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AFC West 2012: San Diego Chargers Are Division's Forgotten Challengers

The Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos appear to be the front runners in the 2012 AFC West division race but the San Diego Chargers still look to be a dangerous team.

SAN DIEGO, CA - DECEMBER 11:  Head coach Norv Turner of the San Diego Chargers talks to Philip Rivers during the game against the Buffalo Bills at Qualcomm Stadium on December 11, 2011 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
SAN DIEGO, CA - DECEMBER 11: Head coach Norv Turner of the San Diego Chargers talks to Philip Rivers during the game against the Buffalo Bills at Qualcomm Stadium on December 11, 2011 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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The AFC West has been a pretty mediocre division for the past two seasons as the Denver Broncos proved by winning it with a mere eight wins last season but the division has managed to stay in the news. Last season everyone was subjected to what seemed like constant 24 hour coverage of the phenomenon known as Tim Tebow. Follow that up with the arrival of Peyton Manning to Denver and the AFC West continues to get talked about more on national shows than would normally be the case based on the level of play.

The signing of Manning by John Elway and the Broncos immediately made them a front runner for the division crown in 2012 but the Kansas City Chiefs appear to be the main competition to Denver. Surprisingly one team that is somewhat being forgotten about is the San Diego Chargers.

The Chargers are a team that in 2011 finished with a better record than the Chiefs and tied the Broncos at 8-8 but lost out on the division crown due to tiebreakers. They were essentially a dropped snap in Arrowhead away from winning their sixth division title in eight years.

If you are a Charger fan there are many positive things you could look too and rightfully think that your team has as good a chance of winning the division as either the Broncos or Chiefs do.

While it is true that the Chargers did lose Pro Bowl wide receiver Vincent Jackson in free agency they do still have Phillip Rivers who is arguably be the top quarterback in the AFC West even with the addition of Manning. Last season Rivers was continually questioned if he was playing hurt as he had what was considered a bad season even though he still ended up throwing for 4,624 yards with 27 touchdowns.

It is true that Rivers hurt his team on numerous occasions as he threw a career high 20 interceptions but seeing how his previous season high for interceptions was 15 in 2007 it would not be a major stretch for him to improve in that category this upcoming season.

Another factor with Rivers that possibly gives San Diego an edge over the Chiefs and Broncos at the quarterback position is his ability to play in every game. Say what you want about Rivers and his attitude but it cannot be argued about his toughness as he has started every regular season game for six straight years.

There are obvious question marks in Denver about the ability of Manning to once again play all 16 games as he is coming off multiple neck surgeries and Matt Cassel missed the final seven games of the Chiefs 2011 season due to injury.

One very strong reason to have faith that Rivers will have a better season in 2012 is the return of a healthy Antonio Gates at tight end. Last season he missed three games due to a plantar fascia injury and was reportedly playing in pain the times when he did take the field. Despite the injury his final numbers were still quite respectable as he had 64 receptions for 778 yards with seven touchdowns.

As much as Chief fans are awaiting the return of Tony Moeaki to give Matt Cassel a dynamic receiving option, Charger fans have to be downright giddy awaiting a healthy return of their Pro Bowl tight end.

So while there is sufficient reason to believe the offense should be okay the San Diego defense has the makings of being improved in 2012.

Last season the Chargers ranked dead last in the NFL at 49.2% in their opponents third down conversion rate. This obviously allowed opposing offenses to stay on the field and if nothing else flip the time of possession and field position battle. To try and improve in this area Chargers general manager A.J. Smith made moves both through free agency and in the draft as well as anticipating a healthy return of one of the units best players.

Through free agency the Chargers acquired former Raven outside linebacker Jarrett Johnson in an effort to help shore up their run defense. He is not much of a pass rusher at this point in his career as he was frequently substituted for in passing situations last year by Baltimore but he is still an effective player on first and second downs.

In 2011 the Chargers total amount of sacks only reached 32 which was a significant drop off from a mark of 47 sacks in the 2010 season. The only player on the team who seemingly provided a pass rush was Antwan Barnes but even his total of 11.0 sacks is somewhat distorted as four sacks came in one game and he was held without a sack in nine contests.

A main reason of optimism that the team's amount of sacks will increase in 2012 is the healthy return of linebacker Shaun Phillips from injury. He missed four games last season and his individual sack totals fell from 11.0 in 2010 down to just three and a half. Combined with a full return to health is the fact that Phillips will be playing in the last year of his contract and will be an unrestricted free agent after the season so it would be a reasonable expectation for him to have a big season.

Through the draft the Chargers also looked to improve their anemic pass rush with their first two selections. In the first round with the 18th pick it appeared that San Diego was quite lucky as Melvin Ingram slid further down the board than initially projected. He is expected to move from defensive end which he played at South Carolina to outside linebacker for the Chargers. In his final two seasons for the Gamecocks he finished with a total of 19 sacks and was one of the premier pass rushers in the SEC.

In the second round, Kendall Reyes out of UConn slid down the board and into the Chargers laps as well. Some mock drafts leading up to the draft had Reyes slipping into the first round but he fell down to the 49th pick. A defensive tackle for the Huskies, Reyes is expected to come in and immediately fight for playing time at the defensive end position in the Chargers 3-4 defense.

How new defensive coordinator John Pagano mixes and matches Ingram and Reyes into the lineup remains to be seen but they appear on paper to help strengthen a defense that was in sore need of some playmakers.

Now this isn't to say that the Chargers do not have a few concerns as well like the others team in the AFC West.

No one can be quite certain how the wide receiver position will shake out this season as the Chargers essentially replaced Vincent Jackson by signing free agents Robert Meachem and former Bronco Eddie Royal. They will team up with holdovers Malcolm Floyd and Vincent Brown to give the team what appears for now to be a solid but unspectacular group.

There still remain questions on how well the offensive line will be as the team lost longtime guard Kris Dielman to retirement in the offseason and will be counting on former Chief Jared Gaither now as their starting left tackle for the entire season. They re-signed center Nick Hardwick to a three year deal but he is now in his thirties and his best football may be behind him.

The secondary is another area of concern as Quentin Jammer looked to be showing his age last year and fellow starter Antoine Cason briefly lost his starting spot last season. The team appears to still be searching for a safety opposite Eric Weddle as they allowed Donald Gregory to leave via free agency. The current candidates to start at strong safety appear to be newly acquired Atari Bigby or the teams third round pick in this year's draft Brandon Taylor out of LSU.

If Taylor wins the job it would likely mean that the team's first three picks, Taylor, Ingram & Reyes, would all be receiving considerable playing time. That proposition has the potential to be terrific for the long term future of the defense but it could also temporarily hold the team back if each of these players takes awhile to acclimate to the NFL.

After last season the decision was made by Chargers owner Dean Spanos to bring back both A.J. Smith and head coach Norv Turner despite two straight seasons of missing the playoffs. If the Chargers are unable to take advantage of what appears to be a very winnable division you can likely expect some heads to roll on the West Coast.

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