The Chargers are widely acknowledged to be the most talented team in the NFL. However, the question remains: Can head coach Norv Turner and his staff find a way to push them to a Super Bowl before the talent level begins to wane? 2008 was an unlucky and injury-plagued season for the Bolts, a hiccup for a team that posted records of 14-2 in 2006 and 11-5 in 2007. Without linebacker Shawne Merriman, and with LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates nursing nagging injuries, the Chargers still scratched out an 8-8 regular season record and won a play-in game against Denver to make the post-season. On the strength of Philip Rivers’ arm and with heroics from Darren Sproles, they won at Tennessee and Indianapolis before the Patriots put an end to the San Diego season in the AFC Championship game.
QB: Philip Rivers, Billy Volek
RB: LaDainian Tomlinson, Darren Sproles
WR: Vincent Jackson, Chris Chambers, Malcom Floyd
TE: Antonio Gates
PK: Nate Kaeding
Quarterback: Gifted, confident, and blessed with the ability to instantly erase miscues from his mind before the next play, Philip Rivers has earned his role as the Bolts’ field marshal. He led the team all the way to the AFC Championship game, slicing and dicing the Titans and the Colts on a badly torn ACL. His fantasy owners feasted on the relative demise of the Chargers running game, as Rivers led the NFL in yards per attempt, tied Drew Brees for the lead in touchdown passes, took less sacks than Peyton Manning, and crushed his competition with a 105.5 passer rating. If not for Brees, Rivers would have been fantasy’s top quarterback in 2008. With weapons LT and Gates healthy, look for Rivers to rock another fantastic season.
Running Back: Last season, LaDanian Tomlinson was hampered by turf toe and a tender knee. On one hand, Tomlinson produced his fewest touchdowns in a season since his rookie year, and his fewest rushing yards (and attempts) ever. On the other hand, he eclipsed 1,100 yards, scored double-digit touchdowns, and tied for the most pass targets among all running backs. While some say he’s cooked (30 years old and injured in each of the past two seasons), insiders tell a different story. LT is 100% healthy and his off-season workout regimen has been his toughest ever. He really wants the career rushing record and Norv Turner has vowed to give him the opportunity. These factors weigh heavily in favor of a monster performance in 2009, at least for most of the year — remember that his injuries came at the very end of the season.
Darren Sproles was a breath of fresh air in limited use last season, averaging 5.4 yards per carry (LT averaged 3.8). He scored seven all-purpose touchdowns during the regular season (five of which came through the air), then added three more subbing for LT in the playoffs. Expect Sproles to line up in some two-back formations as a short yardage target for Rivers. Be aware that Sproles is still a backup to Tomlinson and that his kick return duties are likely to be cut substantially — management intends to protect their Franchise Player investment.
Wide Receiver: In 2007, Vincent Jackson led the NFL in receiving yards during the postseason. He then carried that strong effort into the ‘08 regular season. After two years of missed connections, Jackson and Rivers have developed some terrific long-distance chemistry, which resulted in seven overall touchdowns — three of which went for 39 yards or more. Indeed, the 6-foot-5 Jackson is the number one guy in San Diego, and he’s entering the final season of his rookie contract. The only caveat is his January DUI arrest, which could cause him to miss a game or two at the beginning of the season.
Joining the team in mid-2007, Chris Chambers was thought to be the top receiver in the stable at that time. However, Vincent Jackson’s worries that Chambers would emerge as the Chargers’ top threat at wideout proved unfounded, as Chambers’ lackluster chemistry with Rivers (not to mention his bad case of the dropsies) set him firmly behind Jackson.
Malcom Floyd will return as the Bolts’ third receiver behind Jackson and Chambers, but in 2008 he was best known for his contributions in the red zone. His size and hands make him a natural for catching jump balls in the end zone, and in his final eight games he caught three of them. It would take an injury to Jackson or Chambers to make Floyd a viable fantasy asset, but he’s a TD vulture to keep an eye on.
Tight End: Last year, Antonio Gates became the fastest tight end to catch 50 TDs, and was second only to Charger legend Kellen Winslow in reaching the 5,000-yard mark. Yet, for the first time in five seasons, Gates failed to eclipse the 100-target level. Gates battled hip, foot, and ankle injuries all year. He did grab eight scores (second-most among tight ends); since he’s been a full-time starter, he’s never had fewer than that number. When healthy, you won’t find a better red-zone player, and he remains one of the top three fantasy producers at his position.
IDP: In just three seasons, Shawne “Lights Out” Merriman has become a defensive superstar. In 2007 he earned his third Pro Bowl invitation, logging 12.5 sacks — among linebackers, only Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware had more. Merriman missed the bulk of last season, undergoing successful knee surgery in September which gave him nearly a full year for rehab, but he’s reportedly raring to go. His 39.5 career sacks in only three years make him a great bet to resume his “Lights Out” performance this season.
2009 promises to be an interesting year in the AFC West. Kansas City has upgraded radically, Denver has lost its offensive thunder, and Oakland…well, they’re still Oakland. All things considered, however, San Diego remains master of the division. No matter how they reached the playoffs in previous years, this Chargers team consistently proved themselves a postseason opponent to be feared. Now that all the starters are finally healthy, expect San Diego to excel in 2009.
Shea Colandri: Architect, musician, and Fantasy Football Fanatic
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