San Diego Chargers 2016 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Even though the Chargers finished last season 4-12, Philip Rivers was one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL once again last season. How is that possible? Well, for one, the Chargers were a lot better than their record suggested last season; if last season had been played 1000 times, they definitely would have averaged significantly more than 4 wins per season. Their 4-12 record was largely the result of 9 losses by 8 points or fewer, a -5 return touchdown margin, and poor special teams (31st in the NFL in special teams DVOA). They actually outgained opponents on the season by 158 yards.

All of this suggests that this wasn’t a bad team, but rather one that had some bad luck and lost a lot of games that could have gone either way. They actually finished the season ranked 13th in rate of moving the chains differential, led by an offense that moved the chains at a 72.28% rate, 11th in the NFL. Rivers deserves most of the credit as he was able to lead a capable offense despite a tremendous amount of injuries around him. Not only did the Chargers have some bad luck on the field, but they also had bad luck in terms of keeping players on the field. They finished 25th in the NFL in adjusted games lost to injury on offense.

Despite that, Rivers still completed 66.1% of his passes for an average of 7.25 YPA, 29 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. He finished the season 14th in the NFL among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, making 8 times in the 9 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history in which Rivers has graded out above average. He also gets to reunite with Ken Whisenhunt this season. Whisenhunt was the Chargers’ offensive coordinator in 2013, arguably the best season of Rivers’ career (69.5% completion, 8.23 YPA, 32 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, #3 ranked quarterback on Pro Football Focus), but left to take the head coaching job in Tennessee the following off-season. Whisenhunt flopped as a head coach, but has always been a great offensive coordinator, especially when he’s been able to work with veteran quarterbacks, so Rivers should be thrilled to have him back.

The only concern with Rivers is that he’s going into his age 35 season, but he should have a couple more solid seasons left in the tank. Quarterbacks like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Carson Palmer, and Drew Brees have all played well into their mid-30s in recent years, so Rivers certainly could as well. He’s also never missed a start in 10 seasons as the starter, dating back in 2006, even playing the 2007 AFC Championship on a partially torn ACL. They need him to continue to stay on the field, as undrafted rookie Mike Bercovici is the backup and would almost certainly struggle if forced into action as a rookie.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Chargers made a big effort to upgrade the offensive line last off-season, rightfully so because their offensive line was terrible in 2014, adding left guard Orlando Franklin and right tackle Joseph Barksdale in free agency, but they once again struggled upfront in 2015 because of injuries. They had the 3rd most adjusted games lost to injury on the offensive line. Barksdale played well, but Franklin and left tackle King Dunlap were limited to 622 and 317 snaps respectively last season by injuries and both also struggled mightily when on the field.

Franklin has a good chance to bounce back though. Prior to last season, when he graded out 78th out of 81 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus, he had finished in the top-17 at his position in 3 straight seasons, playing right tackle in 2012 and 2013 and left guard in 2014. That earned him a much deserved 5-year, 36.5 million dollar contract from the Chargers and, though he struggled in his first season, there’s a very good chance he’s a lot better and healthier in 2016. That would benefit the Chargers greatly.

Dunlap was also good before last season, grading out 37th among offensive tackles in 2012, 6th in 2013, and 23rd in 2014, making 39 starts over that time period. However, I’m less confident in a bounce-back year from him than I am in a bounce-back year from Franklin, because of Dunlap’s age. Going into his age 31 season, it’s very possible his best days are behind him. That’s not to say he couldn’t have a solid year in 2016 if he stays healthy, but he’s probably on the decline. Owed a non-guaranteed 6.75 million in his age 32 season in 2017, this is a make or break season for Dunlap. If doesn’t bounce back, he could easily be a cap casualty next off-season.

