The Chargers struck gold with the 6th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, finding a franchise quarterback in Justin Herbert. Herbert actually wasn’t a starter right away, but he made his first start in week two of his rookie year as an injury replacement and hasn’t looked back. He finished his rookie season as PFF’s 16th ranked quarterback overall and completed 66.6% of his passes for an average of 7.29 YPA, 31 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, while rushing for another 234 yards and 5 touchdowns on 55 carries (4.25 YPC).
Herbert was then even better in year two, completing 65.9% of his passes for an average of 7.46 YPA, 38 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions, rushing for 302 yards and 3 touchdowns on 63 carries (4.79 YPC), and finishing as PFF’s 3rd ranked quarterback overall. His interception total might look a little concerning, but he was also the unluckiest quarterback in the league in terms of adjusted interceptions and his adjusted interception rate was 3rd best in the league, only behind Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. Even though he’s only in his age 24 season, Herbert has already established himself as one of the better quarterbacks in the entire league.
One thing Herbert hasn’t done yet is lead the Chargers to the post-season, but that hasn’t really been his fault, especially not last season, when he led the Chargers to the 3rd best offensive efficiency rating in the league. The Chargers ranked 24th in defensive efficiency and 28th in special teams efficiency, but offensive efficiency is more predictive and in terms of weighted overall efficiency they finished last season 10th, making them the 2nd highest ranked team to miss the post-season last season.
Herbert will be eligible for an extension next off-season and he’ll have a good case to push to be the highest paid quarterback in the league, but he’s still on a cheap rookie deal for now and the Chargers took full advantage of that this off-season, being aggressive in adding highly paid players this off-season, particularly on defense, to try to get as much talent around Herbert as possible while he is still cheap. I’ll get into their defensive additions more later, but their offense should remain one of the best in the league and, if they can be significantly improved on defense, the Chargers could easily be one of the better teams in the entire league in 2022.
The Chargers would obviously be in big trouble if Justin Herbert were to miss significant time with injury, but that’s especially true because Herbert’s backup is Chase Daniel, a career backup in his age 36 season who has started just 5 games in 13 seasons in the league. Assuming he can continue to stay healthy, Herbert should be an MVP candidate this season and, even if he doesn’t win it, he’s talented enough and young enough that an MVP is likely in his future.
The Chargers didn’t make any big money additions on offense this off-season, but they did use their first round pick to add to their offensive line, taking Boston College’s Zion Johnson 17th overall and immediately plugging him in as the starting right guard. He might not make a huge impact in year one, but he has the upside to be one of the better guards in the league long-term. He’s also the second straight offensive lineman the Chargers have taken in the first round, after taking left tackle Rashawn Slater 13th overall last year, and he actually did make a big impact in year one, finishing as PFF’s 9th ranked offensive tackle in 16 starts. Development is not always linear and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Slater regressed a little bit in year two, but he could also take another step forward and, even if he doesn’t, he’s still likely to develop into one of the better left tackles in the league for years to come.
Slater was not the only new starting offensive lineman the Chargers added last off-season, as the Chargers’ offensive line was a big weakness in Herbert’s rookie season and the Chargers rightfully made upgrading it a priority before his second season. Like Slater, the Chargers’ other two additions from last off-season also made a big impact in year one, with center Corey Linsley signing on a 5-year, 62.5 million dollar deal and finishing as PFF’s 2nd ranked center in 2021 and left guard Matt Feiler signing on a 3-year, 21 million dollar deal and finishing as PFF’s 13th ranked guard. Along with Slater, they were huge upgrades for a team with one of the worst offensive lines in the league in 2020.
Linsley and Feiler are not guaranteed to play quite as well in 2022, but both have a decent chance to and both could still be valuable contributors even if they decline a little. Linsley is going into his age 31 season, but he’s coming off the two best seasons of his career, also finishing 1st among centers on PFF in 2020, so he hasn’t shown any signs of decline yet. Despite only being a 5th round pick in 2014, Linsley has been an above average starter since entering the league, making 115 starts in eight seasons in the league and finishing in the top-7 among centers on PFF five times. Even if he isn’t quite as good in 2022, he should remain an above average starter.
