I purposefully entitled the article as such to commit myself to one article per positional group. At least the position groups I feel have enough semblance of competition and or lack of a clear depth chart to make for an interesting read. We will start at the back end of the defense with the safeties.
The Chargers have not been able to solidify the safety spot adequately in recent offseasons, and so another player was taken at the position in this years NFL draft. Darrell Stuckey out of Kanas University was selected by the Chargers in the 4th round to increase competition at the safety position, more specially the strong safety position. (Even though the Chargers strangely have Stuckey listed as a free safety) Stuckey played mostly as a free safety his senior year because that's what his coaches asked of him and that's what his team needed, but the Chargers like him as a strong safety based on his skill set and measurables. Stuckey and incumbent Kevin Ellison will go head to head for the starting strong safety job this offseason, the loser will have to face Gregory and Paul Oliver/Spillman for a spot on the active roster. So this battle will be much more than just who offers the most value as a in the box type defender in base, almost as importantly will be how this new addition effects the kicking game overall.
Last year the inconsistent play at the backbend of the defense came about as a result of many factors. Firstly Clinton Hart was shown the door after it became apparent, that he was no longer a starter and not capable of becoming a dominant force in the kicking game. As a result rookie Kevin Ellison was brought along perhaps faster than the Chargers had originally anticipated. This lead to a situation where the club wanted Gregory to at least start the season at strong safety, rather than inserting Ellison day one. Gregory did see the majority of the base snaps as the second safety early in the season for the Chargers. Gregory is a very good football player, he is versatile, smart, and a good special teamer; and although he is fairly solid playing near the line of scrimmage and is a good tackler he lacks the ideal size to be a 8th box defender.
After the Ravens game Rivera must have become frustrated with Cason in nickel, and possibly concerned with the lack of bulk in base following the loss of Jwill. Inserting Gregory into nickel and Ellison into the base rotation was the right call, and props to the coaching staff for not waiting too long to pull the trigger. Reducing Gregory's snaps and taking away almost all of Cason's, while providing some playing time to Ellison eventually increased the team's special teams play (post Denver embarrassment) and revitalized the nickel defense. The playing time Ellison received early most certainly helped him when he played substantial minutes versus running teams later in the season like the Giants, Cowboys, Browns, and Bengals. What I did not see from Ellison was any standout special teams contribution, because I am speaking from memory I could be dead wrong. If anyone knows of a good site for special team stats please provide it in the comments section.
At free safety, Weddle of course is penciled in as the starter their. He has one year left on his rookie deal, I would figure him to be the priority one candidate for an extension defensively speaking at least. Whether he is more suited to play closer to the line of scrimmage is debatable; this seemed to also be a question the Chargers were wondering about. Weddle was moved around quite a bit in 2009, probably because the Chargers have in recent history used their safeties more interchangeably than most clubs. Gregory playing nickel back, a role usually reserved for a backup corner making him unavailable to play center field on passing downs; and the Chargers wanting to experiment somewhat could have also played a role in Weddle seemingly lacking a true spot early on in the 2009 season.
Steve Gregory shouldnt require too much more discussion because his roster spot would appear secure based on many factors some of which I mentioned above. Gregory's versatile in that he is capable of playing both safety positions, and in 2009 he showed himself to be a decent defender close to the line of scrimmage as a nickel back blitzing, in run support, and slot coverage. He has even served as the teams emergency corner on gameday, all while getting it done in the kicking game. He is signed through 2011 very cheaply and as a result is almost assured a roster spot.
Paul Oliver is the real enigma, and his competition will come from former UdFA C.J. Spillman. Oliver had a very good year in kick coverage, he was ranked 3rd in special teams tackles. That alone can assure a backup a roster spot on the 53, but Oliver has only one year left on his deal. Oliver was used mainly in dime as a safety, but Spillman and Cason also play a little as the 6th DB; so it's difficult to go about trying to access his 2009 season defensively.
Spillman's playing time in defense was very obviously poor, but despite that he did show skills in the kicking game. Without a full season it would be unfair to judge his stats concerning kick coverage, but indications from watching the game lead me to believe he would be a well above average contributor on kicks. As a undrafted player in his sophomore season, the Chargers almost certainly control his rights another three season very cheaply. I would guess that the battle between Oliver and Spillman is closer than most of us imagine. Even though Spillman looked lost in the games he played for Weddle (Dallas and Cleveland), and in the Redskins finally he only has to make small improvements to jump into serious consideration for the 5th safety spot. Because Gregory will at least provide depth at nickel back I would assume the Chargers will carry 5 safeties as opposed to 5 corners, but that's a issue for special teams to decide I suppose.