There was a time when the Chargers would make the playoffs every year and then disappoint once they got there. From 2004-2009, the Chargers won the division and made the playoffs 5 times in 6 seasons, going 67-29 over that stretch, but they went just 3-5 in the playoffs and never advanced past the AFC Championship.
Now they can’t even make the playoffs. In the last two seasons, they have gone a combined 17-15 and missed out on the playoffs both times. In 2010, they played really well, leading the league in yards and allowing the fewest yards at the same time, but finished 9-7. They finished with the NFL’s 5th best points differential with a +119 and had a Pythagorean Expectation of 10.9 wins. They also had the NFL’s 7th best DVOA and were one of 4 teams to finish in the top-10 in DVOA both offensively and defensively (Green Bay, Pittsburgh, NY Giants). Every advanced statistic in the book said that would likely bounce back in 2011.
Well, they didn’t. Advanced statistics can tell you what’s likely. Sometimes things that are likely don’t happen. Philip Rivers randomly had a career high in interceptions (20) and his lowest completion percentage (62.9%) and YPA since 2007 (8.0 YPA), while the defense got old in a hurry and missed defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, who took the Head Coaching job in Carolina. After ranking 1st in yards allowed and 10th in points allowed in 2010, they ranked 16th and 22nd respectively in those two categories in 2011. Advanced statistics confirm their defensive decline as they went from 7th in defensive DVOA in 2010 to 29th last year.
One other thing the Chargers used to be known for was starting out slow. Prior to last year, the Chargers were 14-12 from weeks 1-6 under Philip Rivers and 41-11 (41-11!!!) from weeks 6-17, before going 3-4 in the postseason. However, last year, it was the complete opposite. The Chargers actually started 4-1 before going on a 6 game losing streak, before finishing 4-1 and finally looking like their typical late season selves.
This doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve conquered their early season demons. While they did start 4-1, their 4 wins were against teams that started a combined 4-16 in their first 5 games (Minnesota, Denver, Kansas City, Miami). They only won one of those games by more than a touchdown and didn’t win one by more than 10 points. Their loss, meanwhile, was by 14 to the Patriots.
They weren’t necessarily a good early season team. They just had an easy schedule and then when a 6 game stretch of teams that finished a combined 54-42 hit, they lost every single game, before finally finding their stride and winning 4 of their last 5, though the only playoff team they beat in that span was a Baltimore team that also lost to Seattle and Jacksonville on the road. The only team playoff teams they beat last year were Denver BT (Before Tebow) and the aforementioned Baltimore team. They went 2-4 against playoff teams and 3-7 against teams that finished .500 or better.
So why, in spite of all this, do I like the Chargers to bounce back? Well for one, Philip Rivers should bounce back (I’ll get into the 2nd and 3rd reasons later). Rivers had his 2nd lowest QB rating last year of any of his 6 seasons as a starter. He also threw a career high 20 interceptions. His 1st/2nd half splits show a drastically different Rivers in his final 8 games from his first 8, at least in terms of turnovers. In the 1st half of the season, he threw 14 interceptions as opposed to 6 in his final 8 games.
Rivers is still only heading into his age 31 season so he’s certainly not done. Last season should be dismissed as an outlier, especially since most of his poor play happened in the first 8 games when he may or may not have been hurt. In the last 8 seasons, the Chargers have missed the playoffs just 3 times. Discounting the bizarre 2010 season, those two seasons featured subpar quarterback play. Last year, Rivers struggled and in 2005, Drew Brees, then the Chargers’ quarterback, had one of the worst seasons of his career. If the Chargers are better quarterbacked in 2012, they should make the playoffs, especially in the weaker AFC.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
If anything prevents Rivers from bouncing back, it might be his receiving corps. Vincent Jackson is gone, leaving the offense without a true #1 receiver. However, Rivers played fine without Jackson in 2010, when he missed most of the season with a holdout and injuries, playing just 5 games and catching just 14 passes for 248 yards and 3 touchdowns. That year, Rivers completed 66.0% of his passes for 8.7 YPA and 30 touchdowns to 13 interceptions.
