The Chargers are strong at linebacker, but they only get an A- because we still can't be sure their most important piece, outside linebacker Shawne Merriman, will be 100% this season until he is 100%. He says he's making "progress" every week, but can he again be that disruptive force that makes everyone else better? Thinking back to two and three years ago, it becomes obvious that Merriman makes defensive end Luis Castillo and linebacker Shaun Phillips better pass rushers because they get one on one blocking. He makes the defensive backs better because quarterbacks will fling the ball out there a bit too quickly. The quarterbacks in this league are tough professionals, but it seems like many of them show fear in their trembling passes when Merriman is rushing...think opponent "x" against Mike Tyson in his prime.
If he can get back to 100% the Chargers have a good shot at the Super Bowl. If not...?
On the other side is the "other guy," Shaun Phillips who probably can't wait to get back to being the "other guy" so he can draw more one-on-one blocking situations. He showed a lot of growth and leadership last year, making plays all over the field and stopping the run. He will have a career year in tackles and sacks this season.
In the middle is the solid Stephen Cooper, who was slowed by a four game suspension at the start of last season. It took him a couple more games to get into the flow of the regular season. This was a key part of the Chargers' slow start last year. Cooper also showed growth in confidence by the end of last season. Look for a fast and aggressive start from him this year.
The other inside linebacker, Kevin Burnett, picked up from the Dallas Cowboys, looks like the Chargers' biggest upgrade of the season. His rangy speed and aggressiveness in the preseason seems to have surprised even the coaches and management who brought him here. Fans will be praising AJ Smith as a genius again by mid season when the Chargers are winning and Burnett has multiple interceptions.
The wild-card this season is first-round draft choice, Larry English. He's been slowed by injuries in camp, but he showed flashes of supreme speed and strength in last Saturday's game. He needs some more playing time to get comfortable on the NFL gridiron, but I don't think it will take long before folks realize he's a great player. The question then becomes, how do the Chargers use him? You can't really sit Merriman, Phillips, Cooper or Bennett. Look for Ron Rivera to introduce some new looks to get English involved .
Tim Dobbins is just barely a "back-up" as he will get a lot of playing time. He's a bit short for the position, but plays big, hitting like a heat-seeking missile. He's one of my favorite players on the team because he plays so mean.
Antwan Applewhite, who was the SDSU's Aztec's best player for a couple years, is an amazing athlete who has had a great preseason. Sometimes it seems there's just a talent log jam on this team. The Broncos or Chiefs would love to have this guy starting in their 3-4 defenses.
Jyles Tucker and Brandon Siler both made strong plays last season (remember Siler stuffing people in goal line situations?) and got a lot of playing time due to the injuries of others. I can't help but wonder if one of these guys is on the chopping block though because of running back Michael Bennett's amazing play last week (the guy has world class speed) and today's pick-up of defensive tackle Travis Johnson out from the Houston Texans (Maybe the Chargers are planning on dropping another defensive lineman that no one expected? Stay tuned).
Lastly, the most important ingredient to this group may be defensive coordinator, Ron Rivera, who is a creative guy new to the 3-4, who came in halfway through the season last year. He's going to put his spin on this defense this year. I'm not sure the opposing offenses are going to be ready for his schemes. Look for some surprising aggressive moves we haven't seen in the preseason or last year.