Healthy Chargers need a fast start

RB LaDainian Tomlinson used old-school workout techniques to prepare for the 2009 season Christopher Hanewinckel/US Presswire

SAN DIEGO -- As usual, San Diego Chargers general manager A.J. Smith has assembled a talented squad loaded with playmakers and geared toward battling the AFC elite in the playoffs. Slow starts have been a problem for San Diego the past couple of seasons. It started 4-8 last season and 1-3 in 2007.

But there's optimism regarding a fast start in '09 because the team is relatively healthy, especially several key players. A year ago, quarterback Philip Rivers, tight end Antonio Gates, left tackle Marcus McNeill, halfback LaDainian Tomlinson and center Nick Hardwick had carryover injuries from the previous season that made the offense look as though it were under reconstruction.

Here are five observations from Chargers camp:

1. Football life for Tomlinson at 30: Tomlinson knows the clock is ticking on his Hall of Fame career. He has rushed for 11,760 yards, but last season he felt the wear and tear on his body, especially his legs. To compensate, Tomlinson went old-school in his offseason training. He attached a big tire behind him and pulled it while he ran, flipped heavy truck tires and ran hills. Tomlinson thinks old-school basics could bring back his legs for what he hopes is a Super Bowl run and another 1,400-yard rushing season. He weighs the same as he did last season (217 pounds) and looks great.

2. Another look at Gates' difficult '08: As bad as Tomlinson felt about injury problems last season, it pales in comparison to tight end Antonio Gates' issues. Last year was torture for the Pro Bowler. Gates' problems go back to the 2007 playoffs when he suffered a bad toe injury. Against all odds, Gates played in the playoffs but paid a price. He had major toe surgery in the offseason, and problems lingered into training camp and the 2008 regular season.

Looking back, Gates realized he had an injury similar to the one that ended Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert's career with the Steelers. Because he was playing catch-up all season in 2008, Gates never got comfortable. His toe and foot would swell so much that he couldn't go to work the next day. Although Gates can't say he's 100 percent, he said his toe is much better. And Philip Rivers is 100 percent confident in making Gates his main passing target this season. All signs point to Gates having a season similar to 2005, when he caught 89 passes for 1,101 yards and 10 TDs.

3. The next two weeks should be interesting for Rivers: Giants quarterback Eli Manning recently signed a $97.5 million contract extension. The Chargers would like to lock Rivers up to an extension in the next couple of weeks, so the two sides are quickly exchanging proposals. Although Rivers is in the final year of his contract, it's not as if he's going anywhere. The Chargers have vowed to use franchise tags over the next three years to keep him.

Rivers would love to get the long-term security, because he is the face of the franchise. He's also happy that he's healthy. In 2008, Rivers made an incredible recovery from right knee reconstruction. He completed 65.3 percent of his passes, threw for 4,009 yards and had 34 touchdown passes, but the season was a struggle. Rivers' knee ached all season. He would drive home from practice during the week feeling the pain as he pressed the accelerator. Now the pain is gone, and he had the entire offseason to focus on his mechanics and the offense. To get the Chargers off to a fast start, he would like to use more no-huddle.

4. Linebacker Shawne Merriman is ready to play "Lights Out" football … but the bulb isn't burning at full glow. Merriman pushed his damaged left knee as far as it could go last season. He played the preseason and one game into the regular season before he had to shut it down. Merriman, who underwent reconstructive surgery on his PCL and his LCL, still has a long way to go to become the dominant pass-rusher of a couple of years ago.

Merriman wears a heavy brace on the left knee that makes it appear that he is dragging the leg as he moves. The plan is for him to wear the brace for three more games and then have an evaluation at the start of the regular season to see if he should use a brace at all. Merriman also still must go through the mental parts of playing again. Saturday's game against the Seahawks was a good start. Although he didn't make many plays, he felt great about just playing. Now he's going to work on his techniques.

5. Looking down the road: Smith, the general manager, made some interesting draft selections. He used a first-round choice on linebacker Larry English, who should be a relentless pass-rusher. The most interesting prospect is fourth-round choice Vaughn Martin, a 320-pound right defensive end in the making. Martin is raw, but he's powerful. Based on watching him go against blockers in one-on-one drills, he has the potential to dominate. He might not play much this year, but he could be the right end of the future. Another intriguing prospect is Ogemdi Nwagbuo, an undrafted nose tackle who might eventually work into the defensive line rotation. The goal of the team this year and in the future is to become more physical on defense and put more pressure on quarterbacks.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.