5 San Diego Chargers Bobby Beathard has his golden-armed quarterback, beefed-up line and a big back, but who's going to catch Ryan Leaf's passes?

August 16, 1998

Having descended from the Super Bowl to the dregs of the NFL in
only three years, the Chargers put their world in Ryan Leaf's
hands. They traded three draft picks and two players to snag
Leaf with the second selection of the 1998 draft, signed him to
a five-year contract that could be worth up to $31.25 million
and gave him the starting quarterback's job before training camp
was two weeks old.

In an effort to protect their investment, the Chargers dispensed
with last season's feeble offensive line, signing three free
agents and changing the positions of two holdovers. To take some
more pressure off their young quarterback, San Diego paid big
money to sign free-agent running back Natrone Means, whom the
club had released two years earlier because it didn't like his
attitude or his contract demands.

Then, following a spring minicamp, the Chargers did something
truly confounding, even by their twisted standards: On June 3
they traded their only proven receiver, Tony Martin, to the
Falcons for a second-round draft choice in 1999.

Over the last three seasons Martin averaged 79 catches, 1,100
yards and nine touchdown receptions. The less-than-fearsome
fivesome left in his wake--Charlie Jones, Latario Rachal,
Mikhael Ricks, Webster Slaughter and Bryan Still--combined for
56 receptions, 747 yards and one TD in '97. Around the league,
people began to wonder where general manager Bobby Beathard and
coach Kevin Gilbride were stashing their peyote. Many Chargers
were equally baffled. "We were blown away," says one veteran.
"We've seen some strange s--- here the past few years, and this
was right up there."

In the wake of a 4-12 season, the Chargers felt they could
afford to take risks. "At our minicamp Tony was continuing to
struggle against bump-and-run coverage, as he did last season,"
Gilbride says. "Our other receivers looked better than he
did--it's as simple as that. Maybe the sum of the group we've
got is superior to the individual parts."

Privately, coaching and front-office sources say Martin's effort
tailed off as the Chargers went south last year. (Some players
dispute this, including another veteran who says, "All I know
is, he was our MVP in '96.") The organization's higher-ups were
also put off by Martin's decision not to participate in an
off-season workout program, and they felt his trade value would
drop if they kept him around much longer.

The likely candidate to emerge as a consistent big-play threat
is Ricks, a rookie out of Stephen F. Austin who is as raw and
physically imposing as the man who'll be throwing him the ball.
Beathard, who has made a career out of mortgaging the future on
draft day--often successfully, though less so in recent
years--dug deep into his pockets to nab Ricks, a 6'5",
237-pounder with two knee surgeries in his medical history. Left
without a '99 first-rounder as a result of the Leaf trade,
Beathard got Ricks with the 59th selection in the draft by
dealing San Diego's first-round pick in 2000 to the Buccaneers.

On a team known for harboring undersized receivers, Ricks stood
out from the start, impressing coaches with exceptional catches
in practice. A projected starter, he will have to learn on the
fly. With Leaf's faith in his ability to throw the ball to tight
spots and Ricks's belief that he can pull down anything in his
vicinity, the potential for high-risk passes is immense. "Ryan
and I have talked about our chance to develop something
special," Ricks says. "We're looking to be a tandem like Montana
and Rice."

The rest of the receivers aren't in a position to emulate future
Hall of Famers. The other projected starter is the 5'11" Still,
a second-round pick in '96 (Beathard traded a '97 first-rounder
to the Bucs to get him) who has yet to catch a touchdown pass or
convince his superiors of his toughness. Slaughter, a 12-year
veteran and two-time Pro Bowl selection who is attempting to
revive his career after sitting out the '97 season, is fighting
for the third receiver spot. He'll be pushed for playing time by
the 5'8" Jones and the 5'11" Rachal, a pair of young speedsters
from Fresno State. Michael Haynes, a deep threat who has played
10 seasons with the Falcons and the Saints, was a late pickup.

The Chargers, so promising during their 1994 Super Bowl season,
have fallen fast and hard. The defense, which revolves around
All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau, has little depth. The club's
major free-agent signings came on the offensive line--left tackle
John Jackson, late of the Steelers; left guard Aaron Taylor
(Packers); and center Roman Fortin (Falcons). Raleigh McKenzie
moves from center to right guard, and Vaughn Parker goes from
left to right tackle. They'll try to spring holes for Means and
give Leaf a fighting chance to get the ball to his mostly no-name
receivers.