Feiler, meanwhile, was a late bloomer, but the 2014 undrafted free agent has been at least a solid starter in all four seasons since becoming a starter in 2018, with 55 starts total in 4 seasons since. Originally a right tackle, Feiler struggled a little bit in his first season at guard in 2020, falling to 36th among guards after finishing 34th and 17th among offensive tackles in 2018 and 2019, but he bounced back in his second year at guard in 2021 and could easily continue that into 2022. He’s going into his age 30 season, which is a bit of a concern, but even if he declines a little bit, he should remain an above average starter.
With Slater, Linsley, and Feiler being added last off-season and Zion Johnson being added this off-season, the only position on this offensive line the Chargers haven’t addressed is right tackle, which remains a position of weakness. The Chargers actually did address the position in free agency two off-seasons ago, signing ex-Packer Bryan Bulaga to a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal, but he made just 11 underwhelming starts in two seasons with the Chargers due to injuries, including just a single start in 2021. With no guaranteed money left on his contract, he was predictably released this off-season ahead of his age 33 season, after being paid 19.25 million total over two seasons.
With Bulaga missing most of the 2021 season, Storm Norton was their primary starting right tackle. The 2017 undrafted free agent was mediocre in the first extended starting experience of his career (309 snaps played in his career prior to 2021), but the Chargers didn’t add any competition for him, so he’s likely to remain the starter for 2022, even if he is likely to be a liability. His biggest competition will likely come internally from Trey Pipkins, a 2019 3rd round pick who has shown some promise when on the field in his career, but who has also only played 995 snaps total in three seasons in the league. Pipkins may be an upgrade, but it’s likely whoever wins the right tackle job will be a liability. It’s also a strong possibility that both Norton and Pipkins both see starts at some point this season. This is a very strong offensive line other than the right tackle position.
Like their offensive line, the Chargers rushing attack was also a problem in Herbert’s first season in 2020, as they ranked 30th in the NFL with 3.83 YPC, and the Chargers also improved significantly in that area in 2021, averaging 4.34 YPC, 17th in the NFL. It helped that they had better blocking, but they also got better health from their two best running backs Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson. Ekeler and Jackson averaged a combined 4.57 YPC in 2020, but they played just 19 games total with 175 combined carries, forcing #3 back Joshua Kelley into 111 carries, on which he averaged just 3.19 YPC, sinking the team’s average.
In 2021, Ekeler and Jackson missed just three games between them and totaled 274 carries combined, leaving Kelley in his #3 back role, in which the 2020 4th round pick averaged just 3.09 YPC on 33 carries. Ekeler led the way as the feature back, the first season of his career in which he’s been a true feature back for the whole season, and he put together a very impressive season in that role, rushing for 911 yards and 12 touchdowns on 206 carries (4.42 YPC), ranking 12th with a 56% carry success rate, and adding a 70/647/8 slash line with 1.55 yards per route run has a receiver.
SInce entering the NFL, Ekeler has always shown the potential to have that kind of production as a feature back, averaging 4.74 YPC and 2.29 yards per route run in 4 seasons prior to last season, but the 2017 undrafted free agent was a part-time player early in his career and, when given a bigger workload in 2020, he missed 6 games with injury, so it took until his 5th season in the league for him to break out. An undersized back at 5-10 200, there is some concern about consistently giving Ekeler a heavy workload, but he hasn’t been terribly injury prone in his career, missing 9 games total in 5 seasons. Still, the Chargers will likely keep his carry total around 200 or so for the season again, so they can preserve him for a big passing game role and not risk overloading him.
That will leave a good amount of carries for the #2 back and right now it looks like that will be 4th round rookie Isaiah Spiller, who only needs to hold off Joshua Kelley to be the #2 back, with Jackson not being retained in free agency this off-season. Spiller wasn’t highly drafted, but it’s not uncommon for even mid-round running backs to come in and make an impact right away in year one and he could certainly be an effective player on a few carries per game.
The Chargers could also opt to bring Jackson back as a free agent, after he impressed with 5.35 YPC on 68 carries last season, giving the 2018 7th round pick a 5.05 YPC on 206 carries for his career. The Chargers backfield would miss Austin Ekeler in a big way if he missed time because he’s both their best runner and their best receiver out of the backfield, but, if he’s healthy, he gives the Chargers one of the better all-around running backs in the league and the Chargers could have good depth behind him as well, especially if Jackson is retained.
