Chargers: They're electric Vinnie Iyer Sporting News
WHERE THEY STAND
The Chargers are standing right about where they were when we left them last season, a season that came to a screeching halt with a home divisional playoff loss to New England. Other than the additions through the draft, there are no significant changes to the roster.
But there still was one big change in the offseason -- a new head coach. Exit Marty Schottenheimer; enter Norv Turner. The Chargers also lost 3-4 defensive guru Wade Phillips, who left to coach the Cowboys, and offensive mastermind Cam Cameron, who left to coach the Dolphins.
The good news is that the Chargers' front office realized it had a high level of talent on the field, and made sure its main hires, the offensive-minded Turner and defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell, wouldn't be ones to shake the status quo.
Unlike die-hard Chargers fans, fantasy owners don't need to fret about this team's postseason failings. For our purposes, San Diego will remain very productive on both sides of the ball during Weeks 1-17, and we'll have plenty of ways to plug into the points machine.
Projected draft round Player Round Philip Rivers, QB 6-7 LaDainian Tomlinson, RB 1 Michael Turner, RB 8 Vincent Jackson, WR 8 Eric Parker, WR 14 Antonio Gates, TE 3-4 Nate Kaeding, K 16-17 Defense/special teams 9-10 Draft position based on a standard 12-team combined scoring and yardage league with a 17-round draft. DND: Do not draft.
Key additions: None. Key losses: LB Donnie Edwards, LB Steve Foley, S Terrence Kiel, TE Ryan Krause, WR Keenan McCardell, TE Aaron Shea
LaDainian Tomlinson, RB. The Godfather. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Ulysses. Some things deserve more than five-star ratings. Some people do, too, and Tomlinson is one of them. If you win your league's draft lottery, you'll be about as giddy as the Cavs were on the day they found out they would get LeBron.
But you came here for some analysis about the modern LT, right? Two words: He's good. Tomlinson's record 33 total touchdowns (28 rushing, 3 receiving, 2 passing) last year were more than what 11 teams produced. Even if there's a bit of a drop-off, no worries: Tomlinson's average season over his first six years is 2,010 yards from scrimmage and 20 TDs. Oh, yeah, he also has missed only one start in his career.
If you have the No. 1 overall pick and don't take LT, you shouldn't be playing fantasy football. And after you take LT, be sure to take out the ultimate insurance policy (see below) a round or two before your archrival wiseacre has plotted to spoil your handcuff plans.
Antonio Gates, TE. He's good, too. Now, if that vulturous Tomlinson would let his buddy catch scoring passes a little more often... If you've noticed, Gates' TDs have dropped from 13 to 10 to 9 over the past couple seasons. His receptions also dipped to 71 last season. Neither development should keep you away from targeting Gates as fantasy's top tight end in either the late third or early fourth round. Turner has a knack of making his tight ends very happy, so expect Gates' yardage and scoring numbers to climb back up.
Shawne Merriman, LB. "With the Lights Out, it's less dangerous" doesn't apply to the Chargers' defense. Merriman's high-voltage pass-rush to sack quarterbacks is as fun to watch as Tomlinson making defenders look silly in the open field. Let's just hope Merriman stays off the juice and stays on the field as a monster IDP sack producer. Despite missing four games to a suspension last season, he still led the league with 17. Don't be surprised if he posts 20 in Year 3, with 70-plus tackles.
Nate Kaeding, K. It bothers me that fantasy owners still draft kickers before the final round. But I'm writing this for those of you who still think a potential nine-tenths of a point per week is worth jumping on the top kicker instead of the 12th-ranked kicker.
Kaeding should have a chance to score a ton of points, because the Chargers' offense is really good and stuff. Then there's that whole thing about figuring out if he will get enough field goals to go with his ton of extra points. Yes, he finished second among NFL kickers in scoring last season, but he also finished 12th in '05. I have a feeling he'll be somewhere in between, but someone will grab him early thinking they're getting an "elite kicker." Don't let that someone be you.
Philip Rivers, QB. A half-dozen quarterbacks (Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Donovan McNabb, Marc Bulger) should be gone by Round 5 in your league's draft. Rivers is about the beginning of the next tier, and considering Michael Vick's problems and Matt Hasselbeck's inconsistency, Rivers might be a solid No. 7 before the season kicks off.
Turner will open up the offense a bit and give Rivers more opportunities for big plays and touchdowns. Racking up 3,500 yards and 25 TDs are very realistic goals for Rivers' second full season as a starter. You'll also feel very safe with him, because most weeks, he will put up something like 225 yards and two TDs (20-plus fantasy points) with minimal chance of negative scoring off turnovers. Right now he's a seventh-rounder, but if players at other positions don't intrigue you, it's OK to pull the trigger in Round 6.
Defense/special teams. The Chargers are on the brink of being an elite fantasy D/ST. They're quite not there with the Bears, Ravens and Patriots, but they're still pretty good.
San Diego's strength is sacks, as Merriman & Co. posted a league-leading 61 last season. Based solely on that number and their scoring defense rank (seventh), they were a solid weekly start in 2006.
But they can be a real fantasy difference-maker if they can just boost their playmaking quotient. With the offense's ability to put up points and big leads against opponents, the defense will be able to pin its ears back on the pass rush against one-dimensional offenses, so it should be better than 15th in takeaways (it had just 16 interceptions among its 28 forced turnovers last season).
Cornerbacks Quentin Jammer and Drayton Florence need to be more aggressive ballhawks, especially with linebacker Donnie Edwards (three INTs in '06) no longer around to pick off passes. There's hope that youngsters Antonio Cromartie and Eric Weddle can contribute to the effort in sub packages. Consider the Chargers a strong, Top 6 fantasy unit with nice upside.
