For years, the story for the Chargers was almost always the same. They would look good on paper at the beginning of the season, but would almost always be derailed by injuries, poor special teams, and a poor record in one score games. In first down rate differential, the Chargers rank 4th in the NFL dating back to 2004, only behind the Patriots, Steelers, and Saints and ahead of nine teams that have won Super Bowls and five others that have at least appeared in one.
I typically prefer first down rate differential to other stats because it doesn’t account for things like special teams and record in close games that tend to be highly non-predictive week-to-week and year-to-year, but, with the exception of a few seasons where they have managed a significant win total, the Chargers have always been the outlier to that. On top of that, in the seasons where they did manage a significant win total, they always came up short, never advancing to even a single Super Bowl, with their last one now dating back 27 years to 1994, when they lost their first and only Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. Injuries also tend to be something that’s highly unpredictable on a year-to-year basis, but the Chargers consistently found themselves among the most banged up teams in the league as well.
I never bought the argument that likely Hall of Fame quarterback Philip Rivers was the biggest reason for the Chargers’ consistent underachieving, because he had nothing to do with two of the three main factors, special teams and injuries, and the third factor, record in close games, is a team stat more than anything, as evidenced by many Hall of Fame and future Hall of Fame quarterbacks having career records around .500 in games decided by one score or less. However, I understood the Chargers decision to move on from Rivers before his age 39 season in 2020, which he spent with the Colts, making 25 million in what ended up being his final season in the league.
Rivers was a cost prohibitive short-term solution at best and the Chargers had the opportunity to secure a franchise quarterback in the draft with their 6th overall pick and replace Rivers with a much cheaper option who could potentially be a long-term franchise quarterback. The Chargers also had veteran backup Tyrod Taylor as an inexpensive short-term bridge quarterback and intended to start him until their rookie quarterback, University of Oregon’s Justin Herbert, was ready. Herbert ended up being thrown into action far before being deemed ready though, as a medical situation during week 2 sidelined Taylor for a couple weeks, and Herbert played well enough that he never gave the job back, making the final 15 starts of the season.
For the first half of the season, it was more of the season for the Chargers. They started 2-7, with all 7 losses coming by one score or less, including three games against elite teams (Chiefs, Buccaneers, Saints) in which the Chargers held a halftime lead. Their special teams were among the worst in the league. And an injury streak that started in the pre-season when stud safety Derwin James was lost for the season then continued into the season, with other key players missing time with injury early in the season.
However, their luck seemed to turn in the second half of the season. They got healthier, their schedule got easier, and they ended up winning five of their last seven games, including four one-score wins, to end the season with a 5-7 record in one-score games and a 7-9 record overall. The Chargers also did that despite still finishing the season with the worst special teams in the league by DVOA and with the 6th most adjusted games lost to injury overall. If they can have even average injury luck and special teams play, the Chargers could win a couple more games just from that alone.
The Chargers didn’t finish last season quite as high in first down rate differential as they have in the past, but they still ranked 14th with an even first down rate differential, allowing a first down rate that was 0.93% lower than expected given their competition (10th in the NFL) and picking up first downs at a rate that was 0.93% lower than expected given their competition (22nd in the NFL). Normally I would be a little concerned that a team was more reliant on defense than offense because defense tends to be the less predictable side of the ball, but with the players they are set to get back from injury, they should be better on offense and could also be improved on defense as well, depending on how things go.
Herbert was not the problem on this offense, as he went on to win Offensive Rookie of the Year after being thrown into the lineup before being “ready.” I will get into the problems with this offense later, but Herbert finished the season with among the best statistics ever by a rookie quarterback, completing 66.6% of his passes for an average of 7.29 YPA, 31 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, which is made even more impressive when you consider the problems that he was dealing around him on offense. Herbert also showed his athleticism, adding 234 yards and 5 touchdowns on 55 carries (4.25 YPC), and overall finished as PFF’s 16th ranked quarterback on the season.
The development and growth of young quarterback isn’t always linear, as evidenced by the up and downs of the quarterback who held many of the records that are now held by Herbert, Baker Mayfield, who looked like a potential future MVP candidate as a rookie in 2018, but arguably hasn’t reached the level he played as a rookie in his two subsequent seasons since. That’s not to say Herbert won’t eventually develop into a top-5 quarterback and an MVP candidate, but it probably won’t be a linear development and his dominant rookie year isn’t necessarily indicative of an MVP caliber ceiling.
That being said, the Chargers are obviously thrilled to have the quarterback position locked down for the foreseeable future and for the next three years at an affordable rate, with Herbert on a rookie deal. That will allow the Chargers to be aggressive in adding talent to this team without having to worry as much about the salary cap, with a quarterback making well below the market average for a top level signal caller, something the Chargers took advantage of to some extent this off-season. One position where they didn’t spend significant resources was backup quarterback, with career clipboard holder (5 starts in 11 seasons in the league) Chase Daniel signed to replace Taylor as the #2 quarterback. The Chargers rightfully committed to Herbert at quarterback for the long-term.