Herbert’s two top wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams both surpassed 1,100 yards receiving last season, making them just one of three wide receiver duos to both surpass 1,000 yards and the only one to both surpass 1,100 yards. Respectively, Allen and Williams posted slash lines of 106/1138/6 and 76/1146/9 and ranked 13rd and 12th in the NFL in receiving yards. It definitely helped that Herbert was throwing to them, but Allen and Williams had good seasons in their own right, finishing 23rd and 22nd respectively among wide receivers on PFF in overall grade, and both have track records of success that pre-date Herbert.
Allen is the more veteran of the two, joining the Chargers as a 3rd round pick in 2013. Allen instantly made a big impact, posting his first 1,000 yard season as a rookie, but he had a lot of injury problems early in his career, playing just 38 of a possible 64 games across his first four seasons in the league combined. He always showed #1 wide receiver upside when healthy though, averaging a 93/1102/7 slash line per 16 games with 1.93 yards per route run across those first four seasons, and he’s made good on that upside over the past five seasons, staying much healthier with just three games missed total and surpassing 1,000 yards in four of five seasons, coming up just 8 yards short in the 5th season.
Allen has never been an explosive athlete and has seen his yards per catch average drop to 10.3 over the past two seasons, compared to 12.2 over his first seven seasons, but he’s remained a very effective possession receiver, surpassing 97 catches in each of the past five seasons, while catching a league leading 509 passes across those five seasons combined. He’s going into his age 30 season and he could already be on the decline a little bit, but the fact that he’s not that dependent on athleticism could mean he’ll age better than most wide receivers and, even if he drops off a little bit more in 2022, he should remain an above average wide receiver and should push for another 1,000+ yard season.
Williams, meanwhile, was added as the Chargers 7th overall pick in 2017. He hardly contributed as a rookie, mostly due to injury, and didn’t become a full-time starter until his third season in the league, but he’s averaged 1.81 yards per route run over the past four seasons and has surpassed 1,000 yards in two of the past three seasons since becoming a full-time starter. That includes a career best 1.97 yards per route run in 2021, which led to the Chargers keeping him on a 3-year, 60 million dollar deal as a free agent this off-season.
Unlike Allen, Williams does his damage mostly on big plays, catching just 57.8% of the targets thrown to him in his career, including just 58.9% last season, but averaging 16.1 yards per catch with an average depth of target of 14.8 yards. Quarterbacks may complete a low percentage of their passes to him, but they still average 9.64 yards per attempt when targeting him over the past four seasons combined. Still in his prime in his age 28 season, with just three games missed total over the past four seasons, Williams is unlikely to drop off significantly this season, but he might not quite repeat the best season of his career again in 2022.
With Allen and Williams being among the best wide receiver duos in the league, they don’t have much need for a good #3 wide receiver, but if either Allen or Williams missed extended time, incumbent #3 wide receiver Jalen Guyton would be a very underwhelming replacement. Part of it is because he understandably hasn’t gotten a lot of targets even when on the field, but Guyton has averaged just 0.94 yards per route run in three seasons in the league and he has consistently finished well below average on PFF, including a 99th ranked season out of 110 eligible wide receivers in 2021.
Guyton has a good chance to lose the #3 job to 2021 3rd round pick Josh Palmer, who was underwhelming on 457 snaps as a rookie (1.20 yards per route run), but who could take on a larger role in year two. Palmer would likely be an upgrade on Guyton by default, but he too could be overmatched if forced into starting for an extended period of time, so it will be very important to the Chargers for Allen and Williams to continue staying healthy.
The one significant veteran addition the Chargers made to their offense was tight end Gerald Everett, who comes in on a 2-year, 12 million dollar deal, but he is basically just a replacement for 2021 starting tight end Jared Cook, who finished 4th on the team in receiving behind Williams, Allen, and Ekeler, with a 48/564/4 slash line. A 2017 2nd round pick, Everett has never surpassed 500 yards receiving in five seasons in the league, but he’s also always split playing time with another tight end, never surpassing 63 targets in a season. When given opportunity throughout his career, Everett has been pretty impressive, averaging 1.40 yards per route run, and Jared Cook leaves behind 83 targets, so Everett has a great chance to surpass his career highs in both targets and yardage, on one of the best passing offenses in the league. He’ll probably be an upgrade on the middling Jared Cook, but probably not a significant one.