In Jackson’s absence, Malcom Floyd and Robert Meachem will start. Robert Meachem is a talented former 1st round pick who the Chargers gave a giant contract to this offseason (4 years, 25.9 million). They clearly think his best football is ahead of him and that he was underutilized and misused in New Orleans. The problem with that logic that the Chargers have been wrong about a lot of things personnel wise in recent years, while the Saints are one of the least likely teams in the NFL to underutilize and misuse an offensive player. Meachem never surpassed 45 catches in a season in New Orleans. He’ll have a greater opportunity in San Diego, but I don’t think he’ll be able to be a true #1 receiver.
Floyd, meanwhile, has definitely flashed talent in his career, but he’s also missed 9 games combined in the last 2 seasons and when he plays, he’s caught 3 or fewer passes in 14 of 23 games. He’s heading into his age 31 season and if he hasn’t been a #1 receiver yet, he probably won’t be able to be one into the future. He had his chance in 2010 with Jackson holding out and getting hurt and managed just 37 catches for 717 yards and 6 touchdowns. That was in only 11 games, which makes it more impressive, but he’s an injury prone player and that’s not going to get better now that he’s 31.
In Jackson’s absence in 2010, it was Antonio Gates, not Malcom Floyd, who was Rivers’ #1 receiver. He did only play in 10 games with injury, but he caught 50 passes for 782 yards and 10 touchdowns in those ten games. In fact, in the last 2 years, he’s caught 114 passes for 1560 yards and 17 touchdowns in 23 games, insane numbers for a tight end. The problem is that he too is injury prone, missing 9 games himself in the last 2 years. The Chargers have an intriguing 4th round pick, Lardarius Green, waiting in the wings if/when Gates misses some time. He’s not much of a blocker at all, but he can contribute in the passing game. Randy McMichael still handles blocking duties.
Likewise, if/when Floyd misses time with injury, the Chargers have Vincent Brown to insert into the starting lineup. Brown was a 2011 3rd round pick who flashed some talent as a rookie, including a two game stretch where he started and caught 9 passes for 176 yards and a score. I actually like him the most of the Chargers’ wide receivers. If a Floyd injury doesn’t thrust him into the starting lineup, Meachem’s disappointing play could, though it’s unlikely the Chargers give up on a 25.9 million dollar investment this quickly. Either way, once Brown gets into the starting lineup, he has the talent to stay and I think he could have a breakout season.
The Chargers also have Eddie Royal, who will operate solely out of the slot. Royal caught 91 passes as a rookie in Denver in 2008, but he’s a very scheme specific player and never fit in Josh McDaniels’ or John Fox’s offensive system, catching just 105 passes combined in the last 3 seasons. He probably should have signed in Washington this offseason and reunited with Mike Shanahan or in Chicago and reunited with Jay Cutler, but the Chargers are reportedly very high on him. I still think he’ll be their #4 receiver and have a limited role out of the slot.
Rivers also loves throwing to his backs as Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert caught a combined 104 passes on a combined 138 targets last year. No quarterback threw to a back more than Rivers last season. Tolbert is gone, but Mathews is still here and ready to be an every down back. He could catch upwards of 60+ passes from Rivers, but it’s unclear which other back, if any, will take over Tolbert’s role as a receiver. Maybe that’s where slot receiver Eddie Royal will make his mark, catching a significant percentage of Rivers’ underneath throws.
Either way, I think Rivers can make do with what’s not a very good receiving corps. He’s done it before, most notably in 2010. In the 2nd half of the season in 2010, Rivers had a depleted receiving corps with Jackson, Floyd, and Gates all missing significant portions of that period of time. He was stuck throwing to bums like Legedu Naanee, Randy McMichael, and Seyi Ajirotutu instead. Rivers’ 2nd half stats in 2010: 67.7% completion, 8.8 YPA, and 15 touchdowns to 6 interceptions. I think he’ll be fine in 2012.
A strong running game would also help Philip Rivers. Whether or not he has a strong running game supporting him this year is based almost entirely on Ryan Mathews’ ability to stay healthy and handle the load. Mathews is an incredibly talented back when healthy, averaging 4.7 YPC in his so far brief 2 year career, including 4.9 YPC last year. He’s also become a talented pass catcher who caught 50 passes this year. As I said in the receivers section, he could catch upwards of 60 passes this year given how much Rivers likes throwing to his backs. He’s a very talented player and there’s a reason he went 12th overall in 2010.
