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Projecting San Diego Chargers' Starting Lineup Pre-2014 NFL Draft

Mike HoagCorrespondent IIApril 30, 2014

Projecting San Diego Chargers' Starting Lineup Pre-2014 NFL Draft

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    Denis Poroy/Associated Press

    The AFC West won’t get any easier in 2014, a daunting realization for the rejuvenated San Diego Chargers.

    Denver and Kansas City don’t appear to be falling out of contention any time soon, unless of course Peyton Manning decides to hang up the cleats. But that won’t happen now, not after his team was blown out in the Super Bowl.

    So, what can the Chargers do? They definitely built momentum in 2013 with an improved offensive line and an imposing defense that punished teams at the line of scrimmage.

    Adding some more offensive firepower, particularly players who can win one-on-one battles for Philip Rivers, is an ideal first step.

    On defense, the team needs the exact opposite. Defenders who can win those contested battles by lining up and simply overmatching their assignments would help the unit completely stifle opposing offenses.

    If GM Tom Telesco can prove last year’s masterful offseason wasn’t a fluke by snagging at least three starters from the deep 2014 class—like he did from the 2013 draft—the Chargers could keep pace with their division and be in position to contend for a second-consecutive playoff berth.

    Before the draft, let's take a look at what the starting lineup the Chargers will be putting on the field next season might look like, with three projected draft picks added to the mix.

Quarterback

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    Philip Rivers' bounce-back 2013 season sent him back to Hawaii for the fifth time.
    Philip Rivers' bounce-back 2013 season sent him back to Hawaii for the fifth time.USA TODAY Sports

    Starter: Philip Rivers

    It’s fair to think with another offseason in Mike McCoy’s system and better players around him, Philip Rivers will make even greater strides as a quarterback. That’s a scary thought if you’re an AFC West franchise not based in Southern California.

    According to Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders, Rivers ranked seventh in the NFL with a 5.09 percent True Sack Rate. The criteria he developed adds scrambles and intentional grounding penalties to the equation. That’s slightly better than his 33rd-ranked 8.35 percent rating in 2012. OK, so it’s a lot better, and McCoy designing plays for him to get rid of the ball quicker probably had a hand in that improvement.

    As long as McCoy can keep Rivers throwing quickly even with Ken Whisenhunt out of the equation, the Chargers quarterback should have no issues staying healthy and continuing where he left off last year—back on top as one of the premiere quarterbacks in the NFL.

Running Back

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Starter: Ryan Mathews                     

    San Diego’s backfield has the chance to take a lot of pressure off Philip Rivers in 2014. After adding Danny Woodhead as a complement to Ryan Mathews last year, it brought in former first-round pick Donald Brown during free agency. There will be plenty of carries to go around in Mike McCoy's offense.

    Last season, Mathews completed a full 16-game season for the first time in his short four years in the league. With that boost in playing time came career highs in both carries (285) and yards (1,255).

    It’s not a shocker to say Mathews is the unquestioned starter at this point, but don’t count out Brown’s ability to contribute to help keep him fresh. Brown has played well for the Indianapolis Colts despite usually serving as their second or third option.

Fullback

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    Starter: David Johnson (FB/TE)

    After wisely cutting Le’Ron McClain this offseason to clear up some cap space, Tom Telesco quickly inked former Pittsburgh Steelers tight end David Johnson to fill the void. While in the ‘Burgh Johnson displayed value at multiple positions, lining up at fullback, tight end and “H-back,” he’s far from a lock to start opening day for the Bolts given his recent ailments.

    Johnson missed all of 2012 after tearing his ACL during preseason and played in just five games in 2013.

    If he can stay healthy for the Chargers, though, the fifth-year pro’s versatility could help them build depth in other key areas when roster cuts approach by keeping him around to fill multiple spots.

Tight End

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Starter: Antonio Gates

    While Antonio Gates will surely start the season as the San Diego Chargers’ top tight end, things could change pretty quickly for the soon-to-be 34-year-old. His regression down the stretch last season didn’t hurt the team, but it killed them in their postseason loss to the Denver Broncos.

    Think about this: Gates failed to net more than 50 yards in the final eight games of the season. In that disappointing playoff loss to the Denver Broncos, he grabbed just two passes for 10 yards.

    He’ll go down as one of the best to play the position when his bust is forged for enshrinement in Canton, there’s no use arguing that. But before the 2014 campaign is over there’s a good possibility we’ll see heavier doses of dynamic youngster Ladarius Green.

    Although used more as a blocker last season, Green has proved capable of stretching the seam and making big plays with his large frame, incredible athleticism and sticky hands.

Wide Receivers

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    Starters: Keenan Allen, Rookie—Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt, Eddie Royal

    Whether it was medical concerns or his somewhat slow 40-yard dash time at his pro day, teams passed on Keenan Allen at least twice, some three times. San Diego ended the slide of a talented prospect who was projected by some as a first-round talent.

    He proved he deserved that billing and more by exploding as a rookie for the Chargers in 2013. The former California product caught 71 passes for 1,046 yards and eight scores, all leading numbers for rookie receivers—and better than a lot of veterans, too.

    With Eddie Royal playing his role in the slot, and as capable of breaking a big play as any, San Diego really needs a big, tall and reliable option to flank opposite Allen.

    All-time SEC and Vanderbilt leading receiver Jordan Matthews as a second- or third-round pick seems like the perfect fit for Philip Rivers and Mike McCoy’s offense. He’s big at 6’3”, 212 pounds, and plays bigger with a knack for winning contested jump balls.