Given the disparity between the Chargers’ passing offense last season and their overall offensive performance, you might think the Chargers struggled on the ground and you’d be right, as they finished with the 3rd lowest YPC in the league at 3.83, but it’s more complicated than that. If you look at their top 5 players in carries, you would see two that stand out as especially struggling, while the other three had solid averages. One of those three was Justin Herbert, who obviously doesn’t count towards their running backs, but the other two, Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson, averaged 4.57 YPC on 116 carries and 4.58 YPC on 59 carries respectively, while Joshua Kelly and Kalen Ballage averaged 3.19 YPC on 111 carries and 3.30 YPC on 88 carries respectively.
You might be wondering why the Chargers would give such a big chunk of the carries to Ballage and Kelley if Ekeler and Jackson were clearly the better runners and there are a few reasons for that, most importantly, availability, as Ekeler and Jackson were limited to 10 games and 9 games respectively. Ekeler is also undersized at 5-10 200 and sees significant usage in the passing game, so the Chargers try to limit his usage in the running game. He had 63 touches in his three games (47 carries, 16 catches) prior to the hamstring injury that cost him six games and most of a seventh, but upon his return was used a little more sparingly, with 104 touches (67 carries, 37 catches) in the six games upon his return, an average of 17.3 touches per game, down from 21.0 per game prior to the injury.
His 2021 usage will probably be somewhere in between those touch numbers, but I would expect at least a third of them to come in the passing game, which would put Ekeler at about 12-14 carries per game, leaving plenty of carries for other running backs. There is also still concern even at that workload about whether or not he can hold up over a full season. The former undrafted free agent largely fell out of the draft because of his lack of size and, while he’s shown plenty of ability, with 4.74 yards per carry and 7.97 yards per target, he’s also never topped 224 touches in a season, which is 14 touches per game in a 16-game season. Ekeler is a dynamic back who is still only going into his age 26 season and the Chargers are a much better offense when he’s healthy and on the field, but any way you look at it, the Chargers will still need to rely on at least one other running back for significant action this season.
Ideally, Justin Jackson would be the second back who works in tandem with Ekeler, but he is an even bigger injury concern. He has averaged 4.90 YPC for his career, but he’s missed 19 of 48 games since the Chargers selected him in the 7th round in 2018 and is highly unproven with just 138 career carries. He’s shown some ability in the passing game as well and could easily have a significant role in this offense if he’s healthy, but that’s a big if. He also doesn’t have the ideal size to take on a significant workload at 6-0 199.
Given the durability concerns of Ekeler and Jackson and how much Joshua Kelley, who was still penciled in as the third back, struggled last season, I expected the Chargers to add another running back this off-season, but the only addition they made was 6th round pick Larry Rountree. Rountree could push Kelley for the #3 back job, but Kelley, a 4th round pick in last year’s draft, may have the leg up on the lightly drafted rookie, even as much as Kelley struggled last season. This backfield will be in better shape if they can be healthier, which they probably will be even if only by default, but they should have done more to solidify the position this off-season.
A big part of the reason for the Chargers’ struggles on the ground last season was their offensive line play. Their offensive line got a lot of attention as a unit that they needed to improve to better protect and support Herbert and they ranked 30th in pass blocking grade as a team on PFF last season, while allowing Herbert to be pressured at a 36.6% rate that was the 12th highest in the league among 39 eligible quarterbacks, but they actually struggled even more as a run blocking unit, ranking dead last on PFF in that aspect.
Their poor run blocking also probably affected this offense more than their poor pass protection, as Herbert incredibly led the league with a 99.4 QB rating while pressured, completing 57.0% of his passes for an average of 7.61 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions on those pressured dropbacks. That’s not to say that the Chargers didn’t need to pass protect better for him long-term, but improved run blocking would lead to a more consistent running game and more favorable down and distance situations for their quarterback, which might have been needed even more than better pass protection.
With their obvious needs on the offensive line in mind, the Chargers made a splash signing in free agency, taking advantage of Herbert’s cheap rookie deal and signing ex-Packers center Corey Linsley to a 5-year, 62.5 million dollar deal that makes him the second highest paid center in the league. A 5th round pick in 2014, Linsley well exceeded his draft slot and became the Packers starting center in week one of his rookie year, making all 16 starts and finishing as PFF’s 7th ranked center on the season. In total, Linsley made 99 starts in 7 seasons with the Packers, earning an above average grade from PFF in all 7 seasons, including four seasons in the top-7 among centers on PFF.
