QB Charlie Whitehurst, FB Le'Ron McClain, NT Cam Thomas, CB Derek Cox, CB Johnny Patrick.
2014 San Diego Chargers Offense:
Philip Rivers looked finished prior to the 2013 season. He threw 26 touchdowns in 2012, but was responsible for 15 interceptions and seven lost fumbles, all while maintaining a career-low 6.8 YPA. It appeared as though his arm strength was completely sapped. However, he apparently just needed a few things to change, especially the coaching staff. While Norv Turner was frequently outmatched, Mike McCoy proved to be a tremendous upgrade. McCoy fixed some of Rivers' problems and allowed his quarterback to call all of the shots at the line of scrimmage. This helped Rivers tremendously.
An improved offensive line was something else that allowed Rivers to turn his career around. For reasons unknown, the Chargers neglected their blocking for years, squandering first-round selections on Larry English and Ryan Mathews in the process. That changed when San Diego signed King Dunlap to be its left tackle and then used the No. 11 overall selection in the 2013 NFL Draft on D.J. Fluker to start on the other side. Fluker performed well as a rookie, while Dunlap proved to be a tremendous acquisition, permitting just three sacks all year.
Having Fluker on the roster allowed the pedestrian Jeromey Clary to move inside, where he was less of a liability. Luckily for the Chargers, they had two other solid interior linemen to compensate. Chad Rinehart did fine at left guard despite missing action for several weeks, while Nick Hardwick was one of the league's best centers once again. Third-round rookie Chris Watt will challenge Clary at right guard.
Rivers' ability to throw to a legitimate No. 1 threat also helped tremendously. The Chargers struck gold with third-round rookie Keenan Allen, compiling 71 receptions, 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns. With Antonio Gates in severe decline, and Vincent Jackson and Darren Sproles both long gone, Rivers was pretty much begging for help. He has to be thrilled with Allen on the roster.
The Chargers don't have much else at receiver, however - Malcom Floyd is coming off a brutal neck injury; Vincent Brown hasn't progressed; while Gates is done, and his presence is blocking the athletic Ladarius Green from starting. With that in mind, it's a good thing Rivers has Danny Woodhead as a weapon out of the backfield. Serving the Sproles role, Woodhead logged 76 catches for 605 receiving yards in his first season in San Diego. Rivers really missed having a legitimate pass-catching threat at the running back position, so it's puzzling why the Chargers didn't find a replacement for Sproles sooner.
Of course, Woodhead played second fiddle when it actually came to carrying the ball. That responsibility was Mathews', as the brittle running back miraculously stayed healthy for an entire season for the first time in his career. As a consequence, Mathews gained 1,255 yards on the ground. It's unlikely that Mathews will play all 16 games again, but San Diego compensated for that possibility by signing Donald Brown, who performed well in Indianapolis last season, as he was perhaps motivated by the Trent Richardson trade.
2014 San Diego Chargers Defense:
The Chargers had poor overall defensive marks in 2013 - 23rd in yards allowed, 27th in rush defense, 29th in pass defense - but those marks are a bit skewed because San Diego's stop unit improved near the end of the season. The team surrendered 24 or fewer points to each of its final seven opponents, and two of those games include battles against Peyton Manning and the Broncos.
How did the Chargers improve so dramatically? Well, a couple of things happened. Having Melvin Ingram return to the lineup was a big boost. Ingram, the team's top pass-rusher, was out for the first three months of the season with a torn ACL he suffered in OTAs. Even though he wasn't 100 percent, Ingram being on the field made a big difference. Ingram will have to carry the pass rush once again, given that Dwight Freeney just turned 34, and second-round rookie Jeremiah Attaochu is coming off an injury of his own.
Replacing the anemic Derek Cox with Richard Marshall at corner also helped. Marshall wasn't great to close out the season, but he was so much better than Cox, who gave up big play after big play. With the inept Shareece Wright starting across from Marshall, San Diego had to address the position in the offseason, and it did just that, spending the 25th-overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft on Jason Verrett, an undersized but skilled corner. Verrett is a rookie, so he's an unknown commodity, but he can't possibly be worse than Cox or Wright. San Diego then signed Brandon Flowers, who was excellent for Kansas City before the new defensive scheme was introduced.
The Chargers also received a late-season boost from undrafted rookie free agent safety Jahleel Addae. They began using more three-safety looks to close out the year, so having Addae out there really helped because he performed admirably for an unseasoned player. San Diego now has three decent safeties in Addae, Eric Weddle and Marcus Gilchrist, so if Verrett can step up, the team will suddenly have a pretty formidable secondary.
