Ready to Run?
San Diego's top offseason priority was improving its running game. That's why GM Tom Telesco broke the bank for OG Orlando Franklin ($7.1 million per season) and traded up to draft Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon in the first round (despite the general consensus that starting-caliber running backs can be found in the later rounds).
Halfway through the preseason schedule, the results have been mixed.
Franklin has graded out negatively in each of San Diego's first two preseason games, according to Pro Football Focus. In fact, his grade as a run blocker (-1.3) is worse than his grade in pass protection (-0.9).
As for Gordon, he averaged just 1.8 yards per carry against the Cowboys before sitting out the Cardinals game with an ankle injury. The injury is considered minor, but it's still disconcerting for Chargers fans who grew tired of dealing with Ryan Mathews' nagging injuries.
Mathews, incidentally, has averaged 7.4 yards per carry and scored a touchdown in limited preseason action with the Eagles.
As for San Diego, the team's most impressive back to date has been Branden Oliver. The Buffalo Bowling Ball has scored a touchdown in each of each of the first two preseason contests and is averaging a respectable 4.4 yards per carry.
Head coach Mike McCoy made it clear the team's priority between now and the start of the regular season is cleaning up the running game, with a focus on eliminating negative plays.
"There are a number of things. It's not just one thing," McCoy said. "Whether it's a quarterback not bringing a receiver back to block a safety and he comes off the edge, (or) whether it's a miscommunication like the first play we had (in) the Dallas game. There are a number of things; (including) not maybe blocking at the second level or maybe it's the back's cut. So it's just everybody doing a better job. We'll get that fixed."
Cross Your Fingers
If San Diego's defense is going to take a sizable step forward, it needs healthy, productive seasons from two players in particular: Melvin Ingram and Jason Verrett.
Ingram reminded everyone how dominant he can be when healthy in Saturday's game against the Cardinals, finishing with six tackles and two sacks. One of those sacks came on a beautiful spin move that showed how much he learned while playing with Dwight Freeney last season.
"I feel amazing. [I'm] 110 percent," Ingram said.
As for Verrett, he played just 11 snaps against Dallas and skipped the Arizona game to protect his surgically repaired shoulder. He has been among the team's most impressive performers this offseason, drawing high praise from his teammates.
"He's going to be the best cornerback in the league," Stevie Johnson said of Verrett, according to Michael Gehlken of the San Diego Union Tribune. "That's how I feel. My opinion, it is what it is. I only say it because I played against [Darrelle] Revis, and they all have him as the best in the league. The similarities are unreal like the balance, the footwork, how he can stay over top, how he can make up (separation). It's all similar to Revis."
With Ingram applying pressure and Verrett shutting down half of the field, the Chargers have a championship-caliber defense. Without either of those two elements in place, San Diego will have a tough time in its match-ups against Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning.
--I have been touting undrafted rookie Nick Dzubnar since I released my initial roster projections back on June 8. He certainly held up his end of the deal with his performance against the Cardinals on Saturday, when he led the team with seven tackles and chipped in a sack and an additional QB hit.
Unfortunately, my projections had Dzubnar making the final 53-man roster ahead of Kavell Conner. The veteran linebacker, who is familiar with Telesco from their time together in Indianapolis, helped his cause greatly in Arizona by intercepting a Drew Stanton pass in the second quarter and returning it 29 yards to set up Oliver's touchdown run.
--The most interesting training camp battle to watch over the next few weeks is the competition for the sixth receiver slot. The top five slots belong to Keenan Allen, Johnson, Dontrelle Inman, Malcom Floyd and Jacoby Jones.
There is a handful of candidates competing for a potential six and final slot, but the two at the head of the pack are veteran Austin Pettis and second-year standout Javontee Herndon.
Herndon really hit his stride midway through training camp -- he had a coming-out party at Fan Fest -- and has looked like he belongs ever since. Although he has just two touches from scrimmage during preseason play (a 5-yard catch and a 10-yard run against the Cardinals), he has averaged 18.5 yards on his four punt returns.
Pettis has been more involved on offense, catching four passes in Saturday's contest, and is the more polished route runner. It helps that he is familiar with backup QB Kellen Clemens from their time together in St. Louis.
"It's funny, I've played more games with Kellen as the starting quarterback than I probably have with anybody else, so the chemistry is definitely there," Pettis said. "I haven't got as many reps in the games as I would like with him, but I'm just trying to work my way up the depth chart and get more reps with him."
--Another battle we've profiled before is the one at strong safety, where holdover Jahleel Addae and newcomer Jimmy Wilson are competing for playing time (although both will see plenty of action as part of a liberal rotation).
Addae certainly helped himself on Saturday. He was one of four Chargers defenders to finish with an overall grade of +2.0 or higher against the Cardinals (the others were Ryan Mueller, Colton Underwood and Cordarro Law) and was the only member of the secondary to finish with a significantly positive grade in pass coverage (+1.9), according to Pro Football Focus.
Addae played 36 of 73 snaps in Arizona and finished with three tackles and a pass breakup.
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Michael Lombardo has covered the San Diego Chargers since 2003. He spent 12 years covering the team for Scout.com and has also been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports, Footballinsiders.com and MySpace Sports. You can see more of his updates by following him on twitter @NFLinsider_Mike.