One game into the preseason there are still several questions remaining about certain positions on the Chargers roster and numerous predictions surrounding the team. The defense is still starting to take shape, so it's hard to make too many predictions about the defense at this point, but the offense is fairly solidified at this point at least as far as starters go.
In this post, I'll visit the different groups on offense and make my predictions as to the sort of production that we can expect from those groups. I'll be making comparisons to players on other teams around the league to give a better idea of the quality of play we can expect from those positions since just pure numbers are hard to picture.
Running Backs: Mathews and Tolbert
This comparison could be startling to some of you, so please take a seat if you aren't already sitting down. In my expectations for the Chargers 2011 season I'm looking at shared time in the running game between two fairly young RB's: one who has more elusiveness and speed in the open field and one who is a bit lower to the ground and a bit heftier at 240+ pounds. This tandem that I am thinking of sounds a lot like Mathews and Tolbert, but wear Silver and Black and go by the names of McFadden and Bush. Here are their numbers from 2010 (from NFL.com):
I know that comparing a pair of Chargers running backs to a pair of Raiders running backs can seem sacrilegious, but it's a fair comparison in my opinion. McFadden is definitely the more explosive of the two running backs, although he does have some injury concerns. Bush, while not quite as explosive as McFadden, can still make some great plays in the running game when he gets into the secondary and shows decent shiftiness for his size. Both McFadden and Bush can run the ball up the middle and can also catch the ball and paired up for more than 60 receptions and 700 receiving yards out of the backfield.
I would expect roughly the same sort of distribution on the number of carries here for Mathews and Tolbert, with Mathews receiving the bulk of the carries, but Tolbert getting the majority of the red zone touches, and thus more TD's (just like Bush last season). However, the Chargers feature more of a pass-heavy offense with the running game still being important, but not featured as it was in Oakland last season. I'm looking for roughly 1600 yards between the two backs (Mathews will get more yards), with about 20 TD's split between the two (Tolbert getting more TDs).
Wide Receivers: Jackson and Floyd
This tandem is hard to find a comparison throughout the league, physically. Many analysts in the business have labeled this tandem the "Twin Towers" and for good reason: both guys stand 6'5" tall. Looking at the rosters around the league, having a 6'5" receiver is rare, let alone having two of them as your top 2 wide receivers. Not only are they tall, but they can both stretch the field, both have great hands, and both can make the spectacular catch that is occasionally required in this offense. Additionally, both players have spent nearly their whole career catching passes from Philip Rivers and developing the rapport that is required between the quarterback and wide receiver in an elite offense.
While it is hard to make this exact comparison and find an equal pair of receivers across the league, I think that Greg Jennings and Donald Driver of Green Bay last year had a 2010 regular season that we can expect from the "Twin Towers" this season. Here are their numbers from 2010:
Other than the physical traits, the comparison is pretty staggering. Both WRs pairs are catching from an up-and-coming elite QB, with one of the receivers coming into his own as one of the best in the league. The second receiver in both groups has had some injury issues and can fill is as a WR1 in a pinch, although is most likely best served as a secondary receiver.
These comparisons lead very well into the situation here with Jackson and Floyd. I think that in this offense, Floyd will put up a better yard per catch average than Driver did, as well as more yardage, and probably contribute a few more TDs (assuming he can stay healthy). Jackson won't miss a beat, and I would not be surprised to see him surpass 1,200 yards and achieve double digit TD's this season. All-in-all I would expect close to 2000 yards and over 16 TD's between the two of them.
Side note: The scariest part for opposing defenses is that even if these guys perform as described, they may not even be the leading receiver on the team if Gates can stay healthy. (recall that in 2009 Gates put up 1157 yards and 8 TDs and was on pace to surpass that last season before injury struck)
There are several schools of thought when it comes to building an offensive line. Some teams attempt to go out in free agency and sign the best players at each position that they can, while others attempt to bring in young players and allow them to play together and grow together as a unit over several years. The Chargers subscribe to the latter formula.
If I had to choose a team that compared well in this category it would be the Tennessee Titans. The Titans have long had one of the better Offensive Lines in the league, as they have always focused on bringing in talent and cultivating that talent to grow into a unit under Offensive Line coach Mike Munchak's tutelage. (Oh by the way, Mike Munchak is now the head coach in Tennessee)
Tennessee drafted their current LT Michael Roos has started every game since being drafted in the second round in 2005, including the last 65 games at LT. Marcus McNeill has started 73 games at left tackle since being drafted in the second round in 2006. Tennessee has also had a bit of a shuffle with younger players along the interior line since the departure of Kevin Mawae at Center, and the Chargers have been shuffling around with some younger players in the interior of their line as well over the last few seasons. Both teams have also had a consistent starter at RT over the last 3 seasons: David Stewart in Tennessee and Jeromey Clary in San Diego.
I would expect the San Diego offensive line to continue to grow together as a unit in yet another year together. Currently the only question is at RG after Vasquez had a questionable first preseason game, but that is what the preseason is for, and I expect the same five starters from last season. Sacks are to be expected in this downfield passing game in San Diego, but I think this line will provide more than enough time for Rivers to have the most productive season of his career.
Why so positive?
Some may say that I am viewing the offense with rose-colored glasses, but first think about the fact that the Chargers led the league in total offense and passing yards last season. Then think about the fact that Vincent Jackson, Antonio Gates, and Malcom Floyd missed a total of 22 games between the 3 of them last season. With some luck on the health side of things, this offense can easily repeat as the top offense in the league again. With some added production and reliability from the running back position, the offense can border on unstoppable.
Well that's it for the first chapter of this series, in the next one I will visit the expectations we can have for the defensive positions, once more has been settled on that side of the ball.