Los Angeles Chargers 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The AFC is lucky that the Chargers did not qualify for the post-season last season, as they were arguably a top-3 team in a weak AFC. They went 9-7, but were a lot better than that suggested, as they went 3-6 in games decided by 8 points or fewer and had a +83 point differential that ranked 9th in the NFL. That’s despite the fact that they had arguably the worst special teams in the NFL last season. They ranked 31st in special teams DVOA, 30th in extra point percentage (88.1%), and dead last in field goal percentage (66.7%). With better special teams, they could have easily been a 11+ win team in 2017. They lost at least 2 winnable games on missed field goals.

Quarterback Philip Rivers had another strong year, one of the stronger of his career actually. He completed 62.6% of his passes for an average of 7.85 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions and ranked 6th among quarterbacks on PFF, his highest rank since he ranked 3rd in 2013. Rivers has remarkably made every start in 12 seasons since taking over for Drew Brees in 2006, 192 consecutive, and he’s earned positive grades from PFF in 11 of those 12 seasons. A possible future Hall of Famer, Rivers has completed 64.2% of his passes for an average of 7.76 YPA, 342 touchdowns, and 166 interceptions in his career. His 50,348 passing yards rank 9th all-time and his 95.0 QB rating since 2006 is 4th in the NFL over that time period among quarterbacks with at least 5,000 pass attempts, behind only Brady, Manning, and Brees.

His age is becoming a concern, going into his age 37 season, but he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down and has been as durable as they come in his career, so he could easily continue being the same quarterback for another couple seasons. The Chargers lack an heir apparent, but they made a trade last off-season for 2016 4th round pick Cardale Jones, who has upside as a long-term developmental prospect, and they signed Geno Smith, a capable backup, in free agency this off-season, so they have decent depth at the position as well. They’d be in trouble if Rivers went down, but most teams would be in trouble if they lost a quarterback like Rivers and it would definitely be unusual for him to miss an extended period of time.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

While Rivers has never missed time with injury, the Chargers seem to have among the most injuries in the league almost every year. They were middle of the pack in terms of adjusted games lost last season, but last season was their healthiest season in years. Now going in 2018, the Chargers are already down one key player, after losing tight end Hunter Henry to a torn ACL in OTAs. Not that there’s ever a good time to tear your ACL, but the injury is terrible timing for Henry, a budding 3rd year tight end who looked poised for a breakout season in his 3rd season in the league, after the Chargers parted ways with veteran Antonio Gates this off-season.

A second round pick in 2016, Henry has only played 61.4% of the snaps in 29 games in his career, but he’s totaled 81 catches for 1,057 yards and 12 touchdowns and is a strong run blocker as well. He’s caught 69.2% of his targets, averages 2.02 yards per route run, and Rivers has whopping a 131.6 QB rating when targeting him in his career. Despite the limited playing time, he’s ranked 13th and 2nd among tight ends on PFF in 2016 and 2017 respectively. Expected to play an every down role, Henry could have broken out as one of the top tight ends in the league in his age 24 season in 2018. He will definitely be missed and hopefully he makes a full recovery and has that breakout season in 2019.

Without him, the Chargers are barren on the depth chart at tight end. The only tight end on the roster with experience is Virgil Green, a blocking specialist who has just 71 catches in 7 seasons in the league. Because the injury happened after free agency and the draft, the Chargers did not have any good options to replace him. Their best option is probably reuniting with Antonio Gates, but he’s going into his age 38 season and was told earlier in the off-season that he would not be brought back. Circumstances have obviously changed and Gates is reportedly open to returning, but the Chargers would not be able to expect much from him if they did bring him back. He was about average on 499 snaps last season and had a 30/316/3 slash line on 52 targets. Given his age, I wouldn’t expect more out of him in 2018.

Instead, the Chargers figure to run a lot of 3 and 4 wide receiver sets, as that’s where their depth is. Top wide receiver Keenan Allen has been injury prone in his career, but the Chargers finally got a healthy season from him in 2017. He played all 16 games for the first time in his career, ranked 4th in the NFL with 102 catches and 3rd in the NFL with 1,393 receiving yards, and added 6 touchdowns. He also ranked 6th among wide receivers on PFF and got better as the season went on, catching 62 passes for 845 yards and 5 touchdowns in the final 8 games of the season. Allen missed most of 2016 with a torn ACL, so it’s a not a surprise that he was rusty to begin the season and the way he ended the season is very encouraging.

