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Team begins 2012 in earnest

Posted Jan 9, 2012

Now that Head Coach Norv Turner and General Manager A.J. Smith are locked into their jobs this year, a full-fledged organizational evaluation begins. Here’s a look at the variables that will be determined in the coming months.

SAN DIEGO – Chargers President Dean Spanos voiced confidence in the organization’s leadership Tuesday, announcing Head Coach Norv Turner and General Manager A.J. Smith will remain in their posts.

With that major decision out of the way, San Diego can begin working toward a better 2012 season in earnest.

“We kind of started it (Jan. 2), but I don’t know that everyone had their complete attention into it,” Turner said last Tuesday with a grin, alluding to the uncertainty surrounding his job status. “(Now) you evaluate everything you can that will help you get better.”

Said Smith: “I’m pretty regimented to the life of the National Football League. I’ve been around long enough to know that you undertake with great excitement a season that’s in front of you, and then at the end of the year we take a step back and find out what changes we’re going to make.

“That just took place with an owner’s directive that both his head coach and general manager would be returning. And now we are going to take a look at everything underneath that.

“Right now I’m automatically geared and excited to work with Coach Turner – we met (Tuesday) morning – to get going. We’re looking at ’12 right now. We need to win more games. Get better players. Get back to the playoffs, which gives you an opportunity to chase that championship on a game-to-game basis. We’re just going to keep moving and staying the course. Obviously that’s what Dean Spanos believes. It’s very comforting to know the three of us are pointed in that direction. We’re just going to get after this thing and try to come back, win the AFC West and advance, and we’re excited to do that.”

What are some of the major variables and storylines to follow during the next seven months before training camp begins? What are the undetermined factors that could have the biggest effect on next year’s bottom line, wins and losses?

Here’s an abbreviated guide to what’s ahead.

• Chargers President Dean Spanos made it clear he’ll be as actively involved as he’s been in finding ways to improve coaching and player personnel this offseason, suggesting Tuesday he’ll provide recommendations to Smith and Turner. Spanos may endorse changes in some form during the next several weeks during the self-analysis portion of the calendar year. The outcome of those discussions may not be advertised, but could prove an important factor in the results of the 2012 season.

• Now that Smith and Turner are locked into their positions for 2012, the rest of the staff is being evaluated. Already Turner has promoted John Pagano to defensive coordinator. There may or may not be more changes in assistant coaches or other areas, and that needs to be determined. Either way, the group will try to find ways to be better this year, and evaluating the staff will be an important process.

• There are major personnel decisions to be made, as always, but they’re especially urgent this season with the franchise aware of how much it needs to return to winning.

Twenty players will become free agents, including Nick Hardwick, Vincent Jackson, Mike Tolbert, Randy McMichael, Jacob Hester, Jared Gaither, Antonio Garay, Steve Gregory and Tommie Harris.

Other teams have a large number of free agents as well, perhaps in part due to the smaller number of long-term contracts signed in the last year.

How will free agency shape the Chargers’ roster? Will San Diego re-sign a huge percentage of its own free agents for the second consecutive season? Will it use the franchise tag again?

• The Chargers made at least one trade every year from 1970, the start of the NFL’s modern era, to 2010. During an unusual 2011 which included a protracted labor dispute, San Diego did not execute a trade for the first time ever.

History says it’s unlikely to happen again. Smith has done well in several past trades, not just the famous 2004 swap of Eli Manning for Philip Rivers and a payload of draft choices.

• Smith went on the record Tuesday to say the team still lacks a dictating, dominant defense, and that he needs to do a better job acquiring the personnel to make that happen. Smith went as far as to say the team may consider signing an impact player or two with NFL experience, but its overall philosophy of building through the draft will not change. The team is focused on drafting better. Spanos echoed that sentiment in a separate interview Tuesday.

Will the team add another pass rusher? Secure another playmaker at safety like it attempted to do with Bob Sanders? Add more depth at linebacker or cornerback? More than one possibility exists.

• Speaking of the draft, the Chargers hold the No. 18 overall pick in this year’s version, which is less than four months away. It won’t be long until draft preparation increases into a crescendo with the Senior Bowl, the NFL Combine, pro days, and a flurry of player personnel meetings. Will Smith, one of the most unpredictable general managers in April, stand pat and execute the pick, or make a draft-day trade? Which new young players will San Diego bring into the fold?

• The 2010 draft class already is rounding into an impact group between Ryan Mathews, Donald Butler, Cam Thomas and Darrell Stuckey. The 2011 crop, including Corey Liuget, Vincent Brown, Marcus Gilchrist and Andrew Gachkar, showed potential as rookies. How much will a full slate of offseason conditioning, OTAs and the like, which were absent last season, help continue their development? Can Jonas Mouton make an impact similar to Butler after missing his rookie season due to injury? And which of the young players will emerge with even bigger roles?

• The left side of San Diego’s offensive line, one of the most stable areas of the entire roster the last few years, is in question. Left tackle Marcus McNeill, left guard Kris Dielman and center Nick Hardwick all have made the Pro Bowl in their careers. The status of all three is undetermined.

McNeill, who is under contract through 2015, said Monday he expects to play for the Chargers in 2012 and doesn’t think the neck injury that ended his season will prevent him from doing so.

Turner gave left tackle Jared Gaither, claimed off waivers Nov. 30, a large portion of credit for the late-season turnaround. Gaither is a free agent, but expressed gratitude to the organization for giving him a shot at rekindling his young career as well as interest in returning.

Dielman will consider retirement after a significant head injury forced him to weigh the merits of football against the value of his family, which now includes two young boys. Hardwick, a free agent, suffered a major foot injury in ’09 and also said he’ll decide if he wants to continue his NFL career before signing another contract. Both said they expect to take some time to make a decision.

“Obviously our left guard and our left tackle are huge issues. We don’t know what’s going to happen there,” Spanos said. “Eight weeks ago, that was not an issue. Our focus, at least mine, was on the defense, not the offense. Now all the sudden you may have two areas of your concern on your offensive line.”

• McNeill isn’t the only injured player who was replaced in the starting lineup. Nick Novak was solid at kicker for Nate Kaeding (ACL). Vaughn Martin began to fulfill his promise at defensive end in place of Luis Castillo (fibula) Travis LaBoy and then Antwan Barnes earned starting nods at outside linebacker with Larry English (foot) missing most of the year. Tyronne Green spent about half the season as the starting left guard. Gregory replaced Sanders at strong safety after two games.

Sanders is the only player San Diego already has indicated won’t be back. How will the Chargers handle those positions if and when the original starters get healthy?

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