Broncos/Chargers Reloading Report

Broncos versus Chargers: Comparative Offseason Issues

There is an old saying that you are defined by your rivals as much as by your friends. Over the 2008 season, San Diego vs. Denver was a bitterly fought contest that ended up with 1 victory each.

In retrospect, the San Diego Chargers aren’t much happier with their 2008 season than Pat Bowlen was with that of the Broncos. San Diego cut DC Ted Cottrell loose during the season, and his replacement Ron Rivera interviewed elsewhere after their elimination from the playoffs.

Ultimately, Rivera is returning in 2009. They’ve let assistants go and replaced them with people that Rivera is familiar with, and that he feels will help the club achieve ‘his way’. This club, like the Broncos, is going to have to retool to have a chance next season. There might not be the full overhaul that the Broncos are enduring, but it’s close – a lot of changes will have to be made, and next year depends heavily upon their decisions. 

AJ Smith was quick to point the finger of blame, but in a direction that will surprise some:

"We're not good enough to take on the big boys. I will say this—we need to have a solid, consistent running game. … And we have to figure out how to stop passing assaults on this football team. We’ve got to get off the field. Those two areas, until we get that figured out, we will not go where we want to go.

"I'm not very pleased with my own contribution the last two years, personally," Smith said Thursday. "I critique myself after every year. I need to do a better job. I'm not happy with some of the player personnel decisions that have been made. I need to do a better job.

"I need to pick up my game on my end. I'm very pleased with everyone else."

When questioned about the managerial make-overs that have begun to transform Kansas City and Denver, Smith added,

"That scares me a little bit. I just feel they’re going to get it done and get it done right. How quickly, I don’t know."

Here is a quick analysis of where The Broncos and the Chargers are and where they may go.

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Offense

Coordinators

The Denver Broncos brought in Mike McCoy from Carolina, believing that if he could do as well as he did with Jack Delhomme, then he could work wonders with Jay Cutler. Josh McDaniels has faith in him to implement McD’s offensive theories.

The Chargers have retained offensive pro coordinator Clarence Shelmon. Despite its problems in 2007 and 2008, the Chargers feel that their offense needs more of Bondo and duct tape rather than a change at the top. Norv Turner is very much in charge, having received strong support from AJ Smith.

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O-line

The Broncos have one of the best O-lines in the game, and due to the combination of youth and experience they have, it’s likely to remain that way for years to come. They will look to back up the C/G positions and continue to groom Kory Lichtensteiger, although we don’t yet know if he will be used as a guard or center. Erik Pears may be gone – his contract is up and he believes that he can start on other teams. He might have started at right tackle if Ryan Harris’s back surgery hadn’t gone so well.

The Chargers’ offensive line was a nonstop, season-long problem. It started before training camp with injuries; C Nick Hardwick, a 5th year pro out of Purdue, came into the season recovering from foot surgery, missed the first 3 games and was in pain all season. Hardwick had a recent surgery for a badly sprained right foot that bothered him since October – the rehab is normally 4-6 months, and they hope that he heals for ‘09.

LT Marcus McNeill had an injured back. Although he was up for a contract extension, McNeill’s back never healed and it plagued him throughout the season. McNeill had a back ailment in college that drove him out of a potential first-round draft berth and it’s hoped that this one heals completely. However, he started the off-season with major neck surgery. 

 RT Jeromey Clary was uneven at best. RG Mike Goff is now gone, as is backup center Jeremy Newberry.  2006 UFA LG Kris Dielman, thankfully, had a second straight Pro Bowl year. If McNeill and Hardwick come back healthy the Chargers line could improve again quickly.

The Chargers 1st UFA signing this February was guard Kyle Forney, who is expected to compete for the starting RG slot. The Chargers had signed him originally in September, but he did not play in the 2008 season. Backup OL Scott Murczkowski just had surgery on his shoulders.

It might be telling that Nick Hardwick was among the 95 players who enrolled in the NFL Business Management and Entrepreneurial Program at the Harvard Business School, Kellogg School of Management (Northwestern University), Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, in 2008.  

The program is part of an ongoing NFL-NFLPA initiative to assist players in preparing for their post-playing careers.  Since the program’s 2005 inception, 407 players have participated in sessions at the four business schools.

