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Training Camp Visits The Q

August 6, 2009

LT campFor those of us who are unable to sneak into training camp practices at the Chargers Complex, the Chargers held their first public practice of the summer. While I could bore you with a minute-by-minute account of tonight’s showcase, including every stretch and step in warm-ups and every punt by a bored Mike Scifres, I’ll simply add a few of my own observations.

LaDainian Tomlinson: I know, it’s training camp, and the players aren’t really trying to hit anyone, but LT ran like the MVP version of LT, circa 2006. He went from zero-to-sprint in the blink of an eye, he hit the hole in a burst, and he made quick adjustments when the hole wasn’t there. His reps were very encouraging.

Shawne Merriman: Always in position to make a play, quick off the line…I’m so happy that he is not just back but is now healthier than ever. He might literally send Jamarcus Russell into an early retirement after the season’s first game.
Jacob Hester: Looks good, definitely bigger, and looked like he can carry the load as the starting FB. He did not look good in passing drills, so let’s hope he gets that problem rectified in a hurry.
Larry English: As was expected, Larry English worked on the sidelines as the team continues to play it safe with his strained hamstring. I really wanted to see this guy in action but you can’t blame the team for being cautious early in camp.
QB-to-WR Connection: Maybe it was due to the different practice environement, maybe it was because of the crowd, but the quarterbacks and wide receivers never seemed to connect during passing drills. And it wasn’t because of the stellar coverage by the DB’s, although they were covering like small gloves on Gary “Big Hands” Johnson. No, Rivers and Volek just seemed to be off the mark with anything deep.
Chargers Fans: Yeah, San Diego is known for being laid back and low key, but there was a big buzz in the air at the Q. You can tell the fans are expecting a huge season from the team, and are hungry for anything related to the Chargers. I wouldn’t call the practice “exciting” but hanging out with thousands of Chargers fans to support our team was definitely a cool experience.
 
I can’t wait to see the team playing against guys in a different uniform. The first exhibition game is just 9-days away…Go Bolts!
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Lo-Neal Looks Better In Blue-And-Gold

May 19, 2009

lo nealWhile not worthy of much attention, the Raiders recently made a move that raised a few eyebrows here in San Diego. Last week, the Raiders and their “Commitment To Geriatrics” signed FB Lorenzo Neal. At first glance, it’s easy to write this one off as a bad team signing another over-the-hill player. In my opinion, I think this signing could actually be more ammunition for the AJ Smith is out-of-touch crowd.

Now don’t get me wrong. Are the Raiders going to shock the world and win the AFC West? Heck no. They’ll be competing with the Denver Broncos for last place in a weak division. But on a team with three strong running backs, Neal could be just what the Raiders need to start turning things around on offense. And facing him twice a year, watching him consistently hitting his blocks… Well, let’s just hope that the big guy really has lost a step or three.

In letting Neal walk after the 2007 season, it was assumed that any decent fullback could fill his aging Pro Bowl shoes. Jacob Hester, a RB/FB, was drafted soon after. And after an impressive camp, undrafted free agent Mike Tolbert was tagged as the starting fullback after injuries took Andrew Pinnock out of the running. Tolbert’s hands were good enough to get him into games, but his blocking was another story. After too many missed blocks and too many lost opportunities for a struggling running game, it was obvious that the Bolts were missing Neal’s penchant for making the block that needed to be made. Due to injury, Hester replaced Tolbert and seemed to get better over time. But were either of those rookies as good as Neal? No, not even an over-the-hill version of him.

On a team that lost seven games by a TD or less and had a problem controlling the clock, it’s easy to see how a few extra sustained drives could have equaled a couple of extra wins. Would it have mattered in the playoffs? Who knows? But that Chargers team may have had a better chance with a better fullback making better blocks.

This is by no means a knock on Hester. I think the guy gets a bad rap because the Chargers spent too much to get him. There is a chance he could grow into an effective fullback, albeit not a Lorenzo Neal style of player. I don’t think that he’ll ever be a prototypical blocking fullback.

Last off-season, much was made about coach Norv’s preference to minimize the roll of the fullback in his offense. Now, after the dust has settled on a disappointing season, the lack of an effective fullback was one of the glaring weaknesses in an otherwise talented Chargers offense. For a position that isn’t that important it sure stands out as one position that could have made the difference offensively. As for the Raiders and their new fullback, I’m not predicting a Pro Bowl for Lo-Neal this season, but I’m not predicting one for Hester and Tolbert either. If you need a blocking fullback, who do you want in your backfield?

