The Arizona Cardinals are closely in on preseason game number two and as their game preparation starts to resemble that of a regular season game, so will ours at ROTB. With that in mind, we've sat down with the enemy, the San Diego Chargers, in order to get some insight into the preseason hopes and concerns of last year's AFC West Champion. So we straight to an expert source, our fellow SBN site Bolts from the Blue (you can also check out or Q&A with them, right here).
ROTB - I'm sure two of the biggest story lines of the Chargers camp this season have been the injury status of Shawne Merriman and LT and their ability to bounce back this season. How have those two been during camp so far? And what do you see happening with Merriman after this season (he's a UFA after this season right?)?
ROTB - One guy that quite a few of us Cardinals fans were interested in prior to the draft was Larry English. First, was it surprising that the Chargers took an OLB, how has he looked during camp so far and what role will he play this season? Are there any other rookies who are expected to contribute this season?
BFTB - Reviews on both Merriman and Tomlinson have been stellar out of camp. However, in their limited playing time against the Seahawks last Saturday neither was very impressive. Merriman seemed tentative on his injured knee, understandably, and LT looked a little bit better than he was in 2008 (when he played with nagging injuries all season). With both of these players, Chargers fans are hoping for the best but thanking our GM for having depth behind them.
Merriman in 2010 depends on a lot of things. For one, some other big-name Chargers players are free agents after this year as well (Philip Rivers, Marcus McNeill, Vincent Jackson, Darren Sproles, etc.). So, if the Chargers can lock all of those guys up they can simply franchise Shawne. If they can't, they'll have some decisions to make. Also, the Collective Bargaining Agreement effects Merriman's deal as well. If there is not a new CBA in place by time free agency starts, Merriman becomes a restricted free agent for another two years. If a new CBA is in place and the team decides to franchise someone else, he could be lost, but I don't think the team wants that. The most important factor in the entire thing is Merriman's health. If he looks less-than-stellar in 2009, a deal will be easier with San Diego but maybe not wanted by the team.
BFTB - I personally think the jury is still out on English. When he's been able to get on the field he's shown himself to be a natural pass-rusher and a quick study. However, so far he's spent more time working out of the side with a strained hamstring than actually working with the team. Tomorrow we find out if he's going to miss his second straight preseason game.
Some rookies could play themselves into contributing roles in the preseason, but nothing is guaranteed. Kevin Ellison could potentially work himself into part of our "Strong Safety by Committee", Gartrell Johnson could take over the role as goal-line RB and Louis Vasquez still has an outside chance of winning the starting RG position if Kynan Forney starts to slip. Vaughn Martin, a DT drafted out of Canada, is getting a lot of time on the field to get more accustomed to American football. If he can show more consistency, he could eventually be a part of the Chargers' Defensive Line rotation.
ROTB - Following some of the questions that you asked us, what are some of the injuries that the Chargers have dealt with so far during camp and who are some of the younger, backups that you're looking forward to seeing?
Luckily, the Chargers have managed to stay very healthy to this point in the preseason. I'm not worried about Larry English's injury, but I am worried about the valuable on-field time he's missing. Everyone else is generally healthy, except for a few backups here and there.
I've been excited about Gartrell Johnson since I watched him in college. He only got a handful of carries against the Seahawks and, like the rest of our running backs, struggled. Part of that was due to the offensive line not being in sync. I love to watch Legedu Naanee, who has the talent to be a #2 receiver in the league but is stuck in our WR logjam.
ROTB - Now that training camps are closer to the end than the beginning and the regular season is so close we can smell it, what would you identify as the strengths and weaknesses of the Chargers and their biggest hurdle to overcome this season?
BFTB - Kind of a tricky question because I'm still not sure what we have in Merriman and Tomlinson this season. The strength of the offense is Philip Rivers and the passing game. The #2 offense in the league last season, trailing only the New Orleans Saints, should get even better with Antonio Gates and LT seemingly back to 100% health.
The defense is somewhat of a question mark. For the first 10 or so weeks of 2008, it was bad on every front. The run wasn't being stopped and defending the pass was a joke. When Ted Cottrell was fired and Ron Rivera promoted to Defensive Coordinator, things got better. In 2009, the questions is...how much better can it get? Take a defense that was 15th in the NFL, then add in one of the best pass-rushers in the game (Merriman) and one of the most dangerous cornerbacks in the game (Antonio Cromartie, who played all of 2008 with a broken hip). That seems impressive, right? Now add in Larry English, who certainly has the potential to be a great pass-rusher, and Kevin Burnett, signed to eliminate the Chargers problems with covering TEs.
On both the offensive and defensive sides of the football, the Chargers added without subtracting. So, hypothetically, they've eliminated their weaknesses on both sides of the ball. However, I think the running game could potentially be a weakness again for the offense and I'm still worried about trying to cover deep with a "Strong Safety by Committee". Playing against a team like the Cardinals, with a strong-armed QB and some speedy receivers, San Diego could be susceptible to the deep pass.
ROTB - Since this game won't really count in the standing and the Chargers are a team with quite a few fantasy stars, I've gotta ask a quick fantasy question. Can you give us a quick preview of what to expect from guys like Rivers, LT, Gates and the Chargers defense? Also, will the Chargers have a wide receiver worthy of an every week start?
BFTB - Rivers will be a top 5, if not a top 3, fantasy QB. I have no doubt about that. Gates looks better than he ever has and I suspect he'll go back to putting up numbers we're used to seeing from him (75 rec, 900+ yds, 9+ TDs). LT is kindof a crapshoot, not because of talent but because he's more at-risk for injuries than he ever has been. The Chargers defense has a chance to go back to it's 2006/2007 form of collecting a ton of sacks, interceptions and a handful of TDs as well. Ron Rivera preaches attacking the defense, turning the ball over and scoring defensive touchdowns more than any other coordinator I know.
Your best bets on the team are probably Rivers and Vincent Jackson. VJ would be the only WR that I'd start every week, because Philip really likes to spread the ball around to the guy who's not covered rather than focusing on one player. However, about twice per game he'll try for the deep ball with VJ and they'll usually connect on it. He caught 7 passes that went for 40 or more yards in 2008, tying him for second in that category with Bernard Berrian and Calvin Johnson. His excellent speed creates a lot of those opportunities, and his height (6'5") is there in case he has to fight for the ball.
Well at least it's nice to hear that the Cardinals aren't the only team that has seen their first round pick spend more time on the trainer's table than the practice field, but at least their both signed and in camp, right (take that SF)? I for one hope that Merriman is healthy for the sole reason of testing Mike Gandy on Saturday. Gandy, understandably, struggled against James Harrison last week and it'll be interesting to see him face yet another premier pass rusher. Your thoughts?