The Chargers used a 3rd round pick on Tre McKitty in 2021, but he only played 237 snaps, averaged 0.77 yards per route run, and wasn’t trusted to play outside of obvious run blocking situations. He could see a bigger role in year two, but the addition of Everett suggests the Chargers still don’t view McKitty as much more than a blocking tight end. The Chargers do have Donald Parham, a 2019 undrafted free agent who has shown some potential as a receiving tight end in limited action over the past two seasons, averaging 1.31 yards per route run, but he’s not much of a blocker and will likely remain in a situational role. This is a talented receiving corps overall, led by one of the best wide receiver duos in the league.
While there wasn’t much the Chargers needed to add on offense, they had significant needs on defense and they addressed several with veteran additions on big contracts. Their biggest addition came via trade, sending a 2nd round and a 6th round pick to the Bears for edge defender Khalil Mack, who has 63.9 million over 3 years remaining on his contract. Mack is a Hall-of-Fame caliber player who has been one of the best edge defenders in the league over the past decade or so, beginning his career in Oakland where he had four straight seasons in the top-6 among edge defenders on PFF and then returning two first round picks to the Raiders from Chicago when the Raiders traded him to the Bears ahead of the final year in his rookie deal, right before the start of the 2018 season.
In addition to giving up significant draft capital for him, the Bears also gave Mack a then record 6-year, 141 million dollar extension, but he was arguably still worth it for the Bears, continuing his dominant play from Oakland in his first three seasons in Chicago, finishing 3rd, 13th, and 1st among edge defenders in 2018, 2019, and 2020 respectively. However, Mack is now heading into his age 31 season and is coming off of an injury plagued season in which he played just 315 snaps and did not play at his typical level, so it’s understandable why the rebuilding Bears would trade him to get a significant draft asset and to get out of the rest of the contract.
At the same time, he still has the upside to bounce back and be one of the best edge defenders in the league again in 2022 like he was in 2020, in which case he would be well worth what the Chargers paid to acquire him, between draft compensation and salary, so it’s understandable why the win now Chargers acquired him. Also a dominant run defender, Mack has also totaled 76.5 sacks, 63 hits, and a 13.9% pressure rate in 117 career games.
It’s concerning that he is on the wrong side of 30 and coming off of a significant injury, but, prior to last season, he had only missed two games to injury in seven seasons in the league, so he has a good chance to stay healthy for most of the 2022 season. Even if Mack isn’t at his peak form, he still has a good chance to be among the best players in the league at his position this season. He should be an obvious upgrade on the middling Uchenna Nwosu, a now ex-Charger who Mack will be replacing at the edge defender position.
Mack also gives the Chargers a second high-level edge defender, joining 6-year veteran Joey Bosa, who has developed into one of the best players in the league at his position. The 3rd overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Bosa has dominated since entering the league, finishing in the top-9 among edge defenders on PFF in all but one season in the league. Also a good run defender, Bosa has totaled 58 sacks, 75 hits, and a 15.1% pressure rate in 79 career games. Durability has been a little bit of a concern for him in his career, as he’s missed at least four games in half of his seasons in the league, but he’s played 16 games in the other three seasons and durability is really the only concern with a proven dominant player who is still very much in his prime in his age 27 season.
Kyler Fackrell, who was their top reserve with 382 snaps played last season, is no longer with the team, but the Chargers did sign Kyle Van Noy, a versatile linebacker who will see some action as an edge defender. Van Noy is heading into his age 32 season, but he was still a solid player on 811 snaps in 2021 and has been a capable run defender, coverage linebacker, and edge rusher (12.9% pressure rate) in his career. He could also see some action as an off ball linebacker. The Chargers also have 2021 4th round pick Chris Rumph as a reserve edge defender option. He only played 176 snaps as a rookie, but he wasn’t bad and could see more action in year two. The Chargers have arguably the best edge defender duo in the league with good depth behind them.