Injuries will always be a concern with him, as he’s dealt with ankle, knee, shoulder, and kidney injuries already in his career, but he’s averaged 74.3 yards per game in 54 games in his career, which ranks 10th over the past 5 seasons and extrapolates to 1,188 yards per 16 games. Still only in his age 26 season, Allen should remain frequent target in this offense with Hunter Henry out and could easily have the best statistical season of his career if he can stay healthy all season again. His ability to line up in any receiver spot makes him a matchup nightmare for defenses. He played 216 snaps on the right side of the formation, 276 snaps on the left side of the formation, and 387 snaps on the slot in 2017.

Tyrell Williams had a 43/728/4 slash line as the #2 receiver opposite Keenan Allen last season and led the team with a 69/1059/7 slash line as the #1 receiver in Allen’s absence in 2016, but he has plenty of competition for snaps. His biggest competition will come from 2017 7th overall pick Mike Williams. Back problems limited him to 234 underwhelming snaps as a rookie, but the Chargers still love his upside and have big expectations for him in his 2nd season in the league. Tyrell Williams has been a reliable target for Rivers, but the former undrafted free agent has only been about a league average receiver on PFF and Mike Williams possesses a much higher upside.

The Chargers also still have veteran speedster Travis Benjamin in the mix. Signed to a 4-year, 24 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, Benjamin has averaged 15.4 yards per catch on 81 catches in 2 seasons with the Chargers as a rotational deep threat (56.3% of the snaps). He has the versatility to play inside and outside and should have a similar role in 2018, even with Williams pushing for a much larger role. Given their lack of receiving options at tight end, all 4 receivers should play significant roles. This is still a good receiving corps, but they have a glaring hole at tight end.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

The Chargers also figure to incorporate their running backs into the passing game heavily again. Rivers loves checking down to running backs and that is unlikely to change now that he doesn’t have a reliable tight end over the middle. He threw 132 of his 583 attempts to running backs last season and that number could easily be 150+ in 2018. Gordon received 83 of those targets, catching 58 passes for 476 yards and 4 touchdowns, but it could be more of an even 50/50 split between Gordon and second year passing down back Austin Ekeler in 2018.

Gordon is a capable receiver, but he also handles 17-20 carries per game and Ekeler flashed on 195 snaps as a rookie. Despite running just 122 routes, Ekeler caught 27 passes for 279 yards and 3 touchdowns (2.29 yards per route run, 4th in the NFL among running backs) and he also averaged 5.53 yards per carry on 47 carries. The Western State undrafted free agent still has a lot to prove, but Rivers has always liked having a reliable 3rd down back like Darren Sproles and Danny Woodhead and Ekeler flashed some of that same ability as a rookie. Undersized at 5-10 200, he’s not a threat to Gordon’s workload as a runner, but will mix in as a change of pace back and could easily have 40+ catches.

Gordon has averaged just 3.80 yards per carry on 722 carries in 3 seasons in the league, but a lot of that can be blamed on the offensive lines he’s run behind. He’s a solid all-around back and has finished in the top-13 among running backs on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 2 seasons. Only going into his age 25 season, Gordon could easily have his best season in 2018. The Chargers also added Northwestern running back Justin Jackson in the 7th round of the draft and he could prove to be a steal long-term, but he’s also not an immediate threat to Gordon’s workload. He could finish with more carries than Ekeler if he proves himself though.

One area the Chargers really need to improve is goal line carries, as they punched in just 5 of 19 carries from inside 5 yards last season. As the result, they ranked just 28th in red zone offense, scoring touchdowns on just 46.81% of their red zone trips. That, coupled with their poor kicking, really hurt this team offensively. They had the 5th most first downs in the league, but just 38 offensive touchdowns, 10th in the NFL, and 22.2 points per game, 13th in the NFL.

