When the San Diego Chargers signed LT Max Starks in free agency, many people assumed he would step in at the starting role on the line. The Chargers had already signed LT King Dunlap in the offseason as well, but Starks being the ladder signing was viewed as the favorite.
Looking at NFL careers, it would appear that Starks has the upper hand. He has been a starter on the Steelers ever since mid 2008 and has played 9 seasons in the NFL. On the other hand, Dunlap has only played 5 seasons in the NFL and didn’t become a starter until last season (only due to injuries on the Eagles’ line). Based on history alone, it was expected that Starks would start and Dunlap would play the swing role (meaning he could step in at either right or left tackle depending on the situation).
However, so far in the team’s training camp, Dunlap has been the lineman taking the majority of the first team snaps. Although not expected, Dunlap has been playing very well thus far for the team. It is unclear right now who will be the starter, but it is likely that the coaching staff will make this decision quickly so that the unit has a chance to build chemistry.
Dunlap’s early play in training camp suggests that he is getting better as a lineman and may be ready to start at an NFL level. His play last season was heavily criticized, but at any position, the first year starting is always the hardest. Starks on the other hand is 31 years old. This number isn’t alarming for a lineman, but if the Chargers could develop the 27-year-old Dunlap, they would have a long-term option. So if both players are playing at very similar levels, it may make more sense for Dunlap to be the starter.
One side note is that when RT D.J. Fluker sat out some plays, Dunlap went to right tackle and Starks went in on the left side. This is interesting because if Dunlap was going to be the likely starter, it would more sense for Starks to play the swing linemen and keep Dunlap on the left side. Perhaps this was a move by the coaching staff to just give Starks a chance on the left, but ultimately it means there is no clear favorite for the position.
At the moment, Dunlap is suffering from a minor injury he sustained on Monday. This should not hurt his chances to start, but will give Starks the opportunity to impress the coaching staff. If he can show the coaches that he is a quality starter soon, he may take back the starting role before Dunlap can prove his worth to the team. No matter which way you look at it, this training camp battle will be good for the Chargers. Since there is no set starter, both players will have to play their best all season long. This competition should hopefully drive both to play at a higher level, which at the minimum will benefit Phillip Rivers’ protection in the pocket.