Jeff Williams is featured at BoltHype.com and MVN.com/ChargersConfidential

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Larry English And The Future Of The Pass Rush

April 30, 2009
On a team who’s best defensive player is an outside linebacker, the Chargers spent their first round pick on…an outside linebacker?  Seems pretty stupid at first glance, doesn’t it?  While I was hoping we would take a DE like Robert Ayers or an OT like Michael Oher, apparently AJ Smith had something else in mind.  I am happy he went with a defensive player in the first round, and the sound of a more vicious pass-rush is music to my ears.  I’m still a little worried about our ability to stop the run, but maybe 4th-rounder Vaughn Martin will surprise us.
 
From what we’re hearing from the Chargers’ brass, Larry English will be more than a backup to Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips.  In college he played some defensive end, but he’s already being touted as part of a three-headed monster at linebacker, with Merriman and English rushing off the outside, and Phillips roaming the middle looking for a good angle from which to blitz.  And honestly, I do like that sound of that.  English was a stud in college, albeit against limited competition.  But a stud is a stud- he has the size and the attitude to succeed on the defensive front seven. 
 
The one concerning aspect of his drafting is that it is yet another sign that Merriman is not going to be a Charger for as long as we’d like him to be.  Much has been written about Merriman’s future contract demands, and the Chargers’ concerns about his ability to stay healthy.  Add to the mix a capable replacement in English (if everything goes according to plan), and Merriman could be gone before you know it.  I think we can safely assume that Lights Out will be a Charger through 2009.  What about 2010, even with a franchise tag available?  Why would AJ offer him a large 1-year deal, just to see him walk with little compensation in return?  If English turns out to be a solid performer, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Merriman franchised in 2010 and his rights be traded to the highest bidder.  And who else (besides AJ) wouldn’t offer up the world for a guy like Merriman?  Obviously if a new bargaining agreement isn’t worked out before 2010, we have another year before we have to worry about it.  But with a guy of Merriman’s caliber, I’m already starting to worry about it.
 
Maybe the trio of Merriman, Phillips, and English will be so dominant that AJ decides we have to keep the three of them together.  Maybe the defense pulls together and wins us the ring we are so desperate for, allowing Merriman and AJ to become close buddies united around that common purpose.  Maybe, Larry English was the key to unlock the door to a championship…or he’s here to show Merriman the door.  The clock is ticking on that Super Bowl dream.
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Interview With The Oracle- Draft Edition

April 23, 2009

eddieEddie Pappani from the Chargers’ Countdown To Kickoff show was good enough to give us his perspective of this weekend’s NFL Draft. Those who know Eddie know him as “The Sports Oracle”, and those who don’t need to start listening to the Mikey Show on Rock 105.3. On with the interview…

Jeff: What’s up Oracle? The NFL Draft is almost here! I’m amazed out how big this thing has gotten. The NFL has really become a 365-day a year event. What are your plans for draft day?

Eddie: I have been a draft geek since I was a little kid. I read a ton of publications and stay on top of it all year. It is my favorite sporting event all year. I have been to the draft several times as a reporter and it is so awesome. This year I will be an analyst on XTRA Sports 1360. We will be on from noon to 4pm. Should be a blast!

Jeff: No 28-hour draft show (Editor: Mikey Show inside joke)? You know I’m not giving up on that idea !

Eddie: I could do it. I can talk about the draft all day. I think Mel Kiper is my soul mate.

Jeff: So last year at this time the Chargers were seen as having the most talented roster in football. Where do you think they rank going into this year’s draft?

Eddie: They are still at the top. They have talent at every position. Of course they have some holes to fill, but they are still deep.

Jeff: There a few directions in which the Chargers could go in round one. Based on need, what are the areas the Chargers most need to improve upon this weekend?

Eddie: Defensive End is #1 in my book. They need to replace Igor. Which won’t be that hard to do. Next, I would like to see them grab an O-lineman. We need to fix the right side. There are some guys that can step in and play right tackle from day one. After that, I would like to see them grab another safety, inside linebacker, and maybe a running back. I disagree with most people saying we need to get a running back early. I think we are fine right now. Maybe next year we can address that need.

