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WR group appears deeper in '12

Posted Mar 20, 2012

SAN DIEGO – Losing Vincent Jackson did not help the Chargers from a football (non-salary cap) standpoint.

But adding two speedy, veteran receivers in Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal did. The signings gave San Diego more depth at the position and added extra dimensions to the offense.

Last season, after Jackson and Malcom Floyd, only three other receivers caught a pass from Philip Rivers: Patrick Crayton (23 receptions), Vincent Brown (19) and Bryan Walters (three).

Shoring up depth on the roster has been a primary initiative for General Manager A.J. Smith this offseason, and receiver appears to be one of several areas he already has accomplished that.

While Brown remains and should get more targets in his second season, Royal will have a good opportunity to replace the 2011 production of Crayton and Walters as receivers and punt returners (8.2 yards per return). Royal caught just 19 passes last year in a run-heavy Denver offense designed to complement quarterback Tim Tebow’s skill set. He also missed four games due to a concussion as well as toe and groin injuries.

Royal is now healthy, and at 25 years old, the Chargers feel they bought into his stock as a player at a market low point. He caught 91 passes as a rookie in 2008, the last time he played with a quarterback who threw for more than 3,802 yards (Rivers averaged 4,529 from 2009-11).

While San Diego doesn’t expect that sort of production from Royal, the Bolts believe he offers great value as receiving depth. Royal averaged 16.2 yards per punt return last season and can play outside or in the slot. He’s a threat to make big after-the-catch runs in open space, and Head Coach Norv Turner envisions him as a go-to option on third down.

Meachem, meanwhile, is the type of vertical threat that fits in Turner’s offensive scheme. He’s projected to start opposite Floyd, and San Diego believes he has untapped upside after catching between 40 and 45 passes the last three seasons in New Orleans (where he started 22 of 48 games).

Rivers wondered what kind of quality starting receiver the team would present to him in place of Jackson, then expressed relief and excitement when the Chargers signed Meachem, celebrating the chance to work with the former Saint.

Floyd has missed a total of 12 games the last four seasons and has started 45 percent of San Diego’s games since becoming a major factor in the team’s offense in ’08. But if you wanted to argue Rivers and Floyd as the best QB-WR combo in the NFL last year when on the field, you’d have a compelling case.

Football analytics sites love Floyd. Football Outsiders, which calculates each receiver’s value compared to the league average in each specific situation adjusted for the strength of an opponent’s defense, ranked Floyd’s 2011 season as No. 2 all-time (the rankings go back to ’92 and require a 60-target minimum).

The site calculated Floyd’s value on passes thrown his direction as 51.9 percent better than league average. Floyd’s 2011 numbers compared favorably to Jackson’s in catch rate (61 percent to 52 percent), yards per catch (19.9 to 18.4) and first down percentage (95.3 percent to 90 percent).

Brown, with two spectacular end zone grabs against Oakland, showed uncanny jump ball skills for a 5-foot-11 receiver. He produced (19 catches, 329 yards) despite limited playing time and a lack of polish in some areas. Turner believes he can improve a great deal this offseason.

Last year’s lockout and Brown’s subsequent training camp hamstring injury kept the rookie’s lead-in time to a minimum as he made the jump from Mountain West Conference to the AFC West. Brown will be on the field working with Rivers, Turner and the offense in an organized fashion in a month. A year ago, he didn’t know which city and team would claim him in the draft.

“Vincent Brown’s going to be a big part of this thing, too. He’s not so much in the news right now because he’s already here,” Rivers said. “I think Vincent Brown going into year two with an offseason, unlike last year, is going to be big. We already saw him in spurts last year.”

Meachem is three inches shorter than Jackson, but he’s not vertically challenged at 6-foot-2. He and Royal do upgrade the unit’s speed and give the Chargers skill-set variety with their receivers.

In 2010, Rivers made use of Kelley Washington, Legedu Naanee, Seyi Ajirotutu, Crayton and others at receiver behind Floyd and with Jackson out for much of the year. There were fewer options last year. Now the Chargers appear to be re-stocking in numbers at the position, which also includes kickoff returner/special teams asset Richard Goodman.

San Diego still has opportunities to add another receiver or two through free agency, the draft, or by developing a college free agent, but Meachem and Royal are a good start to returning depth at receiver for the Chargers.

“I think they bring more excitement to the team,” receivers coach Charlie Joiner said. “I think with their speed it gives us a much more athletic team than we had last year.

“Their leadership, their speed and their know-how with their football knowledge and what they can do on the field, that helps us tremendously.”

MADDEN COVER VOTE CLOSE: Time is running out to decide whom should represent the Chargers in the Madden 13 cover vote.

Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates have been going back-and-forth in a fan vote to advance one to the 32-player bracket.

The popular football video game franchise first allowed fans to determine its cover subject last year, and expanded this year’s vote to 64 players, including this first “play-in” round between two teammates of each NFL franchise.

The winner will advance to the Round of 32. Fans can vote for Rivers or Gates to advance on SportsNation’s Facebook page.

The winners of the play-in round will be announced March 21.

Rivers, the Chargers’ representative in last year’s vote, is a four-time Pro Bowl quarterback and has thrown for more than 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns in four consecutive seasons.

Gates, one of the best pass-catching tight ends in NFL history, has 593 career receptions and 76 touchdowns along with eight Pro Bowl selections.

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