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New Era

By Columnist Alex Ramirez

Last season, the Chargers led the NFL in both offense and defense. Given both, they had a better chance at repeating their offensive success rather than their defensive this season. This was all before free agency started.

San Diego isn’t known for signing top free agents. The only free agents they usually sign are their own, with an exception of a couple. This year was a little different. Twenty-four free agents the Chargers had to make decisions on. As expected, Darren Sproles was bound to exit. He agreed to a four year contract with the Saints joining former quarterback Drew Brees. Kevin Burnett was thought to stay, but asked for too much money. Miami, on the other hand, gave him what he wanted. Other players that will not be with the Chargers this year are Buster Davis, Donald Strickland, Brandon Lang, Jyles Tucker, and Kris Wilson. Malcom Floyd is not expected to stay with San Diego. He wants more money than what the Chargers will give him.

Not all the Chargers free agents are leaving. Mike Tolbert, Antwan Barnes, Jacques Cesaire, Jeromey Clary, Randy McMichael, Scott Mruczkowski, and Kelley Washington will all be in blue and yellow jerseys next season. Same goes for top tackling safety Eric Weddle. San Diego signed him for five years, $40 million. He will be the highest paid safety ever in the NFL.

Many have been saying that he was overpaid for his potential. The truth of the matter is, there was no safeties in free agency better than him, or could replace him. He also took less, yes less money to stay a Charger. Just potential? I don’t think so. Eric Weddle’s contract wasn’t even San Diego’s biggest storyline. Vincent Jackson, the player who held out most of last year to prove he wouldn’t give in to not getting the money wanted. As soon as the NFL season ended, San Diego franchised VJ. On Friday, Jackson signed his $11 million franchise tender. He says he would still play for the Chargers on a long term contract. Now he has to prove to management he deserves it.

San Diego did what they thought was best by releasing the players unneeded, and re-signing the players that are vital to the team, hence Eric Weddle, Vincent Jackson, Mike Tolbert, etc. A.J. Smith didn’t stop there. Bob Sanders, Takeo Spikes, and Travis Laboy are now Chargers. Sanders came at a low price due to his injury problems. He only played in three games the last two seasons. When he is healthy though, Sanders is one of the most elusive safeties in the league, up there with Ed Reed. Takeo Spikes comes from San Francisco along with new defensive coordinator Greg Manusky. Spikes may be older than most linebackers, but what he brings to the team is leadership. He has a fiery attitude. Every team needs a player on defense like him. San Diego had Junior Seau, then Shawne Meriman, and now Takeo Spikes. Travis Laboy is another outside linebacker/defensive end from San Francisco. Last year, Laboy was a specialized player. He isn’t a great coverage linebacker, more of pass rusher and run stopper. Manusky liked his talent, so we’ll see what he can bring to the table.

The Chargers have scored pretty big in free agency this year, and aren’t finished yet. They should be looking for more linebacker help, a veteran quarterback to aid Philip Rivers, and a decent number two receiver. Let’s take a look at the Chargers depth chart.

Offense. Philip Rivers behind the entire offensive line from last season, including pro bowl guard Marcus McNeil the entire season. He will be handing the ball off to a healthy, explosive Ryan Mathews and a pounding Mike Tolbert. I imagine rookie Jordan Todman will be in for pass plays. Speaking of passing, Rivers will have his favorite target Vincent Jackson back this year. Also, he will hopefully have a healthy Gates, healthy Crayton, veteran Kelly Washington, speedy newcomer Vincent Brown, and second year veteran Seyi Ajirotutu. Look for A.J. to add another receiver this free agency. Owens? Moss?

Defense. Takeo Spikes in the middle of a prime Shaun Phillips, Antwan Barnes, Larry English, and Travis Laboy. Another linebacker could be added to the mix as well. Former Packer Nick Barnett would be a great fit. Our front line should be as a good as ever. Led by Antonio Garay coming off of a fantastic year, with Luis Castillo storming the outside, and first round pick Corey Liuget using his size and speed on the other side. Our front line could be the best in the NFL. Now our DB’s. Antoine Cason, who isn’t a playmaker like Cromartie, but more consistent on a weekly basis will be on one side. On the other, is long term cornerback Quentin Jammer. In my opinion, Jammer is one of the most underrated players in the league. But here’s the best part. Behind the entire defense will be Eric Weddle and Bob Sanders. How does that sound? Sanders will make the coverage better with his experience, while Spikes will make the linebackers better with his experience. The defense is going nowhere but up.

Special Teams. This one, I’m not so sure who will be on coverage and who won’t. All I know, is there is no possible way San Diego can get worse on special teams. Patrick Crayton and Antoine Cason have been splitting reps on punt returns at practice. Richard Goodman and Marcus Gilchrist are sharing reps on kickoff returns at practice as well. This is all because of the loss of Darren Sproles, who had no kickoff or punt return touchdowns last year anyways. Crayton has returned punts before, and holds on to the ball very secure. Goodman returned some kicks last season, and in preseason, and he showed incredible speed. Same with defense, special teams can only get better.

As long as the Chargers hold onto the ball on offense, stay healthy, and fix their special teams issues, we could be looking at another championship contending team. Five years ago, San Diego was a run first team with LaDainian Tomlinson. Phillip Rivers was just emerging into a starting quarterback, and our defense was still trying to figure things out. Tomlinson was released before last season, and that’s when the new era started. The Philip Rivers era. He makes things happen, whether he’s passing to top notch receivers, or guys who wouldn’t even make other teams’ practice squads.

The Chargers are their own enemies. They play in one of the worst divisions in the league, and with their talent, they should be winning that division every season. This should be a great year to be a Chargers fan. Mathews is set to break out, Jackson has something to play for, Weddle is set to prove why he’s worth the money, Spikes is ready to play for a contender, and Sanders wants to get back to his old self. Not to mention the coaches. What Greg Manusky and Rich Bissacia bring to San Diego is energy. They fire the players up, and get them going and working hard. Norv Turner has also had an effect by just watching them. I’m ready to watch them play, how about you guys?

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