However, he’s dealt with injuries both in college and in the NFL and his senior year at Fresno State is the only season he’s ever not shared a load with another back. That year, he carried the ball 276 times. In 2007 at Fresno State, he carried the ball just 145 times and in 2008, he carried the ball 113 times. In 2010, with the Chargers, as a rookie, he carried the ball just 158 times and last year he carried it 222 times, splitting a workload with the now departed Mike Tolbert.
Mathews and Tolbert combined for 447 touches, 2469 yards from scrimmage, and 16 touchdowns last year. If Mathews stays healthy, he could approach 400 touches, exceed 2000 yards from scrimmage and score over 12 touchdowns. He’s more talented than Tolbert was and he’s got zero competition for carries. Ronnie Brown, who is completely washed up, and Jackie Battle, an aging career backup who was signed primarily for his abilities as a tackler on special teams, will compete to be the #2 back and spell him 3-5 times per game.
Norv Turner has always preferred single feature backs over running back committees, and if Mathews stays healthy, he could easily finish the season as the #1 fantasy football back, get some MVP votes, become known as one of the best running backs in the league, give Rivers an explosive compliment that he hasn’t had since LaDainian Tomlinson was in his prime, and end up on the cover of Madden ’14 (shortly after which he’ll tear his ACL, but whatever). He’s a budding superstar.
However, if he can’t stay healthy, the Chargers are stuck with Ronnie Brown (31 years old in December, 3.2 YPC last year) and Jackie Battle (29 in October, 190 career carries, 3.8 career YPC) at running back and that’s fun for no one (especially not Rivers). I’m leaning towards the former, but it’s definitely worth noting that he’s no proven, sure thing and the Chargers didn’t really do a good job of giving themselves an insurance option.
Unfortunately for Rivers, he is playing behind a very thin offensive line. Left guard Kris Dielman retired this offseason after suffering a seizure after a game last season. It was obviously the right move for him because long term health should always come before football. However, he was a very talented offensive lineman who will be missed. In his absence last year, Tyronne Green was awful, rating 61st out of 76 guards on ProFootballFocus despite only really playing half the season. He’ll compete with career journeyman Rex Hadnot for the starting job. Hadnot was a mediocre starter for the Cardinals last season.
Another offensive line mainstay is gone for the Chargers as they cut left tackle Marcus McNeill. McNeill was once one of the better left tackles in the league, but he won’t be missed as much. Injuries derailed his career and he played pretty poorly last season. There’s a reason he’s still unsigned as of this writing. In his absence, Jared Gaither played incredibly well, making 5 starts and only surrendering 3 quarterback pressures, no sacks and no hits. He also committed 3 penalties.
Gaither has had an interesting career to say the least. A 5th round pick in the 2007 supplemental draft, Gaither developed into one of the better left tackles in the league in Baltimore, before injuries struck. Baltimore eventually cut him and he spent the beginning part of last season in Kansas City before being waived. He then signed in San Diego, who was so impressed by his 5 starts that they gave him a 4 year, 24.6 million dollar deal. That might seem like a lot to give someone after 5 games, but he’s still only 26 years old and if he can stay healthy, that deal will be a steal.
However, if he can’t stay healthy, the Chargers don’t really have another option. Backup left tackle Brandyn Dombrowski was absolutely awful last year, making 4 starts. He allowed 6 sacks, 3 quarterback hits, and 17 quarterback pressures, including 4 sacks, a hit, and 9 quarterback pressures in one game against Oakland. Somewhere, Kamerion Wimbley is still blowing past him and driving Philip Rivers into the dirt.
I don’t even know why this guy is still on the roster after that embarrassment, let alone the 2nd string left tackle. He should have been cut outright after that game. Rivers probably has nightmares about Gaither getting hurt and Dombrowski having to protect his blindside. Rookie undrafted free agent Mike Harris could challenge him for the backup job, but he’s only better by default.
Right tackle Jeromey Clary is not much better either. He’s been awful for years, but he’s Norv Turner’s boy toy, so he’ll continue to start. He was horrific last season, allowing 7 sacks, 7 quarterback hits, 42 quarterback pressures, and committing 11 penalties, while struggling as a run blocker. He was ProFootballFocus’ 71st rated offensive tackle out of 73. Philip Rivers probably has sweet dreams about him getting hurt and someone else, anyone else having to play right tackle (except, you know, Brandyn Dombrowski).
