San Diego Chargers Camp Battles: The Offensive Line

Look quickly, he may not be here after August 15 - Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

90 men are active in camp with 53 roster spots and another 8 practice squads slots available. Let the fray begin. Between now and August 31, the following 15 men will be competing for 8-10 spots on the Bolts offensive line. Who starts? Who are the back-ups? And who will be selling insurance in September?

With only one spot on the San Diego Chargers offensive line expected to be the same as Week 1 of last season, this training camp and preseason promises some lively battles for the four remaining spots. As a fan of linemen and line-play, I offer the following evaluations and predictions of the starters, back-ups, and practice squad assignments on September 1, 2013.

Left Tackle

Max Starks – While I presumed that he would be the starting Left Tackle after his May signing, the only shots he has gotten playing the "first team" have come as a result of injury to King Dunlap. Starks has the edge in experience, but Dunlap is younger and may have the edge in athleticism.

One thing I will be looking for is who starts in the third preseason game. If it is Starks, then the rumors about zone blocking can probably be put to rest. If it is Dunlap, then the team may be incorporating more of that scheme, which favors the younger and quicker Dunlap, into the running game.

King Dunlap – At the very least, he should earn a roster spot as a back-up since he has not been terrible at either Left or Right Tackle. Dunlop has said all the right things about wanting to start and his performance may surpass that of Starks; he is certainly being given a chance to strut his stuff at the top of the depth chart so far. If he does end up being the starter, it will be based on superior athleticism and quickness, as he is the younger player.

Mike Harris – In a perfect world, Harris would have been a practice squad player last year and competing for a back-up job this year. Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world; the best reward that the team could probably give him for the abuse he took last year would be cutting him early so he has a shot at getting a spot on another team that needs a back-up developmental OT.

Randy Richards – Pretty much an unknown, this Jamaican native was a free-agent signing out of Missouri State. I expect that he will stay an unknown and be off the team by mid-August. Richards may be the definition of "camp fodder" at this position.

Left Guard

Chad Rinehart – A pre-draft free agent signing, Rinehart was presumed to be the replacement for Louis Vasquez, last season’s starter at Right Guard. With the expected (and hoped for by many) shuffle of Jeromey Clary to accommodate D.J. Fluker, Rinehart is certainly a viable candidate to start at Left Guard. I say this because of Rinehart’s college career at Northern Iowa, spent playing Left Tackle.

All other things being equal, the player with more NFL experience has the edge in getting the job, unless they are simply outclassed by the athletic ability of a player with less experience. Rinehart being outclassed is doubtful with this group. That being said, Rinehart does have to make it through camp healthy and staying healthy has proved a challenge for him during his NFL career.

Johnnie Troutman – Acquired last year to inhabit the IR list. The previous regime thought highly of him, which immediately makes him suspect (just kidding!!! [sort of]). If he shows why the prior talent evaluators thought he could play, he could win a back-up job.

Center

Nick Hardwick – A long time starter. The only thing that dislodges him this year would be a Vincent Brown-style leg amputation.

Colin Baxter – A third year player that needs to show a lot more than he has previously to remain on the team. Baxter is a candidate for an early cut; if you have not shown that you belong (or will belong) with the actives on Sundays after two seasons, you are probably gone. We’ll know his fate by looking at playing time and performance in the first two preseason games.

David Molk – A late round pick last year, Molk is thought to be smart and tough enough to eventually replace Hardwick. He is the favorite for the primary back-up Center slot on this team and would really need to screw up to jeopardize being around for one more year.

Rich Ohrnberger – Ohrnberger would be in the same position as Baxter, except for (1) he's actually played in a couple more NFL games than Baxter, (2) he was brought in as a Free Agent by the new management, and (3) he can play Guard in addition to Center. It is likely that Ohrnberger makes the team due to his interior line versatility and his experience with Ken Whisenhunt's offense in Arizona.

Right Guard

Jeromey Clary – Clary has developed into an average Right Tackle; while I am not really a fan of Clary, I do not believe he deserves a lot of the criticism he gets on this site. While he does have deficiencies in his game, the team could have done much worse at RT in recent years and last year especially showed that he could be an average Right Tackle. In the NFL, being ‘average’ at anything means you are pretty good. The move inside to Guard should better match his skill set and somewhat ease the pain of losing Vasquez.

Stephen Schilling – See: Baxter, Colin. A new regime with no loyalty or vested interest to players acquired by the former management is bad news for guys like Schilling. With new management not needing to prove that the developmental players acquired and kept around were a stroke of genius, Schilling will need to show a lot more during this camp than he has previously to keep getting paid to play football.

Right Tackle

D.J. Fluker – The comments about vested interest in the developmental players and those players having no friends in the new front office work just in the opposite way for Fluker. If the 11th overall pick is not "one of the best 5 linemen on the team" and starting on opening day, the new brain trust will find that the honeymoon champagne has started to go flat.

While early reviews out of training camp are not great (a couple of them are even somewhat disturbing), we need to see what Fluker looks like running with the first team in the preseason games. Some guys just don’t practice as well as they play, turning into flat out beasts in games but reserved when playing against their teammates. Others need a week or two and establishing a routine before they hit their stride.

Fluker may not be in a full-blown battle for a starting job, but he is the point man for fan perception of new management. If McCoy and Coach D decide that Clary is the better option at RT, that would shuffle these predictions up pretty good and be a real embarrassment to Tom Telesco.

Brandyn Dombrowski - A long time back-up that may be on the bubble this year. What Dombro has going for him is versatility and familiarity with a few of his teammates, but as a football player, we have probably seen his ceiling (which is not very high). With Dunlap (or Starks) and even Clary available as back-up Tackles, Brandyn may not be here after August. Of course, his ability to play Guard as well as Tackle could see him back with this team again in 2013. I'm guessing his versatility will not be enough to keep him employed in San Diego, though.

Nick Becton – A Free Agent signed out of VA Tech, I must admit that Becton intrigues me a little bit. He has the height and weight of the new breed of Tackles in the NFL, but doesn't have any NFL experience and didn't get much college football experience either He was unable to beat out an entrenched starter in his junior year with the Hokies, but did start and played well in his senior year.

He had a pretty dismal combine (19 in the bench press reps) which probably resulted in him being undrafted. Becton may be in the position that Harris was last year; a kid that may be a late bloomer and a developmental player for this team with practice squad written all over him. He needs to get some conditioning at the NFL level; more strength, some quickness, and better footwork before he has a chance to see the field.

If everything breaks properly for this guy, he develops into a back-up next year, with a shot at competing for starting job a year or two after that. Those are long odds, but stranger things have happened in the NFL.

Predicted Depth Chart

From left to right, Philip Rivers will break huddle and walk up to the line of scrimmage behind the guys on the top row right before the first offensive play against the Texans on September 9. Below them are the primary back-ups. I believe with this configuration, the Bolts will carry nine total offensive linemen on the 53 man roster and one practice squad lineman:

Starters: Starks – Rinehart – Hardwick – Clary – Fluker
Backups: Dunlap – Troutman – Molk – Ohrnberger – (Clary)

Effectively, this depth chart contains 9 actual players, but include 4 Tackles, 4 Guards, and 3 Centers on the roster, which allows for a lot of flexibility and decent depth in the event of injury.

I am thinking that Becton makes the practice squad, although I will acknowledge that Richards may impress enough to get that spot. I would be surprised if the Bolts carry 2 Tackles on the PS.


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