Training Camp / Back to Football  

 

With Rivers as guide, Bolts go about business minus other stars

SAN DIEGO -- Following Day 2 of training camp, Chargers players were all over the facility: Cold tubs, the weight room, in the shower. Quarterback Philip Rivers was in a lounge chair with a few other teammates in the middle of the locker room, glued to a wall-mounted television watching a Canadian Football League game.

Not just because it was on, but Rivers was seriously watching and diagnosing a red-zone series between two teams that featured players few in the locker room knew anything about. The snapshot was telling in that so many other players -- star players -- would deem non-NFL or NCAA football beneath them.

For Rivers and these Chargers, nobody or nothing seems beneath them. This team has the swagger of the best squad in the AFC West, but ego seems to have left the building -- forcibly and voluntarily. With future Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson now with the Jets, and with Vincent Jackson, Shawne Merriman and Marcus McNeill not here because of contract disputes, what's left is a group coach Norv Turner says has "worked their (behinds) off together."

"This squad has a lot of togetherness, you can feel it," outside linebacker Shaun Phillips said. "The big thing we've been preaching around here is to be together and do things as a team. We obviously have talent. We'd want those guys here but the fact of the matter is they're not here so we have to prepare for games without them."

Do the Chargers look as formidable without Jackson, a Pro Bowler, not leading the charge of wide receivers? No. But they're not so shallow in talent or work ethic to where they can't win without him. As Jackson stepped up and into his own a few years ago, Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee have cranked things up as fill-ins. Turner said Buster Davis, the team's underachieving first-round pick in 2007, has been exceptional in offseason workouts and the first few days of camp. However, with Davis, injuries are always a concern.

Whoever lines up at wide receiver should do well as long as tight end Antonio Gates is on the field. Gates is a special player who draws double teams, freeing up one of the wideouts to make plays. Gates is Rivers' top option and will remain in that role regardless. It's just up to one or more of the wide receivers to want to be better than he's been before, and that's something Turner said Floyd, Davis and Naanee have already shown.

Floyd put on a show during the first day of live contact drills on Sunday, using his size (6-foot-5, 225 pounds) to make several tough catches in traffic and deep downfield. The former practice-squad player seems to be relishing in this opportunity, and the Chargers love the way he's stepped up his game.

Outside linebackers Larry English and Jyles Tucker have stepped right in for Merriman, and if "Lights Out" doesn't get into camp soon, the Chargers' depth chart might not seem so temporary. Particularly with expectations for English, last season's first-round pick, being more demanding.

The Chargers aren't bemoaning the fact that some parts are missing. They've simply developed the approach, with Rivers' lead, that even with those guys, they haven't won any Super Bowls, and the only way to get there is to work harder. With few real superstars in camp, there is a certain blue-collar persona percolating.

Philips is among the best quarterbacks in the NFL and Gates is one of the top two or three tight ends in the league, but they don't have dominant personalities or are in need of perpetual positive reinforcement. They're the faces of the franchise now that Tomlinson is gone, and neither needs the reassurances that Tomlinson sometimes did.

San Diego is a team in transition, but not one set to necessarily take a step back. The Chargers' schedule is light enough -- and the team is talented enough -- to win the division for a fifth straight time and maybe do it convincingly. Whether the new approach will make them tough and physical enough to get deep into the playoffs will be the bigger question.

OBERSERVATION DECK

» Brandyn Dombrowski was working in McNeill's spot at left tackle. The second-year player looked like a solid drive blocker, but how he holds up in pass protection will determine where this situation is headed. Veteran Tra Thomas worked with the second team but neither player is close to the Pro Bowler McNeill. Of the three guys holding out, McNeill is the most irreplaceable, and if San Diego wants to make a Super Bowl run, he might need to be on the field. No break in his contract impasse seems near, though.

» CB Antoine Cason, the team's first-round pick in 2008, is a starter on the right side now that Antonio Cromartie is with the Jets. He's played well overall in camp, but has also struggled at times going against the Chargers' big receivers. He seemed to know the coverages well and is disciplined, which wasn't always the case with Cromartie. Nathan Vasher, the former Bears Pro Bowl corner who signed in the offseason, worked on the second team. Despite his resume, he doesn't seem like a threat to take Cason's job. Donald Strickland worked ahead of Vasher as the No. 1 nickel back.