Linsley also arguably saved his best season for last, finishing last season as PFF’s 1st ranked center. It’s somewhat concerning that the Chargers are giving a top of the market deal to a player who is coming off of a career best contract year and is now going into his age 30 season, but even if he isn’t quite as good as he was last season, he will be a big upgrade for this team as both a pass and run blocker and centers somewhat regularly play at a high level into their 30s, so I would expect him to have at least another 2-3 good seasons left in the tank, which is the guaranteed portion of his contract. He was a big addition at a huge position of need, where incumbent Dan Feeney finished as PFF’s 37th ranked center out of 38 eligible in 16 starts last season.
The other big addition the Chargers made to this unit was their first round pick, Rashawn Slater, who they selected 13th overall out of Northwestern. Slater played left tackle at Northwestern, but lacks the prototypical size for an NFL left tackle. The Chargers could have selected a more prototypical player in Christian Darrisaw, who fell to the Vikings at pick #23, but, even if Darrisaw ends up being the better left tackle long-term, Slater was still the right selection for the Chargers, who could kick Slater inside to guard and have him fill a big need at that position if the left tackle position doesn’t work out for him at this level. Regardless of future position, there is an argument to be made that Slater was the best offensive lineman in the whole draft, even ahead of #7 overall pick Penei Sewell.
Slater will probably begin his career at left tackle, but the Chargers do have an intriguing third year tackle in Trey Pipkins, who the front office talked up publicly this off-season. A third round pick in 2019, Pipkins has only played 822 career snaps (8 starts) for a team that has desperately needed offensive tackle help and he has been underwhelming in that limited action, but he’s held his own for a young player and could still have the upside to develop into a starter long-term. It’s possible if he has a strong off-season program, the Chargers could reconsider where Slater plays long-term and move him inside to guard, where he could ultimately end up being a perennial Pro-Bowl caliber player.
One reason Slater moving to guard could make sense is because left guard is currently a position of oncern. Incumbent Forrest Lamp was not retained this off-season, understandable, given that he finished 77th out of 86 eligible guards on PFF in 16 starts last season, but the Chargers didn’t really upgrade on him, instead signing veteran journeyman Oday Aboushi. Aboushi is experienced, with 42 starts in 8 seasons in the league, but he’s never been more than a middling starter and he’s never been a full-time starter either, maxing out at 10 starts and 722 snaps way back in his rookie year in 2014.
Aboushi is a very underwhelming starting option, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over the incumbent and the Chargers don’t really have another good option. They used a 5th round pick on Brenden Jaimes, who could play guard long-term, but he’s unlikely to be a starting option as a rookie. Center Scott Quessenberry could also kick over to guard and provide competition, but he was underwhelming in 2019 in the only extended experience of the 2018 5th round pick’s career and couldn’t earn his way into the starting lineup at either center or guard last season, despite poor play from the starters at both positions.
Right guard is in better shape, after the Chargers signed Matt Feiler. Feiler’s addition isn’t as big as Linsley or Slater, but he still signed a pretty sizable contract, signing for 21 million over 3 years, and is a pretty sizable upgrade over injury prone Trai Turner, who was released this off-season to save 11 million. Turner missed most of the first half of the season with injury, but the Chargers were arguably better off without him upfront, as he finished the season as PFF’s 84th ranked guard out of 86 eligible on 536 snaps. Neither Ryan Groy nor Cole Toner showed much in Turner’s absence last season either, while Feiler finished last season as PFF’s 36th guard and should be able to have a similar season in 2021, still only in his age 29 season.
Feiler, who made 26 starts at right tackle in 2018-2019, was arguably better at that position, finishing 34th among offensive tackles on PFF in 2018 and 18th in 2019, but the Chargers probably won’t have a need for him to play there. I say probably because right tackle Bryan Bulaga has been pretty injury prone over the years, including last season, his first with the Chargers after signing a 3-year, 30 million dollar contract last off-season. In total, he’s missed 51 games in 11 seasons in the league and has only made all 16 starts twice.
One of those two seasons came in 2019, which was arguably the best season of his career overall, ranking 14th among offensive tackles on PFF. That season helped him secure the big contract the Chargers gave him, but he was only an average starter in 10 games last season and was limited to just 444 snaps overall. He’s earned an average or better grade from PFF in every season since his rookie season and he’s finished in the top-30 at his position 5 times, but he’s now going into his age 32 season and it’s fair to wonder if his best days are behind him.
The Chargers may have overpaid Bulaga based on past performance and now are stuck with a declining player. He could easily still be a capable starter this season, but he’s being paid to be more than that and he’s almost a guarantee to miss time with injury at some point. If the Chargers keep Slater at left tackle, that would put Trey Pipkins in the swing tackle role, in which case he would be the starter in Bulaga’s absence. Additionally, they could move Slater to guard, play Pipkins at left tackle, and move Feiler to right tackle. The Chargers don’t have good depth options beyond Pipkins and left guard is still a position of weakness, but overall this is a much improved offensive line that could easily have four new starters this season, with the fifth being a player who missed most of last season’s disastrous offensive line performance.
