Los Angeles Chargers 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Chargers went just 18-30 from 2015-2017, but a lot of that was bad luck, as they had a 7-20 record in games decided by a touchdown or less. In 2018, their luck swung the other way and they went 6-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less, leading to a 12-4 finish. After a first round playoff victory in Baltimore, the Chargers ran into the eventual Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots, who ended their season in Foxboro in the AFC divisional round. The Chargers return 10 of their top-11 in terms of snaps played on offense last season and 9 of their top-11 on defense, so they seem likely to be in contention once again.

The Chargers might not have been quite as good as their record last season, but they were still one of the best teams in the league, finishing 2nd in the NFL with a +5.68 first down rate differential. That’s almost exactly the same differential that had in 2018 (+5.67%), when they finished 4th, but missed the playoffs at 9-7 because they blew some very winnable games late. The offense especially has been one of the best in the league over the past two seasons, finishing 5th in first down rate in 2018 and 6th in 2017. Including 2016, when they finished 9th, the Chargers have now finished in the top-10 in first down rate in 3 straight seasons. 

The constant on this offense has been quarterback Philip Rivers, who remarkably has started 208 consecutive games for the Chargers at quarterback, the longest active starting streak in the NFL, dating back to week 1 of 2006, his first year as the starter. Rivers hasn’t just been dependable; he’s also been one of the best in the league over that stretch. In 15 seasons of what looks likely to be a Hall of Fame career, he’s completed 64.5% of his passes for an average of 7.81 YPA, 374 touchdowns, and 178 interceptions and he’s finished in the top-10 among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in 10 of 13 seasons as a starter.

Rivers’ age is becoming a concern, going into his age 38 season, but he has kept himself in great shape and has shown no signs of slowing down. Last season, he completed 68.3% of his passes for an average of 8.48 YPA, 32 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions and was PFF’s 4th ranked quarterback. Rivers could start to decline in 2018, but quarterbacks like Drew Brees and Tom Brady have shown in recent years that quarterbacks can play at a high level into their late 30s if they stay in good shape and no one should be surprised if Rivers remains as good as he’s ever been in 2019.

With Rivers never missing a start, the Chargers have never invested much in the backup quarterback position, but they did splurge this off-season, signing former Bills and Browns starter Tyrod Taylor to a 2-year, 11 million dollar deal to back up Rivers. It’s a great value for a quarterback who has made 40 million over the past 3 seasons and had an opportunity to start in Miami that he turned down. Taylor has only been a low end starter in 46 career starts, but he doesn’t turn the ball over much and you can definitely do a lot worse as a backup quarterback. The Chargers also used a 5th round pick on North Dakota State’s Easton Stick, as a long-term developmental quarterback. Unless someone gets hurt, Stick will be a game day inactive as a rookie and may top out as a backup long-term. Considering Rivers’ history, it’s very likely neither quarterback sees any real action. 

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

The one key player the Chargers lost on offense is Tyrell Williams, who played 761 snaps and had a 41/653/5 slash line as the #2 receiver last year and then signed with the Raiders on a 4-year, 44.3 million dollar deal in free agency this off-season. Williams is a solid player, but the Chargers are pretty well prepared to deal with his absence. Mike Williams, the 7th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, played 622 snaps as the 3rd receiver last season, posted a 43/664/10 slash line, and out-performed Tyrell Williams on a per route run basis. Mike Williams is expected to take over as the every down #2 receiver opposite Keenan Allen and has obvious breakout potential in his 3rd season in the league. 

The Chargers also have tight end Hunter Henry returning from a torn ACL that cost him basically his entire 2018 season. The injury was suffered in one of the Chargers’ first off-season practices last May and he was able to return to play 14 snaps in the playoff loss to New England, so he should be 100% for the 2019 season, or at least close to it. Henry looked on his way to becoming one of the top tight ends in the league before getting hurt and, still not even 25 until December, he could easily pick up right where he left off. 

A second round pick in 2016, Henry split playing time with veteran Antonio Gates in his first two seasons in the league and only played 61.4% of the snaps in 29 games, but he still totaled 81 catches for 1,057 yards and 12 touchdowns, averaged 2.02 yards per route run, and Rivers had a ridiculous 131.6 QB rating when targeting him. Also a strong run blocker, Henry was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked tight end as a rookie in 2016 and then their 2nd ranked tight end in 2017. With Rob Gronkowski retiring and Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz, and George Kittle all being underwhelming run blockers, Henry has the potential to become the most complete tight end in the league if he can stay healthy and continue developing. 