Interior defender was the Chargers’ weakest position group last season, as the only player who saw significant snaps for them at the position who earned even an average grade from PFF was veteran Linval Joseph (550 snaps), who was not retained this off-season as a free agent, ahead of what would have been his age 34 season. The Chargers didn’t make a splash addition at this position like they did by adding Mack on the edge, but they did make several additions to this group this off-season. Sebastian Joseph-Day was their best addition, coming over from the Rams on a 3-year, 24 million dollar deal.
Joseph-Day has never played more than 481 snaps in a season, as the 2018 6th round pick spent 2019 and 2020 as mostly a rotational reserve and then, in his first season as more of an every down player in 2021, he went down for the season with an injury after 340 snaps in 7 games. However, he’s shown a lot of promise when on the field, playing at his best against the run, but also adding a decent 5.9% pressure rate for his career, including 3 sacks, 2 hits, and a 6.7% pressure rate in limited action last season.
Joseph-Day’s best season came in 2020, when he played 412 snaps and finished the season as PFF’s 13th ranked interior defender in run defense grade. He’s still a projection to a larger role, but, if he can stay healthy, it wouldn’t surprise me if he was an above average player on a similar snap count to the 48.6 per game he averaged last season before getting hurt. He might not be a huge upgrade on the departed Linval Joseph, but he definitely gives the Chargers a younger option at the position and someone they can build around going forward.
The Chargers other veteran additions are not as promising. Austin Johnson comes over from the Giants on a 2-year, 14 million dollar deal, but that was likely an overpay. Johnson was a 2nd round pick in 2016, but was never more than a reserve in his first five seasons in the league, maxing out with 399 snaps played in 2018 with the Titans, prior to being forced into a much larger role with the Giants in 2021, playing 665 snaps.
Johnson was not bad earlier in his career as a reserve, but proved to be overmatched in a larger role last season, finishing slightly below average on PFF. His salary suggests the Chargers have a big role planned for him, but he’s likely to continue disappointing in that bigger role, like he did last season. He’s not a terrible option, but could easily prove to be a liability, especially as a pass rusher (4.3% career pressure rate).
The Chargers also signed ex-Panther Morgan Fox this off-season, but he’s only a rotational player, struggling on a career high 561 snaps last season, after averaging 363 snaps per season in the previous three seasons. He’s a solid pass rusher (career 8.1% pressure rate) and should have a role in obvious passing situations, but he’s also been a liability against the run throughout his career and generally has been more of a liability as a run defender than an asset as a pass rusher, finishing below average on PFF in three of the past four seasons.
Jerry Tillery has led this position group in snaps played over the past two seasons, playing 747 and 858 respectively, but he’s struggled mightily in that role, finishing 128th out of 139 eligible at his position on PFF in 2020 and 126th out of 146 eligible in 2021. With several players being added to this position group this off-season, I would expect Tillery’s role to be scaled back significantly, which should benefit this defense even if the players taking over his vacated snaps are underwhelming.
Tillery was a first round pick by the Chargers in 2019 and could be much more effective in more of a rotational role, but he also struggled mightily on 354 snaps as a rookie, so he could easily continue struggling even in a scaled back role. Tillery is at his best as a pass rusher, but his career 6.7% pressure rate isn’t nearly enough to make up for how bad he’s been as a run defender, especially considering the Chargers used to regularly line Tillery up as an edge defender, where he had a clearer path to the quarterback. The Chargers will probably primarily use Tillery as a sub package pass rusher, which makes the best use of his skillset, but he’s still unlikely to be a significant asset for this team, even in a best case scenario.
Christian Covington is probably their best returning interior defender, but he also struggled last season, earning a below average grade from PFF across 523 snaps. Covington also struggled on 559 snaps in 2020 with the Bengals, but he’s been better in the past as more of a rotational player and could be useful to the Chargers in a scaled back role this season. Covington is already going into his 8th season in the league, but he’s still only in his age 29 season and has generally held up pretty well as both a run defender and a pass rusher (6.1% pressure rate) in his career, especially when he’s played smaller snap counts. This is a deeper position group than a year ago, but they are primarily only a better group this year by default, compared to last year’s very underwhelming group.
