and, sorry, that's not going to cut it.

So the defense had to change, and it has. First, of course, there's a new coordinator. Former linebackers coach John Pagano takes over for Greg Manusky, and he'll have new parts to tinker with -- including first-round draft pick Melvin Ingram, second-rounder Kendall Reyes and third-rounder Brandon Taylor. The Chargers' first three picks were defensive players, which tells you where they need help.

No addition, however, may be more important than free-agent linebacker Jarret Johnson, who was a reliable run stopper in Baltimore. Johnson allows the Chargers to keep pass rusher Antwan Barnes off the field more than last season, which is a plus. Barnes led the team with 11 sacks, and with Ingram, Phillips and the oft-injured Larry English the Chargers are stocked with edge pass rushers -- always a good idea when you play in the same division with Peyton Manning.

Key Changes

Roster Additions: WR Robert Meachem; WR Eddie Royal; RB La'Ron McClain; RB Ronnie Brown; LB Jarret Johnson; WR Roscoe Parrish; QB Charlie Whitehurst; S Atari Bigby; TE Dante Rosario; LB Demorrio Williams; T Mario Henderson; DT Aubrayo Franklin.

Roster Departures: WR Vincent Jackson; T Marcus McNeill; G Kris Dielman (retired); RB Mike Tolbert; S Steve Gregory; QB Billy Volek; DT Tommie Harris; WR Patrick Crayton; CB Dante Hughes; DE Luis Castillo.

Staff: Pagano takes over for Greg Manusky after Manusky's one season on the job. Pagano better be the right man for the job because the clock is ticking, with coach Norv Turner basically on a one-year deal. It's now or never, folks, and how the league's 16th-ranked defense responds could determine what happens to the Bolts and their coach. Offensive line coach Hal Hunter takes over as offensive coordinator, replacing Clarence Shelmon, and special teams coach Rich Bisaccia, who righted a unit that was horrible in 2010, was promoted to assistant head coach.

The most significant loss was Jackson, but the Chargers weren't going to get into a bidding war with Tampa Bay. Instead of sinking a gazillion dollars in Jackson, they invested the money in Meachem, Royal and Parrish, and that could pay off big. So maybe Parrish doesn't make it. Meachem and Royal will, and Royal is a decent punt returner -- one part of the Chargers' game that needs help. The club re-signed Gaither and center Nick Hardwick, and that was another significant step -- especially after the loss of Dielman, who retired.

X-Factor: TE Antonio Gates

For the first time in three seasons he says he's free of injuries, and that's nothing but encouraging for San Diego. When Gates is healthy the Chargers' offense looks more like a blitzkrieg, with Gates a matchup nightmare for linebackers and defensive backs. But he hasn't been healthy the past two seasons, and it's no coincidence the Chargers failed to make the playoffs. Now, Gates insists he no longer experiences the pain and discomfort from the plantar fasciitis that caused him to miss nine games in 2010-11 and, to prove it, he participated in all the team's offseason workouts. "Gates looks great," said coach Norv Turner. "Physically, he's back to where we want him to be." The Bolts can only hope. With Gates in the lineup, they're one of the most dynamic and productive offenses anywhere.

Will Rivers be the quarterback of 2010 or 2011?

Rivers made a raft of mistakes last season, including 20 interceptions and a fatal last-minute fumble of a snap in Kansas City. Critics wondered if he was hurt, but he insists he wasn't and never appeared on an injury report. Instead, it appears he tried to assume too much responsibility for carrying the team, and it backfired.

Can Meachem, Royal make up for loss of Jackson?

The Chargers couldn't afford Jackson. So they took the money they would've invested in him and found two replacements.

How will defense respond to new starters, coordinator?

There's no time to waste. Turner is on the clock. The Chargers must improve their defensive play from a year ago ... or else.

Insider's Take

For years people talked about the Chargers as one of the league's most talent-laden teams, and for years they were right. But that run is over, and San Diego is trying to restock the shelves. Ingram was a steal at the 18th spot in the draft, with most thinking he'd go in the top 10, and he's a perfect fit for Pagano's attacking 3-4 scheme. If the Chargers are to improve, the onus isn't on Rivers; it's on that defense that was so unreliable last season. The Chargers will score points -- and they may score a lot of them -- but they better improve at plugging holes in a defense that couldn't make critical stops. An encore not only will cost the club a playoff spot; it will cost a lot of people their jobs. The Chargers made strong off-season moves, but they must pay off for Turner and Co. immediately.