As I mentioned, Barksdale starts on the right side. A 2011 3rd round pick, Barksdale was a bit of a late bloomer, struggling mightily in the first 2 seasons of his career in Oakland, but turned it around in 2013 and 2014 with the Rams, after being let go by the Raiders. The Chargers got him surprisingly cheap on a one-year deal last off-season and it really paid off, as he was their best offensive lineman by far and the only one to make all 16 starts. He’s made 45 of 48 possible starts in the last 3 seasons, grading out 25th among offensive tackles in 2013 and 21st among offensive tackles last season. He even played some left tackle last season and that could be where the Chargers envision him long-term. They had to pay a little bit more to keep him this time around, re-signing him for 4-year, 22.2 million, but that’s well worth it.

In addition to re-signing Barksdale, the Chargers also signed veteran Matt Slauson this off-season. Slauson was a very capable guard in Chicago last season, finishing 9th among guards on Pro Football Focus, so it was a surprise when the Bears let him go, following the selection of Cody Whitehead in the 2nd round of the April’s draft. The Bears’ loss is the Chargers’ gain. Aside from 11 games missed with a torn pectoral in 2014, Slauson has never missed a game with injury since becoming a starter in 2010 and, aside from that injury shortened 2014 season, he’s also graded out above average in every season since 2010. He’s going into his age 30 season, but he should have at least a couple more solid seasons left in the tank. He was a steal on a 2-year, 3 million dollar deal this off-season.

Slauson is expected to initially start at center, even though he’s been a guard for his whole career. Center was major problem position for the Chargers last season, so much so that 3rd round rookie Max Tuerk was penciled in as the starter before they signed Slauson. DJ Fluker is the right guard, but the 2013 1st round pick has largely been a bust thus far, grading out below average in the first 2 years of his career at right tackle and then really struggling after being moved inside to guard last season, grading out 67th out of 81 eligible guards.

The Chargers picked up Fluker’s 5th year option for 2017 this off-season, suggesting they still have hope for him long-term, but that option is only guaranteed for injury, so he’s no lock to remain on the roster beyond this season if he doesn’t turn it around. I also wouldn’t rule out him getting benched mid-season, Slauson sliding over to right guard, and Tuerk taking over at center. Either way, it looks like a much improved offensive line with the addition of Slauson along with Dunlap and Franklin getting healthy.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

The biggest single injury the Chargers suffered last season was Keenan Allen’s season ending lacerated kidney. Allen isn’t expected to have any long-term complications from the injury, but it derailed a dominant 3rd season in the league for the 2013 3rd round pick. In 8 games before going down, Allen caught 67 passes for 725 yards and 4 touchdowns (134 catches for 1450 yards and 8 touchdowns over 16 games), grading out 21st among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus.

His absence had a significant effect on Rivers’ numbers, as he completed 69.8% of his passes for an average of 7.91 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions in the first 8 games of the season, as opposed to 62.0% completion, 6.51 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions in the final 8 games of the season. The Chargers moved the chains at a 76.49% rate in those first 8 games, but fell to 67.23% in the final 8 games. Having him back healthy is going to be a major boost to this offense because he’s one of the top receivers in the NFL and easily the best pass catcher on the Chargers’ roster. In 3 years in the league, he and Rivers have connected for 215 catches for 2554 yards and 16 touchdowns in 37 games and he’s still only going into his age 24 season. The Chargers made the wise decision to lock him up on a 4-year, 45 million dollar extension this off-season, ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal.

With Allen out, Malcom Floyd led Charger wide receivers in snaps played last season, but he retired this off-season, ahead of what would have been his age 35 season. The Chargers replaced him by adding Travis Benjamin on a 4-year, 24 million dollar deal. Benjamin was the Browns #1 receiver last year, catching 68 passes for 966 yards and 5 touchdowns. He’ll have better quarterback play in San Diego, but probably won’t match those numbers as he’ll see significantly fewer targets. His numbers were inflated by getting so many targets last season and he actually only caught 54.8% of the 124 passes through his way, grading out slightly below average overall. He’s also a one-year wonder as he had 6 career starts in 3 seasons prior to last season. He’s a marginal starting receiver at best, but he’s not a terrible option to replace Floyd and the Chargers didn’t pay him a ton.

