Back in 2007, the book Pro Football Prospectus took a look at offensive line success and found that the best indicator of success was continuity. They compared continuity to various things like adding a top free agent, a top draft pick or losing a top player on the line. Continuity stood up against those tests. It's not a hard and fast rule that offensive lines need to be kept together at all costs, but, assuming that the line isn't full of a bunch of turnstiles, then you are best off finding 5 guys that can do that job and keeping then healthy for the majority of the 16 game season. Then, you bring them back the next year and do it again.
The Chargers don't have the luxury of bringing back the offensive line from last season. They also weren't to keep the 2011 offensive line healthy. Four time Pro Bowl Offensive Guard Kris Dielman suffered a concussion and resulting seizure after 6 games, missed the rest of the season and was forced into retirement. His backup, Tyronne Green, was only able to start 8 of those remaining 10 games because of his own injuries. Left Tackle Marcus McNeill only started 9 games and was released in the offseason when the team exercised an option it had to void his contract if he didn't pass an offseason physical. Right Guard Louis Vasquez missed two games as well, but returns for the 2012 season. Center Nick Hardwick started every game, as did Right Tackle Jeromey Clary, but there may yet be some competition for that Right Tackle spot. There was a lot in flux on the line in 2011.
For 2012, there is still room for optimism. Nick Hardwick, Louis Vasquez and potentially Jeromey Clary return to provide a base of contuinity. At Left Guard, the expectation is that the aforementioned Tyronne Green will win the job. Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union Tribune wrote an article about how Green has shed weight and has been working especially hard this offseason to get himself in peak condition for his potential breakout season. Having also started those 8 games last season, plus another 7 in 2010 (at Right Guard) and having been with the team since 2009, you can also squint and call him a form of continuity. At Left Tackle, you can squint harder and say something similar.
Jared Gaither is a big man. At around 6'9, 350 lbs he's the biggest player on the Chargers roster. You could use the old turn of phrase that's got big shoes to fill, what with McNeill playing at around 6'8, 335 lbs, but it's obvious he can fill them in a literal sense. In a figurative sense, the Chiefs castoff and ex-Raven earned a lot of praise for his work late in the 2011 season. Those five games in that role last year are why you can say he provides a semblance of continuity. He's protected Rivers before, he's play alongside Green before and he's started games where Green, Hardwick, Vasquez and Clary started as well. He also received a hefty 4 year, $24.6M contract to return to that Left Tackle spot. There's a lot of pressure on top of this big man.
The opposite side of the line has featured Jeromey Clary. He's started 32 consecutive games there and has 64 career starts at the Right Tackle position for the Chargers. He's also been dubbed the weak link in the line for most of that time. Nevertheless, he got a 4 year, $20M contract in 2011. It's been reported that Brandyn Dombrowski will compete with him for that Right Tackle spot. Dombrowski himself drew the ire of Chargers critics for his level of play filling in at the Left Tackle spot. There's also the possibility that free agent signee Mario Henderson could enter that competition. Michael Gehlken of the San Diego Union Tribune recently wrote about his offseason turnaround that included shedding weight and spending extra time at the Chargers facility. However, it's more likely that Henderson is in San Diego to be the backup Left Tackle. In any case, fans of the team may want to root for Clary to secure the job. Despite his past struggles, the team believes in him to improve and as has been shown continuity is key and he certainly provides that.
The question still remains as to whether this unit can gel. But, by studying the pieces a little bit it seems like the groundwork may be in place to do so.