Michael Turner, RB. Winning the draft lottery pretty much forces you to make two picks: Tomlinson, of course, at No. 1, and Turner, no more than seven rounds later. Getting Tomlinson is the fastest track to the fantasy playoffs. Why get derailed if this is the year Tomlinson battles an injury?
This Turner is no ordinary handcuff. He's the best true No. 2 you'll find on any depth chart in the league. If the Chargers are smart enough to back up the league MVP with such a talented option, so should you.
And for those of you who don't draft Tomlinson, it's fair game to go after Turner, especially if the LT owner gets caught napping right before the middle rounds. The Chargers' other offensive Turner, Norv, has plans to put Michael on the field more often, and there could be some games with the potential for garbage time situations. In those instances, you could consider starting "The Burner" in a flex position.
But at all costs, don't get burned by having someone who doesn't own Tomlinson take Turner. If you have him, you won't experience much of a drop-off if you need to replace LT in the lineup.
Vincent Jackson, WR. When a guy gets talked about so much as being a sleeper, the secret's out. So why does everyone love this guy as a potential No. 2 fantasy receiver? It probably starts with how he can fly downfield with a 6-5, 241-pound frame and continues with his three TDs in two games to finish out 2006.
Jackson is expected to become a bigger big-play threat, but I think he'll show it more in touchdowns than catches or yards. I can see his Year 3 production being similar to what the Eagles' Reggie Brown did in his second year. That would be around 800 yards and eight scores. As long as you can be happy with Jackson producing more like a No. 3 in Year 3, he won't disappoint.
1-Star Players Eric Parker, WR. Parker is barely hanging on as part of the Chargers' real roster, but someone will draft him in the hope he might do something worthwhile in one of the league's most prolific offenses. Then that somebody will see that Parker didn't sniff the end zone last season.
Craig Davis, WR. He received early buzz as a rookie to watch this season after he was drafted, in a bit of a surprise, in the first round. Reports out of training camp have Davis settling in as a surehanded, smart receiver, but he also is battling knee tendinitis. Although he won't be drafted in standard-sized fantasy leagues as he vies with Parker to start opposite Jackson, he's worth watching closely. Davis is talented enough to have an early impact; he might just not make it until midseason. Beating out Parker shouldn't be too hard.
Brandon Manumaleuna, TE. How prolific were the Chargers last season? Manumaleuna scored three times as the second tight end to Gates, or as many as the Browns' Kellen Winslow and two more than the Cowboys' Jason Witten. Keep this in the back of your mind: If Gates needs to go on the shelf, Manumaleuna would be a sneaky good pickup.
Shaun Phillips, LB. He racked up 11 1/2 sacks of his own last season, putting him second on the team behind Merriman, and he did it in just 14 games. He's showing good health early, and with a few more tackles Phillips can develop from solid IDP backup to starter candidate.
Billy Volek, QB. Billy, you were a hero three years ago in that wacky run with the Titans, but last season, LT threw for five times as many yards as you did (20-4). Considering Rivers attempted 460 of the team's 466 passes in '06 and set a record with 51 career starts in college, there's a slim chance Volek will see more than the practice field this season.
Malcom Floyd, WR. He's not even a "Malcom X Factor" in fantasy.
Lorenzo Neal, RB. Just wanted to mention him here to say how much we appreciate what he does for LT. We'll even forgive him for that one rushing TD he stole from LT in that 48-20 win over Denver last Dec. 10.
Luis Castillo, DL. Ah, yes, another fine product of Northwestern. He's coming off a career-high seven sacks, and if he shows early signs of pushing that up to double digits, he'll start blipping on IDP radars everywhere.
Eric Weddle, DB. Weddle has the talent to become one of the league's best playmaking safeties. It just won't happen this year as the rookie from Utah needs to first beat out Clinton Hart, Marlon McCree and Bhawoh Jue.
Ultimate Fantasy Football Tip: Tomlinson and Gates probably are too high-priced to even consider for your lineup ($16.75 million combined), but another "five-star" player, Kaeding, is a good value at $2.75 million, which puts him in a three-way tie for eighth in price at his position. Buying him as the No. 10 kicker is much better than overdrafting him and thinking he'll be the No. 1 kicker.
TO KNOW LIST
Coaching: There are plenty of issues with Norv Turner's head-coaching resume, but no one can argue his track record as an offensive coordinator. And really, in fantasyland, we are concerned much more with offensive results and than overall team results. In that sense, Turner will do everything he can to get the most out of his best players. Rivers will consistently be in position to succeed with longer throws, and Tomlinson and Gates will stay very busy.
Replacing Wade Phillips with Cottrell won't mean too many differences on defense. Expect more hard-charging 3-4 with the emphasis on getting to the quarterback, with a little more aggressiveness to improve the team's takeaway potential.
Offensive line: When you consider both the front five and Neal's blocking from fullback, Tomlinson has the right helping hands to help him best use his legs. Kris Dielman is a terrific left guard, and he works well together inside with center Nick Hardwick and right guard Mike Goff, a rock of a 10-year man.
Overall, the unit's strength is run blocking for Tomlinson, but it more than holds it own in pass protection. Marcus McNeill is a franchise-type left tackle who will be an anchor in San Diego for many years to come. The team allowed the eighth-fewest sacks (28) in the league last season, contributing to Rivers' durability and efficiency.
Schedule analysis: The start is a bit rough and tumble, with NFC champion Chicago and last season's playoff nemesis New England accounting for Weeks 1 and 2. Things improve quickly, however, with runs through the rest of the NFC North, then the AFC South and the AFC West. Fantasy playoff time provides another reprieve, as the Chargers can unleash LT on Tennessee and Detroit in Weeks 14 and 15. Power poll rank: 30th easiest (3rd toughest)