Steve Johnson was supposed to be the 3rd receiver, but injured his knee before the season started and is expected to miss the whole season. Johnson’s not the most important player on this offense, but they don’t have a clear replacement 3rd receiver. Dontrelle Inman played 691 snaps last season because of all of the injuries ahead of him on the depth chart, but finished 111th out of 121 eligible wide receivers in the first significant action of the 2011 undrafted free agent’s career. He’s expected to be pushed for playing time by 2015 undrafted free agent Tyrell Williams, who played just 30 snaps as a rookie. It’s a much thinner group of wide receivers without Johnson, but Allen is the one they can’t afford to lose again.

Last year, the Chargers used a lot of two-tight end sets to mask their depth problems at wide receiver and could do so again this season. Both of the Chargers’ tight ends, Ladarius Green and Antonio Gates, were scheduled to be free agents. Green, who was originally drafted to be a long-term replacement for Gates, signed in Pittsburgh on a 4-year, 20 million dollar deal this off-season, but the Chargers brought back the veteran Gates on a 2-year, 11 million for what will be his 14th year in the league, all with the Chargers. Despite going into his age 36 season, Gates could still have something left in the tank. He played well last season when he was on the field, missing 5 games due to a combination of suspension and injury, but catching 56 passes for 630 yards and 5 touchdowns in the other 11 games.

The future Hall of Fame tight end graded out 7th among tight ends on Pro Football Focus last season, struggling as a run blocker, but coming in 6th in pure pass catching grade. He was 14th in pure pass catching grade in 2013, 7th in 2014, and has graded out above average in that aspect in every season of Pro Football Focus’ history, dating back to 2007. He can’t do this forever, but he could easily still be an asset in the passing game in 2016. His 2015 numbers translate to 81/916/7 over 16 games. If he comes close to that, he’ll be among the league’s better receiving tight ends once again.

The Chargers also used an early 2nd round pick on tight end Hunter Henry out of Arkansas (the draft’s consensus top tight end), with an eye on the future. He’ll also have a role in the short-term as the #2 tight end, replacing Green in that role. With a lack of depth at wide receiver, the Chargers figure to use a lot of two-tight end sets again this season. Assuming they don’t have a rash of injuries again, it’s a talented receiving corps and one that should benefit immensely from Allen being healthy.

Grade: B

Running Backs

While the Chargers’ issues on the offensive line and in the receiving corps last season were largely the result of injuries, that was not the case at running back. The issue at running back is Melvin Gordon struggled mightily as a rookie and they were counting on him to turn around their running game, after making him the 15th pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Gordon rushed for just 641 yards on 184 carries (3.48 YPC), added just 33 catches for 192 yards, and did not score a single touchdown. He also fumbled 6 times, losing 4 of them. One of the worst running backs in the NFL last season, Gordon finished 65th out of 69 eligible running backs on Pro Football Focus.

Danny Woodhead was 2nd on the team in carries with 98 carries, but rushed for just 336 yards and 3 touchdowns himself, an average of only 3.43 YPC. Woodhead is a valuable asset to this offense, but not as a runner. He excels as a receiver of the backfield, catching 80 passes for 755 yards and 6 touchdowns, actually leading the team in all 3 of those categories thanks to all of the Chargers’ injuries in the receiving corps. He caught 76 passes for 605 yards and 6 touchdowns in 2013 in his first year in San Diego (with a year lost to injury in between), so he has a very good chance to catch another 60-70 passes again in 2013, even with the Keenan Allen returning from injury. Rivers loves throwing to him and the broken leg that cost him most of 2014 is the only major injury he’s suffered in his career, missing just 3 other games with injury in the past 6 seasons. The fact that he’s going into his age 31 season is a bit of a concern, but because he’s not a traditional running back, he should be able to have a little bit longer career.

