The Chargers have done a nifty job, it seems, in adding some key players in this wacky, condensed offseason -- inside linebacker Takeo Spikes and safety Bob Sanders. Of course, they've let some familiar faces go as well in running back Darren Sproles and inside linebackers Stephen Cooper and Kevin Burnett.
One Pro Bowler is back, but maybe not quite in the condition many expected.
Tight end Antonio Gates played with grit last year, ignoring the pain of his torn plantar fasciitis in his foot. Gates finally had to shut it down and missed the final six games. But after an offseason of rest -- no surgery was required -- the hope that a healthy Gates would report to camp ready to go was misguided.
Gates is at practice, but he's working on the side while on the physically unable to perform list. Seems that what ailed him in 2010 is still there. And Gates said part of that blame was because of the sport's labor unrest with its collective bargaining agreement.
"This whole thing about the CBA put a damper on a lot of things," Gates said. "People say, 'Oh, he had the time off (his foot),' but when you're not in with the training staff that normally understands you and knows what it takes to rehab it right, it's difficult."
The real chore is covering Gates, something rivals have been attempting for eight seasons.
But last year it became easier for one reason -- Gates was on the sidelines starting in November. The plan was to rest Gates and let him get somewhat healthy so he could aid the Chargers in the playoffs.
Trouble was the Chargers didn't make it, and Gates never slipped on the shoulder the pads.
He said his offseason progress slid with not being able to work with a medical staff familiar with his injury.
"I had to deal with guys that really didn't know me, didn't know what I was about, had to go and do their research ... so it was difficult," Gates said. "You take the bitter with the sweet. You understand what's at stake with the league, but you've still got to do the things that keep you as healthy as possible."
It's imperative the Chargers have a fit Gates. Not only for his stellar production -- a team-high 10 touchdown receptions last year. Gates is also the only player with eight touchdown receptions in each of the last seven seasons.
But it's what Gates does to make those around him better. With Gates exploiting the middle, it opens up the outside routes for Vincent Jackson and Patrick Crayton.
With Gates forcing defenses to watch him on routes, it opens up the running game for Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert. With Gates as an option, it supplies Philip Rivers with a reliable safety value in case the downfield routes don't develop. Rivers has avoided numerous sacks by being able to dump the ball to Gates at the appropriate moment.
But if he isn't able to go, all that goes down the drain. And just to be clear, Gates and the coaches don't think this will hamper him. But to be clearer, Gates wasn't shy about mentioning what a task it will be this year to stay out of the trainer's room.
"People think it's an injury, but it's a pain tolerance," Gates said. "One day you might feel like you can run around and jump around. Next day, it's sore.
"I think the main thing is to continue with the treatment and training staff. They will continue to do the things that are necessary for me to prepare, but yet get me the proper rest that I need."
The Chargers, to a degree, displayed their concern by bringing back veteran tight end Randy McMichael. He stepped in when Gates was down last year -- the Chargers are hopeful he's not required as much in 2011.
But that hinges on how much attention Gates' sore foot requires.
CAMP CALENDAR: Aug. 6 -- FanFest and workout at Qualcomm Stadium; Aug. 22 -- Camp closes
NOTES, QUOTESWide receiver Vincent Jackson is looked upon as a diva by many in the game. But the Pro Bowler who has had his scrapes with the team over contracts said he noticed no ill will when he reported to camp. While he has frustrated the Chargers with his actions off the field, Jackson is a solid clubhouse guy with a great work ethic and the respect of his teammates."Honestly, when I came in it was a like reunion with your family," Jackson said. Guys welcomed me (with) open arms."'
--The Chargers used their first-round pick on run-stopping defensive end Corey Liuget to try and shore up the run defense. Although he's yet to sign and considering he didn't have an offseason to learn, it's questionable if he'll be a steady contributor. But the Chargers also chased away three of their best run-stoppers: inside linebackers Stephen Cooper, Kevin Burnett and Brandon Siler. That's a lot of experience and muscle heading out the door.
Instead, much will be asked of veteran Takeo Spikes, but also Donald Butler and Jonas Mouton. Butler was hurt all of last year; Mouton is a rookie.
Spikes is an inside linebacker and tackling machine coming over from the 49ers. That Spikes turns 35 this season might be a red flag. But he played last year for coordinator Greg Manusky, who is now handling that responsibility with the Chargers. It figures if Spikes' tank was tapped, Manusky would know about it.
-- Things aren't as big a mystery on offense; the Chargers seem primed to pick up where leaving off -- at one point last year Philip Rivers was challenging the 5,000-yard passing mark. Pro Bowl wide receiver Vincent Jackson is signed; running back Ryan Mathews should be better in his second year; Mike Tolbert should build on his coming out season of last year; tight end Antonio Gates is among the league's best at his position; the starting five offensive linemen are back.
-- Running back Ryan Mathews needs to prove that he gets it. Chargers coaches grew frustrated last year when, as a rookie, Mathews struggled to pick up pass protections and other nuances of the pro game. Then he showed up at camp, went through drills and was obviously not in the proper physical condition.
-- Good line from coach Norv Turner, when greeting the San Diego media in his press conference to kick off training camp. "I probably should repeat what I told a number of our players," Turner said, with the timing of a comedian. "With all sincerity, I missed some of you."
-- The Chargers' first camp practice open to the public drew some 3,000 fans. Many started lining up at Chargers Park three hours before the gates were opened.
-- The Chargers were pleased to get backup quarterback Billy Volek to return. The sides haggled over guaranteed money, but Volek agreed to a deal similar to the three-year, $9 million contract that expired following the 2010 season. It's just a year shorter.
"Having Billy back is great," general manager A.J. Smith. "He has been an integral part of our team, knows our system and has performed well when called upon. Billy is a true pro, always prepared and ready to step in if necessary."
-- RT Jeromey Clary is often a target of criticism from Chargers fans. But the front-office thinks otherwise in awarding him a four-year, $20 million contract.
"I'm so excited to remain a Charger," Clary said. "I love working with these guys and helping this team win. This contract will only increase my motivation and make me work harder. I didn't get into this game for the money. I want to win playoff games and hopefully a Super Bowl. I'm happy I get to pursue those goals with this team."
-- What does veteran inside linebacker Takeo Spikes bring to the team? Experience and a dose of nasty.
"He is an outstanding player," Smith said. "Takeo will bring his physical, aggressive style to our defense. I love his competitiveness and instincts. I believe he will be an immediate contributor."Spikes is energized to do just that.
"One of the intangibles that I bring is my leadership," Spikes said. "Even though everybody is from different places across America, to me I feel like the great ones bring everybody together and believe in the same common goal, and that's to win a championship. That's why I'm in San Diego."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's a good feeling to be here on time and have a full year to contribute to the team." -- WR Vincent Jackson, after signing his franchised-designated contract, nearly one year after acrimonious negotiations prevented his appearance at training camp and being on the roster for most the season.