Keenan Allen also remains as the #1 receiver and he’s one of the best wide receivers in the league. Injuries were a serious problem for him earlier in his career, as he missed 26 games with injury in his first 4 seasons in the league, including a torn ACL that essentially cost him his entire 2016 season. Since that injury, however, Allen has played all 32 games in 2 seasons in the league and, still only in his age 27 season, he’s still very much in the prime of his career. Including his injury plagued seasons, Allen has averaged a 96/1190/6 slash line per 16 games in 6 seasons in the league and he ranks 9th in the NFL (minimum 45 games) over that stretch with 74.4 receiving yards per game. Barring another injury, Allen should remain one of the top receivers in the league again in 2019. 

Depth was a problem for the Chargers in the receiving corps last season, so running backs Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler finished 4th and 5th on the team respectively with slash lines of 50/490/4 and 39/404/3. That will likely remain the case in 2019. Antonio Gates, who started at tight end in Henry’s absence last season, was 6th on the team with a 28/333/2 slash line and he’s no longer on the team anymore. Gates would be going into his age 39 season if the Chargers brought him back for 2019 and they only brought him back last season after Henry got hurt, so they look likely to move on from him unless another injury strikes. Fellow tight end Virgil Green was 7th on the team with a 19/210/1 slash line, but he’s primarily a blocking tight end who has just 90 catches in 116 career games and is now going into his age 31 season. He could have a significant role as a blocker in two-tight end sets, but is unlikely to catch many balls. 

Behind Allen and Williams at wide receiver, the Chargers’ only experienced wide receiver is Travis Benjamin, who was 8th on the team with just a 12/186/1 slash line on 278 snaps last season as the 4th wide receiver. Benjamin had a 68/966/5 slash line in the final year of his rookie deal in 2015, which led to the Chargers giving him a 4-year, 24 million dollar deal in free agency, but Benjamin caught just 54.8% of his targets in 2015 and never was able to come close to that level of production in a smaller role with the Chargers. 

Benjamin had slash lines of 47/677/4 and 34/567/4 in 2016 and 2017 respectively, while playing about half of the snaps, which isn’t bad, but now he’s going into his age 30 season. He has a career 15.4 yards per catch average and could be useful as a situational deep threat, but he’s an underwhelming option as the 3rd receiver. The Chargers’ other wide receiver options are all inexperienced former undrafted free agents or late round picks, so it’s tough to project any of them to a larger role. They have an impressive top trio of Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, and Hunter Henry, but they’d be in trouble if one of them were to miss significant time with injury.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

In addition to being weapons in the passing game, running backs Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler are also weapons on the ground, leading the Chargers to a 7th place finish in yards per carry last season with 4.69. Gordon has been their lead back since the Chargers took him 15th overall in the 2015 NFL Draft, rushing for 3,628 yards and 28 touchdowns on 897 carries (4.04 YPC), adding 182 catches for 1,577 yards and another 10 touchdowns through the air, and finishing 23rd, 19th, and 3rd respectively among running backs on Pro Football Focus in the past 3 seasons. 

Gordon is going into the final year of his rookie deal, but it doesn’t sound like much progress has been made on a long-term extension. Gordon is likely angling to be one of the highest paid running backs in the league, but some teams don’t want to give significant contracts to running backs because of long-term durability issues and Gordon has already had issues staying on the field thus far in his career, missing games in 3 of 4 seasons in the league, including 4 games last season. Still only in his age 26 season, Gordon should have another strong season as long as he stays on the field, but it could be his last season with the team. The franchise tag could also be an option if the Chargers don’t want to lose him for nothing, but don’t want to commit to him long-term.

With Gordon missing 4 games last season, Ekeler wasn’t far behind Gordon in carries last season (106 vs. 175), but 40 of those carries came in 3 games that Ekeler played without Gordon and he only had double digit carries in one other game on the season (a game against the Bills that was over early). Ekeler missed two games with injury of his own, including one game that Gordon also missed, leading to the Chargers turning to 7th round rookie Justin Jackson. 

Jackson didn’t see a snap until week 6, but he finished the season with 50 carries and, even though he only had a 4.12 yards per carry average, he ran better than that suggests, breaking 10 tackles and averaging 2.76 yards per carry after contact. Ekeler has averaged 5.32 yards per carry and 2.20 yards per route run in 2 seasons in the league, but he’s undersized at 5-10 200 and would likely split carries with Jackson if Gordon was to get hurt. Both Ekeler and Jackson will likely see a few carries per game as a change of pace back, to spell Gordon and keep him fresh. This is a deep backfield.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

The Chargers’ offensive line remained a weakness in 2018, as it has been for several seasons. Rivers only took 32 sacks, but that was primarily because of his quick release and pocket presence, as the Chargers’ had the 3rd worst pass blocking efficiency in the NFL. The Chargers have tried to find upgrades on the offensive line, using a 2nd and 3rd round pick in 2017 on guards Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney and signing left tackle Russell Okung and center Mike Pouncey to deals worth 53 million over 4 years and 15 million over 2 years respectively, but Okung is really the only addition who has panned out. This off-season, the only addition the Chargers made was using a 3rd round pick on offensive tackle Trey Pipkins, so they’re bringing back essentially the same group in 2019. 