Jeff: Time to put on the GM hat. Based on who you think will be available at #16, who would be the Chargers first round selection?

Eddie: I hope that Everette Brown is there. He is a defensive end from Florida St. He is exactly what the Bolts need. A playmaking DE. He can rush the passer, and help with the run. I think he would be perfect. If he is gone, then you can look at some other DE’s on the board. Probably Tyson Jackson from LSU and Robert Ayers from Tennessee could be there. Possible options. They may like Michael Oher, a tackle from Mississippi. He could start at RT from day one and move Clary inside to guard. I know some people would want them to take Rey Maualuga, the linebacker from USC. I like him, but think we have other needs.

Jeff: In reality, do you think the Chargers will end up with a different player than one of those whom you mentioned?

Eddie: It’s too hard to say. There are so many variables. It’s a crap shoot. It’s like trying to predict the weather. They could go in a totally different direction. Who knows.

Jeff: Any chance the Chargers trade down to pick up an extra 1st/2nd round pick?

Eddie: It’s always an option. They tend to screw up their 2nd round picks, so I kinda hope they don’t. Let’s get a money player at 16 and then see what happens.

Jeff: Beyond the draft, what do you think about the possibility that the NFL will move to an 18-game regular season within a few years?

Eddie: I’m ok with it. I’m a bit of a traditionalist. It must be how older dudes felt when they went from 14 to 16 games. It feels weird. But if it eliminates 2 preseason games, I’m all for it.

Jeff: Yeah, I’m torn. Why change when what you are doing works so well? But an extra two-weeks of real football, not that exhibition stuff? Tough to complain about that! I’ll be sure to check in with you guys on Saturday. As always, thanks for taking some time to talk Chargers football!

Eddie: My pleasure. Let’s get someone good AJ! Call me…

Eddie Pappani is co-host of the Chargers pregame show on Rock 105.3, as well as the Producer and Sports Oracle of the Mikey Show from 6am-10am, Monday-Friday on Rock 105.3.

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Breaking Down The Roster: Linebackers

April 21, 2009
Less than a week until the draft!  I seriously can’t wait.  My wife has already been warned that I will be unavailable for a majority of the weekend.  And like any good wife, I can count on her to not complain about it until at least an hour into the thing.  Gotta love her…
 
Anyway, just a few positions left to cover in our review of the current Chargers roster.  Next up we look at the linebacker spot.  Just last year I wrote that the linebacker corps is probably the deepest of any team in the NFL.  Last year, the Chargers put that statement to the test and I’ll admit that the results were mixed, if not entirely disappointing. 
 
With Shawne Merriman taking a not-so-unexpected early exit from the season and Stephen Cooper serving a four-game suspension, the Bolts quickly put their depth to the test.  Jyles Tucker replaced Lights Out and was a below-average to average player.  If you look at it objectively, you have to admit that it would have been all but impossible to replace the league’s best defensive player, but Tucker did nothing to earn him a reprieve from any criticism.  Replacing Cooper was free-agent signee Derek Smith.  Yeah, he was cut before the end of the season once Cooper was back in game shape.
 
You’ve heard it before, and you’re going to hear it again (and again) – the Chargers defense was a different unit without Merriman.  Shaun Phillips was average.  Matt Wilhelm was exposed as a 2nd stringer, and began sharing more time with back-up Tim Dobbins.  The rest of the much-heralded back-ups were no better than anyone else’s back-ups, and our former Defensive Coordinator did nothing to adjust.  Rather than create ways to rush the passer, our LB’s were forced into pass coverage far too often, and they didn’t seem to be very good at it.  Ron Rivera was able to slow the bleeding, but the LB corps never found a way to plug the hole created by the loss of Merriman.
 
Going into the 2009 draft and season, the linebacker position has received a lot of attention.  Merriman should be recovered from his knee injury (if you believe him, he’ll be in the best shape of his pro-career).  Kevin Burnett was signed to compete for a starting inside spot next to Cooper.  Former 3rd rounder Anthony Waters was cut because he wasn’t making the progress that the team had hoped he would.  Now some “experts” and a lot of fans expect the Bolts to take USC linebacker Rey Maualuga, although recent reports that he may have torn a hamstring are likely to end that discussion.  Beyond Rey, there isn’t much 1st or 2nd round talent available at inside LB.  The Chargers might draft a project later in the draft, but expect the competition for starting inside LB to be a three-man race between Wilhelm, Dobbins, and Burnett.  I’m picking Burnett to earn the 1st-string spot.
Jeff Williams is now featured at MVN.com and BoltHype.com.
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Breaking Down The Roster: Defensive Line