Their inability to score from in close can largely be blamed on their offensive line, but it’s also something that is inconsistent on a year-to-year basis, so the Chargers could be better in that metric even if they don’t get better offensive line play. Case in point, the Chargers punched in 9 of 20 carries from inside 5 yards and scored on 51.61% of red zone trips in 2016 (21st in the NFL), even with offensive line issues. Melvin Gordon had 10 rushing touchdowns in 13 games in 2016, but that dropped to 8 in 16 games in 2017. They should be more effective in close next season and that alone should add a few touchdowns to their total. This is a solid backfield.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

Their offensive line should be better in 2018 as well. Left tackle Russell Okung was their only starting offensive lineman to earn a positive grade in 2017. Signed to a 4-year, 53 million dollar deal the previous off-season, Okung stabilized a position that had been an issue for a long-term, finishing 33rd among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 15 starts. His age and injury history are concerns though, as he’s going into his age 31 season and has only played all 16 games once in 8 seasons in the league (25 games missed total). He’s also been inconsistent throughout his career, getting negative grades from PFF in 4 of 8 seasons, including as recently as 2016, when he finished 63rd among offensive tackles out of 83 eligible. He’s not a guarantee to be as good in 2018.

Fortunately, the rest of this offensive line should better. Right guard and center were their biggest positions of weakness in 2017, as Kenny Wiggins and Spencer Pulley made all 16 starts and finished 78th among 80 eligible guards and 37th among 38 eligible centers respectively. They’ll be replaced by Forrest Lamp, a second year player returning from a torn ACL, and Maurkice Pouncey, a veteran center who was signed to a 2-year, 15 million dollar deal this off-season. Lamp was the 38th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft before the injury and still has a bright future. He could easily be a major upgrade over Wiggins.

Pouncey is also an injury concern, as he’s dealt with hip injuries for years, part of why the Dolphins opted to release the 3-time Pro Bowler, rather than paying him 8 million non-guaranteed. The Chargers gave him a good contract, so they don’t seem too concerned about his durability, but he missed 17 games from 2014-2016 and was not the same player in 2017. He made all 16 starts, but finished 34th among 38 eligible centers and reportedly may need further surgery long-term. He’s only going into his age 29 season and he finished 11th among centers as recently as 2016, but he’s finished below average on PFF in 3 of the last 4 season and seems to be breaking down physically. He has upside and it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over Pulley, but he’s a risky signing.

The Chargers also might get a bounce back year from right tackle Joe Barksdale, who finished 66th among 76 eligible offensive tackles on PFF in 2017. He also struggled in 2016, finishing 63th among 83 eligible, but he earned positive grades in 3 straight seasons from 2013-2015 and is an experienced starter with 71 starts in the past 5 seasons. Going into his age 30 season, Barksdale’s best days may be behind him, but he’s not completely over the hill yet so he could easily be better in 2018, especially if he can stay healthier. Left guard Dan Feeney could also be better, after struggling in 9 starts as a 3rd round rookie in 2017. He could still develop into a capable starter or better. This is an improved offensive line, but they still have some issues and they need to stay healthier.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

While the Chargers will likely be more efficient in the red zone on offense, they might not be quite as good on defense, as they allowed opponents to score touchdowns on just 36.11% of red zone trips, best in the NFL. However, they also allowed opponents to pick up first downs at just a 31.09% rate (4th in the NFL), so they should remain a strong defense regardless. Their strength defensively last season was their pass defense, as they had a great secondary and arguably the best pass rush duo in the league in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. They allowed just 6.02 yards per pass attempt, 4th best in the NFL.

Both Bosa and Ingram are former first round picks, Ingram going 18th overall in 2012 and Bosa going 3rd overall in 2016, and both made all 16 starts in 2017, in their first season in their new 4-3 defense. Bosa and Ingram combined for 23 sacks, 23 hits, and 102 hurries and finished 1st and 3rd respectively among 4-3 defensive ends in pass rush grade. Neither is a one year wonder either, as Ingram has ranked in the top-11 at his position in 3 straight seasons and Bosa finished 3rd among 3-4 outside linebackers as a rookie in 2016.

They should both play well again in 2018, with Ingram in the prime of his career in his age 29 season and Bosa possibly still getting better in his age 23 season. If he continues improving, Bosa could be one of the best defensive players in the league for years to come. They also added USC’s Uchenna Nwosu in the 2nd round of the draft and he figures to be their primary reserve at the position, giving them even more depth. Tenny Palepoi and Chris McCain were their top reserves in 2017 with 269 snaps and 240 snaps respectively, but both struggled.