Just like the Chargers didn’t find a suitable replacement for Dielman or find more reliable insurance for Gaither this offseason, the Chargers failed to upgrade Clary this offseason. AJ Smith has only used one pick higher than the 3rd round on the offensive line in his tenure in San Diego (since 2004) and that was a 2nd rounder on Marcus McNeill. It really shows.
The rest of the offensive line is pretty good, though. Louis Vazquez is one of the few times AJ Smith’s mid to late round offensive linemen panned out. The 2009 3rd round pick has become a solid starter at right guard for the Chargers. He pass protects well, but is a below average run blocker, part of the reason why the Chargers were ProFootballFocus’ 25th ranked run blocking offensive line. Finishing out the offensive line is long time center Nick Hardwick, another player who is a good pass protector and a poor run blocker. Like Green, he was a mid round pick by Smith (2004 3rd round pick) who panned out.
Aside from Green and Hardwick, however, Smith’s strategy of ignoring the offensive line has not panned out. They have major weaknesses at left guard and right tackle and will have a huge weakness at the most important position, left tackle, if the injury prone Jared Gaither misses any time. If he doesn’t, however, his presence should lead to this being a better offensive line than it was last year, even with the loss of Dielman. Between Dombrowski and McNeill, the Chargers had terrible play from the left tackle position for the first 11 games of the season. It’s not a coincidence that this team played their best football when Gaither was the left tackle.
Last season, the Chargers’ offensive line ranked 19th in pass blocking efficiency, but a healthy Gaither really helps things there. Rivers also makes the offensive line look better than it is, taking a sack on just 16.0% of his pressured snaps last season, the 10th best rate among 35 eligible quarterbacks last season. That number is pretty consistent throughout his career (2008: 16.0%, 2009: 17.0%, 2010: 18.4%). There’s a reason he took just 30 sacks last season. In fact, that’s actually the 2nd most he’s ever taken in a season, behind the 38 he took in 2010. In 6 years as a starter, he’s taken a combined 167 sacks, impressive considering how much this team passes.
The biggest issue on the offensive line is how poorly they run block, but Ryan Mathews didn’t seem to mind last season when he rushed for 4.9 YPC. 3.2 YPC after contact (highest in the league last year of anyone with 200 carries or more) definitely helps. If Mathews stays healthy, he looks poised to have an amazing season. Meanwhile, Philip Rivers looks poised to bounce back and prove last year was just a fluke, despite a poor receiving corps and offensive line. If he does that, the Chargers should get back into the playoffs in the weaker AFC.
The Chargers averaged 25.4 points per game last season, their lowest total in the Philip Rivers era and only the 2nd time they averaged less than 27 points per game. In fact, from 2006-2010, the Chargers averaged 28.0 points per game. From 2006-2010, they ranked in the top-5 in points per game every single season. No other team can say that. In fact, only Indianapolis and Green Bay can say they did that 3 times over that stretch. Last year, they ranked tied for 5th, but only with 25.4 points per game, which would have ranked 6th in 2006, 7th in 2007, 9th in 2008, 8th in 2009, and 7th in 2010. This year, they should be back in that 27-28 point per game range and be a top-5 offense once again.
The defense, however, could be a problem. Since 2006, the Chargers have ranked 7th, 5th, 15th, 11th, 10th, and 22nd in points per game allowed. A quick game of “find the outlier” lets us know that the Chargers, defensively, were not nearly as good last year as they had been in years past. From 2006-2010, they averaged 19.7 points per game allowed, while last year they averaged 23.6 points per game allowed, almost as many as they scored.
Their defense got old fast and they really missed Ron Rivera, their ex-defensive coordinator (2008-2010) who was hired as the Panthers Head Coach last offseason. Greg Manusky didn’t do a very good job in his first season on the job and was promptly fired this offseason and replaced with John Pagano, their long time linebackers coach and a former Rivera assistant.
With the exception of the bizarre 2010 season, every year the Chargers have ranked in the top-11 in scoring defense in the Philip Rivers era, they’ve made the playoffs, won the division, and won 11+ games. This makes sense considering how consistently good the offense has been. However, in the other two seasons, they have gone 8-8 both times and only made the playoffs in 2008 because the AFC West sucks. The offense should be improved, but the defense will need to get better too if they are going to go back to being an elite regular season team.