"Nobody knows who the hell these guys are," says offensive
coordinator Mike Sheppard. "Hopefully, they'll sneak up on some
people." --M.S.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER SMALL CONSOLATION Jones had 73 catches in his first two years, but at 5'8", 175 pounds, he's hardly an imposing presence. [Charlie Jones in game] B/W PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Taylor [Aaron Taylor]

Schedule

Sept. 6 BUFFALO
13 at Tennessee
20 at Kansas City
27 N.Y. GIANTS
Oct. 4 at Indianapolis
11 at Oakland
18 PHILADELPHIA
25 SEATTLE
Nov. 1 OPEN DATE
8 at Denver
15 BALTIMORE
22 KANSAS CITY
29 DENVER
Dec. 6 at Washington
13 at Seattle
20 OAKLAND
27 at Arizona

Fast Facts

1997 Record 4-12 (5th in AFC West)
NFL rank (rush/pass/total): offense 28/21/28; defense 11/22/21

1998 Schedule strength NFL rank: 14
Opponents' 1997 winning percentage: .496 Games against playoff
teams: 5

Last, in Terms of Firsts

Sixty-three players appeared in at least one game for the
Chargers last year, but only four of those entered the league as
first-round selections in the regular NFL draft. That was the
lowest such total of any team (the highest was the Raiders, with
18). Among that quartet only one player, Junior Seau, was
drafted by San Diego, and two, Jim Everett and Eric Metcalf, are
no longer with the team.

Team First-round draft choices who played in 1997 No.

Chargers Marco Coleman, Jim Everett, Eric Metcalf,
Junior Seau 4

Falcons Cornelius Bennett, Michael Booker, Devin Bush,
Antone Davis, Bob Whitfield 5

Packers John Michels, Craig Newsome, Wayne Simmons,
Aaron Taylor, Ross Verba 5

Bengals Willie Anderson, Ki-Jana Carter, John Copeland,
James Francis, Dan Wilkinson, Reinard Wilson 6

Eagles Steve Everitt, Irving Fryar, Jon Harris,
Mike Mamula, Jermane Mayberry, Troy Vincent 6

Giants Ray Agnew, Rodney Hampton, Ike Hilliard,
Cedric Jones, Thomas Lewis, Tyrone Wheatley 6

Inside Slant

Left guard Aaron Taylor admits he's not the same player he was
before knee injuries in '94 and '96, but that didn't stop San
Diego from offering up a four-year, $10.8 million contract to
pry him from the Packers. Chargers coaches feel Taylor can bring
some feistiness to the line.... Defensive ends Marco Coleman and
William Fuller, major free-agent acquisitions in '96 and '97,
combined for five sacks last year.... For the first time in
seven seasons, linebacker Junior Seau failed to lead the team in
tackles, finishing second to strong safety Rodney Harrison. This
was partially due to Seau's move from his natural weakside spot
to the middle after Kurt Gouveia suffered a season-ending neck
injury in San Diego's seventh game of the season.

Projected Lineup With 1997 statistics

Coach: Kevin Gilbride
Second season with Chargers (4-12 in NFL)

Offensive Backs PVR*

QB Ryan Leaf[N](R) 123[PVR*] 375 att. 210 comp. 56.0%
3,637 yds. 33 TDs 10 int. 161.2 rtg.

RB Natrone Means[N] 41[PVR*] 244 att. 823 yds. 3.4 avg.
15 rec. 104 yds. 6.9 avg. 9 TDs

FB Rodney Filer 253[PVR*] 0 att. 0 yds. N.A. 0
rec. 0 yds. N.A. 0 TDs

RB Terrell Fletcher 174[PVR*] 51 att. 161 yds. 3.2
avg. 39 rec. 292 yds. 7.5 avg. 0 TDs

Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen

WR Mikhael Ricks (R)[N] 240[PVR*] 47 rec. 1,358 yds. 13 TDs
WR Bryan Still 143[PVR*] 24 rec. 324 yds. 0 TDs
WR Charlie Jones 112[PVR*] 32 rec. 423 yds. 1 TD
TE Freddie Jones 167[PVR*] 41 rec. 505 yds. 2 TDs
K John Carney 70[PVR*] 5/5 XPs 7/7 FGs 26 pts.
PR Latario Rachal 428[PVR*] 0 ret. N.A. 0 TDs
KR Kenny Bynum 392[PVR*] 38 ret. 21.4 avg. 0 TDs
LT John Jackson[N] 6'6" 297 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Aaron Taylor[N] 6'4" 305 lbs. 14 games 14 starts
C Roman Fortin[N] 6'5" 297 lbs. 3 games 3 starts
RG Raleigh McKenzie 6'2" 283 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Vaughn Parker 6'3" 296 lbs. 16 games 16 starts

Defense

LE William Fuller 29 tackles 3 sacks
LT Norman Hand 19 tackles 1 sack
RT John Parrella 39 tackles 3 1/2 sacks
RE Marco Coleman 48 tackles 2 sacks
OLB Lewis Bush 56 tackles 0 sacks
MLB Kurt Gouveia 27 tackles 1 int.
OLB Junior Seau 97 tackles 7 sacks
CB Dwayne Harper 43 tackles 2 int.
SS Rodney Harrison 132 tackles 2 int.
FS Mike Dumas 94 tackles 1 int.
CB Terrance Shaw 71 tackles 1 int.
P Darren Bennett 89 punts 44.6 avg.

[N]New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 88)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)