Pipkins could develop into a starter long-term, but he has a big learning curve coming from the University of Sioux Falls and is currently still behind incumbent swing tackle Trent Scott on the depth chart, so Pipkins is unlikely to start week 1 and might not see any real action as a rookie. Scott was undrafted last year and was underwhelming on 125 snaps as a rookie, so he’s not really a starting option either, leaving incumbent Sam Tevi as the likely starter, even though the 2017 6th round pick struggled mightily in the first extended action of his career last season, finishing 79th out of 85 qualifying offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 15 starts. Right tackle looks very likely to remain a position of weakness in 2019.

The Chargers didn’t make any additions at guard, so they’ll be hoping their young guards can take a step forward. 2017 third round pick Dan Feeney has made 25 starts in 2 seasons in the league, but has struggled, especially last season, when he finished 84th out of 88 qualifying guards on PFF. Lamp, meanwhile, missed his entire rookie season with injury and spent all of 2018 as a backup, playing just 17 snaps. Both players still have upside, but it’s far from a guarantee that either ever develops into a consistent starter.

The Chargers’ best guard is probably veteran Michael Schofield, who has made 50 starts over the past 4 seasons, 18 at right tackle and 32 at right guard. He’s struggled at right tackle, but hasn’t been bad at right guard, where he started all 16 games last season. Unless both Lamp and Feeney take a big step forward, Schofield should be locked into a starting job in 2019, even though he is an underwhelming option. Lamp and Feeney, meanwhile, will compete for the left guard job. 

The Chargers didn’t make an addition at center either, so Mike Pouncey remains locked in as the starter. He used to be one of the best centers in the league, but injuries have really taken their toll on him. He’s missed 17 games in the past five seasons and has only earned an above average grade from PFF in one of those five seasons. Last season, he made all 16 starts, but finished just 25th out of 39 qualifying centers on PFF. Going into his age 30 season, Pouncey could remain a capable starter for at least a couple more seasons, but his best days are almost definitely behind him and he could decline quickly due to his injury history. 2018 5th round pick Scott Quessenberry only played 41 snaps as a rookie, but he could be a long-term replacement for Pouncey, who is going into the final year of his contract. 

Left tackle Russell Okung will likely remain their best offensive lineman, though his age is a concern as well, in his age 32 season. Okung has made 118 starts in 9 seasons in the league and has finished in the top-35 among offensive tackles on PFF in 5 straight seasons, including 13th in 2018, but he could easily start to decline over the next few seasons. Durability is also a question mark for him, as he’s played all 16 games just once in 9 seasons. This is a very questionable offensive line across the board.

Grade: C

Edge Defenders

While the Chargers’ offense remained strong in 2018, their defense slipped a little bit, falling from 4th in 2017 to 12th in 2018. The biggest reason for that was the absence of edge defender Joey Bosa for the first 9 games of the season with a foot injury. In 9 games without Bosa, the Chargers had a 35.84% first down rate allowed, but in their 7 games with him that fell to 34.23%, which would have been 7th in the NFL if they had done it over the full season. 

When healthy, Bosa is probably the Chargers’ best defensive player and he didn’t seem 100% last season even when on the field. He still had 5.5 sacks, 3 hits, and a 13.6% pressure rate in 7 games, but he fell from 7th and 8th among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus in 2016 and 2017 respectively to 22nd in 2018. He also saw his snap count fall from 50.5 per game in his first 2 seasons in the league to 44.9 per game last season as he worked back from injury.

Injuries are becoming a concern for Bosa, who also missed 4 games as a rookie, but even with last year’s “down” year included, he still has 28.5 sacks, 26 hits, and a 14.8% pressure rate in 35 career games, while playing at a high level against the run as well. Still only going into his age 24 season, the 2016 3rd overall pick might just be scratching the surface on how good he can be. He has the potential to be an annual Defensive Player of the Year candidate if he can stay healthy.

