SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- After adding a boatload of free agents this offseason, the San Diego Chargers are undoubtedly a different team than they were last season. Thanks in part to that signing spree, I think they'll also have much better results in 2012 than 2011. Quarterback Philip Rivers, tight end Antonio Gates and new running back Ronnie Brown have all looked good in training camp, and I think the Chargers have the potential to finish 10-6.
Of the 18 free agents signed by the Chargers this season, six project as starters: Brown, outside linebacker Jarret Johnson, fullback Le'Ron McClain, safety Atari Bigby and receivers Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal are all positioned to make a big impact.
When I saw him practice this week, Brown could not be covered by the defense. He is a great route runner who will catch a ton of passes and can be a real third-down threat for the Chargers, helping to keep scoring drives alive. The 30-year-old Brown gained 6,442 yards from scrimmage and scored 39 total touchdowns in six years with the Miami Dolphins and one with the Philadelphia Eagles. Signing him was probably the best move the Chargers made this offseason.
Adding as many free agents as the San Diego Chargers have is usually not a good sign. But they used a strict set of criteria when deciding who to bring aboard and stuck to their master plan. Players had to have proven track records of success while possessing good character and intelligence. General manager A.J. Smith and head coach Norv Turner have really improved this team.
Gates looks like he's his old self again. After a relatively disappointing 2011 (64 catches for 778 yards and seven touchdowns), he is moving well, looking like he's lost about 20 pounds. He's made the Pro Bowl the past eight seasons, and he should have no problem keeping that streak alive in 2012.
Rivers looked really sharp in practice. During the passing drills that I saw, the ninth-year signal caller heaved between 55 and 60 passes ... and just one hit the ground. He was picked off a career-high 20 times last season, but Rivers seemed to be dialed in when I watched him.
The Chargers are not going to replace Vincent Jackson, who left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers via free agency. But Meachem and Royal give the Chargers depth, and they have a second-year player in Vincent Brown who could be a big factor in the offense this season.
The Chargers had a turnover ratio of minus-7 in 2011, and ball security is a big emphasis for the team in camp this year. They also have to create more turnovers on defense and get off the field on third down, which they struggled to do last season.
Fans seem to be excited about this team. When I visited, there must have been 2,000 people there, probably the biggest crowd that could be accommodated. The fans got used to seeing the Chargers make the playoffs, but the team has missed the postseason in each of the past two years. Consequently, I think the fans are more interested in the preseason than they've been recently.
In my estimation, Turner is one of the best play callers in football. The Chargers had a ton of injuries in 2011 and still put up 406 points, tied for fifth-most in the NFL. This team seems very unified; everyone appears to have bought into Turner's game plan.
When I put together an offseason Power Rankings in June, I slotted the Chargers in at No. 17. After watching them practice this week, I'd move them up to 11 or 12. They were good enough to start 2011 with a 4-1 record before injuries derailed that momentum. Now that they've added great depth in the offseason, I think they're a 10-win team.