SAN DIEGO — “Confidence” was a word uttered often in post-practice interviews here behind the hillside headquarters of the San Diego Chargers. Nearly every starter returns from a 9-7 team that made last year’s divisional playoffs, and the roster is in good health. On the tenth day of training camp, San Diegans (Diego-ites?) complained about the humidity and heat, which peaked at 80 degrees and sent fans scrambling for shade.
Yet when it comes to these Chargers, the natives are without qualm.
One vivid memory from watching practice
Keenan Allen, a phenomenal rookie receiver a year ago, is backing up the hype he stirred when he pledged to be the NFL’s best. He undercut cornerback Crezdon Butler on a slant in the red zone and ripped the ball out of the air for a touchdown; he later pulled in a deep ball down the left sideline with only his right hand. Aside from the occasional drop, the 22-year-old is looking like the complete receiver he thinks he is.
How this team can go 12–4
Win early. I haven’t seen this kind of competitive disparity between the first and second halves of a schedule for any other team. Here’s San Diego’s first six games: Arizona, Seattle, Buffalo, Jacksonville, New York Jets and Raiders. Remove the Super Bowl champion Seahawks and the remaining five teams combined for a 32-48 record last season. Their final five games? Baltimore, New England, Denver, San Francisco and Kansas City. Those teams combined to go 56-24 and all but Baltimore made the playoffs last season. Forgetting for a moment the unevenness of their schedule, going 12-4 in a division with the Broncos and Chiefs is a very tall task. A reinvigorated Philip Rivers, coming off his best season as a pro, appears to be up for it, but what about a defense that ranked 23rd in yards allowed a year ago. Two of the headline newcomers, first-round rookie corner Jason Verrett and 34-year-old pass-rusher Dwight Freeney (in his second season with the Chargers but limited to four games in 2013), are relegated to the second team as they recover from injury. A 12-4 finish would require each of them to contribute in a meaningful way.
How this team can go 4–12
They would have to be without Rivers, the straw that stirs the drink. He had the highest completion percentage in football a year ago (69.5%) and the fourth-best yards per attempt (8.23). A quarterback performing at that level for a competitive team is worth at least six wins. Depth is a question mark across the entire defense, but the aforementioned offseason additions are big improvements on last year’s second string.
Now, from fantasyland …
1. Keenan Allen, Keenan Allen, Keenan Allen. He’s faster than a year ago and becoming a favorite of his quarterback (I asked Rivers to name the guys who have improved the most since last season. His answer: Pro Bowl center Nick Hardwick and Allen).
2. Don’t be concerned about offseason addition Donald Brown taking away touches from Ryan Mathews, who set a career high with 1,255 rushing yards last season. Chargers general manager Tom Telesco described Mathews as “our bell cow” and shot down the notion of a backfield by committee.
3. Stick a high value on Rivers. He’ll be even better in Year 2 under coach Mike McCoy. He continues to improve when it comes to helping receivers create yards after the catch.
How I project the lineup, with competitive spots in bold:
|WR||Keenan Allen||RDE||Corey Liuget|
|LT||King Dunlap||NT||Sean Lissemore|
|LG||Chad Rinehart||LDE||Kendall Reyes|
|C||Nick Hardwick||OLB||Melvin Ingram/Dwight Freeney|
|RG||Chris Watt/Jeromey Clary*||ILB||Manti Te’o|
|RT||D.J. Fluker||ILB||Donald Butler|
|TE||Antonio Gates||OLB||Jarret Johnson|
|WR||Malcom Floyd||RCB||Shareece Wright|
|3rd WR||Eddie Royal||LCB||Brandon Flowers|
|QB||Philip Rivers||3rd CB||Jason Verrett/Richard Marshall|
|RB||Ryan Mathews/Danny Woodhead||SS||Marcus Gilchrist/Jahleel Addae|
|FB||David Johnson||FS||Eric Weddle|
|K||Nick Novak||P||Mike Scifres|
The situation in the defensive backfield is not as cut and dry as this chart suggests. Verrett figures to challenge for a starting corner job at some point… And it’s Gilchrist, the safety, who often slides into a nickelback role, with Addae subbing for him at safety… Former Indy great Freeney has a lot to prove coming off quad surgery at age 34. He could end up being a utility player who gets plugged into spots affected by injury… At right guard, Clary is on the PUP list after offseason shoulder and hip surgery. He could retake his job from Chris Watt upon return… Mathews is the undisputed feature back, but Woodhead’s presence is so important it would have been a disservice to leave him off the chart.
Best new player in camp
Jason Verrett, cornerback. He’s only practiced a handful of times since coming back from March shoulder surgery, but he looks like the real thing when he’s on the field. On Monday the 5-10 rookie out of TCU perfectly mirrored Dontrelle Inman on a quick slant and reached over the shoulder of the 6-3 receiver to swat away a bullet pass from Kellen Clemens. He’s not allowed to hit yet, but he looks a natural in man coverage against players of all sizes.
Strong opinion that I may regret by November
This will be Antonio Gates’ last season as a Charger. Is that strong enough? His decline has been obvious since his streak of eight consecutive Pro Bowls ended in 2011. Even though last year’s 113 targets were the most he’s had since 2009 as the offense emphasized quicker throws, Gates still failed to gain more than 50 yards receiving in each of the last six regular-season games. He had three catches for 15 yards over two playoff games. He’s now slow enough for elite linebackers to check him one-on-one, as well as a liability in run blocking. Besides, 24-year-old backup Ladarius Green impressed as a pass-catcher last season and Gates would carry an $8.2 million cap hit in 2015. He’s a legend in powder blue, yet as Bill Parcells likes to say, sooner or later they ask everyone to get off the train.
Something I’ve never seen before
Eddie Royal, the 28-year-old former Broncos receiver, signing autographs for the hundreds of fans in attendance for 45 minutes after practice ended. “They do so much for us,” Royal explained, “And we need them to fill up that stadium this year, so why not show them some love?” As the last dozen fans on the other side of a chain link fence stuck out their memorabilia, somebody whispered the time to Royal and he apologized and sprinted off, late for an appointment. Before he could reach the facility, three more boys approached with hats and jerseys and balls. “Okay,” he told them. “Let’s make it quick.”
What I thought when I walked out of camp
This team has a playoff GM, a playoff coach and a playoff quarterback, but it isn’t a playoff team—at least not the kind that advances past its neighbors in the divisional round. Peyton Manning and Denver will have the upper hand as long as San Diego’s biggest name on defense is Eric Weddle. A career resurgence for either Brandon Flowers and Freeney could prove me wrong, but I think the Chargers are still a year away from serious contention in the AFC.