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» In Merriman's absence, Tucker worked with the first team at outside linebacker over the weekend because English was bothered by a sore foot that is not believed to be problematic. Tucker looked very good at times. He started 12 games when Merriman got hurt in 2008 and was signed to a five-year, $14 million extension soon after. English, a 2009 first-round pick, is the player the Chargers want to take over for Merriman, whether it's this season or next because Merriman does not seem to have a long-term future in San Diego. Tucker looked comfortable in the role, especially in pass-rush team drills, where he used his strength to apply pressure.

» Veteran Josh Reed, two-time practice squad player Gary Banks, and undrafted rookies Jeremy Williams (Tulane) and Seyi Ajirotutu (Fresno State) are front-runners for the final wide receiver jobs. Williams entered camp as a player on the rise, but Banks "has distinguished himself," offensive coordinator Clarence Shelmon said. Banks made a beautiful over-the-shoulder catch on a deep ball with cornerback Traye Simmons hanging all over him and snagged multiple balls thrown his way. Of the receivers on the back end, Banks caught far more passes and seems to have the trust of the quarterbacks.

SURPRISE, SURPRISE

FB Mike Tolbert is blowing coaches away with his ability to also play tailback and catch the ball. At 5-9, 243 pounds, Tolbert is a bowling-ball lead blocker who has made plays when he's received touches. The third-year pro averaged 5.9 yards on 25 carries last season, but Turner said Tolbert's role could expand some because of his big-play potential that accompanies a punishing style of play. With rookie Ryan Mathews out, Tolbert worked his way into the tailback rotation with Darren Sproles, and if not for Tolbert's obvious size advantage, it wasn't always easy to tell them apart with the ball in their hands during Saturday's non-contact workouts. Tolbert was held out of the first day of contact drills with a minor, undisclosed injury.

ROOKIE REPORT

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» Mathews signed a five-year, $26.5 million contract on Sunday, just in time for the first contact practice of camp. The former Fresno State standout was immediately inserted as the starter and didn't disappoint. Mathews showed burst, especially once he got through the hole, and the evasive speed that should allow him to break off big chunks of yardage. He also has the size (6-0, 218) to deliver a blow. He generated several rounds of cheers from fans after numerous plays in which he shook defenders trying to draw contact. "Everyone was going 100 miles an hour and there was a little more thud in there, linebackers coming at you a little harder, but it's football and I love to play it," he said.

» Fourth-round pick Darrell Stuckey (5-11, 208) stands a good chance to win the starting job at strong safety. He is competing with veteran Steve Gregory and they are rotating with the first unit, but if Stuckey can get up to speed during the preseason, he could open the year atop the depth chart.

QB Jonathan Crompton, a fifth-round pick, is still adapting and wasn't always accurate, but he's got the goods to stick around for awhile. Unless Crompton folds in preseason games, this is the type of talent the team will nurture and cultivate like Charlie Whitehurst. In fact, with Rivers set to be the starter for years, Crompton could end up being groomed as trade bait down the line, just like Whitehurst was this offseason.

LASTING IMAGE

During the first special teams sessions at Sunday's practice, running backs coach Ollie Wilson took the freshly signed Mathews to the side and ran him through a variety of plays in a private tutoring session. Six garbage cans were turned upside down to resemble the offensive line and Wilson went over different blocking schemes and blitz pickups with the team's prized rookie. With his helmet cocked back on his head, Mathews went over the review as if he was standing in his tailback spot, so he could see the multitude of vantage points Wilson was blowing through during the quick break.

SAY WHAT?

"They drafted me for a reason and that's to help the team win. I like the inside runs, that's my main thing. I did a good job of that at Fresno State. The offensive line is amazing. It's going to be fun. I can wait to get a little more camp under my belt and get a little more used to running the ball and more used to them and how they work. We're expecting big things this year. I can't wait."
-- Mathews

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