With that in mind, the defensive front and the inside linebackers will have to do their job to meet expectations. The Chargers spent a pair of recent early-round selections on Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes, but both struggled in 2013. Liuget was inconsistent, as he's been throughout his career, while Reyes took a big step backward after an outstanding rookie campaign. The good news is that Reyes was better to close out the season, so San Diego will be hoping that's a sign of things to come, especially given that the group of nose tackles - Sean Lissemore, fifth-round rookie Ryan Carrethers - is pretty underwhelming.
As for the inside linebackers, Donald Butler had an up-and-down season, thanks to a bothersome groin. The Chargers apparently aren't worried about him because they gave him a 7-year, $48 million contract this spring. However, they should be concerned about Manti Te'o because the 2013 second-rounder struggled immensely during his rookie campaign.
2014 San Diego Chargers Schedule and Intangibles:
San Diego's special teams proved to be pretty mediocre in 2013. The team didn't score any touchdowns, but it didn't surrender any either. The opposition outgained them by just a bit on both punts and kickoffs.
Nate Kaeding always choked in the clutch, so it was a blessing in disguise when he got hurt three years ago because San Diego was able to find a suitable replacement. Nick Novak hit 27-of-34 attempts in 2011 and then followed that up by going 18-of-20. He was even more brilliant in 2013, drilling 34-of-37 attempts, including 2-of-2 from 50-plus.
Punter Mike Scifres is one of the league's best players at his position. He tied for eighth in terms of kicks placed inside the 20. He was 15th in net average.
The Chargers had a ridiculously easy slate in 2013, as they were able to beat up on all of the NFC East teams. That won't be the case this year, as they drew the NFC West. They also have to deal with the Patriots and Ravens, as well as the Broncos twice. Fortunately, they get the Jaguars, Jets, Dolphins, Bills and Raiders twice, so that balances things out a bit.
2014 San Diego Chargers Rookies:
Go here for the Chargers Rookie Forecast, a page with predictions like which rookie will bust and which rookie will become a solid starter.
2014 San Diego Chargers Positional Rankings (1-5 stars):
2014 San Diego Chargers Analysis: The Chargers snuck into the playoffs this past season. While logic dictates that they'll have more trouble doing so with a tougher schedule looming, it's important to note that they were a much better team, especially defensively, down the stretch. That should carry over into 2014, so a second-consecutive postseason berth is certainly possible.
Goals Entering the 2014 NFL Draft: San Diego's defense played better down the stretch, but it still needs help at multiple positions. Rush linebacker and nose tackle both have to be addressed, but the big holes are in the secondary, especially cornerback. The Chargers also have to give Philip Rivers a new downfield target because all Rivers has is Keenan Allen.
2014 NFL Draft Accomplishments: I gave the Chargers positive grades for all but one selection, their third-round choice of Chris Watt. It filled a slightly lesser need, but the issue was that it was a pretty big reach. Other than that, San Diego did pretty well.
The Chargers took care of two of their biggest holes early on when they chose Jason Verrett and Jeremiah Attaochu. They happened to be solid value selections, and they both have the potential to start this season. The other huge need, nose tackle, was addressed a bit too late for my liking. Ryan Carrethers was obtained in the fifth round, but I don't understand why San Diego didn't opt for the falling Louis Nix in the third frame. Nix would have been a massive upgrade.
San Diego's front office put together a solid draft, outside of the Nix and Watt blunders. It wasn't enough to overtake the Broncos, but that was nearly an impossible task to begin with.
NFL Draft Individual Grades:
25. Jason Verrett, CB, TCU: B+ Grade
So much for the report that Jason Verrett would fall to the second round because of a bum shoulder. Verrett is a very skilled player despite his 5-foot-9 frame. The range is right for him, and he fills a huge need at corner. San Diego had to address the position if it wanted to stand any chance against Peyton Manning.
50. Jeremiah Attaochu, DE/OLB, Georgia Tech: B+ Grade
The pass-rushers are flying off the board - even Trent Murphy is gone - so I can understand why the Chargers made the move up for Jeremiah Attaochu. They desperately needed to upgrade their ability to get to the quarterback because they need to rattle Peyton Manning to have a chance against him. Attaochu is a bit raw, but he has a ridiculous amount of potential.
89. Chris Watt, G, Notre Dame: C- Grade
The Chargers have drafted well thus far, but I don't like this selection nearly as much. Chris Watt is a late-round prospect, so San Diego is making a major reach. Watt at least fills a need though, given that the Chargers had to bolster the interior of their offensive front.
165. Ryan Carrethers, NT, Arkansas State: B- Grade
Some thought the Chargers would pick Louis Nix at No. 25 because of their glaring need for a nose tackle. They waited a long time, and it's unknown if Ryan Carrethers can ever develop into a starter, but this pick is close to his range.
201. Marion Grice, RB, Arizona State: B Grade
Marion Grice has become a forgotten man throughout this draft process. He was once viewed as a mid-round prospect, but he dropped a bit. This is a solid move to bring him in though, as San Diego needed another running back on its roster.
