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Chargers' Defensive Backfield Position Battles and Depth Analysis

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Draft - Done, Free Agency - Mostly Done.  AJ says they guys we have now are the guys we are going to start the season with.   Ronnie Lott isn't going to come a save us.  

It is pretty safe to say that our defensive backs had the biggest drop off statistically of any other position group.  We went from giving up 213 yards per game (ranked 14th) in the air and picking off 30 passes (1st) in 2007 to giving up 247 yards per game (ranked 31st) in the air and picking off 15 passes (11th) in 2008.  The only difference in personnel was swapping out Drayton Florence for Antoine Cason as our nickel back.  Of course, that ignores the loss of Merriman and the disappearance of our pass rush.  And therein lies the question.  Did our defensive backfield go from being an above average crew to being one of the worst in the league because of a lack of pass rush?  Or did they get figured out?  With Merriman coming back and English in the fold, will the 2009 DBs look like the 2007 version or the 2008 version?

There is only one way I know of to try and figure this out in May...  Let's have us a look at the depth chart.  Lay out last year's guys plus the new guys, and let's see what kind of position battles we have brewing and what depth problems we might have. 


Name Position(s) Experience Max Games Started in a Season Max Games Played in a Season Notes
Quentin Jammer CB 8th 16 16 Wiley veteran. border line pro bowler. solid. potentially approaching the downside of career, but should be fine for 2009
Antonio Cromartie CB 4th 15 16 Pro Bowl in 2007, BIG dropoff in 2008 possibly due to hip injury
Eric Weddle FS/SS 3rd 16 16 2008 was his first year as a starter.  Did not have a real good year.  He plays mainly FS, but might be better suited as a SS.
Clinton Hart SS 7th 16 16 Great guy, great story, BIG dropoff in 2008.  Played well in 2007.
Antoine Cason CB 2nd 3 16 1st round pick in 2008 draft.  Played very solid nickel corner last year.  Will be a starter someday
Cletis Gordon CB 4th 1 14 Gets some time against passing teams, primarily a special teams guy.
Steve Gregory SS 4th 3 16 Started some games in 2008 in place of Hart.  Gets some PT, but probably a special teams guy
Paul Oliver FS/SS 3rd 0 13 Spent almost every week inactive in 2008.  Was inactive most weeks in 2008 where there wasn't an injury in front of him.  Still a big unknown.  CB in college and plays SS now.
Brandon Hughes CB R 2009 Draft Round 5
Kevin Ellison SS R 2009 Draft Round 6
C.J Spillman FS R UDFA 2009
Wopamo Asaisai CB R UDFA 2009
Ramarcus Brown CB R UDFA 2009

Position Starters / Battles

CB - Quentin Jammer - No question here.

CB - Antonio Cromartie - Barring a really poor training camp and preseason, Cromartie will be starting.  I'm tempted to say Antoine Cason could push him this year, but I'm not quite ready to go there.  Cro has so much potential (see his 2007 season) and I think his 2009 will be closer to his 2007 than his 2008.

FS - Eric Weddle - He is the chosen one and he will be starting this year, like it or not. The only other option is Paul Oliver, and I don't know how comfortable I am with that.

SS - Clinton Hart - I think we are going to see some action here.  He had lost his starting job at times last year to Steve Gregory.  Part of Hart's problem was a hand and shoulder injury, part of it was being exposed because of a lack of pass rush.  Clinton Hart is one of my favorite players and I really hope he reverts to his 2007 form (85 tackles and 5 ints).  Gregory seemed slow last year and not a big upgrade over Hart (if at all).  Another option here is the rookie Kevin Ellison.  Ellison is a question mark, and not just because he is a rookie.  Because of his size (6-0, 224) and his 4.8 40 time, some people think he might be more of a LB than a DB.  His 40 time was affected by a knee injury (he has had several and that is another issue) and he plays faster than he times, but I'm not sure that is enough in the NFL.  If I had to guess, I think Hart will start, but I really have no idea.

Nickel CB - Antione Cason - Cason will eventually be a starter for the Chargers at CB.  Either because Cromartie is too expensive or never regains his 2007 form, or because Jammer starts to get old.  If we didn't have two pro bowl caliber CBs ahead of him, he would be starting this year.

Game Day Actives - In the NFL today, a team has to carry more DBs than they used to.  Every team has some sort of spread / 4 WR sets.  Last year we had 8 DBs on the roster and one of them was typically inactive.  That means three game day actives.  Cason is a lock. Cletis Gordon and Gregory were typically active last year.  We might see the same group as last year, or possibly one of the rookies could push Gordon or Gregory to the inactive list.  I think that if Brandon Hughes or Kevin Ellison shows promise they will stick around over Gordon and/or Gregory.  Having some experience in the backup roles is nice, but in today's NFL, you need to be developing your next group of players so the players on the edges of the roster will tend to be potential guys over experience guys.

Game Day Inactives -Either one or both of the drafted rookies will be inactive on game days.  I suspect both Brandon Hughes and Kevin Ellison will make the team and might see some time depending on injuries.  Either one could push Gordon or Gregory down the depth chart if they come along quickly.  I suspect Paul Oliver might not make the team if he doesn't show some improvement during camp.

UDFAs who mght make some noise.  CJ Spillman has the speed to play FS in the NFL.  He will probably end up on the practice squad, but could make an impact down the road.

Depth Analysis

The rookies are a mystery to me.  I don't know much about Hughes and I wonder if Ellison will even end up as a DB.  "In the box" safeties are dinosaurs in today's NFL, and unless Ellison displays some speed and coverage ability, he could be up for a position change.  If neither of the rookies contribute this year, we are left with the same crew as last year.  For those of you who thought Hart and Weddle were bad last year, how much worse do Gregory and Oliver look?  Cason provides a security blanket but he is on the field for probably 40% of the time between 3rd downs and passing packages, so he is as close to a starter as you can be without getting your named called out during intros.

If you remember from some of AJ's interviews, he likes to say that it takes three years to evaluate a draft.  By year three, the players are who they are, if they aren't a starter in year three, they won't be a starter.  He said there are some guys who are on notice.  In the defensive backfield, that would include Oliver and Weddle (in their third year) and Gordon, Gregory, and Cromartie (in their 4th year).  I think Oliver is in danger of not making the team if he doesn't make strides, he was pretty much inactive all last year he was only active on weeks where someone in front of him was injured (Hart or Gordon).  I think Gordon and/or Gregory could be pushed off the roster if the rookies come on strong.

I think I am officially worried about depth at DB.  If any of our starters get injured, we're going to have someone who is not very good playing (If a CB gets injured, Cason moves over and now we've got Gordon or Hughes playing nickel)