    Little-known fact about Matthews: It’s in his DNA. His mom is a first cousin of NFL Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice.

    Watching him run routes, break off them sharply and make the type of catches he does, you can picture him walking a similar path as Rice. While highly unlikely, and no one is calling him the next Rice, it’s not impossible for him to make a huge impact in the NFL given his ability. Plus, he’ll have Rivers instead of the mediocre signal-callers he had tossing him the pigskin at Vanderbilt.

Offensive Line

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Starters: King Dunlap (LT), Chad Rinehart (LG), Nick Hardwick (C), Jeromey Clary (RG), D.J. Fluker (RT)

    It’s amazing how one year can change things. Last year, the San Diego Chargers offensive line was looking like it needed a complete overhaul. Then, they went out and scored bookend tackles in King Dunlap and D.J. Fluker.

    Magically, the Chargers offensive line problems weren’t as glaring as they used to be. But they were far from perfect and could definitely take even bigger steps forward this season.

    Throughout their last campaign together, the Chargers offensive line utilized six different combinations.

    It’s hard to say which five will be the opening-day starters, but it’s a good bet to go with Dunlap, Fluker and center Nick Hardwick—who isn’t retiring—as locks to be there, barring untimely injuries, of course. Chad Rinehart was brought back after briefly hitting the open free-agency market, so you can probably pencil him in to left guard.

    That leaves Jeromey Clary and a handful of others at the right guard position. And it looks like it will be Clary again, at least initially. After switching to guard from right tackle last offseason, the veteran proved to be a key interior addition. He did miss two of the team’s 18 games last season, but logged the third-most snaps of any offensive lineman on the roster.

Defensive Line

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    Starters: Kendall Reyes (LDE), Rookie—Louis Nix III, Notre Dame (NT), Corey Liuget (RDE)

    While apparently an area of strength, San Diego could use some help along its defensive line. Adding nose tackle Louis Nix III from Notre Dame with the No. 25 pick in the draft would be a great start.

    Getting a hole-clogger with power like Nix to add to the tandem of Kendall Reyes and Corey Liuget would help more than just those two. Nix’s ability to eat up blockers and cause problems up front would free up one of the middle linebackers to fill quicker, preventing rushing lanes and creases from opening up.

    There’s little depth and still some questions about Reyes, but this unit would take a big leap by adding a blue-chip man in the middle to solidify an impressive front seven.

Linebackers

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Starters: Jarret Johnson (LOLB), Manti Te’o (ILB), Donald Butler (ILB), Dwight Freeney (ROLB)

    There isn’t much not to like about what the San Diego Chargers have done with their linebacker corps. If Dwight Freeney—approaching 40 years old it seems, but really only 34—can stay healthy, this group has a chance to be one of the best in the NFL.

    Freeney was on a tear, constantly pressuring opposing quarterbacks before being lost for the season in Week 4 after suffering a torn quadriceps. He's back in the final year of his two-year deal with the Chargers and looking to reward them for their investment.

    Re-signing coveted free agent Donald Butler was a key move this offseason, and Manti Te’o will have an entire offseason to prepare without the media hounding him.

    And while Jarret Johnson looks like a good bet to start opposite of Freeney, there’s a good chance youngster Melvin Ingram will find himself in a rotation with either of the two, likely the aging right outside linebacker.

Safeties

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Starters: Marcus Gilchrist (SS), Eric Weddle (FS)

    Eric Weddle is the definition of a sure thing when it comes to predicting any type of starting lineup. Name a team in the NFL, and chances are Weddle would usurp their current free safety’s job.

    Alongside him there is less certainty. Marcus Gilchrist was certainly serviceable in his first season converted from nickel corner to safety, finishing the year third in total tackles with 77. As a pass defender, though, he left something to be desired.

    Expect Gilchrist to earn the starting job initially, but a potential late-round draft pick and Jahleel Addae—who really came on strong down the stretch last season—will likely challenge him for playing time throughout the season.

Cornerbacks

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    Starters: Steve Williams (RCB), Rookie—Phillip Gaines, Rice (LCB)

    It’s not out of question to think neither of the San Diego Chargers’ opening-day starting cornerbacks will have played a snap before in the NFL.

    Before tearing a pectoral muscle during a preseason game in 2013, fifth-round pick Steve Williams was turning heads during offseason events and could have earned some valuable playing time. He still worked out with the team and had extra time to absorb the playbook and concepts of being a pro while watching from the sidelines last year.

    So, if Williams does take the first spot, who will be playing across from him?

    There are a number of different directions they could go during the 2014 draft, but if they’re smart, they’d wait a round or two and select former Rice standout Phillip Gaines.

    Gaines is a durable, lengthy and physical corner who has the production to match his measurables. He also ran a blazing 4.31-second 40-yard dash at the combine, which is nice.

    In 2013, the 6’0” corner was targeted 40 times but surrendered just 13 completions. He also batted down nine of those attempts and intercepted four of them. Just one year earlier he recorded 18 pass deflections, good enough for second-best in the nation.

    If you’re the Chargers and you’re looking for an instant impact player who might still be on the board at the bottom of the second round because of his small-school experience, Gaines is the perfect fit.

     

    Mike Hoag is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He resides in San Diego and covers the Chargers and Browns as a featured writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHoagJr.

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