The Chargers clearly had improving their defense in mind when they drafted back in April as they used their first 3 picks on defensive players (Melvin Ingram, Kendall Reyes, and Brandon Taylor), even though it meant ignoring offensive needs such as offensive line, wide receiver, or running back. Given that Philip Rivers has been able to make do with thin supporting casts in the past, they were probably smart to focus on their 22nd ranked defense over their tied for 5th ranked offense in the draft. All three of those players, Melvin Ingram, Kendall Reyes, and Brandon Taylor, could have an impact immediately.
Ingram, Reyes, and Taylor all fill needs at different levels of the defense. Ingram is a rush linebacker, while Taylor is a safety. On the defensive line, the new comer is Kendall Reyes. Reyes, a 2nd round pick, will play 3-4 defensive end for this team and represents the 2nd high pick the franchise has used on rebuilding the defensive line in as many drafts. In 2011, they used their first round selection on Corey Liuget, another defensive end.
Liuget didn’t play that well as a rotational player as a rookie. He was a decent pass rusher, with 1 sack, 1 quarterback hits, and 9 quarterback pressures on 208 pass rush snaps, good for a decent rate of 5.3%. However, he was used in more run stuffing snaps than pass rush snaps and really struggled in that aspect, ranking 29th out of 32 players at his position against the run. Still, a subpar rookie year hardly makes him a bust so he could easily have a breakout year this year. That would be a very welcome sight for the Chargers as they plan to give him a bigger role.
Reyes could start opposite Liuget if he beats out incumbent Vaughn Martin, who was thrust into the starting lineup in place of an injured Luis Castillo last year, despite being just a 5th round pick in 2009. He really played like it, struggling against the run and really struggling as a pass rusher, managing 1 sack, 2 quarterback hits, and 5 quarterback pressures on 319 pass rush snaps, a pathetic 2.5% rate. He ranked 31st at his position overall out of 32 players. Side note: one of my favorite quotes from the “can’t say anything mean” Jon Gruden during the 2011 season was when he said of Martin, something along the lines of “once he learns how to play, he’s going to be a great player.” Translation: you suck.
Martin will play more of a situational role this season, rather than leading the defensive line in snaps, with the addition of Reyes and with Liuget getting more playing time. The Chargers will also be having Antonio Garay play more defensive end. Garay was solely a nose tackle last year, but the Chargers would like him to move around the defensive line more this season.
Garay turned in another strong season in 2011, playing the 2nd most snaps of any player on their rotation heavily defensive line, and stopping the run and rushing the passer well. He was especially good as a pass rusher, especially for a nose tackle, with 3 sacks, 6 quarterback hits, and 20 quarterback pressures on 263 pass rush snaps, good for a very impressive 11.0% rate.
He ranked 12th among defensive tackles as a pass rusher and could have ranked higher if he had played more snaps and maintained the same rate. His pass rush rate was 2nd at his position among players who played 25% or more of their team’s snaps and the only other true nose tackle in the top-10 was teammate Cam Thomas (10th).
He is, however, heading into his age 33 season, so that’s something to be aware of. Him playing more defensive end has allowed the Chargers to get rid of veterans Tommie Harris and Luis Castillo and possibly even veteran Jacques Cesaire. Harris played all right in limited action last year, but Castillo missed the entire year with injury and Cesaire has been mediocre for years.
The reason Garay is able to play more defensive end this year is twofold. For one, the Chargers signed Aubrayo Franklin. Franklin is two seasons removed from being the 49ers’ franchise player in 2010. In 2009, he was ProFootballFocus’ 15th rated defensive tackle and in 2010, he was their 13th rated defensive tackle, but he struggled as a situational player in New Orleans last year. He’s never been much of a pass rusher at all, but he can still stop the run pretty well.
He won’t really need to rush the passer much because of Garay and because of the 2nd reason why Garay can play defensive end more, Cam Thomas. Thomas, as I mentioned earlier, was the only other nose tackle in the top-10 in pass rush rate among defensive tackles. Thomas had 4 sacks, 1 quarterback hits, and 13 quarterback pressures on 228 pass rush snaps, good for a rate of 7.9%. He also stops the run well. He was a steal in the 5th round in 2010 by the Chargers and heading into his 3rd year in the league, he figures to have his biggest workload yet and could emerge as a breakout player.
