The San Diego Chargers are in the midst of a pivotal offseason, and they have a lot to prove going into the 2012 season.
The start of the offseason didn't go as fans had imagined it would. Rather than cleaning house, Dean Spanos decided to retain A.J. Smith and Norv Turner.
Following Spanos' decision, fans widely questioned the competency of the organization. However, the Chargers began to instill some confidence in their fans once free agency started.
Smith signed a number of productive playersâ"Jarret Johnson and Robert Meachem being the biggest names. He also made sure that offensive linemen Nick Hardwick and Jared Gaither stayed in San Diego.
The vaunted general manager didn't stop there. Smith chose three talented defensive playersâ"Melvin Ingram, Kendall Reyes and Brandon Taylorâ"with his first three selections in the draft.
Despite the great moves by Smith, the United States still has little confidence in the Chargers.
In this ESPN poll, approximately a quarter of the country believes that the Chargers will reach the playoffs.
Without further ado, let's delve into the reasons why the Chargers will surprise 75 percent of the country and reach the playoffs in 2012.
The Outside Linebacker Position Has Been Improved
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Last season, the Chargers had difficulty rushing the passer.Â
The Chargers ranked 23rd in the NFL with a measly 32 sacksâ"11 of which were recorded by pass-rushing specialist Antwan Barnes.
To help rectify their pass-rush problems, the Chargers took Melvin Ingram with the 18th selection in the first round of the NFL draft.
In addition to being a talented pass-rusher, Ingram is solid at stopping the run.
Prior to selecting Ingram in the draft, the Chargers also brought in Jarret Johnson to start opposite Shaun Phillips at outside linebacker.
Johnson is fantastic at stuffing the run, but he is not a pass-rusher. HeÂ will seal the edge on defense and be a very productive player for the Chargers on first and second downs.
With Ingram, Phillips and Barnes on the roster, the Chargers have three players who can get to opposing quarterbacks.
Add Johnson into the mix, and you have an extremely productive and well-rounded group of outside linebackers.
If the Chargers get lucky, they might even get a little production out of the extremely disappointing Larry English.
A Full Season of Jared Gaither
The Chargers signed Jared Gaither late in the 2011 season, and he started the last five games of the season.
In those games, Gaither allowed zero sacks and just three pressures as he protected Philip Rivers' blindside.Â
It's no coincidence that Rivers' four best games of the season came during Gaither's five-game starting stint.Â
In Gaither's five games as the starting left tackle, Rivers threw for 1,413 yards, 11 touchdowns and just three interceptions.Â
One of Gaither's five starts included a game against his former team, the Baltimore Ravens, where he completely shut down his old teammate and 2011 Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs.Â
Yes, there have been concerns about Gaither's health and motivation in the past.
However, the Chargers have to hope that their $26 million investment in Gaither over the next four years will drive him to work hard in an effort to prove himself as one of the top left tackles in the NFL.
Ryan Mathews Will Develop into an Elite Running Back
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Despite missing two games last season, Ryan Mathews still finished his sophomore season with 1,091 rushing yards. His rushing total ranked 10th in the NFL.
Mathews was also a huge contributor in the passing game, as he racked up 50 catches for 455 yards.
His stats are even more impressive when you consider that Mike Tolbert received 121 carries and had 54 catches. Luckily for Mathews, Tolbert is no longer on the roster to vulture his goal-line carries.
One knock on Mathews is that he is injury prone. The other major criticism is that he puts the ball on the ground far too much.
During the offseason, Mathews has been working tirelessly to keep himself in shape. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, he has been performing many of his workouts with a football held closely to his body.
Mathews realizes that fumbling the ball is unacceptable and that his fumbles in the past have completely destroyed the Chargers' momentum in games.
If Mathews' offseason workout program is able to keep him healthy for the season and prevent him from fumbling, then there is no doubt that he will be one of the top five running backs in the NFL.
With an improved running game due to Mathews' improvements and a better season from Philip Rivers as a result of better pass protection, the Chargers' offense will once again be explosive.
Thanks to A.J. Smith's offseason moves, the Chargers have all of the ingredients necessary to shock the world and win the AFC West in 2012.
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