241. Tevin Reese, WR, Baylor: A- Grade
I like this pick a good deal. The Chargers needed a speed complement for Keenan Allen at receiver. Tevin Reese can make plays downfield, and he probably should have gone a round or two earlier.
Though they barely beat Kansas City's backups to sneak into the playoffs, the Chargers finished the 2013 season on a tear, winning their final four games and then impressively upsetting the Bengals on the road during the opening round of the postseason. They were jut a third-and-17 away from perhaps dispatching the Broncos, but Peyton Manning found Julius Thomas, keeping the ball away from Philip Rivers for good.
Chargers sign CB Brandon Flowers
Chargers re-sign C/G Rich Ohrnberger
Chargers re-sign CB Richard Marshall
Steelers sign NT Cam Thomas
Chargers sign CB Brandon Ghee
Chargers re-sign ILB Reggie Walker
Vikings sign CB Derek Cox
Chargers sign QB Kellen Clemens
Titans sign QB Charlie Whitehurst
Chargers sign ILB Kavell Conner
Lions sign DT Vaughn Martin
Chargers sign TE David Johnson
Chargers sign RB Donald Brown
Chargers re-sign G Chad Rinehart
Chargers re-sign S Darrell Stuckey
Chargers cut CB Derek Cox
Chargers cut FB Le'Ron McClain
Chargers cut CB Johnny Patrick
Chargers re-sign ILB Donald Butler
Two Cornerbacks: It's never a good sign when a beleaguered Richard Marshall provides an upgrade in the secondary. San Diego is hurting for a cornerback - two, in fact. The team would love it if one of the top players at the position fell to No. 25 this May. Re-signed Richard Marshall; signed Brandon Flowers; drafted Jason Verrett
Outside Linebacker: Dwight Freeney looked like a bust signing before landing on injured reserve in early October. San Diego has to properly replace Shaun Phillips this time, even if it means using a first-round pick on a pass-rusher.
Nose Tackle: The Chargers are expected to upgrade their defensive line. Cam Thomas is an impending free agent, but there's room for improvement with him anyway.
Right Guard: Jeromey Clary is better at guard than he was at tackle, but he's still the weakest link up front. The Chargers should use one of their first three picks on an upgrade. Re-signed Chad Rinehart
Wide Receiver: Keenan Allen was extremely impressive as a rookie, while Eddie Royal played well in the slot when he was actually on the field. However, the Chargers could use a No. 2 receiver to compete with Malcom Floyd and Vincent Brown, both of whom have been disappointments.
Tight End: Antonio Gates used to be one of the NFL's top tight ends, but he looks like a corpse right now. He can barely move. Unless San Diego believes Ladarius Green is the long-term solution at the position, it'll need to find a new tight end. Signed David Johnson
Inside Linebacker: Donald Butler is coming off a down year, but he's still a valued starter. He's also a free agent who should be retained. Re-signed Donald Butler
Offensive Tackle Depth: The Chargers were in trouble when King Dunlap went out with an injury. A mid-round pick should be used for depth at this position.
Running Back Depth: Ryan Mathews was able to stay healthy in 2013, but can that happen again? The odds are against it. Signed Donald Brown
Brandon Flowers, CB, Chiefs. Age: 28. Signed with Chargers (1 year)
Brandon Flowers has been a tremendous zone cornerback in the NFL for quite some time, but he really struggled in Kansas City's new man scheme last year. At just 28, Flowers could perform on a Pro Bowl level if he finds the right fit. The Falcons and Texans are reportedly interested.
Donald Brown, RB, Colts. Age: 27. Signed with Chargers (3 years, $10.5 million)
The Trent Richardson trade sparked Donald Brown, who averaged 5.3 yards per carry in 2013. He's a quality pass-catcher.
Kavell Conner, ILB, Colts. Age: 27. -- Signed with Chargers (3 years)
Kellen Clemens, QB, Rams. Age: 31. -- Signed with Chargers
Brandon Ghee, CB, Bengals. Age: 27. -- Signed with Chargers (2 years)
David Johnson, TE, Steelers. Age: 27. -- Signed with Chargers (2 years)
San Diego Chargers Free Agents:
Salary Cap: TBA.
Le'Ron McClain, FB, Chargers. Age: 29.
Le'Ron McClain was released because he didn't fit San Diego's offensive style. At just 29, he's still a strong blocker, and he's not the worst ball-carrier in the world.
Donald Butler, ILB, Chargers. Age: 25. Re-signed with Chargers
Donald Butler is a solid, young (26 in October) inside linebacker who can play all three downs. He struggled a bit in the first half of this past season because he was dealing with a groin issue, but he performed well to close out the year.