The Chargers have done a pretty good job getting youth on what was once one of the better defensive lines in the league before age hit. Gone are Jamal Williams, Luis Castillo, and Igor Olshansky, but the next generation definitely looks promising. Cam Thomas is a budding star and Reyes and Liuget, while neither has played well in the NFL yet, were both high picks. With veterans like Garay and Franklin sprinkled in and Martin no longer having to lead the line in snaps played, this should be a decent group with upside in 2012.
The Chargers were one of the worst pass rushing teams in the league last year, managing just 32 sacks, tied for 23rd in the league. I already detailed their defensive line and that was part of the problem, but that wasn’t the only problem. In fact, the only player who managed more than 4 sacks last season was Antwan Barnes, a situational pass rusher, who had 11. Like the defensive line, however, the Chargers’ linebackers should be better in 2012 than in 2011.
One major addition was Melvin Ingram, the 18th pick of the 2011 NFL Draft. He should be able to contribute right away as a situational pass rusher. Another “addition” is Shaun Phillips. Phillips has been one of the Chargers’ best pass rushers for years, but missed 4 games with injury last year. He played pretty well overall, ranking 9th at his position and stopping the run, rushing the passer, and even dropping into coverage well. On 271 pass rush snaps, he had 4 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, and 20 quarterback pressures, for a rate of 10.7%.
He was on his way to an even better season before he got hurt. Through 6 games, he had 3 sacks, 4 quarterback hits and 12 quarterback pressures, good for 8 sacks, 11 quarterback hits, and 32 quarterback pressures in 16 games. His rating on ProFootballFocus through 6 games was 17.0. However, he then missed 4 games with a foot injury and wasn’t the same when he returned, finishing with just a 12.0 rating. In 2010, he had a solid 7.0 rating with 11 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, and 27 quarterback pressures on 418 pass rush snaps, 9.6%. The only issue is that he’s heading into his age 31 season, but if he can stay healthy this year, he should once again be an above average pass rusher and all around linebacker.
The 3rd addition for the Chargers at linebacker was actually an addition, as they signed Jarret Johnson from Baltimore. Johnson played well in Baltimore’s hybrid 3-4/4-3 defense last year, as he has for years, ranking 6th among 4-3 outside linebackers on ProFootballFocus, including 2nd as a run stuffer. He also drops into coverage well. The issue for him is that he’s heading into his age 31 season and he doesn’t pass rush well.
He had just 3 sacks, 7 quarterback hits, and 5 quarterback pressures on 222 pass rush snaps, good for a very mediocre 6.8% rate. In 9 seasons, he’s never had more than 6 sacks in a season and has 20 career sacks. He fit perfectly in Baltimore, but it’s unclear what his role will be in San Diego. Maybe he’ll play some middle linebacker, where he won’t be needed much as a pass rusher and can focus on just stuffing the run and dropping into coverage on occasion.
The 4th rush linebacker is Antwan Barnes, who, as I mentioned, let the team in sacks last year, with 11. He was the only member of the team with more than 4 sacks. Barnes was ProFootballFocus’ 8th rated 3-4 outside linebacker as a mere nickel rusher. He had 11 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, and 29 quarterback pressures, good for an incredible 16.4% rate on 274 pass rush snaps. Among 3-4 outside linebackers who played more than 25% of their team’s snaps, Barnes ranked only behind Aldon Smith in that regard.
Barnes’ incredible season last year was completely unpredictable. A 2007 4th round pick, Barnes bounced around from Baltimore to Philadelphia to San Diego and had just 9 sacks in 4 seasons before last season, when he, of course, had 11. He’s only a situational player anyway and a one trick pony, but it’s definitely possible he regresses this season and proves to be a bit of a one year wonder. For that reason, it’s good that the Chargers brought in some reinforcements in Ingram and Johnson and that they’ll be getting Phillips back from injury.
It’s not entirely clear how the 4 will rotate, but the most logical way would be to have Johnson play on running downs, Ingram and Barnes split the passing downs snaps behind him and Ingram to occasionally spell Phillips, who still has the talent to be an every down linebacker, provided he stays healthy. Either way, they’ll get better production and pass rush from this position this year over last year when their top three guys were Phillips, who missed time with injury and was not the same when he returned, Barnes, and the mediocre Travis LaBoy, who remains unsigned as of this writing, heading into his age 31 season.
