Pressure is inevitable in sports. Pressure from media, pressure from the organization, pressure from fans. It's all part of the job. Professional athletes are required to adjust themselves to the limelight that being a professional athlete places on them, and those who can thrive in pressure-filled moments are immortalized.
However, the pressure to live up to expectations, regardless of whether or not the expectations are justified, can be suffocating. The Chargers organization is no stranger to pressure, with general manager AJ Smith, and head coaches Marty Schottenheimer and Norv Turner, all losing their jobs due to not reaching expectations.
So too do players have to live up to the bar set by their peers, and those who underwhelm for too long will find themselves out of a job. Coming into the 2013 season, a couple of the players that faced make-or-break pressure were none other than Ryan Mathews and Philip Rivers. Mathews had shown promise in his first three years as the Chargers workhorse back, but injury concerns and ball security issues plagued him. 2013 was seen as an important year for him. He responded with his best season to date, rushing for 1255 yards and leading the NFL with six 100-yard games. Rivers faced similar pressure to Mathews, but he was seen as washed up and no longer able to carry the offense like he had in Marty and Norv's heyday. He proved the doubters wrong too, putting up his best statistical season and leading the Chargers to the playoffs for the first year since 2009.
Coming into 2014, expectations for the team are high and players like Rivers and Eric Weddle are expected to continue to lead their sides of the ball. But outside of the established stars, there is a bevy of Chargers players who have a lot riding on this season. Let's take a look.
Wait, what? Yeah, two years in a row for Ryan. Unfortunately for Mathews, his great season in 2013 didn't earn him any long-term stability in San Diego, and while the pressure he faces this year is different than what issues he faced last season, he still needs to perform at an elite level again.
Mathews is in the final year of his rookie contract, and will need another complete year of production to command a larger salary in free agency. The addition of Donald Brown to the backfield as stability, and the two-year extension handed to Danny Woodhead suggest that Tom Telesco wouldn't be distraught if Mathews left after this year. But he insists that the former Fresno State Bulldog is the Chargers' workhorse back. He no longer faces issues of production, and has vastly improved on his ball security. However, he still faces injury concerns. While he played in all 18 of San Diego's games last year, his body betrayed him down the stretch at the end of the season and postseason.
Mathews will still get the majority of the carries this year, but his future in San Diego has yet to be determined. The Chargers understand the changing utilization of the running back position in the NFL and are hesitant to ink Mathews to a long term deal when there will be cheaper alternatives available. If Mathews has another strong year and can maintain good health, he'll get his big pay day...it just might not be in San Diego. If his injury struggles continue or his old ball-handling demons return, he'll likely have to take a smaller contract in a less-featured role.
Brown falls under the category of players who have shown the ability to contribute at a proficient level, but has never lived up to that billing in a full regular season. Brown showed promise in his 2011 rookie campaign and was the talk of Chargers Park with his showing in the following training camp, but an ankle injury robbed him of the 2012 season. 2013 was supposed to be a breakout year for Brown but he struggled to gain separation and only caught one touchdown.
The emergence of Keenan Allen, and return of Malcom Floyd to full health, puts immense pressure on Brown, and he may already lose snaps. In a contract year, Brown needs to put together a strong season to impress possible suitors on the open market or convince the Chargers to resign the Southern California native. Both Brown and the Chargers are hoping having the injury in the rear-view mirror, and continued familiarity with Rivers and the offense will lead to a breakout season.
I hated putting Malcom Floyd in this article just as much as you probably hate seeing him in this article, but the reality is that Floyd has a lot to prove in 2014. He suffered a career-threatening neck injury in Week 2 last year, and the fact that he is healthy enough to even play football is impressive. However, health doesn't cut the checks, and Floyd will have to show that he's still as reliable a target for Rivers as he has been throughout his nine-year career.
Floyd has never been an elite receiver, but his tall frame and solid route-running has made him a consistent target for Rivers. Unlike the other players in this article, Floyd is under contract for 2015, and he will be afforded more breathing room than other 32-year-old wide receivers would be because of his track record in San Diego. Floyd has never been great, but he's been a great Charger. Regardless, he will still need to prove that he can haul in touchdowns or else his future in powder blue could be murky.
Not often do players coming off of their first Pro Bowl get released and sign with another team, but Brandon Flowers was a cap casualty in Kansas City's quest to re-sign their star players and the Chargers gladly tabbed his services. Flowers only signed a one-year deal with San Diego, placing pressure on himself to succeed in order to improve his stock for the 2015 free agency period. He struggled mightily in Kansas City's defensive scheme and ranked near the bottom on most defensive back lists, but he still has the talent to play at a high level.
His future in the league largely depends on this season in San Diego. If he finds success in John Pagano's defense, he'll likely parlay that into a larger deal. Whether that deal is in San Diego is yet to be seen. The Chargers could just be Flowers' launching pad to a big deal elsewhere, but before he starts making elite-level money again, he has to return to playing at an elite level. Flowers will have a job somewhere after this year, but his role and paycheck will be determined in his first season with the Bolts.
Gilchrist is the second player from the 2011 Draft to make this list, joining Brown. I wrestled with possibly putting Shareece Wright, another selection from that draft, on this list but I opted to go with Gilchrist. The slot-corner-turned-strong-safety is battling for a starting job with Jahleel Addae. While Addae doesn't have the experience in the system that Gilchrist has, Gilchrist has struggled to make his mark in San Diego's secondary. He wasn't helped by being part of one of the league's worst defenses in 2013, but a lot of pressure to perform will still be placed on him in 2014.
Addae may win the starting job, but Gilchrist will have plenty of opportunities to showcase his talent, and being in a contract year should be more than enough motivation. The former Clemson Tiger struggled in man-to-man coverages as a slot corner, and should be helped by the move to strong safety, where he won't be relied on to cover slot receivers. If Gilchrist can show he is starting-quality at strong safety, he will earn himself a nice paycheck after the season is over. But he is already behind Addae in pursuit of the strong safety job in San Diego, and he'll need to excel in the limited snaps he'll have.