Against the run, on the other hand, the Chargers’ defense did a terrible job, allowing an average of 4.88 yards per carry on the season, highest in the NFL. While their pass rushers and secondary were strong, they had major issues at defensive tackle and linebacker and their defensive ends did not play the run all that well either. Brandon Mebane (535 snaps), Darius Philon (509 snaps), Corey Liuget (415 snaps), and Damion Square (362 snaps) rotated at defensive tackle, but three of them (Mebane, Philon, and Square) earned negative grades, including Mebane, who finished 76th out of 79 eligible defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus.

Liuget was the only one who finished with a positive grade, but he was still forced to take a significant pay cut this off-season to stay on the roster, going from 8 million to 3.715 million. Signed to a 5-year, 51.25 million dollar extension in 2015, despite being about a league average starter for his career, Liuget earned negative grades in 4 straight seasons before 2017 and his positive grade in 2017 came on only 415 snaps, hardly a role deserving of his salary. Liuget could still be a useful rotational player in 2018, but he’s also suspended for the first 4 games of the season for performance enhancing drugs and has never been consistent in his career.

Mebane, Philon, and Square also return, but it’s possible they all struggle again, so the Chargers used a 3rd round pick on NC State defensive tackle Justin Jones and will have close to an open competition for snaps at the position. Mebane played the most snaps in 2017, but he was also the worst of the three and is now going into his age 33 season. He was an above average starter in his prime, but he’s earned negative grades from PFF in 3 of the past 4 seasons and his best days are clearly behind him.

Philon and Square, meanwhile, have never been anything more than rotational players and have never earned a positive grade from PFF for a season either. Undrafted in 2013, Square’s 362 snaps in 2017 were a career high, while Philon has averaged about 309 snaps per season in 3 seasons in the league since going in the 6th round in 2015. I wouldn’t expect much from either this season. Unless the rookie Justin Jones has a surprise breakout year, defensive tackle figures to continue being a position of weakness, but this defensive line is also led arguably the best pass rush duo in the NFL.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The Chargers’ linebackers also struggled last season. Part of that is because Denzel Perryman missed 9 games with injury, including the first 8 of the season with an ankle injury, and didn’t play well while on the field, as he was likely never 100%. A 2nd round pick in 2015, Perryman was a good run stuffer in a part-time role in his first 2 seasons in the league and has bounce back potential if he’s healthy in 2018, which would help this team against the run, but he’s unlikely to be an every down player because of his issues in coverage.

They’ll need him to be healthy, because they didn’t really do anything to address the linebacker position this off-season. In Perryman’s absence last season, this linebacking corps was led in snaps by Jatavis Brown (504 snaps) and Hayes Pullard (474 snaps) and backup safety Adrian Philips also played 393 of his 519 snaps as a linebacker, primarily in sub packages. All three players earned negative grades.

Brown has by far the most potential of the trio, as he’s earned a positive coverage grade in both seasons in the league, since going in the 5th round in 2016, but the 5-11 221 pounder has major issues in run defense, which is why he fell in the draft in the first place. After trying him in an every down role as a rookie, Brown played just 48.1% of the snaps in 16 games in 2017 as a pure coverage specialist. He’s valuable in that role and could continue improving, but it’s unclear if he will ever develop into a true every down linebacker.

Phillips also figures to continue seeing heavy snaps as a linebacker in coverage situations. The 5-11 210 pounder earned a positive coverage grade in 2017, but, like Brown, he is also a liability against the run and has earned a negative overall grade in all 4 seasons in the league, since going undrafted in 2014. He could be pushed for his role by 2017 4th round pick Rayshawn Jenkins, a 6-1 220 pounder who flashed on 76 snaps as a rookie.

That likely leaves Hayes Pullard to play in base packages, even though he finished 49th among 52 eligible middle linebackers in 2017 on 474 snaps. The 2015 7th round pick played just 186 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league and does not have a high upside as a defensive player. He’s neither good against the run nor in coverage, but the Chargers will be counting on him for a big role as a base package run stuffer, for lack of a better option.

Kyle Emanuel will likely remain the 3rd linebacker in base packages. Like Pullard and Perryman, he’s purely a base package run stuffer, as the 6-3 250 pounder is a converted defensive end. He’s never done much as a pass rusher, but is a capable run stuffer in a limited role. With the Chargers frequently in sub packages using 5 defensive backs, Emanuel played just 301 snaps in 2017 and could be pushed for his role by Uchenna Nwosu, who has the versatility to play both base package outside linebacker and sub package defensive end in a 4-3 defense. The Chargers may also use Emanuel and Nwosu together in base packages, as they try to patchwork together a linebacking corps that once again looks thin.

