Monday, May 4, 2009

Chargers Spring Report -- Outside Linebackers


With the Chargers 2009 mini-camp just concluded, Chris Ello takes an inside look at how the Bolts stack up position-by-position during football's version of Spring Training.
Yesterday: Safeties
Today: Outside Linebackers
Tomorrow: Inside Linebackers


Shawne Merriman, 4th yr., Maryland: What do you get when you combine one the NFL's most disruptive defensive forces with anger? The Chargers hope they get a 20-sack, Pro Bowl season from Merriman -- before they show him the door.
Actually, there's no guarantee that this will be Merriman's last season in San Diego, but the writing does appear to be on the wall -- and not in erasable ink. While others with less talent have been signed to long-term deals, "Lights Out" has been left out in the dark. Add to that the drafting of pass-rushing linebacker Larry English (see below), and it seems that this may be the last go-around for Number 56.
To his credit, Merriman says he welcomes English and looks forward to another dominating season. Of course, in order to do it, he'll have to prove that he's fully recovered from the knee surgery that cost him all but one game last season.
He'll also have to overcome whatever doubts he must have about his future in America's Finest City. Message to Chargers fans: Enjoy him while you can.

Shaun Phillips, 6th yr., Purdue: Most feel that Phillips can only flourish with Merriman lined up on the other side. But that's not exactly a bad thing. Scottie Pippen made it onto the list of the NBA's 50-greatest players riding the coat-tails of Michael Jordan.
Without Merriman, Phillips was limited to 7 1/2 sacks a year ago (which led the team), but few realize he had only one sack more than that the year before with "Lights Out" in the lineup. Regardless of who plays the other rush end, the Chargers would like to see a repeat of '07 when Phillips had 11 1/2 sacks and was named a second-alternate for the Pro Bowl.
Interestingly, most see English as the future replacement for Merriman, but don't be surprised if the rookie becomes the current replacement for Phillips -- who's still a valuable player, but has dropped a notch or two the past couple of seasons.
Phillips, of course, can quell the replacement talk by returning to his disruptive form of three seasons ago.


Jyles Tucker, 3rd yr., Wake Forest: So who would you rather have locked up to a long-term, big-money deal? Merriman or Tucker? Well, of course, it's Tucker who figures to be here for the long haul.
As a result, it's time for Tucker to step up and become a force. Filling in for Merriman last season, Tucker was steady but nowhere near spectacular. He missed three games due to injury and had two or fewer tackles (with no sacks) in six other games.
The good news is that he had one of his finer games in the playoff win over Indianapolis with a season-high six tackles.
Not every NFL player bursts onto the scene during his first couple of years. But the Chargers are obviously banking on the fact that Tucker is about to become a star. If they're wrong, they're going to wind up spending too much money on an ordinary player.

Antwan Applewhite, 2nd yr., San Diego St.: Under the category of local kid done good, you can place Applewhite, who worked his way up from the practice squad to contribute steadily during what turned out to be his rookie season.
Applewhite is the kind of player -- at least at this point -- who doesn't make many waves out on the field, but doesn't hurt you out there either.
With Merriman returning, and the drafting of English, there may not be as many opportunities for Applewhite this season, but don't be surprised to see him contributing some on the defensive line -- which is where he made his mark at SDSU.


Larry English, Rookie, No. Illinois: It wasn't like every draft-nik had English being drafted in the first round, but since when did draft-nik's know more than A.J. Smith? This is a kid who became the only defensive player in MAC history to twice be named the conference's player of the year...Not only that, but No. Illinois has been good to the Chargers in the past (see Michael Turner).
As good as English is rushing the passer, his greatest contribution to the Bolts may be in his ability to stuff the run (not exactly a strength of Merriman or Phillips).
Of course, in order to make his mark, he's going to have to find his way onto the field, something that defensive coordinator Ron Rivera swears will happen.
If Rivera makes good on his promise (as a coach), and English makes good on his promise (as a player), this will be a No.-1 draft choice worth shouting for. If English can't find a spot...well, then, everybody will just be shouting.

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