In the middle of their linebacking corps, the Chargers will start Takeo Spikes and Donald Butler once again. Spikes was a solid starter for them last year and an every down player, 2nd on the defense in snaps played. However, heading into his age 36 season, his play could drop off at any time. Butler, meanwhile, played incredibly well as a two down run stuffer last year. The 2010 3rd round pick ranked 16th both overall and against the run among middle linebackers on ProFootballFocus last year.
He was spelled on passing downs by Na’il Diggs, who was terrible in coverage. He’s gone now and 2011 2nd round pick Jonas Mouton, who missed all of his rookie season with a shoulder injury, will take over Diggs’ role as the #3 middle linebacker. He should come in on passing downs like Diggs did and should be better than Diggs was.
It’s also possible that with Spikes aging and Butler heading into his 3rd season, that the two swap role and Butler plays every down, while Spikes leaves on passing downs, especially since pass coverage is not exactly a strength of his. As I mentioned, it would make sense if Jarret Johnson played some middle linebacker too, but I haven’t actually heard of any plans for them to do that.
The Chargers’ secondary might have been their worst group in 2011, allowing 7.9 YPA, which ranked 28th in the league. Of course, their poor pass rush didn’t help matters, and with presumably a better pass rush in 2012, they should be a little better. However, of their 4 starters in the secondary, 3 of them were pretty bad and the depth was not much better. They used a 3rd round pick on Brandon Taylor, but he was only a 3rd round pick and he’s only a rookie so I don’t know how much that helps.
Starting at cornerback, the Chargers will once again have Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason. Jammer was once a talented starting cornerback, but he’s heading into his age 33 season and he’s already started to show his age. Last season, he allowed 43 completions on 66 attempts (65.2%) for 684 yards (10.4 YPA), 6 touchdowns, and no interceptions, while deflecting 5 passes and committing 6 penalties. He ranked 92nd among 98 cornerbacks on ProFootballFocus and allowed the worst QB rating (129.9) of any cornerback in the league who played more than 25% of his team’s snaps. He won’t be much better this year, if any better, because of his age.
The other starting cornerback, Antoine Cason, was better, if only by default. Cason allowed 45 completions on 85 attempts (52.9%) for 535 yards (6.3 YPA), which is good, but he also allowed 7 interceptions to 2 interceptions, while committing 7 penalties. The 27th pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, Cason did have 13 deflections and he was better in 2010, allowing 52 completions on 100 attempts (52.0%) for 687 yards (6.9 YPA), 5 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, while deflecting 13 passes and committing 7 penalties. If he can avoid allowing so many big plays in 2012, should be able to bounce back and be their #1 cornerback. However, even if that happens, his value would be minimized because opposing quarterbacks could just pick on a washed up Jammer opposite him.
The primary nickel cornerback last year was Dante Hughes. He allowed 31 completions on 46 attempts (67.4%) for 421 yards (9.2 YPA), 3 touchdowns, and no interceptions, while deflecting 3 penalties and committing 1 penalty. He’s gone and will be replaced by 2011 2nd round pick Marcus Gilchrist. Gilchrist did struggle in limited action last year, allowing 26 completions on 34 attempts (76.5%) for 401 yards (11.8 YPA), 3 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, while deflecting a pass and committing 3 penalties.
However, he was just a rookie and could bounce back in his 2nd season. Gilchrist could also push Jammer for the starting job, but he’s no sure thing either. The Chargers also have Shareece Wright, a 2011 3rd round pick, in the mix, but he played just 4 snaps as a rookie and is currently 4th on the depth chart so predicting any sort of positive impact from him this year is a major projection. He is worth mentioning, however.
At safety, 3rd round rookie Brandon Taylor will compete with Atari Bigby by the strong safety job. Bigby was once a solid starter in Green Bay, but his career was derailed by injuries. He spent the last 2 seasons as a backup in Seattle. He probably won’t play very well if he’s forced to start, so the Chargers are probably hoping that Taylor can overtake him in camp, but he’s just a 3rd round rookie, so it’s unreasonable to expect any sort of big positive impact from him.
The opposite safety, free safety Eric Weddle, is the one redeeming part of this secondary. Weddle is one of the best safeties in the league. He’s been a top-7 safety on ProFootballFocus in each of the last 3 seasons, the only player who can say that. Last season, he ranked 4th, playing well both in coverage and against the run.
