After averaging 11.2 wins per season from 2004-2009, the Chargers have averaged just 8 wins per season over the past 3 seasons. Norv Turner, Head Coach since 2007, gets a lot of the blame and was rightfully fired, but recently fired GM AJ Smith deserves more of the blame for their recent decline. The Chargers have done a terrible job of drafting and bringing in new talent over the past few years.
Eric Weddle in the 2nd round in 2007 is the last Pro-Bowler they’ve drafted and, aside from him, the only players who remain on their roster from the 2005-2009 draft classes are 1st round bust Larry English, a reserve linebacker, and mediocre starting guard Jeromey Clary. The results from their 2010-2012 drafts don’t seem much more promising. Sure the coaching staff deserves some of the blame for terrible player developmental, but the problem with this team stems back to their front office.
Both Turner and Smith are gone, but this isn’t going to be a one year fix. Gone are Vincent Jackson, Darren Sproles, LaDainian Tomlinson, Marcus McNeill, Kris Dielman, Shawne Merriman, Antonio Cromartie, among others, and only a declining Antonio Gates and quarterback Philip Rivers remain from their mid-to-late 2000s glory days. They didn’t replace any of those guys. Attempts to build their roster through free agency only produced free agency busts Eddie Royal and Robert Meachem. Looking at their roster, only Weddle would rank among the top-10 at his respective position in the NFL.
Philip Rivers has seen his production drop off severely over the past 3 seasons. In 2010, he completed 66.0% of his passes for an average of 8.7 YPA, 30 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions, a QB rating of 101.8, on a team that ranked 2nd in the NFL, scoring 27.6 points per game. In 2011, he completed 62.9% of his passes for an average of 8.0 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions, an 88.7 QB rating, on a team that ranked 5th in the NFL scoring 25.4 points per game. In 2012, he completed 64.1% of his passes for an average of 6.8 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions on a team that ranked 20th in the NFL, scoring 21.9 points per game. He also fumbled 13 times.
However, it’s really tough to tell how much of that can be attributed to his own decline as he ages (he’s going into his age 32 season) and how much can be attributed to the lack of talent around him. They ranked 31st in the NFL on the ground, rushing for 3.6 yards per carry last season, 31st in the NFL in pass blocking efficiency, and had 8 different players play at least 100 snaps at wide receiver or tight end. It’s not a situation conducive to a quarterback’s success and it also makes it very tough for the Chargers to evaluate Rivers and his future with the organization. He’s owed 13.8 million in 2014 and 15.75 million in 2015, neither of which is guaranteed, before hitting free agency in 2016. The Chargers have a big decision to make on his future in the next 2-3 seasons and it won’t be an easy one to make.
ProFootballFocus thinks he’s seriously declined, grading him out as the league’s #25 ranked throwing quarterback on tape in 2012, down from 6th in 2011 and 1st in 2010. They also note he led the position with 11 penalties last season. He also struggled under pressure, taking a sack on 21.4% of pressured drop backs, 11th worst in the NFL out of 38 eligible quarterbacks. He also completed just 43.2% of his passes while under pressure last season, 24th out of 38 eligible, while throwing 8 interceptions to 4 touchdowns. In terms of under pressure efficiency (completions + drops + 1/2*scrambles – sacks – 3*interceptions/pressured drop backs – throw aways), he was 31st out of 38 eligible. It’s an issue considering his offensive line won’t be much better this season.
In my opinion, he’s an average quarterback in a loaded quarterback league who is on the decline and definitely needs help, help he doesn’t have. Aside from the Jaguars, Raiders, and maybe the Jets, no team in the NFL has a worse supporting cast. The Chargers have a better quarterback than those 3 teams so they’ll win more games than those 3, but they’re highly unlikely to make the playoffs, even in the weak AFC.
In order to help build the supporting cast around Rivers, the Chargers used the 11th overall pick on DJ Fluker. However, I don’t know if that will work out. The book on Fluker is that he’s a great mauler as a run blocker, but struggles in pass protection and will only be a right tackle. If this were 5-10 years ago, a run blocker like Fluker could have gone 11th overall and hidden on the right side in pass protection, but teams can attack the quarterback from both sides of the formation like never before so I don’t see how a below average pass protector could go 11th overall like that.