In addition to improving their offensive line, the Chargers also opted to use their two third round picks (one a compensatory pick for losing Rivers) on young pass catchers, taking Tennessee wide receiver Josh Palmer with the 77th pick and Georgia tight end Tre McKitty with the 97th pick. Both will compete to earn playing time as rookies. At tight end, the Chargers found themselves in a strange position this off-season. For years, they had the future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates at the position and then Hunter Henry, who developed as the #2 tight end at the end of Gates’ career, has played well as the starter in recent years. However, Henry signed with the Patriots on a 3-year, 37.5 million dollar deal this off-season as a free agent, after spending the 2020 season on the franchise tag.
Instead of trying to outbid the Patriots’ offer or going for another top tight end on the market like Jonnu Smith, who also signed a similar size deal with the Patriots, the Chargers settled for a one-year rental of veteran Jared Cook at 4.5 million and a draft pick, even though they had the financial flexibility to spend at the top of the market. Cook has been a solid receiving tight end throughout his career, averaging a 50/674/5 slash line per 16 games if you exclude the first two seasons of his career in 2009 and 2010, but he’s never been a good blocker and he seems to be slowing down as a receiver, going into his age 34 season, coming off of a season in which he had a 37/504/7 slash line in 15 games with the Saints. McKitty, meanwhile, could develop into a starter long-term, but he’s more of a blocking tight end than a pass catcher.
This could be part of a little bit of an intentional shift away from using the tight end position as much in the passing game in the absence of Philip Rivers, who famously loved targeting the position. Henry’s 60/613/4 slash line in 14 games last season was solid, but not in line with his per game averages with Rivers under center, as Herbert preferred to target wide receivers down the field instead, most notably getting a 28/511/3 season out of #3 wide receiver Jalen Guyton, a 2019 undrafted free agent who had never caught a pass prior to last season. That comes after a 2019 season where, other than the Chargers’ top-2 wide receivers, they had just 25 completions to a wide receiver all season in Philip Rivers’ final season with the team.
Guyton still finished the 2020 season as PFF’s 111st ranked wide receiver out of 112 eligible though, averaging just 0.88 yards per route run (4th worst among eligible receivers) and catching just 50.9% of his targets. His speed and Herbert’s arm strength led to Guyton averaging an impressive 18.3 yards per catch, but he won’t do that every season and he would be best as a situational deep threat rather than as the primary #3 receiver. The Chargers may agree, as evidenced by the selection of Palmer, who could push Guyton for the #3 receiver job, even as a rookie. He may not be a huge upgrade, but it would be hard for him to be more one-dimensional than Guyton.
Keenan Allen and Mike Williams remain locked in as the top-2 wide receivers, as they have for the past two seasons. Both topped 1000 yards in 2019, but both failed to reach that mark in 2020, for different reasons. For Williams, the reason is that his 1000 yard year in 2019 was primarily the result of an unsustainable 20.4 yards per catch. His catch total has stayed about the same for the past three years, catching between 43-49 passes in each season, but his yards per catch, which was already an impressive 15.4 in 2018 and 15.8 in 2020, shot up in 2019 to the point where he could top 1000 yards with just 49 catches. Williams is a talented former first round pick who should continue averaging a high yards per catch, but he probably won’t reach his 2019 mark again and I wouldn’t expect his catch total to shoot up either, in an offense where Justin Herbert loves to spread the ball around to many receivers.
Keenan Allen, meanwhile, missed the 1000 yard mark because of injuries, as he missed two games and almost all of a third and still managed an impressive 100/992/8 slash line that fell just short. Allen still had a catch total similar to the catch totals he had in 2017-2019, when he played in all 16 games and had between 97-104 catches in every season, but his yards per catch average fell to 9.9. Allen has always been a possession receiver with just a career 11.9 yards per catch average, but he seems to be trending even more that way, as his 7.3 average depth of target in 2020 was well behind his 9.4 career average.
Allen’s 1.91 yards per route run average wasn’t far off his career average of 2.11 and Allen is still theoretically in the late prime of his career in his age 29 season, but he’s had a lot of injuries over the years and may have to get his yardage total more on volume of targets rather than depth of target going forward. With Williams as a deep threat on the other side, the Chargers have a talented wide receiver duo who complement each other well. There are question marks in this receiving corps and Hunter Henry won’t be easy to replace, but they are hoping to offset his loss with the veteran Jared Cook and a pair of third round picks. This isn’t a bad group overall.
