NFL.com has dispatched several writers to report on the 32 training camps over the next few weeks. Ian Rapoport details his visit with the San Diego Chargers. (Click here for the complete archive of Training Camp Reports.)
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The Chargers hold training camp at their usual facility, right outside downtown San Diego. Think it's boring? You've got it wrong. Surrounded by postcard-style mountains, the Chargers practice in paradise. It's 75 and sunny every day and it's as relaxed a setting as one could imagine. Fans had no problems mingling with players after the session ended, and the enthusiastic public-address announcer only added to the ambience.
1. The best free-agent acquisition is Antonio Gates. San Diego had a busy offseason, picking up 18 new veteran free agents. The best, however, is the player who only appears to be new. After several seasons of battling a series of ailments, tight end Antonio Gates looks like ... Antonio Gates. He is fast, in shape and unable to be covered by a cornerback. Just watch one practice, and your mind will race back to what he was in 2009. This automatically changes things for opposing defenses. "It just gives us another option in a sense where, in the past, teams were able to put linebackers on me because of my health," Gates said. Not anymore.
2. One player won't make up for the loss of Vincent Jackson. And that's fine. Jackson is a dynamic receiver, and he'll shine for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It doesn't look like any one wideout will step in and account for the 1,106 receiving yards Jackson racked up in 2011. The only possibility is that fellow beanstalk Malcom Floyd mimics Jackson's production, but it's not a safe bet to assume he'll be healthy. Instead, expect more out of athletic and sticky-fingered Vincent Brown and Floyd, along with new additions Eddie Royal and Robert Meachem. If there's one thing quarterback Philip Rivers can do, it's distribute. With so many weapons, he'll be in heaven.
3. The defense is already starting to look different. In February, upon learning that they would keep their jobs, general manager A.J. Smith and head coach Norv Turner got together and had some serious discussions. They resolved to focus on upgrading the talent base and increasing the level of athleticism. They also decided to tinker with the defense, and that included installing John Pagano as defensive coordinator. The goal was to create more takeaways, more negative plays and do anything to get them off the field on third down, something they failed to do in 2011. Drafting outside linebacker Melvin Ingram and end Kendall Reyes in the first two rounds signaled that focus. But San Diego's defensive changes go beyond player acquisitions. "We've been stressing accountability and communication and trust in one another," said cornerback Antoine Cason, who had an interception the day I attended camp and looks primed for a resurgence. "For me, I just know I need to take care of my responsibilities, be accountable for what I'm doing, and that will help the team."
4. If Ryan Mathews is going to break out, this is the year. He has already been dubbed a draft steal and a bust during his two-year career. Now, it's time for Mathews to just be a really good player. The former Fresno State star battled injuries early on, and still he rushed for a sneaky 1,091 yards last year. The Chargers expect more. Mathews reported to camp in great shape, and watching him cut on a dime in the hole and break arm tackles only reinforces the notion that he's in for a big year. It's almost laughable just how many offensive weapons this team has. Just crazy. If they can pound it, watch out. (Note: Mathews was reportedly involved in a car accident in San Diego on Monday night, according to U-T San Diego. The report says Mathews was taken to a local hospital for examination after suffering minor injuries.)
5. Did I mention it's a big year for the Chargers? That six-game losing streak in the middle of last season put Turner and Smith on the brink before a 4-1 closing stretch earned them one more year. But after talking to executive vice president A.G. Spanos, it appears the review process wasn't as grueling as so many of us assumed. "It was an easier decision, once you look at both of their track records," Spanos said. "Our offense has been more prolific under Norv Turner than at any time in team history. And you look at A.J.'s time here, and it's the winningest period in Chargers history. When you look at the success they've had, it was hard not to continue that." Still, one imagines that this era can't continue if the Chargers don't make the playoffs this year.
THE NEW GUYS
Le'Ron McClain: Is there anything more boring than a team picking up a fullback? In this case, I'm making an exception. A big reason for all the optimism surrounding Mathews entering this season is that he'll have the 260-pound McClain destroying linebackers in front of him. McClain received a lot of publicity for his lighthearted campaign to be a running back, but his devastating impact as a blocker is overlooked. Just ask Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who benefitted from McClain's presence early in his career. To me, this is the best fit of an escort with a runner since Alge Crumpler was paving the way for Chris Johnson as a blocking tight end with the Tennessee Titans in 2009.
Ingram: The defense was starting to look ragged and thin on talent, and the Chargers addressed that in the draft. Ingram was a do-it-all edge player at South Carolina, and he'll be more of the same in San Diego. Ingram is a great athlete who can do a backflip, but the Chargers were drawn to him by more than his physical skills. They were also drawn in by his awareness. Watching him recognize a screen and blow it up during a team session made that clear. He made countless plays in college, and a playmaker is exactly what this team needs.
Aubrayo Franklin: With 18 new free agents, I could've gone a lot of ways here. But no one is talking about this signing, so I figured I would. The massive nose tackle is in his 10th year, and he was available deep into July. No one wanted him, perhaps because it seemed like his play slipped last year when he was with the New Orleans Saints. But remember, he was a franchise player just a few years ago with the San Francisco 49ers. And bowling balls who clog the middle are essential in defenses like the Chargers'. If Franklin has the will -- and it looked like he did at times during the workout we watched -- this could be a tremendously underrated signing. He will still draw two blockers.
"Oh, I was thrilled. I think I speak for the majority of the team in saying we all hoped (Norv Turner would return). The familiarity, the continuity in keeping Coach here, the staff with our systems, it's huge. And we have a nice mix of free agents and the core group we have here. We have a chance to be -- obviously you gotta go do it -- but we have a chance to be a great team."
-- Rivers, on the Chargers bringing back his coach for another year.
1. McClain relayed a story about how hard Mathews has been working that's worth sharing. When he signed his contract in March, Turner told McClain to look out the window; there was Mathews, doing additional running on his own. Good to hear.
2. There were questions last year about whether there was an issue with Rivers' arm. Don't be surprised if those continue to come this year. He can make every throw, just like he always has. But to the lay person -- and based on just one practice -- the ball doesn't quite look like it has the same zip it used to.
3. Backup quarterback is a problem area for the Chargers. Charlie Whitehurst suffered a knee injury, while Jarrett Lee and Kevin O'Connell simply aren't good enough to bridge the gap if anything happens to Rivers.
It might sound like a broken record, but the Chargers have more than enough talent to do everything they want to do. A restocked defense, an athletic and tall group of receivers, a quarterback who runs the system perfectly -- it could be a big year. But isn't that the case every year? It's put-up-or-shut-up time for the Bolts. No one has said it's Turner's and Smith's last year to make it happen, but it would be surprising if it isn't. Given San Diego's talented roster, anything less than a playoff victory would be a major disappointment.
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