The Chargers could be even worse on the offensive line this season because they lost talented right guard Louis Vasquez in free agency to the division rival Broncos. Vasquez was a diamond in the rough on San Diego’s otherwise horrible offensive line, grading out well above average in all 4 seasons since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2009 and he was a starter from the word go. He had his best season last year, when he graded out 13th at his position and he’s clearly an above average guard. He’ll definitely be missed.
In order to fill that hole at right guard, the Chargers will be moving Jeromey Clary from right tackle to right guard. He was abysmal in 2011, grading out 4th worst among eligible offensive tackles on ProFootballFocus and he was below average in 2010 before that, but he did submit an above average season last year. He could be better at an easier position at right guard, but he’s also never played there in his career and it’s tough to count on him. At 6-6, he might have trouble getting leverage on the interior of the offensive line.
Opposite him, at left guard, the Chargers brought in Chad Rinehart from Buffalo. Rinehart is only a one year starter and he was limited by injuries last season, going on IR mid-season with an ankle injury, but he was excellent as a starter in 2011 with the Bills, grading out 9th at his position. If he can stay healthy, he could be an above average starter for the Chargers and he was well worth a cheap 1-year deal for an offensive line needy team.
The Chargers will also have a new starter at left tackle, a welcome sight considering incumbent Michael Harris was the absolute worst tackle in the league last year on ProFootballFocus, as you could expect from an undrafted free agent rookie. Max Starks and King Dunlap will compete for that spot this season. Starks was ProFootballFocus’ 71st ranked offensive tackle out of 80 eligible last season and is going into his age 31 season. He also has a history of weight and injury problems to caused him to play just 19 of 32 regular season games from 2010-2011. Dunlap, meanwhile, was a decent swing tackle in Philadelphia, but it’s unclear if he can be a consistent starter on the blindside. For what it’s worth, he graded out above average in 12 starts last season. He’s probably their best option, but Starks looks like the early favorite.
The only player who remains in his original spot from last season is center Nick Hardwick, who has manned that spot since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2004. However, he appears to be on the decline, going into his age 32 season. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 31st ranked center out of 36 eligible last season. He was 14th in 2011, so he could bounce back, but his best days may be behind him. Overall, it’s an offensive line with a little talent, but a lot of uncertainty and it’s a unit very much in the flux. They should be among the worst offensive lines in the NFL again in 2013.
As they did last season when they ranked 28th in run blocking on ProFootballFocus, the Chargers’ offensive line should also once again struggle to open up holes on the ground. That’s not good news for a running back stable that already has issues to begin with. Ryan Mathews was the 12th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, but is starting to look like another Smith/Turner era bust. He looked on his way to a big time breakout year in 2012, with backup Mike Tolbert no longer stealing carries from him and coming off a season 2011 season in which he averaged 4.9 yards per carry on 222 carries, with 50 catches for 455 yards, and 6 total touchdowns.
However, injuries reared their head, as they always have for him, limiting him to just 184 carries, 3.8 yards per carry, 1 touchdown and 2 broken clavicles. He’s missed 10 games in his first 3 years in the league, never playing more than 14 games, and his injury problems date back to his collegiate days. The new regime does not seem nearly as bullish on his upside as the old one and he figures to work in a running back committee with Ronnie Brown and Danny Woodhead. He may be better, more efficient, and less likely to get hurt being used in this fashion, but it’s starting to look like he’ll never be the lead back and LaDainian Tomlinson replacement they were expecting. Besides, both Brown and Woodhead have their own issues.