While the Chargers had injury problems on both sides of the ball last season, the injury bug hit them harder defensively, as they had the 4th most adjusted games lost to injury in the league. Those injuries hit key players as well. I already mentioned the loss of safety Derwin James and I will get into that more later, but in James’ absence edge defender Joey Bosa became the Chargers’ clear cut best defensive player and he too had his own injury issues, limited to just 549 snaps on the season in 12 games. Bosa made the most of his playing time, totaling 7.5 sacks, 22 hits, and a 17.4% pressure rate, while playing at a high level against the run and earning PFF’s 3rd highest edge defender grade overall.
That’s nothing new for Bosa, who has earned a top-8 grade among edge defenders from PFF in 4 of 5 seasons in the league since being selected 3rd overall in the 2016 NFL Draft, but unfortunately neither are injuries, as he’s been limited to 12 games or fewer in 3 of his 5 seasons. He’s been very productive given the relatively limited playing time, with 47.5 sacks, 66 hits, and a 15.2% pressure rate in 63 career games, and, still only going into his age 26 season, his best days may still be yet to come. If he can stay healthy for a full season and play like he has at his best, he has Defensive Player of the Year upside and even if he isn’t in contention for that award, he should be one of the top edge defenders in the league once again this season.
Bosa’s long-time complement Melvin Ingram also had his own injury issues last season, limited to 361 snaps in 7 games, but he was let go this off-season, so the Chargers won’t benefit from his return this season. Ingram played well in his limited action last season, but it’s understandable why the Chargers let him walk, as he’s going into his age 32 season and the Chargers have a homegrown replacement in Uchenna Nwosu who will be taking over for Ingram.
A 2nd round pick in 2018, Nwosu is a projection to a larger role because he’s been limited to a max of 362 snaps in a season because of the talent ahead of him on the depth chart, but he’s shown well both as a run stuffer and a pass rusher, with 10 sacks, 21 hits, and a 16.3% pressure rate for his career. His best year came last year, when he finished as PFF’s 23rd ranked edge defender on 356 snaps. Still only going into his age 25 season, Nwosu has a ton of upside and is a perfect fit for the Chargers new base 3-4 defense, so he easily could have a breakout season in his first full season as a starter.
With Nwosu moving into the starting lineup and fellow reserve Isaac Rochell (438 snaps) no longer with the team, the Chargers needed to replenish depth at the position this off-season and did so by using a 4th round pick on Duke’s Chris Rumph and signing veteran journeyman Kyler Fackrell in free agency. Rumph might not make much of an impact as a rookie, but he was a good value in the 4th round and could develop into a contributor long-term.
Fackrell, meanwhile, comes over on a cheap 1-year, 1.5 million dollar deal. A 3rd round pick by the Packers in 2016, Fackrell had a 10.5-sack season in 2018, but that’s a very misleading total as he managed just 2 other quarterback hits and had a pressure rate of just 9.5% on the season, showing that his sack total came more from being in the right place at the right time rather than consistently generating pressure.
That sack total also stands out as a huge outlier, as he has just 10 sacks combined in his other 4 seasons in the league and, though his career 9.8% pressure rate is actually better this his 2018 mark, it’s still an underwhelming rate for an edge defender and he doesn’t make up for it with his play against the run. Fackrell has played 524 snaps per season over the past 4 seasons, but he’s a low upside option that figures to be a snap eater at best. He’s not a bad depth option, but the Chargers will really need their top-two edge defenders Joey Bosa and Uchenna Nwosu to stay healthy.
While the Chargers are in pretty good shape at the edge defender position, the interior is a different story. The Chargers are transitioning from a 4-3 base to a 3-4 base, which doesn’t mean nearly as much as it used to because base packages are being used less and less frequently every year, but it does mean that the Chargers will play with three interior defenders together in base packages against running formations. That’s a concern for a team with limited depth at the position.
Big 6-4 329 pound Linval Joseph figures to line up over the nose and, though he’s going into his age 33 season, he hasn’t seen his play against the run fall off significantly and he still earned an above average grade from PFF last season for his run defense, but his pass rush ability seems to have disappeared. He’s never been a great pass rusher, but his pressure rate is at 7.1% for his career and, over the past three seasons, that has fallen to 5.5%, with just 4 sacks and 7 hits in 44 games over that stretch. He played 726 snaps last season and could play close to that many snaps again this season as more of an every down player than a true two down run stuffer, but that’s more out of necessity due to the Chargers’ lack of other options rather than Joseph still having every down ability.
Justin Jones also played a significant amount last season (527 snaps) and will continue to have a significant role, but he doesn’t offer much pass rush either, with his best play coming against the run. Jones broke out as PFF’s 11th ranked interior defender in run defense grade last season, but that’s still an outlier in his 3-year career and the 2018 3rd round pick has yet to develop any pass rush, with 1.5 sacks, 6 hits, and a 5.2% pressure rate in 40 career games. He’ll play a significant role and should be solid against the run even if he’s not quite as good as he was last season, but I don’t see him suddenly breaking out as a pass rusher.