The only key player the Chargers lost this off-season that they didn’t really replace is Kyzir White, who played close to an every down role for the Chargers last season (57.6 snaps per games), while making all 17 starts and finishing as PFF’s 24th ranked off ball linebacker in overall grade for the season. The Chargers signed veteran Troy Reeder in free agency and he was solid on 423 snaps in 2020, finishing 37th among off ball linebackers on PFF, but he struggled mightily in a bigger role in 2021, finishing 72nd out of 94 eligible off ball linebackers on 682 snaps, and he also struggled in the first action of his career in 2019, so he would be a very shaky starting option. It’s more likely he’ll be a reserve, with holdovers Kenneth Murray and Drue Tranquill likely to be the two starters at the position.
Murray and Tranquill technically split snaps opposite Kyzir White last season, playing 363 snaps and 560 snaps respectively, but it’s more complicated than that, as Murray began the season as an every down player through the first three games, but then got hurt and returned to a backup role when Tranquill outplayed him in his absence. Murray was a first round pick in 2020 and was not bad in an every down role as a rookie (959 snaps), but he finished as PFF’s 90th ranked off ball linebacker out of 94 eligible last season, continuing to struggle even after returning to a reserve role. Murray has a clear path to getting back an every down role and he still has the upside to develop into at least a solid starter, but he could also continue his poor play from 2021 into 2022.
Tranquill, on the other hand, was a much more effective linebacker last season, hence why he kept the job over Murray. Tranquill didn’t finish the season with a huge snap count, but he was PFF’s 28th ranked off ball linebacker overall and the 2019 4th round showed a lot of promise on 382 snaps as a rookie as well. He actually played well enough as a rookie to earn a starting role for 2020, but he missed all but 5 snaps with injury that season and initially returned as a backup in 2021, before taking Murray’s job when Murray suffered his own injury.
Tranquill looks like the Chargers’ best linebacker, even if by default, and should have a clear path to an every down role and a career high in snaps. He’s a projection to a larger role, but could easily remain at least a solid starter in an every down capacity. Tranquill and Murray both have the upside to be solid every down players in 2022, but that’s far from a guarantee and their reserve options are underwhelming, between Reeder and 2021 6th round pick Nick Niemann, who played just 67 nondescript snaps as a rookie. The Chargers may have to move edge defender Kyle Van Noy off ball if one of their starting off ball linebackers suffers a significant injury.
Cornerback was also a position of weakness for the Chargers last season. They had four cornerbacks all see significant action, Chris Harris (747 snaps), Asante Samuel (693 snaps), Michael Davis (851 snaps), and Tevaughn Campbell (678 snaps), but only Harris even earned an average grade from PFF, with the other three finishing 106th, 112th, and 104th respectively out of 134 eligible cornerbacks. Harris was not retained this off-season, but that was not that surprising because he’s an aging slot cornerback who is middling at best at this stage of his career, and he was replaced by fellow veteran slot specialist Bryce Callahan, who could prove to be an upgrade.
The Chargers also signed JC Jackson in free agency to give them a better outside cornerback and his presence will force Samuel, Davis, and Campbell to compete for the other starting outside cornerback job, with the losers of that competition filling in as depth, assuming they make the final roster. Jackson actually didn’t became a full-time starter until last season, the 2018 undrafted free agent’s 4th season in the league, but he impressed on snap counts of 395, 682, and 851 in his first three seasons in the league, earning above average grades from PFF in all three seasons, while starting 22 games total over that stretch, and then he broke out with a career best year as a 17-game starter in 2021, finishing the season as PFF’s 3rd ranked cornerback.
Jackson is a one-year wonder in terms of playing like that for a whole season and the Chargers gave him a 5-year, 82.5 million dollar contract that makes him the 9th highest paid cornerback in the league, so he could prove to be an overpay, especially if the former undrafted free agent regresses after leaving the Patriots, as many defensive backs have over the past two decades, especially ones that were not highly drafted. However, even if he does regress, he should still remain an above average starter and an obvious upgrade at the cornerback position for the Chargers.
Samuel is the favorite to start opposite Jackson. He struggled last season, but he was only a rookie, the 2021 2nd round pick has the upside to be better going forward, and the Chargers don’t have a better option. Michael Davis has made 49 starts over the past four seasons, including 40 starts in 42 games played over the past three seasons, but he’s never been more than a middling starter and is now coming off the worst season of his career.