Brown is going into his age 32 season and has averaged just 3.8 yards per carry on 288 carries over the past 3 seasons. He contributed big time last season as a pass catcher, with 49 catches for 371 yards last season for the Chargers, but he’s not the early down power back complement they need to keep Mathews fresh or a legitimate candidate to give them some carries if Mathews were to get hurt again. Woodhead, meanwhile, is the closest thing they’ve had to Darren Sproles since he left, but he’s had just 250 carries in the last 3 seasons and, at 5-8 190, isn’t capable of carrying much of a load. Like Brown, his biggest impact will come in the passing game.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Rivers could once again be reliant on check downs to the backs this season because things are questionable in the receiving corps. Danario Alexander has plenty of upside as the #1 receiver, but his history of injury problems is well noted. He had a very productive career at the University of Missouri, especially in his senior year, when he caught 113 passes for 1781 yards and 14 touchdowns. However, in spite of that, Alexander went undrafted in 2010 due to serious concerns about his left knee, which had been operated on 4 times. Alexander spent 2 years in St. Louis after making the practice squad as an undrafted free agent and he had some big games, including 5 games of 72 yards or more.
However, he struggled with injuries to his knee and hamstring and played just 18 games in those 2 seasons, catching a total of 46 passes for 737 yards and 3 touchdowns. After he had a 5th knee surgery before the 2012 season, Alexander was waived/injured by the Rams and became a free agent. Despite his natural ability at 6-5 217, his collegiate production, and the fact that he flashed on several occasions in St. Louis, he lasted as a free agent until October 18th, when he was signed by the receiver desperate Chargers.
With the Chargers, he began playing serious snaps by week 9 and became a starter by week 10. In 9 games with the team, he caught 37 passes for 658 yards and 7 touchdowns, which extrapolates to 66 catches for 1170 yards and 12 touchdowns over 16 games. Those 658 yards on 314 routes run equaled 2.10 yards per route run, 17th in the NFL among receivers who played as many snaps he did. He caught those 37 passes for 658 yards and 7 touchdowns on 54 targets and only 2 passes intended for him were intercepted, good for a QB rating when thrown to of 134.1, best in the NFL among receivers who played as many snaps as he did. For comparison, Philip Rivers’ overall QB rating was 88.6.
This off-season, he was slapped with an original round tender, which means anyone could have signed him to an offer sheet and not had to surrender draft pick compensation (the Chargers had right of to match any deal, however). Though several teams reportedly considered doing so, none did, likely scared off by his history of knee injuries and the commitment that comes with a multi-year deal. That’s also probably why San Diego didn’t slap a higher tender on him. His history of knee injuries still is the huge elephant in the room with him. They could creep up at any time.
Things do not get any clearer after that. Malcom Floyd should remain the other starter opposite Alexander, but he’s a marginal receiver who has never caught more than 56 passes in a season and who is heading into his age 32 season. He could be pushed by Vincent Brown or Keenan Allen for the starting job. Brown looked like a big-time sleeper going into the 2012 season, but the 2011 3rd round pick didn’t play a snap after breaking his ankle. He’s caught just 19 passes for 329 yards and 2 touchdowns in his career so while there’s upside here, it’s hard to get too excited. Allen, meanwhile, is a mere 3rd round rookie who probably won’t have much of an impact until 2014 and beyond. It’s just too hard to count on much from rookie receivers, especially those not drafted in the 1st round.
Eddie Royal and Robert Meachem were the big-time free agent signings from the 2012 off-season, getting a 3 year, 13.5 million dollar contract and a 4 year, 25.9 million dollar contract respectively. However, they combined for just 37 catches last season. Royal could see snaps on the slot this season, but he also could be cut to save 1.5 million in cap space and 3 million in cash. Meachem, meanwhile, is currently listed as the team’s #6 receiver and played just 50 snaps from week 10 on last season. The only reason he’s still on the roster is because his 5 million dollar salary is fully guaranteed, but he’s highly unlikely to have any role this season. He couldn’t produce in New Orleans with Drew Brees, maxing out at 45 catches, and was a very ill-advised signing in the first place.
At tight end, Antonio Gates looks like he’s in the beginning of the end of his career. Despite plenty of opportunity, Gates managed just 49 catches for 538 yards and 7 touchdowns last season, despite actually playing in 15 games for the first time since 2009. He has a history of injury problems, missing 10 games in the last 3 seasons and being limited in countless others and, going into his age 33 season, it looks like it’s all caught up with him. He’s unlikely to improve much upon those numbers. His biggest impact will be around the goal line, as he’s still managed 24 touchdowns over 38 games over the last 3 seasons. He hasn’t had fewer than 7 touchdowns since his rookie year in 2003.