April 11, 2009

As we continue our breakdown of the Chargers roster position-by-position heading into the final two-weeks before the draft, we turn our attention to the defense. As a whole, the defensive unit was almost as bad as it gets for most of 2008. Ron Rivera took the reigns as Defensive Coordinator midseason and was able to improve the struggling group, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

The defensive line took a lot of heat for failing to pressure the QB and more importantly failing to stop the run. As teams learned that they could pass on the Chargers almost at will, the blame was primarily shouldered by the secondary, yet the defensive line played an important role in the failure of their pass defense.

This is another one of those “What a difference a year makes” moments. In 2007, with a healthy Shawne Merriman creating havoc all over the field, the D-line received a lot of praise for getting to the quarterback and stuffing the run. They excelled at hitting the QB in the pocket and forcing turnovers, and were a true force to be reckoned with. Then came 2008, and a turn-around that shocked most NFL experts. Luis Castillo received a big contract and was designated a cornerstone of the defensive line on the left side, but his play was a different story. Castillo was consistently inconsistent when blocked one-on-one and was no serious threat for a majority of the year. Igor Olshansky, who is strong enough to bench press a Hummer full of The Biggest Loser contestants, never seemed to be able to use that strength to his advantage on the field. During most games last year, his name was called less often than Samantha Ronson’s at a beauty pageant. He has since moved on to the Cowboys.

Jamal Williams continued to anchor the line at nose-tackle. While it took him some time to work his way into game-shape, he quickly returned to Pro Bowl form. Chargers fans are hoping he has at least one more good season in him, but everyone knows it’s time to start thinking about his replacement.

That brings us to this year’s draft. In past columns I’ve made the case to go O-line in the 1st round of the draft, but there’s a great case to be made to go defense. It’s very possible that the four top O-linemen will be gone by pick 16, leaving the Bolts to focus on the best defensive player available. There’s a good chance Rey Maualuga will be available, but I would prefer to see the Chargers pick up DE Everette Brown from Florida State (if they’re lucky) or DE Tyson Jackson (LSU), which is much more likely. It’s either that or we’re stuck with Ryon Bingham filling the void at defensive end.

Offensive line…defensive line…damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. How do you fill two big holes with one pick in the first two rounds? Anyone else feeling a trade on the horizon?

Jeff Williams can now be found on BoltHype.com.

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So Long Mr. Cutler

April 3, 2009

Jay Cutler…man (well, boy), myth (like the self-perpetuated myth that he was better than Elway), legend (only in his own mind)…and now, Chicago Bear.

 

And the Bears’ drama at QB continues.

 

I’ll let you in on a little secret- I’m a closet Bears fan.  I fell in love with the team (and really, football in general) during the 1986 Super Bowl win by the Bears, and although the Chargers will always be MY team, the Bears will always have a special place in my heart.  With the Bears now in the spotlight, I can’t let Thursday’s Bears-Bronco trade slip by without offering my two-cents on the deal. 

 

My first thought?  The Broncos absolutely made out.  No other team was offering close to what the Bears paid.  My second thought?  The Bears got hosed!  Trading a lot of the future away for a QB with a solid arm and very questionable head?  You’re taking a HUGE risk.

 

My dislike of Jay Cutler has been well documented (see my previous blog, Jay Cutler- Looking For The Spotlight, here).  There’s no doubt that Cutler has a strong arm.  There’s also little doubt, especially now, that he has an immature head holding one very poor attitude, truly a quarterback in the Jeff George-mold (no, that’s not a compliment).

 

As frustrating as it is to see an AFC West rival receive such a great assortment of draft picks, I’m more disappointed that the Chargers won’t have Cutler to pick on twice a year anymore.  The fact that Cutler is winless against the Chargers (since last year’s week-2 victory was a win for Ed Hochuli) made Bronco games almost as much fun as watching the Chargers beat the Raiders twice a year.  Plus, knowing that Cutler talked more smack than he could ever back up made the spectacle even more entertaining. 

 

So to Jay I say “So long!”  You may be gone, but you will never be forgotten.  At least until your career turns south and your oversized ego runs you out of the Windy City.  And then I can once again pull for the Bears.

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