Jerry Tillery is the best pass rusher of the bunch, totaling 3 sacks, 13 hits, and a 7.5% pressure rate, while leading the position group with 747 snaps played on the season. He should continue seeing a significant role this season, considering he is their only reliable interior pass rush option, but the problem is, while he’s solid as a pass rusher, he is one of the worst run defenders in the league at his position, earning PFF’s 129th ranked run defense grade out of 138 eligible interior defenders last season, leading to him ranking 127th out of 138 overall on the season, despite being a capable pass rusher.
Tillery was a first round pick in 2019, but his rookie year was even worse, as he struggled as both a run stopper and a pass rusher and earned PFF’s worst interior defender grade, while being limited to just 354 snaps. Tillery still has upside and could have the best season of his career in 2021, but that’s far from a guarantee and, even if he does, I still expect him to be a liability against the run. Like Joseph and Jones, he’ll see significant action largely out of necessity.
Damion Square was their best reserve last season and, with him gone and the team switching schemes, the Chargers will be reliant on unproven players like Cortez Broughton and Breiden Fehoko. Broughton was a 2019 7th round pick who has played just 115 career snaps, while Fehoko is a 2020 undrafted free agent who has played just 19 career snaps, but unless the Chargers make a veteran addition or two, both players will likely see action this season, for lack of a better option. This is a position group of concern.
The Chargers lost a pair of linebackers this off-season in Nick Vigil and Denzel Perryman, but they played just 312 snaps and 317 snaps respectively in 2020, so they won’t really be missed, especially since they will have less need for off ball linebackers as they switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base. Kenneth Murray and Kyzir White, who led the position in snaps last season with 959 and 538 respectively, both return and should play significant roles and they also have Drue Tranquil returning from injury after missing all but 5 snaps in 2020 and he will be in the mix for a role as well.
Murray played an every down role last season and should remain in that role in 2021. He wasn’t great, only earning a middling grade from PFF, but he was just a rookie and the 23rd overall pick has plenty of upside to get better in year two and beyond. He could easily take a step forward in his second season in the league. Tranquil has upside as well, as he earned a slightly above average grade from PFF overall on 382 snaps as a 4th round rookie in 2019 and looked poised for a bigger role in 2020 before the injury.
With Murray locked into an every down role, Tranquil will compete with White for playing time. White is relatively young as well, going in the 4th round in 2018, but he doesn’t have quite the same upside as Tranquil. Prior to last season, he had played just 514 snaps in his career, in part due to injury, and, in the most extended playing time of his career in 2020, he finished 65th out of 99 eligible off ball linebackers on 538 snaps. Tranquil could overtake him with a good training camp if he’s healthy. This is a young group, but they have upside.
As I mentioned, by far the biggest injury absence for the Chargers last season was safety Derwin James, who went down for the season with a knee injury before the season even began. When he’s been on the field, James is arguably more important to this defense than even Joey Bosa, so it can’t be understated how big his absence was. James played all 16 starts as a rookie and finished as PFF’s 6th ranked safety on the season, but he missed the first 11 games of the 2019 season with a foot injury and, while he finished as PFF’s 8th highest ranked safety in the 5-game stretch in which he did play, now having missed 27 of the past 32 games with significant lower body injury, it’s fair to wonder if James can return his top level form. Even if he doesn’t though, the Chargers will still benefit immensely from his presence on the field and, still only going into his age 25 season, it’s definitely still possible he puts his injury woes behind him and continues his ascension among the top safeties in the league.
James is returning to a secondary that is very different from the secondary around him in 2018. That season, top outside cornerback Casey Hayward finished as PFF’s 16th ranked cornerback on the season, while slot cornerback Desmond King finished 2nd, giving the Chargers one of the best secondaries in the league. Neither was able to repeat that season and both have since been let go, with King being traded to the Titans in the middle of the final year of his rookie year last season and Hayward getting cut this off-season, ahead of a 9.75 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for his age 32 season.
The transition in this secondary started when they signed ex-Broncos cornerback Chris Harris to a 2-year, 17 million dollar deal in free agency last season. Harris is at his best on the slot, causing the Chargers to move King around and play him as a safety more often than a cornerback before trading him, and Harris’ salary made it less likely the Chargers would give Hayward a chance to bounce back from a down season. The Chargers also gave a 3-year, 25.2 million dollar deal to Michael Davis, a 2017 undrafted free agent who has developed into a capable, if unspectacular starter over the past few seasons (35 starts since 2018, including 14 in 2020). The Chargers also used a 2nd round pick on Asante Samuel, who figures to see a significant role and round out the Chargers top-3 cornerbacks.
