We're a little over a week away from the start of 2015 San Diego Chargers training camp, and it will be incredibly nice to get back to actual football and (at least a little bit) away from all of the stadium talk.
It's been a long time since we've had real football, even practice, to watch. The team has changed a bit since then too! Here's what you should keep an eye on as you travel to Chargers Park to watch the team go through practice:
The Offensive Line
Who is playing and where are they playing? We'll probably see a few variations in the first couple of days, but barring any injury, many expect that D.J. Fluker will end up as the team's Right Guard and Joe Barksdale will end up as the team's Right Tackle.
The moving around and uncertainly heading into camp is the bad news, and it's not that bad. The good news is that this offensive line has potential to be great. Really great. Especially in the running game.
It's somewhat hard to gauge offensive line successes in practice, but here's what I look for:
- Is anyone coming clean through the line? If the QB or RB are touched in the backfield, there are major issues.
- Are pulling blockers reaching the line of scrimmage at their assigned gap before the defender gets there? If you see defenders waiting to meet the pulling blocker, there is work to be done. This is where Fluker will see his biggest adjustment if he moves from Tackle to Guard.
- How well are tackles "pushing"? When speed rushers attempt to get around them, skilled tackles will push the rusher so far outside that they miss the QB completely (it also, if done right, eliminates a rushing lane for the opposite pass rusher). This is a skill that's honed in camp, so it's good to keep an eye on it.
- How well are the linemen working together? Watch the footwork of the linemen. Guys that work well together will actually, usually, move their feet in sync with one another. If you see one guy with quick feet and one with slow feet, you'll usually see defensive linemen busting through the line easily (on days when they wear pads).
This one is easy to watch for. For an NFL team practice, the ball should almost never hit the ground unless the pass is broken up by a defender. Receivers, Tight Ends, and Running Backs should catch everything that comes their way, but they won't always. Keep your eye on guys that drop the pass or fumble the ball more than once. That's who the coaches are watching (and not talking to).
With pads or without, speed is usually pretty evident, but it's somewhat different from a game.
Pay no attention to the RBs running down the sideline into the end zone, or the punt returner doing the same. I know the fans cheer, but it doesn't matter. When they're at the 30 yard line, the rest of the team is already moving on to the next play. It's fun, but not useful. Those points don't count.
What you should absolutely watch for is if the RB can beat the LB to the outside edge on a stretch or pitch play. Woodhead should have no issues here, so watch him for an example of what you're looking for.
Also, keep an eye on WR/CB matchups. Speed is of the utmost importance here. For CBs, you're mostly seeing who can move quickly in a backpedal and then who has the wheels to stay with the WR long enough to transfer coverage to the over-the-top Safety (hi, Eric Weddle!). For WRs, you're looking for how much separation they can get in those first 20 yards before they have to deal with Weddle. Since Jason Verrett and Brandon Flowers aren't big enough to be "jamming" CBs on a consistent basis, keeping that separation to a minimum is key.
You can learn a lot from watching an NFL coach at practice. When the players are not executing well, you'll hear it in his voice. When the players are executing well, he'll still be loud and seem angry....but he'll also be telling jokes and will have a smile on his face (and will excitedly do things like slap players on the helmet).
I love watching new coaches and what they try to bring to practice, which means I'll have my eyes on (former Defensive Coordinator and Head Coach) Mike Nolan as he transitions into a Linebackers Coach. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if he took a large role in running practice, along with Mike McCoy, as Ken Whisenhunt did during McCoy's first year.
When it comes to the defense's front seven, it's hard to gauge where they're at before a preseason game.
On days when the team is practicing with helmets and pads, you can watch the defensive linemen try to win with quickness and strength, and you should!
Inside linebackers will show you their pass coverage (or lack there of), but they'll hold off on stopping runs for the most part. Those second-level collisions are usually massive and should be kept to games. If the LB gets to the gap before the blocker, it's noted, and he gets the hell out of the way to let the RB through. That's hard to pick up, but you can certainly try.
Pass-rushers are worth watching, but what you're looking for more than their speed (around the outside) or their strength (bull rush) is if they have any moves that can be used if they're not bigger or faster than their opponent. About 90% of these moves will be reliant upon the player's hands being used in some way to either juke the Tackle to go to the wrong spot or to send him flying in the wrong direction. We know Melvin Ingram and Jerry Attaochu are fast and strong, but how are their hands at the line of scrimmage? Can they win with them? That's more important.
What about Melvin Gordon?
Ah, yes. Everyone wants to watch the first round pick, full of hope and promise.
As was said when the pick was made, a lot of Gordon's performance will be dependent upon how good the offensive line is. However, what I'll be watching for is decisiveness in the backfield (where Ryan Mathews was great), pass protection (where Mathews struggled), and his skills as a receiver (where Mathews was awful). Those are the things he can control, and things that he can improve in practice.