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What to Watch in Preseason Opener

10 important questions could be answered

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    Getty Images
    Buster Davis runs with the ball on August 15, 2009 in San Diego, California.

    Will the Chargers win? Bad question.

    Will the Bears win? Bad question.

    The Detroit Lions went 4-0 in the 2008 preseason and then lost all 16 regular season games. Moral of the story: Exhibition winners don't matter — not one bit.

    So when the Chargers host the Bears Saturday at 6 p.m. in their first exhibition game, “Who will win?” is the last question fans should be asking.

    Here are 10 meaningful questions that, altogether, ought to keep fans busy in an otherwise meaningless game:

    1) How does rookie running back Ryan Mathews look? Judge him on three prongs: rusher, pass protector and receiver. Also look out for how much work he and Mike Tolbert split in the backfield. That could be more of a timeshare than some think.

    2) How do the Chargers fair at left tackle without Marcus McNeill? Brandyn Dombrowski and Tyrone Greene will see plenty of work. If that position proves to be a concern, the Chargers could call for more tight end formations, backfield blocking assignments and quick-hit passes this season to mask Philip Rivers' vulnerability on his blind side.

    3) Can the wide receiver unit step up without Vincent Jackson? If training camp is any indicator, Malcom Floyd, Buster Davis and Legedu Naanee certainly can. Now they need to translate that into a game setting. Rookies Jeremy Williams and Seyi Ajirotutu are fighting for roster spots and have flashed promise, so put them under a microscope when they take the field.

    4) Who emerges on the crowded defensive line? Three of the 10 defensive linemen won't break camp, so track the Chargers' nose tackle position from start to finish. This is also the first chance to see rookie Cam Thomas and the strides Vaughn Martin has made in now his second season. If defensive tackle Antonio Garay lines up at fullback on a goal-line set, that will be a highlight, too.

    5) Is Antoine Cason ready? With Antonio Cromartie out of the picture, this is a major chance for Cason to prove he's the team's answer at cornerback opposite Quentin Jammer. Cason has missed some time in camp to a hamstring injury, but the job is his to lose, even if veteran Nathan Vasher has a strong showing versus his former team.

    6) Can everyone stay healthy? Losing rookie linebacker Donald Butler (torn Achilles) the first week of training camp was bad enough. Figuring McNeill and Jackson's absences, the Chargers could do without any more blows to their roster.

    7) How does quarterback Jonathon Crompton fair in the first game action of his career? It starts with footwork when grading a developing quarterback; watch if he can stand strong in the pocket, shift his body weight and deliver the ball with confidence. Crompton was the team's fifth round pick out of Tennessee.

    8) Do the Chargers have a keeper in Shawnbrey McNeal? The 5-foot-9, 190-pound rookie could be a home-run hitter in the mold of Darren Sproles, who will miss this game with a shoulder injury. McNeal, undrafted out of Southern Methodist, is battling veteran Marcus Mason and Curtis Sprinkley for a job.

    9) Who's stepping up at linebacker? Shawne Merriman won't play, and Larry English (foot) and Brandon Siler (ankle) are out with injuries. The Chargers will have plenty of good tape on their young linebackers after this one.

    10) Can Nate Kaeding bounce back? There's no reason to think he can't — he's the most accurate kicker in NFL history. But this is the kicker's first chance to kick in a game since last year's playoff loss. If this one ends with Kaeding hitting the game-winning field goal in the fourth quarter, maybe a preseason victory could have bear some significance after all.