He allowed just 11 completions on 27 attempts (40.7%) for 110 yards (4.1 YPA), 1 touchdown, and 7 interceptions, while deflecting 4 passes and committing 1 penalty. The 25.8 QB rating he allowed was the best of any defensive back, not just last season, but in any of the last 4 seasons. The 7 interceptions might have been an outlier as the 2007 2nd round pick had just 6 interceptions in the previous 4 seasons combined, but he still makes a strong case for being the top safety in the NFL.
The Chargers had the 22nd ranked scoring defense last year. They should be better this year. Shaun Phillips, one of the better pass rushers in the league, should be healthy this year. Meanwhile, the Chargers have used all 7 of their 8 picks in the first 3 rounds in the last 2 seasons and 8 of their 10 picks in the first 3 rounds in the last 3 seasons on defensive players.
In 2010, they took Donald Butler in the 3rd. In 2011, they took Corey Liuget in the 1st, Jonas Mouton in the 2nd, Marcus Gilchrist in the 2nd, and Shareece Wright in the 3rd round. Last year, they took Melvin Ingram in the 1st, Kendall Reyes in the 2nd, and Brandon Taylor in the 3rd round. That will start to be noticeable this year.
The removal of Greg Manusky as defensive coordinator should also help, especially since they replaced him with a former Rivera assistant and a long tenured and well respected member of the defensive coaching staff, John Pagano. They might not be the top-11 defense they once were, but they’ll be improved. Earlier I mentioned that there were three reasons why the Chargers would improve in 2012. A bounce back year from Philip Rivers was the 1st. An improved defense is the 2nd. I’ll get to the 3rd one in a little bit.
When the Chargers sat at 4-7 last year, I wrote something along the lines of “the good news for the Chargers is that they have finally been able to bottom out, which means that Norv Turner can finally be fired, much like the Cowboys bottomed out in 2010, fired Wade Phillips, and instantly improved.” Yeah, so much for that. The Chargers won 4 of their last 5 games, which wasn’t enough to make the playoffs, but it apparently was enough to save Norv Turner’s job.
Turner doesn’t have a bad regular season record at all with the Chargers, going 49-31, but his teams always seem to underachieve in general and lose to lower seeds in the playoffs. He also has a career record of just 107-113, including his time in Washington and Oakland, and just 4 career playoff wins, but he has a much more talented bunch in San Diego with Philip Rivers.
Earlier I mentioned that there were three reasons why the Chargers would improve in 2012. A bounce back year from Philip Rivers was the 1st. An improved defense is the 2nd. The 3rd reason is that the Chargers didn’t exceed their Pythagorean Expectation last year. Behind the Eagles, no non-playoff team had a better Pythagorean Expectation than the Chargers’ 8.7 win expectation. That was 12th in the league and 5th in the AFC. They played like a playoff team last year. They just didn’t make the playoffs.
Now, I said the same thing about the Chargers last season and I ended up being wrong by predicting them in the playoffs. That doesn’t mean the logic was wrong. Nothing is a perfect 100% predictor, so I’m sticking with it this year. It’s possible that some Norv Turner idiocy was behind the team failing to meet their Pythagorean Expectation twice in a row. However, Norv Turner does have a good regular season record with the Chargers so that’s not going to scare me off of putting them in the playoffs (once they get there, well, that’s a different story).
I think the Broncos are overrated right now, which I’ll get into in their preview coming up next, so I have the Chargers taking the AFC West. The Chargers have one of the easiest divisional schedules and should be able to go 4-2 in the division. Outside of the division, they host Atlanta, Tennessee, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Carolina. The latter 3 of those games are after week 12 and this team is unbeatable at home after week 12. Philip Rivers is a whopping 13-2 at home during weeks 12-17. Meanwhile, of their other two home games, one is against Atlanta, not a very good road team. They should go 4-1 in those games.
They also go to New Orleans, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, and New York to play the Jets. New Orleans early in the season looks pretty unwinnable, but the rest are after their week 7 bye and, other than Pittsburgh, none are that tough. 2-3 at least is possible there. I have them at 10 or 11 wins or so and I’m giving them the division. They could start the season 2-4 or 3-3 (@ Oakland, vs. Tennessee, vs. Atlanta, @ Kansas City, @ New Orleans, vs. Denver) before their week 7 bye, but after that, they’ll get their act together.
Projection: 10-6 1st in AFC West