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For a time last decade, the San Diego Chargers had arguably the most talented roster in football. They went to one AFC championship game and lost.
The Chargers' championship window has closed, and there's not much reason to be excited for their 2013 prospects.
Many of the team's stars from the mid-2000s are long gone or aging. The Chargers wasted a lot of time with the odd decision to hire and stick with Norv Turner, when it seemed team officials were the only ones who couldn't see that was not a good idea.
Turner is finally gone, after a third straight season with no playoff berth, replaced by former Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy.
Maybe McCoy provides a spark, quarterback Philip Rivers returns to being elite (he's only 31, he shouldn't be on the downside yet), and some other young players emerge. But there are a lot of troublesome holes on the roster.
Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: It isn't better. The Chargers lost talented guard Louis Vasquez to division rival Denver, didn't resign productive linebacker Takeo Spikes, lost once-productive pass rushers Antwan Barnes and Shaun Phillips, and didn't really add anyone of note. Running back Danny Woodhead is a solid role player, Max Starks and King Dunlap were needed additions to a terrible offensive line and perhaps 33-year-old Dwight Freeney can reverse his career slide, but the Chargers didn't sign anyone worth getting excited about.
Biggest hole on the roster: The offensive line was dismal last season. Rivers is taking major steps back as a quarterback, but a big part of that is he has no time to throw. The Chargers gave up 49 sacks (tied for fourth worst in the NFL) and rushed for just 3.6 yards per attempt (tied for second worst). And they lost their best lineman, Vasquez. Dunlap and Starks might help – they can't make it worse, really – but the Chargers desperately need massive first-round pick D.J. Fluker to help right away.
Position in flux: The Chargers have one of the strangest receiving corps in the NFL. There's a lot of name players but they're all flawed. Danario Alexander is the best of the lot, but he's one of the most injury-prone players in the NFL. He was very good last year, and can be a legitimate No. 1 if he stays on the field. Rookie Keenan Allen is intriguing, Vincent Brown is enticing but coming off a season lost to injury and still has just 329 career yards, Robert Meachem can't be quite as big of a free-agent bust as he looked like last year (right?) and Malcom Floyd has put up almost identical, solid but unspectacular numbers each of the last four seasons. They'll all fight to establish a pecking order in training camp. Honestly, it's pretty clear the Chargers should have just paid Vincent Jackson.
Player you may not have heard of yet, but will soon: In his third season, Brown has a great opportunity. He has the offseason "He's looked great!" hype train moving in his favor, for whatever that's worth, and he is a talented receiver. He missed last season with a broken ankle, but could be a breakout player for San Diego.
Stat fact: It's hard to understate how surprisingly bad Rivers was last year. He was ranked 22nd among quarterbacks in Football Outsiders' DVOA, the opponent-adjusted per-play efficiency metric, with a minus-7.3 percent, behind Minnesota's Christian Ponder. And Pro Football Focus had him ranked 29th among quarterbacks with a score of minus-4.5, behind Jacksonville's Blaine Gabbert (ugh).
This team’s best-case scenario for this season is: That the change from Turner to McCoy is a huge boost. Rivers finds a few weapons among those receivers, Antonio Gates stays healthy and productive, and the team finds defensive stars to help out their stars, end Corey Liuget and safety Eric Weddle. The bottom of the division is weak, and the Broncos might be in for at least a little bit of regression, so maybe if things go right San Diego can find itself in the AFC West race.
And here’s the nightmare scenario: If Rivers' regression is real, this could get ugly. The defense isn't good enough to carry the team, and once Ryan Mathews gets hurt, the running game doesn't have much punch. And, a third straight average season from Rivers would force the Chargers to ask sobering questions about their quarterback who was once a MVP candidate.
The player who could swing this team’s season one way or another: Mathews is 25 years old, and just two years ago he had 1,091 yards with a nice 4.9-yard average, but San Diego's patience is running thin. When Turner was on the hot seat, he once decided he'd rather suffer through Jackie Battle running for two yards at a time than see Mathews on the field, so you know Mathews has made some people angry. Mathews has the talent to be a top back. But if he gets hurt again or struggles, the backups are Woodhead and Le'Ron McClain. That is not comforting.
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