Grade: C

Secondary

This secondary was by far the strength of this defense. It came as a bit of a surprise, as Jason Verrett, who the Chargers were counting on as a starter in his first season back from a torn ACL, re-injured his knee week 1 and needed another surgery. Verrett was a first round pick in 2014 and was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked cornerback in 2015, but he’s been limited to just 25 of 64 games in 4 seasons in the league by a variety of injuries and returns to a secondary where he’s probably the 4th cornerback, given how well their top-3 cornerbacks played in his absence last season. Stuck with him at a 8.526 million dollar salary that is guaranteed for injury, the Chargers may be viewing anything they get from him in 2018 as a bonus.

Casey Hayward, Trevor Williams, and Desmond King were their top-3 cornerbacks last season and they all played well in a significant role. Hayward made all 16 starts, Williams made all 15 starts after Verrett got hurt, and Desmond King played 716 snaps as the 3rd cornerback, despite playing just 3 snaps week 1. They ranked 1st, 10th, and 12th respectively among cornerbacks on PFF. Hayward is clearly their top cornerback and may be the top cornerback in the entire NFL. In addition to his dominant 2017 campaign, Hayward also ranked 6th among cornerbacks on PFF in 2016 and flashed in limited action as a depth cornerback with the Packers in his first 4 seasons in the league.

Completely overlooked by the entire league as a free agent two off-seasons ago, despite being a 2nd round pick in 2012, the Chargers got Hayward on a steal of a deal, 15.3 million over 3 years and he’s still a good value even after they gave him a 3-year, 33.25 million dollar extension this off-season, ahead of what would have been the final year of his original 3-year deal. He’s only the 12th highest paid cornerback in the NFL in average annual salary. Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, Hayward has played all 16 games in 5 of 6 seasons in the league and should continue his strong play into 2018.

Williams and King, meanwhile, are much less proven. Williams went undrafted in 2016 and struggled on 389 snaps before his breakout 2017 season, which could easily prove to be a fluke. King, meanwhile, was a mere 5th round rookie last season. They could both keep playing well into 2018 and develop into consistently good players long-term, but that’s far from a guarantee. Verrett may prove useful as insurance. This is arguably the deepest cornerback group in the NFL.

The Chargers also got good play at safety, with Jahleel Addae and Tre Boston both making all 16 starts and finishing 22nd and 36th respectively among safeties. That was a bit of a surprise too, as neither was a proven player coming into the season. Boston was not retained as a free agent, as the Chargers were not willing to pay him what he wanted based off of just one year, but they got a gift handed to them when Derwin James fell to the with the 17th overall pick. James is a plug and play every down safety that can replace Boston and possibly even be an upgrade immediately. He could develop into one of the better safeties in the league in a few years.

James is also a good fit with Addae, because Addae is best as a box safety and played 89.9% of his snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage in 2017, 5th in the NFL, while James is best in deep coverage and is replacing a player in Tre Boston who played just 14.8% of his snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage, 3rd fewest in the NFL. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley comes from the Pete Carroll coaching tree and uses his safeties in a very similar way, one box safety in the Kam Chancellor role, one deep safety in the Earl Thomas role.

Addae is not Kam Chancellor, but the 2013 undrafted free agent has developed into a capable starter, making 43 starts in 5 seasons in the league, including 36 in the past 3 seasons, and finishing above average on PFF in 3 of 5 seasons, including each of the past two seasons. He should have another solid season in Bradley’s scheme again in 2018. With Pete Carroll’s Legion of Boom falling apart, it’s possible Bradley has the best secondary in the NFL with the Chargers. They’ll need young players to continue playing well, but Hayward is arguably the top cornerback in the NFL, Derwin James is a perfect fit as a replacement for Tre Boston, and the return of Jason Verrett from injury could prove to be valuable.

Grade: A

Conclusion

I had higher expectations for this team before the Hunter Henry injury, as not having a reliable tight end for the first time in his career could be a problem for Philip Rivers, but this was one of the better teams in the league last season, despite an underwhelming roster, and looks like a very competitive roster on paper again in 2018. They’ll need to be better on special teams and can’t afford too many more major injuries, but they look like the early favorite in the tough AFC West. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC West

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