However, Woodhead is not going to be the one to turn around this running game, as he’s topped 100 carries just once in his career and can’t carry a load as a traditional running back at 5-8 200. The Chargers finished last season dead last in yards per carry as a team, averaging 3.46 YPC. They should be better by default this season (it’s hard to get worse), especially since the Chargers’ offensive line should be better this season, but if they’re going to become even an average running team, it’s going to take a major bounce back year from Gordon.

He certainly has the upside to do it, but off-season microfracture surgery on a knee injury that cost him the final 2 games of last season complicates matters. He’s fully expected to be ready for the start of the season, but you never want to hear microfracture surgery in the same sentence with a young running back. If he misses any time with injury, undrafted rookie Kenneth Farrow and Danny Woodhead would split carries, with a veteran also likely being added in that situation. The arrow is pointing up at running back for the Chargers, but only by default.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

While the Chargers’ ranked 11th in rate of moving the chains, their defense had a few more issues, coming in 17th in rate of moving the chains allowed. Their biggest issue, by far, was the defensive line. Defensive ends Kendall Reyes and Ricardo Mathews played 656 and 511 snaps respectively and graded out 120th and 121st respectively among 123 eligible interior defensive linemen on Pro Football Focus, while Sean Lissemore struggled mightily on 233 snaps at nose tackle. The Chargers made upgrading the defensive line a focus of their off-season though, adding Brandon Mebane as a free agent from the Seahawks on a 3-year, 13.5 million dollar contract and using the 3rd overall pick on Joey Bosa, a defensive end out of Ohio State.

Bosa was a surprise pick at #3 overall, as the Chargers are widely expected to choose between Oregon defensive end DeForest Buckner, Florida State safety Jalen Ramsey, and Notre Dame offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley. Bosa isn’t an obvious fit for a 3-4, measuring in at 6-5 269 at the combine, but the Chargers think he can comfortably put on another 20 pounds to play defensive end on the Chargers’ 3-man defensive line. Bosa was Pro Football Focus’ #1 overall ranked draft prospect, but I would have gone with Ramsey (#3) or Buckner (#2). It’s always a projection whenever you draft someone that high and then need him to put on significant weight, as you don’t know how he’ll carry it. Buckner, meanwhile, played in a 3-4 at Oregon and wouldn’t need to gain any weight, measuring in at 6-7 291 at the combine. On top of that, an off-season holdout complicates matters. He has finally reported, but could be behind the 8-ball early in the season, after missing the essentially entire off-season.

Bosa will still be an obvious upgrade at defensive end and has a very bright future in San Diego. Mebane should also be an upgrade. He’ll play primarily at nose tackle, but could also see snaps in sub packages. Mebane spent the first 9 years of his career in a 4-3 in Seattle, but has always been better against the run than as a pass rusher and has adequate nose tackle size at 6-1 311. Mebane was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked defensive tackle in 2013, but that’s not the norm for him, as he’s graded out below average in 4 of the last 5 seasons. He’s not a bad player though, grading out 70th out of 123 eligible interior defenders last season on 489 snaps, and, even going into his age 31 season, should be decent at nose tackle for a couple of seasons. He was a smart pickup.

Corey Liuget remains as the other starting defensive end. He was easily their best defensive lineman last season, though he did miss 5 games with injury and actually graded out slightly below average overall; he was their best defensive lineman by default. He’s graded out below average in 3 of 5 seasons in the league, since going in the first round since 2011, including 29th out of 32 eligible 3-4 defensive ends in 2011, 37th out of 45 eligible 3-4 defensive ends in 2013, and 77th out of 123 eligible interior defenders last season. The Chargers massively overpaid him on a 5-year, 51.25 million dollar extension last off-season, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal, but he’s a capable starter overall.