When both are healthy, the Chargers have arguably the best edge defender duo in the NFL with Bosa and fellow starter Melvin Ingram. Ingram had durability concerns earlier in his career, but he’s played all 64 games over the past 4 seasons and almost never comes off the field, averaging 58.3 snaps per game. In his career, he has 42 sacks, 54 hits, and a 13.0% pressure rate in 93 games and he’s finished in the top-38 among edge defenders on PFF in each of the past 4 seasons, maxing out at 10th in 2016. Ingram is in his age 30 season and could start to slow down over the next couple seasons, but he’s shown no signs of that yet. He should remain an effective edge defender opposite Bosa. 

With Bosa missing significant time, 2017 7th round pick Isaac Rochell finished 2nd among Charger edge defenders with 536 snaps played last season, but he struggled in the first significant action of his career. He had 5 sacks, but added just 2 hits, and a 7.0% pressure rate and struggled against the run as well. Overall, he finished 99th among 113 qualifying edge defenders on PFF. He’ll play a much smaller role with Bosa back healthy and could easily be overtaken for the #3 defensive end job by 2018 2nd round pick Uchenna Nwosu. The 6-2 250 pounder is undersized and struggled against the run as a rookie, but he had 3.5 sacks, 6 hits, and a 16.7% pressure rate as a situational pass rusher as well and he has the upside to continue getting better. He’ll provide strong depth behind a dominant starting duo.

Grade: A

Interior Defenders

Even when Bosa was on the field last season, this defense had a couple obvious weaknesses. One was the defensive tackle position, which got thinner this off-season when the Chargers lost top defensive tackle Darius Philon (607 snaps) to the Cardinals and didn’t replace him. Fortunately, this was a strong draft for defensive tackles and the Chargers got a good one at #28 overall, taking Notre Dame’s Jerry Tillery, an athletic freak who played better than his collegiate stats showed. He can have an immediate impact as a rookie, especially as an interior pass rusher. 

Tillery will compete for playing time with veterans Damion Square and Brandon Mebane, who were their 2nd and 3rd defensive tackles last season with 530 snaps and 405 snaps respectively, as well as 2018 3rd round pick Justin Jones, who struggled mightily on 300 rookie year snaps, but could be better in his 2nd year in the league. This group is unsettled because both Mebane and Square are underwhelming players. 

Mebane was a solid player in his prime, but now going into his age 34 season, he is just a middling run stuffer and little else, with just a 2.9% pressure rate in the past 2 seasons. Square, meanwhile, finished last season 125th out of 129 qualifying interior defenders on Pro Football Focus on a career high 530 snaps and is now going into his age 30 season. Unless Tillery has a huge rookie year, this looks like a very underwhelming group. 

Grade: C-

Linebackers

Linebacker was also a position of weakness last season. Injuries were the primary problem as, by the time they made the playoffs, they were without all three week 1 starting linebackers Denzel Perryman, Kyzir White, and Jatavis Brown with injury. To compensate, they started using 3 and 4 safeties on the field at the same time, which was very effective in stopping Baltimore’s read option offense in the first round of the post-season, but then they got run over by a much more physical New England team the following week.

Perryman, White, and Brown all return in 2019, with Perryman coming back on a 2-year, 12 million dollar deal after briefly testing free agency. The Chargers also added veteran outside linebacker Thomas Davis in free agency on a 2-year, 10.5 million dollar deal and they have converted safety Adrian Phillips as a coverage linebacker in obvious passing situations. This looks like a much deeper group in 2019, as long as everyone stays healthy.

Davis is going into his age 36 season, but he was still an every down player in 12 games with the Panthers last season (54.1 snaps per game) and will likely remain one with the Chargers. Davis’ abilities could fall off a cliff soon, so signing him comes with a lot of risk, but he’ll be well worth his salary if he continues to play like he has for the past decade or so. He’s earned an average or better grade from Pro Football Focus in 7 straight seasons, dating back to 2012, and even finished last season 19th among off ball linebackers.

Perryman, meanwhile, is a better run stuffer than he is in coverage and he’s never played more than 481 snaps in a season. Part of that is injury, as he’s missed 22 of 64 games since being drafted by the Chargers in the 2nd round in 2015, but his limitations in coverage have also kept him off the field in obvious passing situations. He’ll likely come off the field for Phillips in sub packages. Undrafted in 2014, Phillips worked his way from special teams player to hybrid safety/linebacker and seems to have found his niche as a coverage linebacker. He’s a not great player, but he’s valuable to a team that lacks players who can cover tight ends and running backs and he’s still only in his age 27 season.

