Chargers camp preview: Top stars look to get healthy


Editor's note: These camp previews are up to date as of the start of preseason games. For the latest changes since then, check our updated rankings, projections and profiles.

This just in: Norv Turner won a playoff game! (In fact, he won two.)

Not that he hadn't done it before -- he won one coaching the 1999 Redskins -- but if you think back to a year ago today, his ability to win in the postseason was the prevailing question about his leadership skills when he took over the helm of the Chargers. A noted playoff disappointment, the Chargers lived up to their name late in the season, winning 10 of 12, including their final six regular-season games, and getting all the way to the AFC championship game, where they were dispatched by the Patriots, but not in a blowout.

Of course, it sure helps that the Chargers boast football's best running back, LaDainian Tomlinson, whose "coming down to earth" year from his standout 2006 nevertheless ranked him No. 1 in the NFL in both rushing yards (1,474) and rushing touchdowns (15). He's back, probably with another year of elite numbers in the tank at age 29, and as always, everything builds off his valuable set of legs.

Not that the Chargers are the All LT Show. Midseason acquisition Chris Chambers seemed to warm to San Diego's system late in the year, 2007 sleeper-turned-bust Vincent Jackson had a standout postseason, and the defense heads into 2008 considered tops in fantasy thanks to generating an NFL-best 48 turnovers and allowing 17.8 points per game allowed (ranking fifth) a year ago. In other words, this team could be better than it was a year ago, especially if it enters the season hungry after last year's January letdown.

Hey, if nothing else, the Chargers are the class of a weak division, so at worst that's six games for them with valuable matchups for fantasy.

What to look for in camp

Key position battles: With Michael Turner now departed for a shot at starting in Atlanta, the appealing role of Tomlinson's caddy is up for grabs. On paper, one might assume Darren Sproles the favorite, but don't be too hasty. Third-round pick Jacob Hester, a versatile player who tends to get the most out of what scouts call limited raw tools, could easily give him a run for the role in the preseason. He'll be tried out in a variety of different spots -- running back, fullback, receiver -- in an effort to not only get him acclimated to the offense, but also to determine how best to utilize him to begin his career.

Hester's role is important as it pertains to a potential Tomlinson handcuff and also in how the team addresses the departure of fullback/outstanding blocker Lorenzo Neal. Turner's system relies more on H-backs and blocking tight ends, which is why Neal was so casually let go this offseason, so Hester or Andrew Pinnock will need to step up in the veteran's absence. If neither stands out this preseason, Tomlinson's numbers could take a hit, as the fact remains that Neal has blocked for a 1,000-yard rusher in 11 consecutive seasons. Not that Tomlinson's value would go into the tank if that turns out to be a botched move, but another small drop-off might be expected.

Fitting in: Besides Hester, there's very little changed from the 2007 squad. Most notably, Drayton Florence's departure assures Antonio Cromartie a starting role in the secondary, though he'd have been a strong bet to do so anyway. Starting status will go a long way towards making Cromartie a solid IDP choice yet again; he had 10 interceptions in 2007 despite starting only eight games.

On the mend: Antonio Gates had foot surgery in late February, and there's a real chance we won't see him in a single game this preseason. He's expected to be ready for Week 1, but with his original prognosis for recovery four to six months, there's a chance he might miss a week or two of the regular season. Keep an eye on Gates' status as the season nears, as it'd make him a lot safer top-50 overall selection if he gets the go-ahead before camp ends. In the meantime, Scott Chandler will get the first chance to step in as the starter ahead of Brandon Manumaleuna during camp.

Tomlinson, who suffered a torn medial collateral ligament during the playoffs and sat out the Pro Bowl, claimed in May that he'll be fine for training camp. He's hardly a worry, but it's something to check on once we're getting daily reports on his workouts.

Philip Rivers' knee surgery, performed immediately after his team's conference championship loss, might seem a concern but really isn't. He showed some real guts suiting up for that contest at worse than 100 percent, and reports on his health during minicamps were glowing. Rivers should be fine for the preseason, with the primary questions whether he's a star on the rise, or merely developing into a respectable game manager.

On the line: The Chargers actually ranked eighth-best at preventing sacks in 2007 (24), and they'll return a similar offensive line to that model, easing concerns about Rivers taking big hits as his knee heals. Worth watching, though, is the health of center Nick Hardwick. He's coming off knee surgery that should cost him at least a few weeks of the regular season, putting Jeremy Newberry and Cory Withrow in a battle to be his stand-in. That might not seem like a big deal, but the stats don't lie; the Chargers averaged 3.4 rushing yards and totaled five interceptions in the four games Hardwick missed in 2007. Check to see whether the offense is looking comparably sluggish come August.

The bottom line

The Chargers as a team look surprisingly sound and had very few roster questions heading into the preseason, leaving the focus on the team getting its stars -- Gates, Rivers and Tomlinson -- healthy. Again, it's not like any of the three is at serious risk of missed regular-season time, but the word to beware of is "setback." It's probably the one thing that'd stand in the team's way of breezing to an AFC West title, any or all of the three being associated with it, so keep your fingers crossed and hope that doesn't happen.

Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.