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Receivers

The Broncos have a tremendous receiving corps that currently only lacks a fourth high-quality name; Marshall and Royal are young and talented, but Brandon Stokley is a helmet hit away from retirement. Chad Jackson could yet step up in the new offense. This year’s draft is deep in receivers and may yield a new option. A good 4th receiver could place Eddie Royal in the original slot position, letting Stokley carry less weight.  Possible addition David Anderson could join newcomer Jabar Gaffney in fighting for the #4 slot.

In San Diego, receivers were one of the biggest problems in many ways. Buster Davis is still injured and may end up reflecting his name: 2009 could be his last chance to play pro ball. The Chargers have high hopes for U of Northern Colorado product Vincent Jackson, who was excellent at times and had a second 1,000-yard year. But he also incurred his second DUI and is on the bubble – Jackson is a UFA after 2009, so he’s a complex difficulty.

Asked about the DUIs of both Hardwick and Jackson, AJ Smith said,

"You want to be a member of our organization, talent alone is not going to keep you here," Smith said. "One thing I will never deviate from is character. Never.

He added,

"It’s also obvious to me I need to do a better job in bringing in the right kind of players who can help us on the field and off the field," he said, emphasizing the word "off."

9th-year receiver Chris Chambers didn’t impress – he had flashes of brilliance next to flashes of incompetence: his contract is also up next year and he may not be retained. Malcolm Floyd did receive a 2nd-round tender – he’s an RFA, so they need to add depth there. He’ll make about $1.45 million if kept in house. Backup receiver Kassim Osgood just had surgery on his wrist.

Tight End

The Broncos have two of the best TEs in the game in Daniel Graham and Tony Scheffler and a few backups in place, including the return of Jeb Putzier and the FA-signing of Adam Bergen  Most likely, the Broncos will look at the future in the draft at TE but may wait until next year’s crop.

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At TE for the Bolts, Antonio Gates came on late despite the toe, hip and ankle injuries that slowed him throughout his year. He led the team with 60 receptions and eight touchdown catches. Brandon Manumaleuna became a hybrid fullback – an H-back in the modern parlance – but their depth chart still has him listed as second TE. The Chargers signed 6’2, 252 lb 5th-year Pittsburgh product Kris Wilson in September to replace the injured Scott Chandler and Wilson ended up being a solid special-teams contributor. He may stick.

Chandler may be gone; Gates is older and his contract is up in 2010 – they may need to deal him (highly unlikely) and/or find his replacement next off-season. Kris Wilson joined Hardwick at Harvard in the post-career program.

 

The Backfield

Running Back

For the Broncos, the problem was getting a RB who could stay healthy, apparently setting a new record for RBs injured in a season. Peyton Hillis, Ryan Torain and Tatum Bell should be back in training camp, but the constant injuries to Selvin Young may cut his career short and Andre Hall is a cipher. Tatum Bell? You tell me.

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The recent additions of JJ Arrington and Correll Buckhalter have begun the Broncos' makeover. Both have excellent hands out of the backfield, while the Broncos are happy with the over 900 return yards racked up by Arrington last year.

They may choose to upgrade FB or stand pat with Andrew Pinnock and/or Spencer Larsen. The Broncos’ not-so-secret weapon is Bobby Turner, who won the continued amazement of the league in 2008.

The Chargers face a very different problem. Their problems on the line paved the way for a poor season at RB despite the presence of a perennial Pro Bowler and another Pro Bowler in waiting. LaDanian Tomlinson, fighting injuries and reduced playing time during ’08 for the second year in a row, will count $8.8 million against the cap in 2009 if he's kept and about $2.1 million if he isn't. He’ll have to restructure to stay a Bolt, but both sides really want that. If he’s healthy next year, he and Darren Sproles could be tough together.

There is a second potential issue with LDT. Before the end of the season, Smith was angry that the severity of Tomlinson’s groin injury was revealed, publicly calling out the player and his agent. Tomlinson had confirmed he had a detached tendon in his groin, while the team said only that he had a strained groin. Asked about their plans in the draft, Smith said pointedly, 

"We’ve got to fix a lot of things,"

Since the Chargers only have about $15 million in cap space (according to the San Diego Union-Tribune), LDT could still be a casualty but the fans are irate about this. Smith made a public faux-pas in handling the situation and the two sides are quietly negotiating. The recently-franchised Sproles isn’t an every down back, but he came on strong in 2008 and could contribute mightily, both on ST and as a RB.