Davis hasn’t shown a high upside and Samuel is only a rookie, so Harris will probably be counted on as the top cornerback. Harris was once one of the top cornerbacks in the league with the Broncos, but he has not continued that with the Chargers and has pretty noticeably dropped off over the past two seasons. Harris finished in the top-18 among cornerbacks on PFF in 7 straight seasons from 2012-2018, including 5 seasons in the top-4, but he fell to 38th in his final season in Denver before falling to 64th in 2020 with the Chargers in an injury plagued season that saw him play just 568 snaps in 9 games.
Harris has been pretty durable in his career, playing all 16 games in 7 of 10 seasons in the league, and he could easily remain a solid starter for another couple seasons, but his best days are almost definitely behind him and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he continued declining and became a liability. His best play comes on the slot, but he’s played both inside and outside in his career and will likely continue playing in that capacity in 2021. With Tevaughn Campbell, a 2019 undrafted free agent who struggled on the first 326 snaps of his career last season, expected to be the 4th cornerback, the Chargers’ depth is suspect as well, so they’ll need their top cornerbacks to stay healthy.
Rayshawn Jenkins made 15 starts last season and was a solid starter, but with James set to return, Jenkins was allowed to walk as a free agent this off-season and signed with the Jaguars. The Chargers have their starters set even without him, with third year player Nasir Adderley expected to continue starting after making 14 starts last season, but they may regret letting Jenkins walk, not just because of James’ injury history and their lack of depth at the position, but also because Adderley struggled last season, finishing 87th out of 99 eligible safeties on PFF. A 2nd round pick in 2019, Adderley has the talent to be better going forward, but he missed all but 10 snaps as a rookie before struggling last season, so he really hasn’t proven anything. The Chargers will need James to stay healthy because this secondary is pretty uninspiring otherwise.
The Chargers have been synonymous with bad special teams for years and last year was no different, as they finished dead last in special teams DVOA, their second straight last place finish, their seventh straight finish in the bottom-10, and their 5th finish in seven years in the bottom-4. Kicker Michael Badgley wasn’t really the problem in 2018 or 2019, making 97.9% of his extra points and 87.5% of his field goals in his first two seasons with the team, seemingly locking down a long-term position of weakness for the Chargers, though he did miss time with injury in both seasons.
However, Badgley imploded in 2020, playing all 16 games for the first time, but making 92.3% of his extra points and just 72.7% of his field goals, including just 10/19 from 40+ yards, finishing 33rd among 36 eligible kickers on PFF and giving the Chargers one of the worst kicking situations in the league yet again. Badgley has some bounce back potential in 2021, but even at his best he never finished higher than 17th among kickers and he could easily have a below average year again.
The Chargers did add a pair of kickers as competition this off-season, Tristan Vizcaino and Alex Kessman, but it’s unclear if either will be an upgrade. Vizcaino made all three of his field goal attempts for the 49ers in 2020, but his long was just 47 yards, so it’s hard to make much of that small sample size, which is the only action of his professional career. He also was just a one-year collegiate starter who underwhelmed in limited action, making 12/20 of his field goals and 49/52 of his extra points.
Kessman, meanwhile, is an undrafted rookie who seems to have a better shot at actually winning the job. He wasn’t that consistent in 4 years as the starting kicker at the University of Pittsburgh, hitting just 72.6% of his field goals, but he hit an impressive 12 of 18 field goals with a long of 58 yards, so he definitely has an NFL leg if he can become more consistent. Badgley may remain the favorite to keep his job, but that says more about his competition than it does about him, with both Kessman and Vizcaino likely being unreliable options even if they do beat him out.
The Chargers punter situation was bad last season too, with Ty Long finishing 33rd out of 34 eligible punters on PFF and also ranking just 32nd out of 34 eligible with 4.18 seconds of hang time. That was made worse by the poor performance of their supporting special teamers, leading to the Chargers finishing with the worst punting DVOA in the league by far, a big part of the reason why they finished dead last overall. Long wasn’t much better in his first year as a starter in 2019, finishing dead out of 32 eligible punters on PFF and having even less hang time (4.06 seconds).
Long will face competition from veteran Lachlan Edwards, but he never finished better than 26th among punters on PFF in four seasons with the Jets, he hasn’t topped 4.2 seconds of hang time since his rookie season in 2016, and he was out of the league entirely in 2020, so if Edwards wins the job and is an upgrade, it would likely only be by default, as their punter is likely to be a below average one regardless of who wins the job. Badgley was at least decent on kickoffs, but their poor supporting cast play on kickoff returns led to them to finish well below average in kickoff return DVOA. Once again the Chargers figure to have a very shaky kicker/punter combination in 2021.
