There’s nothing like snapping the fans to attention by making a radical regime change and drafting Manti Te’o. That’s what the Chargers did after missing the playoffs for the third straight season and watching attendance sag. Citing the need for a “culture change,” team president Dean Spanos finally bowed to the fans’ wishes and fired Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith. He replaced them with 40-year-olds Mike McCoy and Tom Telesco, who are in their first head coaching and general manager gigs, respectively.
Telesco began rebuilding a roster that had grown stale because of Smith’s unproductive drafts and a wild free agent binge prior to the 2012 season. Among his many moves, Telesco got rid of left tackle Jared Gaither, who’d earned the nickname “The Big Lazy,” and drafted Te’o, a move sure to give the Chargers much more national exposure than they otherwise would merit. Still, returning the Bolts to their days of dominating the AFC West could take the new brain trust a few seasons.
Athlon Sports AFC Power Ranking: 10th
The Chargers hope Philip Rivers can pull out of a slide that’s seen him commit 49 turnovers the last two years combined. Not only will Rivers be running a new system under McCoy and new offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, but there are also still big questions about the line. Rivers was under siege much of last season, leading to 49 sacks and 22 turnovers. Fans are concerned that Rivers might have a hard time staying upright again this season.
Telesco spent his first-round draft pick on Alabama right tackle D.J. Fluker, but the new GM failed to upgrade the critical left side of the line in the draft. The Chargers had left tackle Bryant McKinnie in for a visit before he re-signed with Baltimore. So going into training camp, the No. 1 left tackle protecting Rivers’ blind side is King Dunlap, a free agent pickup from Philadelphia. Dunlap is big (6'9", 330), but he had a hamstring injury last year, and the Philly line struggled. The Chargers’ string of bad luck at left tackle started when Marcus McNeill retired due to a neck injury and continued when Gaither got the heave-ho because of his poor work ethic and injury troubles. The left guard is projected to be Rich Ohrnberger, one of Telesco’s three free agent acquisitions on the line. With Fluker set to start at right tackle, Jeromey Clary will move to right guard. Fluker was considered one of the best run-blockers in college last year, but he’ll need to improve his pass-blocking.
Another player who needs to bounce back big is running back Ryan Mathews, who broke both collarbones last season and failed to fix his fumbling problem. Five defensive players on his own team had as many or more touchdowns than Mathews, who scored only once. Telesco added free agent Danny Woodhead to help at running back.
The Bolts have already gone through a fair amount of attrition at wide receiver before the season has even started. Danario Alexander was signed in mid-October and ended up being one of the team’s most productive receivers, but he tore his ACL in early August and is lost for the season. Malcom Floyd, the team's leading receiver last season, sustained his own knee injury shortly afterwards, but he is expected to ready to play by Week 1. San Diego drafted Cal’s Keenan Allen in the third round in April, but the team really needs Vincent Brown to bounce back from a fractured ankle and more production out of Eddie Royal and Robert Meachem, provided both end up on the final roster. Tight end Antonio Gates bounced back from a painful foot injury but will be playing his 11th season.
While Turner called his own plays and often struggled with game management, McCoy was praised for hiring former Cardinals head coach Whisenhunt as his offensive coordinator.
Te’o instantly became the most intriguing player on the Chargers’ roster when Telesco traded up to get him in the second round of the draft. Telesco said he wasn’t worried by the star linebacker’s poor showing in Notre Dame’s blowout loss to Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game, his being involved in a hoax involving a fake girlfriend or his poor 40-yard dash times. After looking so bad against Alabama’s powerful run game, Te’o will have to prove that he can make it in the NFL, both physically and mentally. With veteran Takeo Spikes a salary cap casualty, Te’o will play inside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme alongside Donald Butler, who had a breakthrough season in 2012.
San Diego was counting on second-year linebacker Melvin Ingram to help replace Bulter, but he tore his ACL back in May and it's unknown if he will be able to return at any point this season. The Chargers signed former Indianapolis Colt Dwight Freeney to a two-year deal following Ingram's injury. Freeney has 107.5 career sacks, but the 11-year veteran is 33 years old and managed just five sacks last season. San Diego needs him to re-establish himself as a pass-rushing presence from his outside linebacker position.
Like the offense, the defense has both playmakers and some holes, although Telesco made more moves on this side of the ball due to the salary cap and his desire for a younger roster. While Smith was panned for many of his draft picks in recent years, he did do well in adding some good, young players on defense. Ends Corey Liuget, a first-round pick in 2011, and Kendall Reyes, a second-rounder in 2012, have fans excited with their dominating play. Liuget had seven sacks and Reyes had 5.5. One problem is the hole in between them. Antonio Garay was allowed to leave as a free agent, leaving Cam Thomas as the only defensive tackle on the roster. The Chargers also lost Shaun Phillips, who led them with 9.5 sacks.
San Diego will turn over three-quarters of its secondary. Only free safety Eric Weddle returns as a starter. The Chargers, who haven’t had a thumper at strong safety since Rodney Harrison was released more than 10 years ago, will turn to Brandon Taylor, a third-round pick in 2012. Marcus Gilchrist and free-agent acquisition Derek Cox will be the new starters at cornerback after Antoine Cason left for Arizona and Quentin Jammer became a free agent.
After an off-and-on role with the Chargers, Nick Novak finally stuck as the kicker. He was signed four weeks into the 2012 season after Nate Kaeding got hurt, and he hit 18-of-20 field goal attempts in the final 13 games. He was 16-for-16 inside 50 yards, and his 90 percent conversion rate was the third-highest for a season in team history. Kaeding was eventually put on injured reserve and then released, ending a run in which he became the most accurate regular-season kicker in NFL history. Kaeding’s playoff misses, however, still rankle fans. Punter Mike Scifres remains a key player with his powerful left leg, and Mike Windt returns as long snapper.
Final Analysis: 3rd in AFC West
Chargers fans should brace for the possibility that the Bolts could miss the playoffs for the fourth straight season. Telesco doesn’t like the word “rebuilding,” but it’s hard to deny that he has a pretty big project on his hands. He has vowed to rebuild via the draft rather than through expensive, splashy and unpredictable free agent signings, so his plan for reshaping the roster could take a few seasons.
With two-time AFC West champion Denver and Kansas City making their share of big moves, the Chargers might have to settle for finishing ahead of the lowly Oakland Raiders.
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