SAN DIEGO - While team success is the ultimate goal for the Chargers, several players are about to embark on seasons that could very well define the rest of their NFL careers. Here are the 10 Chargers players that are heading into free agency at the end of the year and hoping to make a good impression:
1) Ryan Mathews – Mathews has made two Pro Bowls in his first four years, but the running back position isn’t what it used to be in the NFL. Mathews could very well be his last season in San Diego, considering the acquisition of Donald Brown as a potential replacement. If Mathews is going to get a big contract on the open market, he needs to have the best season of his career. That means staying healthy, running for close to 1,500 yards, and finding the endzone with regularity. Do that, and the Chargers would have a tough decision on their hands – and Mathews could have a chance to cash in during free agency. Meanwhile, a mediocre or injury-plagued season wouldn’t be the end of the line for Mathews, but he’d likely be shopping around for shorter deals with much less money on the table.
2) Shareece Wright – For awhile, it looked like Wright was the only decent cornerback on the roster, but that was before the Chargers drafted Jason Verrett in the first round and added Brandon Flowers as a late free agent pickup. Throw in Steve Williams and his return from injury, and cornerback isn’t the wasteland it used to be at Chargers Park. Like Mathews, Wright’s free agency could go two very different ways. A good season, and he could be wearing lightning bolts for another four years—but all of a sudden the Chargers may have some other options if Wright isn’t able to take his game to the next level.
3) Vincent Brown – So far, the wide receiver from San Diego State has done just about everything you can ask from a young player—except produce on Sundays. After a promising rookie season, Brown overcame a devastating injury, worked hard during the lockout with Philip Rivers, has consistently impressed onlookers at practice, brings a terrific attitude to the field, is strong with the media…and caught a ho-hum 41 passes last year, with his only touchdown coming in the season opener. I like Vincent a lot, but the NFL is about production, and if Brown is going to have a long career and make some money, he’ll need to find a way onto the field (not so easy with Malcom Floyd and Eddie Royal around) and catch the football.
4) Brandon Flowers – Might be the player with the most to gain, and most to lose after gambling on a one-year contract with the Chargers. Flowers says he’s an elite cornerback in the NFL, and he’s got 16 games to prove it. If he’s successful, he’ll have a chance at big bucks next season. If not…well, talk, as they say, is cheap.
5) Jeromey Clary – He’s not gone yet. Plenty of Chargers fans are surprised Clary is still on the roster, but the big man remains a favorite of coaches and teammates. Clary won’t be getting another $20 million dollar contract at the end of the season, but if he shows improvement after a full year at guard under his belt, there’s no reason he won’t be able to extend his career for awhile, and make a few more bucks either in San Diego, or, more likely, another city.
6) Danny Woodhead – Another season like last year, and Danny Woodhead will be in line for a nice little raise. 3rd down production is highly valued by the Chargers and the rest of the NFL. (EDITOR'S NOTE: Woodhead signed a 2-year extension after this story was posted. The Woodhead contract extension story is here: http://bit.ly/1lxf2pl)
7) King Dunlap – If the left tackle can stay healthy and continue the improvement he showed under offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris last season, the Chargers could have a difficult decision on their hands. Extend Dunlap, go with restricted free agent Mike Harris, or look for a franchise left tackle in the draft.
8) Marcus Gilchrist – After a position switch to safety last year, Gilchrist is in a tight spot. He’s being pushed by Jahleel Addae for playing time, and now there’s too many cornerbacks on the roster for him to go back to his old spot in the nickel. Gilchrist has one last year to prove he can be a productive starter in this league and be rewarded with a new contract. Otherwise, he’ll be fighting to make a roster out of some team’s camp in 2015.
9) Nick Hardwick – It’s all about staying healthy with Nick…and deciding if he wants to keep playing and sign a new contract. If he does both, there’s a place for Hardwick with the Chargers.
10) Eddie Royal – For a receiver who averaged about 3 catches per game, Royal certainly made them count with 8 touchdowns. He probably wishes he could have signed a new deal after Week 2 last season; he had already scored 5 times by then. Unfortunately for Royal, unless his knack for finding the endzone carries over to another season, he’s not likely to be a coveted free agent in 2015.