The Chargers used a 4th round pick on Ladarius Green in 2012 to possibly be Gates’ eventual successor. The 6-6 240 pounder can’t block at all, but often looked like a big wide receiver on tape at the collegiate level with Louisiana-Lafayette, who he led in receiving in his final season with the team. He could see a bigger role than the 59 snaps he played as a rookie, but he may have to wait until Gates to be gone for a bigger role because of his inability to block. With Gates owed 5 million in an age 34 season in 2014, he might not have to wait much longer. Meanwhile, John Phillips was brought over from Dallas to handle more of the blocking duties. He was okay on 342 snaps in 2012 in the first real action of his career. Like the rest of the offense, the receiving corps overall lack talent.
On defense, things are better than they are on offense. After all, their best player Eric Weddle is a defensive player. Plus, from 2010-2012, they used 8 of their 10 picks in the first 3 rounds on defensive players. Things are promising on their 3 man defensive line where they have a trio of young players in Corey Liuget, Kendall Reyes, and Cam Thomas. Liuget, a 2011 1st round pick, is the best of the bunch. After a disappointing rookie season, Liuget was 8th at his position on ProFootballFocus in 2012. He could be even better in 2013 and, if he plays his cards right, he could end the season as one of the top-10 interior defensive linemen in the NFL. The Chargers desperately need to develop more of those high level type players.
Opposite him, Kendall Reyes graded out above average on 547 snaps as a 2nd round rookie last year and is headed for a bigger role in his 2nd season in the league. He too could emerge as young above average starter. Between them, Cam Thomas will man the nose. The 2010 5th round pick has graded out above average in each of the last 2 seasons, doing so on a career high 404 snaps in 2012. He’s not a great run stuffer, but he moves well enough and rushes the passer well enough to stay on the field in sub packages.
The only issue on the defensive line is a lack of depth. Vaughn Martin, Aubrayo Franklin, and Antonio Garay were nothing special, but with them all gone, their depth is very questionable. Damik Scafe has played just 14 snaps in his career. Kwame Geathers is an undrafted free agent rookie. Jarius Wynn is a veteran, but he’s been very mediocre through his career as primarily a backup. He’ll probably rotate with Liuget and Reyes.
Another one of those recent high picks on the defensive side of the ball is Melvin Ingram, a 2012 1st round pick that they were counting on to have a bigger impact in 2013. However, he tore his ACL in the off-season and is expected to miss the entire season. The Chargers signed Dwight Freeney to replace him, but he’s a shell of what he used to be. Freeney graded out just about average last season, struggling against the run and grading out above average as a pass rusher. 3 things likely contributed to that: his unfamiliarity with the Colts’ 3-4 defense, his age, and injuries. However, San Diego also runs a 3-4 and he’s not getting any younger going into his age 33 season and, at his age, injuries remain a constant possibility. There’s a reason he was still available into June.
Opposite him, things are even worse. The Chargers didn’t just lose Ingram; they also lost opposite starter Shaun Phillips. He wasn’t very good last season, but they don’t really have a replacement. Jarret Johnson is a decent run stuffer, but he’s on the decline going into his age 32 season and he’s never generated any pass rush. He shouldn’t stay on the field in sub packages.
That probably means that Larry English will see a larger role this season, but the Smith/Turner era bust has never done anything of note. Since grading out as the absolute worst rush linebacker in the league as a rookie, he’s played just 408 snaps in the last 3 seasons combined, grading out below average each time. He should remain a very poor player in a bigger role this season. And after Freeney, Johnson, and English, they have very little depth. Thomas Keiser is a former undrafted free agent who has played 311 snaps in 2 seasons and Tourek Williams is a 6th round rookie. They’ll struggle for pass rush, even with a solid defensive line.
Things are better inside at middle linebacker, but not great. Donald Butler is a 2010 3rd round pick who has graded out above average in 2 seasons as a starter. He’ll play next to Manti Te’o, a 2nd round rookie. Te’o was at one point seen by the media as a potential top-5 pick, but a poor showing in the National Championship game and the Catfish incident sent his stock falling in the media.