Xs and Os

By Pat Kirwan | NFL Insider

Chargers' Rivals: AFC West

2012 Preview • Schedule
Broncos @ Chargers: 10/15 (8:30 p.m. ET)
Chargers @ Broncos: 11/18 (4:15 p.m. ET)

2012 Preview • Schedule
Chiefs @ Chargers: 11/1 (8:20 p.m. ET)
Chargers @ Chiefs: 9/30 (1 p.m. ET)

2012 Preview • Schedule
Raiders @ Chargers: 12/30 (4:15 p.m. ET)
Chargers @ Raiders: 9/10 (10:15 p.m. ET)

The Chargers were the team to beat in the AFC West until last year when they slipped back into the pack, or maybe it was the other three teams that caught up to them. Now they need Philip Rivers to take better care of the ball (25 turnovers last year) and find a way to defend Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer and Matt Cassel. Last year Rivers didn't throw a TD pass against the Chiefs in 79 passes, but he did throw five TDs against the Raiders and just two against the Broncos.

Norv Turner was retained as the head coach and I think that's a good thing for continuity, and as the play caller still figured out how to score the fifth most points in the NFL last year. Newly acquired wide receiver Robert Meachem, brought in to replace Vincent Jackson, told me the Charger routes are much deeper than the routes in New Orleans and that's a good thing for the speedy Meachem. Coach Turner will roll through personnel groups looking for matchups that favor the Chargers. Last year he had FB/RB Mike Tolbert, who could handle the third-down protection schemes, be a lead blocker, an H-back and any other thing Turner could think up to cause problems for his opponent. Tolbert, who signed with the Panthers, touched the ball 175 times for 923 yards and 10 touchdowns. Le'Ron McClain is the top candidate to do Tolbert's work.

The Charger defense has their third coordinator in three years -- John Pagano -- and he will keep the 3-4 package. Jarret Johnson comes over from Baltimore as the LOLB and will do a great job to set the edge in the run defense and not let the run game break contain. Rookie Melvin Ingram will probably come in on passing situations to team up with Antwan Barnes (11 sacks last year) and Shaun Phillips. I expect the Charger pass rush to improve in the sack department. I do have concerns about the secondary, especially the safeties. Tom Brady and Carson Palmer both threw for over 400 yards against San Diego in 2011 and Stafford hit them for 373 yards. The three quarterbacks also connected on eight TD passes and you know Peyton Manning is studying those game tapes. I would not be surprised if rookie safety Brandon Taylor cracks the lineup opposite Eric Weddle.

Draft Recap

By Rob Rang | NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst

In the weeks leading up to the draft, there was consistent buzz that the Chargers were exploring aggressive trades to move up and guarantee the addition of a headlining defender -- either a pass rusher like South Carolina's Melvin Ingram or an instinctive safety like Alabama's Mark Barron.

Chargers Draft Analysis

Largely due to questions about how well he'll acclimate to the NFL with shorter-than-ideal arms, Ingram slipped into the Chargers' lap at No. 18. Ingram's short arms don't allow him to wrap up securely on every tackle attempt. However, he's quick off the snap, has the lateral agility to elude pass blockers and closes quickly and with power. Those physical attributes, as well as a high revving motor, will help Ingram emerge as one of the AFC West's better edge rushers as a rookie.

Former Connecticut defensive tackle Kendall Reyes will be moved outside to play defensive end in the Chargers' 3-4 scheme. He has the strength, length and hustle to perform well in this role. I believe he's at least as good of a schematic fit, in fact, as Corey Liuget, whom the Chargers selected in the first round a year ago.

The rest of the Chargers' picks:

1st Round - No. 18 overall - Melvin Ingram, OLB, South Carolina
2nd Round - No. 49 overall - Kendall Reyes, DT, Connecticut
3rd Round - No. 73 overall - Brandon Taylor, SS, LSU
4th Round - No. 110 overall - Ladarius Green, TE, Louisiana-Lafayette
5th Round - No. 149 overall - Johnnie Troutman, OG, Penn State
7th Round - No. 226 overall - David Molk, C, Michigan
7th Round - No. 250 overall - Edwin Baker, RB, Michigan State

 
 
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