Meanwhile, Tevaughn Campbell is a former undrafted free agent (2019) who had played just 326 mediocre snaps in his career prior to last season, when he opened the season as just the Chargers’ 4th cornerback, but was forced significant action because the Chargers top-3 cornerbacks missed 11 games combined last season. Campbell continued to be mediocre in the first extended action of his career, proving himself to be a depth cornerback at best. He’s highly unlikely to see the same amount of snaps in 2022.
Bryce Callahan is locked in as the slot cornerback, but the 5-9 188 pounder is a slot only option and has been very injury prone in his career, missing 47 games in 7 seasons in the league, while never playing more than 13 games in a season. He’s been one of the best slot cornerbacks in the league when healthy, including 26th, 11th, and 3rd ranked finishes among cornerbacks on PFF in overall grade in 2017, 2018, and 2020 respectively, but he fell to 41st among cornerbacks in coverage grade in 2021, while struggling mightily against the run and finishing slightly below average overall. He could bounce back in 2022, but he’s also now going into his age 31 season, so he could also continue declining. It’s very possible he’ll be an upgrade on the middling Chris Harris, but even if he is, he’s likely to miss at least some time with injury.
Safety Derwin James has also missed a lot of time with injury in his career, but he played 15 games last season, which was a big step forward for him. A first round pick in 2018, James immediately became one of the best safeties in the league, finishing his rookie season as PFF’s 6th ranked safety as a 16-game starter and then playing at a similarly high level in his second season in the league in 2019, but he was limited to just 5 games by injury that season, before missing all of 2020. James was PFF’s 10th ranked safety in 2021, so his injuries didn’t sap his abilities and he could be even better in 2022, another year removed from his last major injury, still only in his age 26 season. He probably has a better chance of missing serious time with injury than most safeties, but, when on the field, he should be one of the league’s best.
Nasir Adderley remains as the other starting safety and he was a solid starter in 15 games last season. He struggled in his first season as a starter in 2020, finishing 87th out of 99 eligible safeties on PFF, after playing just 10 snaps in his rookie season, but he was a 2nd round pick back in 2019, so it’s not surprising he eventually developed into a solid starter. It’s possible he regresses a little bit in 2022 and he’s not the most proven player, but it’s also possible he could take another step forward, only in his age 25 season.
Alohi Gilman played 355 snaps last season as the third safety and, barring a significant injury to one of the starters, he’ll remain in that role this season. He struggled in his limited action, as he did on 71 snaps as a rookie in 2020, and it’s very likely he would struggle if forced into significant action this season, but it’s possible the 2020 6th round pick could take a step forward in year three and become a better reserve. Led by Derwin James and JC Jackson, this is an above average secondary, though it’s a top heavy one and losing James or Jackson to injury would be a significant loss.
Special teams was also a big weakness for the Chargers last season, ranking 28th in DVOA. That was nothing new for a Chargers team that has had significant special teams problems in recent years, but there are reasons to believe they can be at least somewhat better in 2022, even if mostly by default. For one, they added DeAndre Carter in free agency and he’s a solid veteran return man, with experience returning both punts and kickoffs.
The Chargers also added punter JK Scott, who figures to be an upgrade on Ty Long, and Troy Reeder, who gives them a second player who finished in the top-50 among special teams on PFF last season (Nick Niemann). On top of that, they brought back Dustin Hopkins, an experienced veteran who stabilized the kicker position as a mid-season acquisition last year. This may still be an underwhelming unit, but they probably won’t be as big of a liability as a year ago.
The Chargers missed the post-season last year, but just barely, even though they ranked just 24th in defensive efficiency and 28th in special teams DVOA. The Chargers should be significantly better in both aspects this year, especially on defense, where they added top edge defender Khalil Mack and top cornerback JC Jackson, while their offense, which ranked 3rd in offensive efficiency last season, brought back every key player from a year ago and probably found upgrades at the right guard and tight end position. With Justin Herbert likely to be a legitimate MVP candidate in his third year in the league and a very talented roster around him, the Chargers look like one of the best teams in the league this season and have a good chance of competing for a Super Bowl. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.
Prediction: TBD, TBD in AFC West