In actuality, he was probably seen as a late 1st rounder/early 2nd rounder all along by the NFL. I don’t think the Catfish incident hurt his stock too much, nor would a poor showing in one game, but at the same time, I don’t think a linebacker without elite sideline to sideline ability or pass rush ability would have ever been seen as a top-5 or even top-10 pick. He’ll probably play an every down role as a rookie, as the Chargers don’t really have another option. He should play well against the run, but I have concerns about his ability to cover. The early 2nd round was the right range for him.
I’ve mentioned Eric Weddle several times before. He really is a diamond in the rough on this team. He gets overlooked because of where he plays his football, but with Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu aging, he’s one of the top safeties in the NFL along with Jairus Byrd. He has been a top-8 safety on ProFootballFocus since 2009, top-3 since 2010, and graded out #1 in 2012. No one else even comes close to having that kind of recent track record.
The rest of the secondary is a mess though. Marcus Gilchrist and Brandon Taylor will compete for the other safety job. Gilchrist is a 2011 2nd round pick who struggled mightily as a part time player at cornerback in his first two years in the league. He’s being moved to safety, but, at 5-10 193, he’s very small for the position so I doubt he’d be much better there. Taylor, meanwhile, was a 3rd round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft and probably is the best man for the job, but he played just 40 snaps as a rookie and is coming off a torn ACL suffered in December. He’s practicing, but that injury will really hurt his chances of winning the job. He’d be a real question mark even if he did.
At cornerback, the Chargers essentially lost their top-3 guys from last season, with Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason leaving as free agents and Gilchrist kicking from the slot to safety. They brought in Derek Cox from Jacksonville, but he’s a very injury prone player who has missed 17 games in the last 3 seasons. He’s also only graded out above average once in 4 seasons and that was during a 2011 season in which he played just 6 games. In 2009 and 2010, he was 3rd worst at his position both times, and last season, he was only slightly below average, grading out 71st out of 113 eligible. As the de factor #1 cornerback in San Diego, he should be overmatched, at least when he’s on the field. He’s unlikely to ever live up to his 4 year, 20 million dollar contract.
Opposite him, the Chargers will promote 2011 3rd round pick Shareece Wright from the #4 cornerback to the #2 cornerback. He impressed on 120 snaps last season, but he’s played just 124 snaps in his 2 year career thus far, so he can’t really be counted on. Johnny Patrick who was torched last season in New Orleans, will line up as the #3 cornerback on the slot. If he had been eligible, he would have been ProFootballFocus’ 11th worst rated cornerback, despite only playing 218 snaps. No one played fewer snaps than him last season and graded out worse. There’s a reason why he barely got playing time on a New Orleans defense that allowed the most yardage in NFL history. He allowed 24 catches on 35 attempts for 339 yards and 5 touchdowns in his limited action. After him, they have a 5th round rookie on the depth chart. It’s a serious problem.
It’s hard to grade 1st year Head Coaches and important to temper expectations, but I definitely understand why McCoy was hired. He had success in Denver running three completely different types of offenses in his 4 years as offensive coordinator from 2009-2012. He worked with Kyle Orton, Tim Tebow, and Peyton Manning and played to all 3 of their respective strengths. However, plenty of good offensive coordinators have washed out as Head Coaches.
I just don’t see the talent here. It’s going to take a long time to clean up AJ Smith’s mess. As I said, aside from the Jaguars, Raiders, and maybe the Jets, no team in the NFL has a worse supporting cast. The Chargers have a better quarterback than those 3 teams so they’ll win more games than those 3, but they’re highly unlikely to make the playoffs, even in the weak AFC. I think they’re the 3rd best team in the AFC West and will probably only win 2 divisional games, either sweeping Oakland and getting swept by Kansas City or splitting with both.
Outside of the division, they host Houston, Dallas, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and the Giants, a very tough batch of teams. They’ll be lucky to win 2 of those games. They also go to Philadelphia, Tennessee, Jacksonville, Washington, and Miami. They probably won’t win in Washington and they’d be lucky to win 2 of those other 4. I have them at 5-11. There’s some upside if Rivers can turn it around, but I think he’s more on the decline than anything else and his supporting cast won’t help at all.
Projection: 5-11 3rd in AFC West