Training camp is officially underway. With the Chargers set to begin practice today, they enter the season looking to improve on what they did last year under first–year head coach Mike McCoy, streaking to a 9-7 record and their first playoff appearance since 2009.
As you'll recall, to end the 2013 season the Chargers won four straight games and snuck into the playoffs. Will those winning ways carry over into this season? Or will the tougher schedule and higher expectations lead to different results? Only time will tell, but for now, training camp should give us a better idea of what to expect.
Here's the rundown...
1st Down: Who will start opposite of Keenan Allen?
Keenan Allen was a gift sent to the Chargers from the football gods. Falling to the third round of last year's draft, Allen not only stepped up after both Malcom Floyd and Danario Alexander were lost for the season, but also became a dominant force once Eddie Royal cooled down after his hot start.
After accumulating 1,046 yards and 8 touchdowns in his rookie campaign, Allen enters this year as the number one option in the passing game. The importance of Allen on this team is unquestionable, as he ranks in the top 3 on BFTB's Most Valuable San Diego Chargers rankings.
But the question here is, who will be starting on the opposite side?
Along with the veterans Malcom Floyd, Eddie Royal, Vincent Brown, and Seyi Ajirotutu, the Chargers head into training camp with a total of 11 wide receivers on the roster, including speedy 7th round pick Tevin Reese.
If Floyd is healthy, he will likely be the starter, with Royal working in the slot. However, both of them have been plagued by injuries throughout their careers, and those injury concerns likely won't change much this year. With all the injuries this unit has experienced the last few seasons, health may be the key for this group.
Considering the impact a healthy Allen, Floyd, and Royal can have, the passing game will be much improved if that's the case.
Speaking of improved...
2nd Down: How much did the defense improve?
In 2013, the Chargers defense finished the year ranked dead last in overall DVOA, earning a 17.5% grade, with a 12.6% weighted defense (which adjusts more towards how a team performed at the end of the season), so slightly better, but not by much.
Last season, this unit had the worst defensive success rate, the second-worst passing defense in the league by allowing 7.1 net yards per attempt, and a dismal pass-rush that ranked 31st in productivity among 3-4 linebackers.
The defense did rank 12th in stopping the run, allowing 4.46 yards per run. However, they ranked 30th in 2nd–level yards (yards earned between 5-10 yards past the line of scrimmage). Needless to say, the Chargers needed to improve on this side of the ball if they wanted to make it back to the playoffs in 2014.
The Chargers entered the offseason wanting to add quality players to the defense, and that's exactly what Tom Telesco did.
Bringing in Brandon Flowers will make the rest of the secondary better, and first-round pick Jason Verrett will be an upgrade over what the team had last year in Derek Cox and Johnny Patrick. With Shareece Wright showing improvement towards the end of the year, as Kyle Posey broke down Wright's 2013 season, the future looks brighter.
The Chargers also have Richard Marshall, Brandon Ghee, and Steve Williams behind them, and if Verrett can fully recover from shoulder surgery, the cornerback depth in San Diego is not looking as grim as it was a year ago.
With Melvin Ingram and Dwight Freeney both healthy entering training camp, and second round pick Jeremiah Attaochu expected to contribute on passing downs, this could be the much needed shot–in–the–arm this defense has been looking for.
The question here: how long will it take for all the new pieces to fall into place?
Eric Weddle has been a dominant force, as he ranks second on BFTB's Most Valuable Chargers. Add in all the new pieces, along with the development of Jahleel Addae, the versatility Marcus Gilchrist provides, Donald Butler holding down the middle, and Manti Te'o no longer being a rookie, this defense goes into camp with all the tools to potentially become a great unit.
The nose tackle spot will be up for grabs, as a competition between Sean Lissemore, Kwame Geathers, and fifth-round pick Ryan Carrethers should decide who starts next to Kendall Reyes and Corey Liuget, who combined for 10.5 sacks last season. With Lawrence Guy as the only other defensive linemen on the roster, depth up front will be a concern.
Remaining healthy will be key for this defense to succeed, and having a solid rotation of players at several positions should help. With some of the better defenses in the NFL on their schedule this year, having a good defense will only help the offense by keeping games close so the offense doesn't have to do all the heavy lifting.
But will the offense be as explosive as it was last year?
Find out in part 2 of our Four Down Discussion tomorrow.