As mentioned, depth still remains an issue on the defensive line. Lissemore can play both defensive end and nose tackle and will see some action. Despite struggling last season, he’s graded out above average in 3 of 6 seasons in the NFL, though he’s never played more than 338 snaps in a season. Darius Philon should also see snaps. The 2015 6th round pick struggled on 150 snaps as a rookie, but could see a larger role in his 2nd year in the league out of desperation. It’s an improved unit, but far from a strong one, especially given their lack of depth.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The Chargers got strong play at the outside linebacker position last season from Melvin Ingram and Jerry Attaochu. Both return as starters, but, like the defensive line, depth is a problem at the position. Kyle Emmanuel struggled mightily as the 3rd outside linebacker last season, finishing 104th out of 110 eligible edge defenders on 306 snaps as a 5th round rookie. He could be better this season, but depth at the position was something they needed to add this off-season and didn’t.

Ingram and Attaochu both played well last season though, grading out 16th and 39th respectively among edge defenders. Ingram was solid as a first round rookie in 16 games in 2012, but had his career derailed by injuries that cost him 19 games and seemed to snap his effectiveness in 2013 and 2014, grading out below average in both seasons. However, he slimmed down 20 pounds last off-season (from 266 to 246) and then put it all together in his 4th year in the league, playing all 16 games once again and finishing as one of the better edge defenders in the NFL.

Ingram is going into the final year of his rookie contract in 2016 and the Chargers have a big decision to make about his long-term future with the team. He’s obviously a valuable player to this team when healthy, but his injury history should give them some pause about giving him a massive long-term extension. Attachou was also a high pick, getting drafted in the 2nd round in 2014. He played just 182 snaps as a rookie, but broke out as a starter in 2015. He’s still a one-year wonder so it’s hard to trust that he’ll be as good in 2016, but he’s still only going into his age 23 season, so his best days are likely still ahead of him.

At middle linebacker, the Chargers have another two starters on rookie deals, after releasing the disappointing Donald Butler this off-season, just two years into a 7-year, 51.8 million dollar extension. Butler was so bad over the past 2 seasons that members of the San Diego media accused him of quitting on the team as soon as he got paid. Denzel Perryman, their 2nd round pick in 2015, took his starting job by the end of last season and will keep that job in 2016, after finishing 25th among linebackers on 403 snaps in 2015. He could have a breakout year in an every down role in his 2nd year in the league in 2016.

Manti Te’o is the other starter at middle linebacker. The 2013 2nd round pick is going into his contract year and, like with Ingram, the Chargers have a decision to make on him coming up. Unlike with Ingram, the decision with Te’o is whether or not he’s even a starting caliber player. Te’o has missed 13 games with injury in 3 years in the league, never playing more than 13 games in a season, and has graded out below average in 2 of the 3 seasons, including 93th out of 97 eligible linebackers last season. Like with the defensive line and outside linebacker, the Chargers don’t really have any depth at the position, so Te’o’s job is safe for now. They did draft Josh Perry in the 4th round as a potential long-term replacement, but he’ll probably struggle if he has to play as a rookie. It’s a weak spot in a linebacking corps that has overall solid starters, but that lacks depth in a big way.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Chargers’ big off-season loss on defense was safety Eric Weddle, who signed a 4-year, 26 million dollar deal with the Ravens this off-season. Weddle had been with the Chargers for 9 seasons, since they drafted him in the 2nd round in 2007. He got a well-deserved 5-year, 40 million dollar extension after the 2010 season, which made him the highest paid safety in the NFL at the time. He was a top-6 safety on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2010-2014, but it became clear last off-season that 2015 would be his final year in San Diego, as long-term contract talks between the two sides broke down before the season started.

Making matters worse, the Chargers fined Weddle 10K for watching his daughter perform at halftime, rather than being in the locker room with his teammates, and then placed him on injured reserve for week 17, even though Weddle claimed he was not injured. Weddle said this off-season that he may never speak to the Chargers again over the incident, a very unfortunate way for an otherwise dominant tenure in San Diego to end. His career is on a borderline Hall-of-Fame path and he definitely deserves to be in the Chargers’ Ring of Honor someday, but that looks very much in doubt now.

