The San Diego Chargers have arguably been the AFC West's best team for the last eight years, a stretch in which they haven't seen a losing season, but that doesn't mean they've been consistently winning the division. In fact, it's been two years since the Chargers have seen the postseason with the Chiefs winning the division in 2010 and the Broncos taking the title in 2011.
The Chargers enter the 2012 season and hope the moves they made in both free agency and the draft will be enough to offset the talented players they lost in the offseason, improving on a 2011 season that saw them win eight games.
Among the key changes for the Chargers this year will be the loss of Vincent Jackson, their top receiver, to free agency. Robert Meachem was signed to cushion that blow and Antonio Gates finally feeling healthy should help as well.
The Chargers once again usher in one of the most talented rosters in the league but can they develop the consistency to return to the top of the AFC West?
The Chargers' 2011 season was somewhat a familiar tune. Boasting one of the most talented rosters not only in the division but in the NFL, the Chargers lacked the consistency to lock down a division title. They started the season winning four of five games and ended the season winning four of five games. The problem is that they had a six-game losing streak sandwiched in between there.
They were right there in Week 17, finishing 8-8 along with the Broncos and Raiders, but it was the consistency that they missed. Philip Rivers threw 20 interceptions, Antonio Gates missed a number of starts due to an old foot injury and no one seemed to fear the defense.
The Chargers ended up tied for the division lead at the end of the season but tiebreakers didn't go their way. They had a subpar season by the standards they've set in the last six years.
Best Free Agent Pickup
This is a close call between Robert Meachem and Jared Gaither, but I'll roll with Gaither, who plays a premium position. The Kansas City Chiefs cut Jared Gaither mid-season last year and the Chargers picked him up via the waiver wire. He performed very well in that short time in San Diego and the Chargers re-upped him on a multi-year extension in free agency.
Meachem and Gaither are tied together in a way. The Chargers can't fully utilize Meachem's skills unless Gaither does his job. Philip Rivers likes to go deep in Norv Turner's offense and Meachem can be that deep threat only if Gaither holds the defenders off long enough.
Left tackle, sort of like quarterback, isn't one of those positions you pick up in free agency. Good left tackles simply don't hit the open market. The Chargers were fortunate to have been able to claim Gaither during the season, which likely helped them seal the deal once free agency hit.
If he stays healthy, Gaither is a major free agent signing for San Diego.
VIDEO: AFC West Draft Grades
2012 NFL Draft
The Chargers had a very draft finding a good combination of need and talent.
The prize is outside linebacker Melvin Ingram, who was taken in the first round. Perhaps he can be the pass rusher opposite Shaun Phillips that the Chargers have been seeking for several years now. Kendall Reyes fills a need at defensive end and Brandon Taylor also fills a need as the Chargers continue their efforts to fill safety (since Rodney Harrison).
One of the best picks came in the fourth round when the Chargers selected tight end Ladarius Green, an athletic tight end who will sit behind one of the best tight ends to play the game in Antonio Gates.
The San Diego Chargers are back and hope that they've tinkered with the formula of the team enough to get back to what they were when they won five AFC West titles in six years. Gone is the oft-injured neck of OT Marcus McNeill, replaced by the mercurial Jared Gaither. Gone is the underperforming Travis LaBoy and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, replaced by rookie OLB Melvin Ingram and rookie defensive coordinator John Pagano. Gone is fumble-prone Mike Tolbert, replaced by the aging Le'Ron McClain.
In a nutshell, the Chargers have moved all of their eggs from one risky basket into another. As usual, if the potential pans out and the team stays healthy, it is probably the most talented roster in all of football. The offense has one of the most talented quarterbacks (if the offensive line can be even mediocre), running backs (if Ryan Mathews can fix his fumbling issues), tight ends (if Antonio Gates can stay healthy) and wide receiver groups (with four guys that could be legitimate starters in the NFL) in the league. Their potential to score is almost limitless, but it's just that ... potential.
On the defensive side of the ball, the team could be a total flop or downright dominant. Melvin Ingram adds the legitimate pass-rusher opposite Shaun Phillips that they've lacked since 2007. Donald Butler and Eric Weddle are young stars in the making. The cornerbacks are solid players that have shown "shutdown" ability when working with a good pass-rush in front of them. If John Pagano can work the defense to be closer to what Ron Rivera did, instead of whatever Greg Manusky was trying to do last year, this defense should be able to hang with any offense in the league.
They Make The Playoffs If...
They live up to their potential. Really, it's that easy. The Chargers arguably have the best roster in the AFC West from top to bottom, along with one of the best quarterbacks in Philip Rivers, so there's really no excuse for them not to be competing for the AFC West crown late in the season. Rivers needs to play like Rivers and the defense needs to allow less than the 23.6 points per game they gave up in 2011.
The Chargers don't need to do anything special in order to win the division -- stay healthy, play consistent and they'll live up to their potential.