The general consensus is that they are going to go after one of the top RBs in this year’s draft, so styg50’s original analysis that we might be looking at a lot of Moreno for a few years might be accurate. At FB, Mike Tolbert disappointed; 3rd-rounder Jacob Hester will probably start there next year. He, too, had a recent surgery - to his knee.

Quarterback

Simply, Crimea Rivers is the SD franchise QB and a very good football player. The Chargers have to consider that his current pact runs out after '09 and their funds are quite limited. The price went up after this season and Rivers needs an extension that will eat more of their shrinking cap room. Looking at the ‘09 off-season issues will keep their GM up nights. 9th-year pro Billy Volek and 4th-year Clemson grad Charlie Whitehurst are adequate backups, Volek in particular. Whitehurst just joined the MASH squad with a shoulder surgery. 

Following his first Pro Bowl selection, Jay Cutler has a similar role with the Broncos and is also up for a new contract soon. The Broncos need a better 2nd-stringer than Patrick Ramsey. Darrell Hackney is exciting to watch but may not be a long-term answer as a primary backup. 

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Defense

Coordinators

On defense there was confusion everywhere for both teams. In Denver, Bob Slowik is gone, replaced by Mike Nolan who will bring the 3-4 and hybrid defense to our cow town. The change to a 3-4 and 3-4 hybrid will require new players and new coaching, but McD feels that they are up to the challenge.

For the Chargers, Ted Cottrell was tossed during the season, and was replaced by Ron Rivera. Rivera started the off-season by hiring friends, in defensive-line coach Don Johnson and the secondary coach Steve Wilks. Both Johnson and Wilks worked with Rivera in Chicago when he was the Bears’ defensive coordinator. Johnson had spent the past two seasons with the Raiders and Wilks was let go from Chicago. They will stay with the same scheme. Rivera is noted for a more aggressive, blitzing D than Ted Cottrell preferred.

D-Line

For both teams, the D-Line is a problem. The Broncos’ Mike Nolan was brought in for a change to the 3-4 plus some hybrid play, according to McD, and they will require a NT, new approaches at DE that include the tough, young Marcus Thomas and a proposed change to OLB for Elvis Dumervil and Jarvis Moss. The Broncos may ask Kenny Petersen back at a new contract rate since he played well at 3-4 DE early in the season. The Broncos got Wayne Nunnely as D-Line coach when the Chargers let him go, so they have the 3-4 line coaching in place. SD DE Igor Olshansky is a FA this offseason but Nunnely isn’t said to be high on him: the Chargers don't want him either. Darrell Reid has been brought in by the Broncos but may be best on special teams.


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The Bolts lost a respected coach in Nunnely, and Johnson has his hands full with these players. What was considered a great strength for the Bolts in ’07 turned to ashes for most of the ’08 season.

12-year player Jamal Williams is 33 and had several injuries – his knees may be going and he had an overall poor year. He had both knee and shoulder surgeries last month. He will be 35 when his contract is up and they need a NT nearly as badly as do the Broncos.

Igor Olshansky was often benched late in the season, and the Chargers played better using Williams and Castillo or adding 5th-year Nebraska player Ryon Bingham. Olshansky is  gone, replaced by Bingham who is also the backup NT. Young 295 lb. Jacques Cesaire just had a shoulder surgery - he backs up at DE.

Linebacker

At LB, there are issues on both squads. The Broncos are looking to revamp their corps. DJ Williams proved once again that he’s a team guy by restructuring his bonus money to give the Broncos more flexibility and the Broncos hope that also indicates a new level of resolve and a return to excellence in play from him. Where he might play is yet to be established. Spencer Larsen may stay as a LB and could be a serviceable ILB since the 3-4 plays to his strengths; Woodyard and Bailey are likely to stay on as well. Doom and Moss will be trying out the transition to OLB. While Bailey is a good fit there when healthy, that hasn’t been for long in my memory.

Looking at that group leads you to consider that the Broncos will go for LBs in FA and/or the draft. The additions of Doom and/or Moss at OLB give us new options IF they work out, but we will still need depth and possibly an infusion or upgrade of talent. As of this writing, the Broncos are looking at ILB Andra Davis.

