By Brian Kalchik @RantsportsBrian on May 27, 2014
The San Diego Chargers started their OTAs today and with nearly four months until their season begins in Arizona; the Chargers will start to establish their starting lineups for the pre- and regular seasons.
When the roster eventually narrows down to 53 players, plenty of personnel decisions will be made, some surprising and some maybe not. Here now is an early projection of who will start for the Chargers to begin the 20014 regular season.
Phillip Rivers erased all doubt last season, leading the Chargers to the AFC Divisional Playoffs and becoming a Pro Bowl player once again. Rivers will take every snap this season, but the competition to be his backup will be interesting. Free agent acquisition Kellen Clemens and second-year player Brad Sorenson will compete for the job, with Clemens ultimately winning it.
Running back Ryan Matthews, like Rivers, also erased some doubt last season after having a career-high 1,255 yards rushing last season. Matthews will be the starter once again, but his backups will also be very good. Competing for the No. 2 back will be Danny Woodhead and former Indianapolis Colts RB Donald Brown, but sixth-round pick Marion Grice will be a sleeper pick this year. David Johnson will start as the team's fullback.
One receiver position is already locked up as second-year player Keenan Allen had an outstanding rookie season in 2013. As for who will lineup opposite him, that question will be harder to answer. While Malcolm Floyd seems like the obvious pick, I am giving it to Eddie Royal because I don't believe Floyd will be ready after a serious neck injury last season. The backups will include Floyd, Vincent Brown, Seyi Ajirotutu and rookie Tevin Reese.
Future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates will once again be the primary tight end in San Diego with Ladarius Green starting opposite him. Gates had a bounce-back season after being hampered with injuries the past few seasons. Green really broke out late last season and scored a touchdown against Cincinnati in the playoffs. John Phillips will be the third-string tight end and a valuable blocker.
At tackles, King Dunlap and D.J. Fluker will once again start, but only one will know that their job will be safe. Fluker is firmly entrenched as the right tackle and had some experience at left tackle as a rookie last season. Dunlap, on the other hand, struggled mightily with the Chargers and is the player who will most likely lose his job in training camp. Backups Mike Harris and Kenny Wiggins will look to unseat Dunlap.
The guard position this year will be drastically better than last year, especially with rookie Chris Watt and veteran Jeromey Clary as the starters. Watt, a third-round pick this year, will replace veteran Chad Rinehart as the starting left guard. On the right side, Clary will return as the starter after making 15 starts last season. The backups will include Rinehart, Rich Ohrnberger and Johnnie Troutman.
Nick Hardwick has started in all 16 games the past four seasons as the Chargers' center and 2014 will be no different as Hardwick will be the starter once again. Nick McDonald will be Hardwick's backup, but also expect Rinehart to be an emergency center if Hardwick goes down, or McDonald doesn't pan out.
The Chargers have a great pair of starting 3-4 defensive ends in Kendall Reyes and Corey Liuget. Reyes has 10.5 sacks in the past two seasons as a 3-4 defensive end while Liuget has anchored the line the past two seasons, including 5.5 sacks last season. Backups Lawrence Guy and Damik Scaife will provide quality depth to the Chargers' front three.
After losing Cam Thomas this offseason to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the starter at nose tackle will be Sean Lissemore, who was a mid-season acquisition last year. Lissemore played well late last season despite only being a part-time starter. Lissemore will be backed up by fifth-round pick Ryan Carrethers and Kwame Geathers with Carrethers likely to be the best to challenge Lissemore as the starter.
On the outside, veterans Dwight Freeney and Jarret Johnson will return as starters, but their jobs aren't as safe as it seems. Freeney played in only four games last season and failed to record a single sack, while Johnson played in only 11 games and wasn't a true factor as a pass rusher. The Chargers have good depth with former first-round picks Melvin Ingram and Larry English as well as this year's second-round pick in Jeremiah Attaochu.
Inside linebacker will be a major improvement this season after the team re-signed Donald Butler and Manti Te'o's improved late last season. Butler is now paid like a top linebacker, but he also must now produce like a top linebacker, while Te'o has to prove that he can be consistent for a full season. Veterans Kavell Conner and Thomas Keiser will be the best options as backups to Butler and Te'o.
Most experts have thought that the Chargers' cornerback play has been a real weakness, but I won't go that far. Shareece Wright had a great season last year and will be the No. 1 corner for the Chargers this season. First-round pick Jason Verrett will immediately start and will line up all over the field. Backup corners will include veterans Richard Marshall, Brandon Ghee and second-year player Steve Williams.
Eric Weddle has been of the most underrated players in the NFL since he entered the league in 2007. Weddle will once again return as the starter at free safety after a great 2013 campaign. Darrell Stuckey will once again be Weddle's backup and will continue to be one of the best special teams players in the NFL.
After playing corner the previous two seasons, Marcus Gilchrist had a great year at safety and will once again be the team's starting strong safety. Gilchrist will only get better, especially with Weddle beside him. Brandon Taylor and undrafted free agent Alden Darby will back up Gilchrist.
San Diego's special teams unit improved tremendously last season with each unit performing better than expected. Punter Mike Scifres is still one of the best punters in the NFL, while kicker Nick Novak had a career season. Long-snapper Mike Windt has developed into one of the best in the business and in the return game, Woodhead will return kickoffs while Royal will return punts.
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