The San Diego Chargers kickoff their 2014 training camp this week on Thursday, July 24, as they look to build on a successful 2013 season.
The Chargers are coming off a surprising 9-7 season last year that ended with a AFC Divisional Playoff loss to the Denver Broncos. San Diego made it back to the postseason for the first time in three years, but it won’t be an easy task for second year head coach Mike McCoy to make it back. The Chargers have the fourth hardest schedule in the NFL, which includes dates with all four teams that made the AFC and NFC championship games last season. The defending Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks, the San Francisco 49ers, the New England Patriots and of course two meetings with division rival Broncos.
The Chargers will also face division rivals the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs twice. The Raiders had a great draft selecting LB Kahlil Mack in the first round and QB Derek Carr in the second, while also adding a lot of veterans in free agency who should drastically improve their roster. The Chiefs lost three starters on their offensive line, but still have a stout pass rush and Pro Bowler RB Jamal Charles in their backfield.
When you look at San Diego’s coaching staff, Tom Telesco and McCoy were able to keep defensive coordinator John Pagano, but lost offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. Keeping Pagano is crucial in the continued development of their young defense. On the other side of the ball, the departure of Whisenhunt, who takes over the head coaching duties for the Tennessee Titans, gives Frank Reich the opportunity to lead the Chargers’ offensive attack with QB Philip Rivers.
Offensively, the Chargers were great last year. They ranked fifth in yards per game (393.3) and 12th in points per game (24.8). Rivers got back to form with a career year, RB Ryan Mathews also had a career year, and rookie WR Keenan Allen emerged as a No. 1 option for Rivers. It will be interesting to see how Reich incorporates a more uptempo offense with the three headed running attach of Mathews, Danny Woodhead and Donald Brown. Also keep an eye on TE Ladarius Green, who could have a break out season.
Allen will likely face double teams this year, so another receiver will need to step up for the Chargers. Veteran WR Malcom Floyd is coming off a major neck injury last year that looked to be career-threatening, but he’s back on the field. His services would be a big boost for Rivers, so training camp will be a good test to see if Floyd is completely healthy.
On defense, the Chargers struggled mightily, particularly in the secondary and the pass rush. The Chargers couldn’t hold on to leads due to corners who consistently let receivers get behind them and a pass rush that couldn’t pressure the quarterback.
Telesco and McCoy addressed both of these areas in the NFL Draft by selecting CB Jason Verrett and OLB Jeremiah Attaochu in the first two rounds respectively. Verrett and recently-signed CB Brandon Flowers should improve a secondary that was horrendous, to say the least, last season. It will be interesting to see how Pagano uses Verrett and Flowers together. I see Verrett lining up in the slot the majority of the time as he transitions to the NFL. Attaochu could have an immediate impact in a roll similar to what LB Aldon Smith had with the 49ers during his rookie year as a second and third down pass rusher. With OLBs Dwight Freeney and Melvin Ingram healthy, this could turn a poor pass rushing attack into one that ranks in the top-10 this season.
One more area to watch closely during training camp is special teams, specifically the return game. The Chargers have been searching for a dynamic returner since Darren Sproles left in 2010. Late round draft picks Marion Grice and Tevin Reese, along with undrafted free agents Chris Davis and Brelan Chancellor, will all be competing for the return duties. This is a huge area of need for the bolts, so the competition level will be high.
The biggest hurdle the Chargers have to get over during training camp is staying healthy. If they can make it to the start of the season with minimal to no injuries, then the 2014 season could be very bright in sunny San Diego.