The Revolving Door: For the Lightning Lads, you’d have to start the 2008 discussion with the missing impact of the injured Shawne Merriman, whose contract is up in 2009. He should be back next season to bolster the squad, but beyond that, if his knee heals properly he may find a bigger paycheck elsewhere. The Bolts hope not. Purdue’s Shaun Phillips played well, but he clearly missed the presence of Merriman a lot. Young Jyles Tucker, who transitioned from DE at Wake Forest to OLB for SD, spent time hurt but he shows considerable promise.

The best surprise was Antwan Applewhite, who was called up from the practice squad and really produced. Applewhite showed that he is a decent player and has a nose for the ball. The Chargers could try to lock up Applewhite to a team-friendly deal this off-season. 3rd-year player Tim Dobbins is a solid ST player and is currently listed as the first LILB in front of Matt Wilhelm, who just had shoulder surgery. Brandon Siler is their third option.

Stephen Cooper was suspended for 4 games until October, but by November his play was outstanding. Matt Wilhelm lost his starting job in October but improved late; Dobbins was a pleasant surprise, but neither of them made anyone forget what Donnie Edwards used to be (SDU-T). Wilhelm has another season to show reasons why he should stay; he needs to find consistency to do so. Dobbins will probably return. Brandon Siler, with a good off-season, could get playing time. 2nd-year Clemson player Anthony Waters, who played outside this season, apparently could return to the inside but it isn't certain any of them will be the starter next to Cooper. Derek Smith is in the mix.

Linebackers coach John Pagano should be congratulated on doing a Bobby Turner-like job with his corps in 2008. It was a tough year for SD LBs.

The Secondary

Cornerback

The Broncos are undergoing some major changes at cornerback. Dre’ Bly has gone from being poorly-used to being cut to get out from his unwieldy contract. Josh Bell rose from the practice squad with a consistent attitude that led to some good play. Champ Bailey is still one of the best, but his contract is drawing fire from the fan-base, although right now it looks as if the Broncos will be happy to keep him. Jack Williams may get better – he’s very tough, but needs to improve his coverage skills. The Broncos will bring in or draft another corner or two by OTAs, and as of this writing are said to be negotiating with Dolpins FA CB  Andre Goodman, who led the Fish last year with 5 interceptions.

At corner, the Chargers were surprisingly as weak as Denver. The Bolts probably wished that they had kept Josh Bell; he would have filled an empty slot. 2006 1st-round pick Antonio Cromartie said he had a chronic hip injury and mostly just disappeared.  Quentin Jammer was a total stud who didn’t let up.  Rookie RCB Antoine Cason played well, but as is usual with a rookie was spotty at times. Cromartie may lose his job if Cason matures. They still need a third CB, so they placed a 2nd-round tender on young CB Cletis Gordon. Jammer remains a shining beacon for them.

The Chargers may bring back former Bolt CB Drayton Florence. He went to Jacksonville as a free agent last season but he was recently cut. Florence has already visited Buffalo, and would be a role player if he returns to San Diego.


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Safety

The safety position was another tough area for both teams. In SoCal, SS Clinton Hart has a 5-year deal but lost his starting job late in the season to CB/S Steve Gregory. FS Eric Weddle was often excellent but at times inconsistent. Paul Oliver played behind him and showed some skill, while Gregory really didn’t. They will need help here. Weddle will improve, but Gregory may be nothing more than a band-aid even though his versatility might keep his slot. They will be looking for help.

On the Denver side of the Divide, Josh Barrett clearly has potential but needs to continue to develop and not over-think his plays. The Broncos felt that the answer was to bring in a legend in Brian Dawkins and a serviceable starter in Renaldo Hill. If all goes well, Dawkins will impart some of his incredible knowledge and expertise until Barrett is ready to start full time.

Let's face it - a secondary of Champ Bailey, Brian Dawkins, Renaldo Hill and possibly Andre Goodman beats the heck out of anything the Broncos have fielded in a long time.

Special Teams

It’s tough when your bright spot is ST, but ask the Denver fans what it’s like to not have them working. The Broncos haven’t solved this piece of the puzzle yet, but brought in veteran and well-respected ST coach Mike Priefer from division rival Kansas City to begin the process when Scottie O’Brien’s legendary X’s and O’s didn’t pan out. They do have some players such as Larsen and Woodyard who have shown skill and passion on ST.  Eddie Royal is a major talent and Arrington may start in returns as well. Reid and Larsen together hold three of the best ST hits on film.