That leaves White and Brown to compete for the third linebacker job, which will come off the field in passing situations for a 5th defensive back. Brown has started 22 of 43 games in 3 seasons in the league, since being drafted in the 5th round by the Chargers in 2016, and he hasn’t been bad, but White showed a lot of promise in 3 games as a 4th round rookie last season before getting hurt and remains a favorite of the coaching staff. Whoever loses this position battle will provide depth, which is needed with Davis’ age and Perryman’s injury history. This is a much deeper group than last season.

Grade: B

Secondary

Along with Adrian Phillips, the other three safeties the Chargers used together regularly in the post-season were Derwin James, Jahleel Addae, and Rayshawn Jenkins. Addae struggled last season, finishing 78th out of 101 qualifying safeties on Pro Football Focus, and was let go this off-season ahead of a 5.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2019. He’ll be replaced in the starting lineup either by second round rookie Nasir Adderley or by Rayshawn Jenkins. Adderley profiles as a starter long-term, but he could be a little raw as a rookie. Jenkins, meanwhile, played 141 snaps in 2 playoff games last season and wasn’t bad, but he had only played 175 snaps in 2 regular seasons prior to that. The 2017 4th round pick still has upside and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he won the role, at least to start the season, but he’s very unproven as well. 

Derwin James remains as the other safety, which is good, because he was one of the best in the league last season (7th among safeties on PFF), despite only being a rookie. Drafted 17th overall, James has the upside to be among the best safeties in the league for years to come. In addition to playing well in coverage and against the run, he also showed himself to be a tremendous blitzer, with 3.5 sacks and 2 hits on just 68 blitzes. He seemingly has no weaknesses in his game and he has the versatility to line up where you want to line him up. He’s one of the NFL’s most promising young players.

Along with Joey Bosa’s absence, another reason why the Chargers weren’t quite as good on defense in 2018 as they were in 2017 was the regression of starting cornerback Trevor Williams. A 2016 undrafted free agent, Williams surprisingly broke out in the first significant action of his career in 2017, finishing as PFF’s 18th ranked cornerback in 15 starts, but he was not nearly as good in 2018 and then injuries ended his season after 410 snaps in 8 games. Williams was replaced by 2017 undrafted free agent Michael Davis, who wasn’t bad in 627 snaps in the first significant action of his career, but it’s unclear if he can be a consistent 16-game starter long-term. Davis and Williams will compete for the starting job. The best case scenario is Williams finding his 2017 form, but that’s far from guaranteed.

Fortunately, the Chargers have one of the best outside cornerbacks in the league on the other side in Casey Hayward and they have one of the best slot cornerbacks in the league on the inside in Desmond King. A 7-year veteran, Hayward only started 9 games in his first 3 seasons in the league, but flashed a lot of potential and became a full-starter in 2015. He’s made 57 starts in 4 seasons since and his 17th ranked season in 2018 was actually a bit of a down year by his standards, as he finished 1st among cornerbacks on PFF in 2017 and 8th in 2016. Throughout his career, Heyward has allowed just a 68.1 QB rating, with 12 touchdowns to 20 interceptions and just 12 penalties to 57 pass breakups. Now in his age 30 season, it’s possible last year was the beginning of his decline, but even if he’s not at his best, he’s still one of the better cornerbacks in the league and that will probably remain the case for another couple seasons.

King, meanwhile, was just a 5th round pick in 2017, falling largely because of his lack of size (5-10 201), but he’s quickly developed into arguably the top slot cornerback in the league, playing 717 snaps in 2017, 801 snaps in 2018, and finishing 9th and 2nd respectively among cornerbacks on PFF in those 2 seasons. Still only in his age 25 season, King should remain one of the top slot cornerbacks in the league for years to come. With Hayward outside, King on the slot, and Derwin James at safety, the Chargers have a dominant trio of defensive backs and, with Trevor Williams returning from injury and Nasir Adderley replacing Jahleel Addae, this looks like one of the top secondaries in the league.

Grade: A

Conclusion

The Chargers were one of the best teams in the league in 2018 and have a similar roster in 2019. They did lose a couple key players in free agency in Tyrell Williams and Darius Philon, but they have an improved linebacking corps and they should get healthy seasons from both Joey Bosa and Hunter Henry. They have some obvious weaknesses on the offensive line and at defensive tackle, but they also have a lot of top end talent and should continue being one of the top teams in the NFL, as long as Philip Rivers doesn’t have an unexpected dropoff.

Final Update: The Chargers have suffered major losses since the last update, with Melvin Gordon, Derwin James, and Russell Okung all out indefinitely. I have them at just 8 wins, but fortunately that could still get them a playoff spot in the weak AFC. If they do end up qualifying for the post-season, they could still be a threat in the AFC if they’re close at full strength.

Prediction: 8-8, 2nd in AFC West

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s