Despite the Chargers’ horrible special teams overall in 2020, they actually were not one of four teams to finish below average in DVOA in all aspects of special teams, as their kickoff return unit finished at even. That was not due to their supporting special teamers though, or even their primary return man Joe Reed, who finished slightly above average on PFF, but managed just 20.7 yards per return across 21 attempts, primarily because of the lack of help around him. Instead, it was safety Nasir Adderley who elevated this group, taking over as the kickoff returner down the stretch and taking 11 returns for an average of 28.9 yards per, including returns of 76 yards and 54 yards respectively.
Adderley is a full-time safety though and is unlikely to be the primary kickoff returner in 2021, with Reed expected to remain the starter. Reed didn’t do a bad job all things considered and the 2020 5th round pick was a four-year returner at the University of Virginia, scoring 5 times on 106 returns with an average of 28.7 yards per return, but life is much tougher in the NFL, especially if you lack a good supporting cast, so he could continue to post an underwhelming average, even if it’s not necessarily his fault.
While Adderley gave the Chargers at least somewhat of a boost on kickoff returns, the Chargers did not get the same on punt returns, ranking 28th in the NFL with 5.6 yards per punt return, in part due to poor play by their returners and poor play by the supporting cast. A 7th round pick in 2020, KJ Hill finished just 41st out of 52nd eligible returners last season and, while he has experience as a returner at the collegiate level, it was underwhelming experience, as he averaged just 5.6 yards per return across 46 returns. He is likely to remain in the role, for lack of a better option, but he figures to struggle again, both because of his own play and the play around him.
The one bit of good news for the Chargers is, with their coaching staff overhaul, they will have new leadership on special teams, with Derius Swinton taking over after a mess of a coaching situation that effectively saw three different special teams coordinators throughout the course of last season. Swinton is young and inexperienced, but changing coaching can lead to improvement for struggling special teams units. Beyond that, however, there is not much reason to be optimistic about this group and, as hard as it may be to believe, the Chargers could be in even worse shape at this position in 2021.
The Chargers had four players who played more than 200 special teams snaps and finished above average on PFF in 2020, but three of those players, Malik Jefferson (232 snaps), Nick Vigil (211 snaps), and Isaac Rochell (229 snaps), went elsewhere this off-season, only leaving Stephen Anderson (298 snaps) behind. Jefferson and Vigil were the best of the bunch, finishing 38th and 63rd respectively among special teamers on PFF, so they will be missed the most, while Anderson has an inconsistent history and might not be as good in 2021 as he was in 2020.
The Chargers’ only free agent addition with any special teams experience is Ryan Smith, who has averaged 261 snaps per season in 5 seasons as a special teamer, including three seasons above average on PFF and a career best 10th ranked finish, but he’s also coming off of a career worst year in 2020, finishing in the bottom 15% of special teamers on PFF and, while he may bounce back in 2021, I wouldn’t expect him to be as good as he’s been in his best years.
Brandon Facyson (280 snaps), Gabe Nabers (264 snaps), Alohi Gillman (182 snaps), Emeke Egbule (175 snaps), and Tevaughn Campbell (167 snaps) all return after seeing significant snaps last season and will likely see significant snaps again, but none of them finished better than average on PFF, with Nabers and Gilman especially struggling, and none of them have a history of above average play either. The Chargers will need great coaching and a big contribution from their rookie class to even have passable special teams this season and they are very likely to be one of the worst special teams units in the league once again in 2021.
The Chargers should have better health and special teams play next season due to sheer regression to the mean and they did a pretty good job of adding more talent this off-season at positions of name, most notably on their offensive line, which looks likely to go from being a league worst unit to at least a serviceable group. All of that could easily boost a team that went 7-9 last season into playoff contention. They have the upside to be more than that, but much of that relies on Justin Herbert taking another step forward after having one of the better rookie years ever by a quarterback, which is far from a guarantee in 2021. I will have a final prediction for the Chargers at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.
8/8/21 Update: Special teams is more predictive than I thought and no team’s projection is hurt by that more than the Chargers. I am not as high on their playoff chances as I was previously, but they could still sneak in if they can be above average on both offense and defense, which is a possibility.
9/4/21 Update: The Chargers seem to be a trendy playoff qualifier, but they’re starting from a lower base point than most realize. They did nearly beat some great teams early in the season, but all of their late season wins came against underwhelming opponents, as they won their seven games by an average of 6.4 points per game and didn’t beat a single winning team aside from the Chiefs’ backups. Most of their losses were close and they did lose to some great teams, but they had several losses to teams that were .500 or worse, in the Broncos, Raiders, Patriots, and Panthers. Their offense should be better and they could be better on defense as well, but special teams remains a significant issue that will likely keep them out of the post-season against a tougher schedule.
Prediction: 7-10 3rd in AFC West