Prater may or may not be back, and if he is there should be competition. Kern did a very good job, and he’ll have a chance to keep his job in training camp. Right now, the surprise of free agency was the Broncos bringing in veteran long snapper Lonie Paxton - longtime Broncos favorite Mike Leach is said to have asked for his release.

For the Chargers, right now their STs are a very nice thing. Mike Scifres is golden but had surgery on his knees in the off-season. Nate Kaeding can stay despite his lowest average (84.4) in years: that’s still very good. Sproles is very, very dangerous on both punt and kick returns. We all know how smart it is to keep him. Cromartie backs up Sproles on both return games. The Chargers will probably stand pat. 

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Conclusions

Despite very different predictions to start the 2008 season, these two teams showed multiple problems and weaknesses that are very similar. Both dealt with clawing adversity, long injury lists and both need to retool substantially to become serious playoff candidates.

Last year, no one counted on the Broncos – they proved people right with a disappointing D and a huge fade down the stretch. The Chargers were anointed the preseason Super Bowl favorite. They proved everyone wrong, and kept talking about having turned things around during their last year, forgetting why they call that the past. They fell into the playoffs only on the Broncos’ collapse but showed Indy that they belonged there, which the Broncos probably wouldn’t have done. But both teams finished 8-8.

Both have a stellar QB, but the similarities end there. The Broncos only need depth on their staunch O-Line while SD needs everything but a Pro Bowl guard. Each has an aging center, although Casey Wiegmann has been an utter wall while Nick Hardwick struggled this year.

Both teams have one solid running back – Hillis and Sproles each have a lot of questions behind them. The Broncos are hoping for production (and a lot of receptions) from their new arrivals and must find or develop a fullback, hopefully other than Larsen. The Chargers must resolve the issues with LDT and find a back for the future. SD's Hester looks to be the future at fullback right now.

The differences are nowhere as stark at WR. Both do have a good, 1,000-yard off-field problem child, but Marshall has cleaned up his act and the Broncos have two excellent WRs behind him in Eddie Royal and Brandon Stokley. They have to decide on a fourth WR and have a condidate in Gaffney. Apparently they will bring in another for competition, possibly David Anderson.

SD’s best receiver has a second DUI, the inconsistent Chambers behind him, the middling Floyd alongside and SD has a first-rounder who has to prove that his name, Buster, isn’t prophetic. They need better options.

Both need a NT and help on the D-Line. Both have some strength at LB but there is mutual debate as to how much. Both need help in the secondary – the Broncos brought in safety help and are looking for their new corner, but it's safe to say that they have upgraded. Each team has a great veteran at CB. Right now,  SD has a young vet who suddenly faded in Cromartie, and for the Broncos, add Josh Berl and Jack Williams to that mix. Both need more. The Bolts have one great player in Jammer. Denver brought in an aging legend to see if he's still powerful and the steady and the productive Renaldo Hill while the potential of Josh Barrett matures. The Bolts have a smart player in Eric Weddle but need a bigger, tougher safety next to him, and they are very thin at safety.

Both are retooling their staffs: Denver more so than SD, but both are making substantial changes.

Moving forward, you might look for some gamesmanship in the draft – Do we use that 1st-round pick to prevent SD from getting a top-notch RB as Styg once suggested, or do we deal with our own bigger issues? Where does either team get a NT, D-line help, another LB and some strength in the secondary?

The main conclusion that writing this brought was that there really is a difference. The Broncos are a team swiftly on the rise. AJ Smith should be concerned - If you take the nucleus on offense that Mike Shanahan left behind and add to that a better scheme, better use of the running and passing games, and a greatly improved defensive secondary, and you realize that it's only the 1st weekend of free agency, you see a stark contrast between the two clubs. A month ago they were similar teams and San Diego was a little stronger. That is quickly being erased.

The Chargers have a lot of good pieces. They may have become stuck in the mode of protecting what they thought they had, instead of planning on how it would get better the following season. The willingness of Bowlen to cross a line and remove his friend and legendary coach and install a new coach, management, system and players should tell you something. Because of past success, Smith may have seen a transient level of excellence as a foundation of bedrock instead of a single moment in an endless river of change.

However it shakes out, this is going to be a seriously fun retooling season for the MHR faithful. The Broncos are a fast changing team, and the 2009 Denver/Chargers  story is yet to be written. Watch the Mile High Report for more. 


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