Ultimately, not re-signing Weddle last off-season was probably the right decision in hindsight, because he did have a bit of a down year in 2015, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 33rd ranked safety. He’ll be missed but, now going into his age 31 season, he was not worth another top level safety contract (the Ravens got him for a fair price). The Chargers replaced him with Dwight Lowery, who is obviously a downgrade, but he’s a solid player and the Chargers were able to bring him in very inexpensively (3 years, 7.2 million).

Lowery had major issues with injury early in his career, as the 2008 4th round pick missed 28 games with injury in the first 6 seasons of his career. However, he hasn’t missed a game in either of the last 2 seasons and has graded out below average just twice in 8 years in the league. One of those seasons was last year, but he wasn’t bad, finishing 49th out of 89 eligible safeties, just slightly below average. He’s going into his age 30 season, but he should be a capable starter again. Jahleel Addae remains as the other starter, after making 13 starts last season. The 2013 undrafted free agent was decent in 2013 and 2014 on 437 and 374 snaps respectively, but struggled in a larger role last season, grading out 76th out of 89 eligible safeties on 713 snaps. He could be a little bit better in his 2nd year as a starter, but he’s a marginal starter at best.

Things are much better at cornerback, where 2014 1st round pick Jason Verrett is now the Chargers’ best defensive player, in the post-Eric Weddle era. Verrett was Pro Football Focus’ #2 ranked cornerback through the first 6 weeks of the season as a rookie, before going down with a season ending injury. He picked up right where he left off in his 2nd year in the league though, finishing 6th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, though he did miss another 2 games with injury. Injuries have always been an issue for him, as he probably would have been a higher draft pick if not for shoulder surgery before the draft. However, that’s really the only issue. Only going into his age 25 season, he could easily become an All-Pro player for years to come, if he can stay healthy.

Brandon Flowers was the starter opposite Verrett last season. Once one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL, Flowers was a top-9 cornerback on Pro Football Focus every year from 2009-2012 (the only cornerback in the NFL who could say that), but struggled in 2013, finishing 85th out of 110 eligible, ultimately leading to the Chiefs releasing him. The Chargers snatched him up on a 1-year, 5 million dollar deal and were rewarded, as he bounced back in a scheme that fit his skill set better, finishing 15th among cornerbacks in 2014. The Chargers then rewarded him by giving him a 4-year, 36 million dollar contract last off-season, but he was horrible in 2015, finishing 109th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks. He admitted to being out of shape and says he’s lost 10-12 pounds in an effort to bounce back in 2016. He certainly could, but, going into his age 30 season, his best days might also be behind him.

Flowers will have to compete with free agent acquisition Casey Hayward for the starting job. Hayward was easily the better of the two last season, finishing 16th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. Hayward made just 20 starts in 4 years in Green Bay, after being drafted in the 2nd round in 2012, but he finished 4th among cornerbacks as a rookie in 2012, 9th among cornerbacks in 2014, and then 16th last season (he missed all but 3 games with injury in 2013). Most likely, he’ll start opposite Verrett and move to the slot in sub packages, with Flowers coming in and playing outside across from Verrett as the 3rd cornerback, but Flowers will probably be given a chance to keep the starting job. Hayward was a steal on a 3-year, 15.3 million dollar deal this off-season and, assuming he gets a chance to start, his next 4 years should be better than his last 4 years. If Flowers bounces back and Heyward plays like he can, this is a very talented trio of cornerbacks, which should help offset the loss of the declining Weddle.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Chargers should be healthier, have better special teams, allow fewer return touchdowns, and have fewer injuries in 2016, so they’re an obvious candidate for a big jump in wins from the 4 they had last season. However, they have plenty of issues still, including an aging core, a lack of depth, and a holdout by 3rd overall pick Joey Bosa. In a weak AFC, they’ll be in the mix for a playoff spot as long as they can stay healthy, but they are far from the most talented team in the league.

Prediction: 9-7 2nd in AFC West

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