Los Angeles Chargers 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

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.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

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.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

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.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

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.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

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.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

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.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

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.

Grade: B+

Secondary

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.

Grade: B

Conclusion

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.

Prediction: TBD

Los Angeles Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs: 2020 Week 17 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (6-9) at Kansas City Chiefs (14-1)

The Chiefs have locked up the #1 seed in the AFC and will be resting key starters in this one to avoid catastrophic injuries ahead of what the Chiefs hope will be a 2nd straight Super Bowl run. The Chargers will not be resting starters, but it may be tough to tell the difference, with all of the key players the Chargers will be without in this matchup. In addition to some long-term absences, the Chargers will be missing top wide receiver Keenan Allen, top tight end Hunter Henry, talented right tackle Bryan Bulaga, their top-3 defensive ends Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, and Uchenna Nwosu, top cornerback Casey Hayward, and top safety Rayshawn Jenkins. 

The Chargers’ injuries on defense are especially a big deal, as they have played significantly better on that side of the ball this season, ranking 10th in first down rate allowed over expected at -0.90%, as opposed to 24th in first down rate over expected on offense at -1.40%. The absence of their top-3 defensive ends is particularly concerning, as that was a position of significant strength that is now a significant weakness. In their current state, I have the Chargers just 28th in my roster rankings.

The Chargers have played a lot of close games even when healthier (12 of 15 games decided by one score), don’t have a single win over a winning team, and their only two wins by more than a field goal came by 6 against the Jets and by 10 against the Jaguars, arguably the two worst teams in the league, so I’m skeptical that they’re going to win by more than 4 points on the road over the Chiefs backups and cover this spread when they are missing as many players as they are missing. I don’t feel like betting on a team that isn’t taking this game seriously, but the Chiefs should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes because this line is too high in favor of a depleted Chargers team.

Los Angeles Chargers 24 Kansas City Chiefs 23

Pick against the spread: Kansas City +4

Confidence: Low

Denver Broncos at Los Angeles Chargers: 2020 Week 16 NFL Pick

Denver Broncos (5-9) at Los Angeles Chargers (5-9)

The Chargers are just 5-9, but most of their losses have been close, with 7 of their 9 wins coming by one score or less, including blown leads against high level teams like the Saints, Buccaneers, and Chiefs. In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, the Chargers have been a middling team, ranking 20th at -0.52%. They’ve been more reliant on their defense than their offense though, with their offense ranking 24th in first down rate over expected at -1.60% and their defense ranking -1.08% in first down rate allowed over expected at 9th. 

That’s typically a bad thing going forward because defensive play tends to be much more inconsistent week-to-week than offensive play. We’ve already seen the Chargers start to slip to recent weeks defensively and I would definitely expect that to continue in this one, with the Chargers missing their top-3 edge defenders Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, and Uchenna Nwosu, turning a position of strength into one of significant weakness. Ingram has been out for a while, but Bosa and Nwosu are both new absences this week. Missing the players they are missing, I have the Chargers ranked just 28th in my roster rankings. 

The Broncos are an underwhelming team, but I have them a point and a half better than the Chargers right now. With the Chargers being favored by 3.5 points at home with no fans in the stadium, this line is essentially saying the Chargers are about 3 points better than the Broncos, which is very off with the Chargers missing the key players they are missing. On top of that, the Broncos are in a significantly better spot than the Chargers, who have to turn around and play a much tougher game next week in Kansas City, while the Broncos will be playing a far less imposing Raiders team. 

Favorites cover at just a 42.8% rate when their opponents have a winning percentage that is worse than their next opponent’s winning percentage by over 50% (Broncos are 5-9, Chiefs are 13-1), including a 41.7% rate when their next opponent has a winning percentage that is 40%+ better than their opponent’s next opponent (Raiders are 7-7, Chiefs are 13-1). On top of that, favorites cover at just a 41.7% rate at home against a sub-400 divisional opponent before going on the road and facing a divisional opponent with a record better than .700. 

Between the line value and the great spot, there is a lot to like about the Broncos this week, so this is my Pick of the Week at +3.5. At the very least, I would expect the Chargers to win by a field goal if they manage the win (3 of their 5 wins have been by exactly a field goal), but the Broncos have a good chance to pull the straight up upset against a banged up Chargers team that has been eliminated and has a much tougher game on deck to look forward.

Update: Both Bradley Chubb and Keenan Allen are expected out in this game. I originally had both factored in as likely to play, but possibly limited. Both being out doesn’t change this projection much. If anything, Allen is slightly more important to the Chargers than Chubb is to the Broncos. This is still my Pick of the Week.

Denver Broncos 23 Los Angeles Chargers 20 Upset Pick +155

Pick against the spread: Denver +3.5

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Los Angeles Chargers at Las Vegas Raiders: 2020 Week 15 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (4-9) at Las Vegas Raiders (7-6)

The Raiders are 7-6 and still in the playoff race in the AFC, but they haven’t played like a playoff team overall. Six of their 7 wins have come by 10 points or fewer, with the exception being a game in which the Raiders won the turnover battle by 5, which is highly unsustainable, while 4 of their 6 losses have come by at least 16 points and they have a point differential of -41 that is most comparable to the 4-9 Panthers and the 4-8-1 Eagles. In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, they rank just 27th at -2.51%. 

The Raiders’ problems are concentrated on the defensive side of the ball, where they rank 30th in first down rate allowed over expected at +3.13%, which is a good thing because defenses tend to be much more inconsistent week-to-week than offenses, so the Raiders’ past defensive struggles don’t guarantee another poor performance from their defense in this game, but the Raiders are also very banged up on that side of the ball, missing four starters, including a pair of key starters in Damon Arnette and Clelin Ferrell, which makes it a lot more likely that they’ll continue to struggle defensively, and their offense hasn’t been anything to write home about either, ranking just 16th in first down rate over expected at +0.62%. 

Earlier in the season, I would have probably bet the Chargers in this game, as 3-point underdogs on the road in what basically amounts to a neutral site game. The Chargers started the season just 2-6, but all six of their losses came by 7 points or fewer, including blown leads over teams like the Chiefs, Buccaneers, Saints, and these Raiders. Since then, they’ve lost games by 8 points, 10 points, and 45 points and, while they’ve also won a couple games, those wins have come by just 6 points over the Jets and 3 points over the Falcons. In total, all four of their wins have come against opponents with records of 4-9 or worse by 10 points or fewer.

In some ways, the Chargers’ decline was not unexpected, as their defense was primarily what was keeping those tough games close, while their offense struggled to consistently string together drives, relying primarily on deep passes to score points. Not only is that an unsustainable way to score points consistently, but defensive play also tends to be much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis than offensive performance, so their defense regressing towards the mean isn’t surprising, especially since they are missing key players from earlier this season, with slot cornerback Desmond King being traded and defensive end Melvin Ingram and linebacker Denzel Perryman both out with injuries. 

The Chargers are still about even with the Raiders in my roster rankings, but that has more to do with the Raiders being generally overrated and being currently banged up on the defensive side of the ball than anything positive about the Chargers. My calculated line has the Raiders favored by just 1-point, so we’re getting line value with the Chargers as full field goal underdogs, but I would need this line to climb to 3.5 for it to be worth betting on. If it does, I will have an update before gametime, but, for now, this is a low confidence pick at +3.

Update: +3.5s have popped up before gametime. I am not sure if that has to do with Chargers wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams both being questionable and potentially limited in this game, but both are active, while the Raiders will be down a 5th defensive starter with cornerback Nevin Lawson out. My calculated line is actually closer to even than -1 and I’m going to flip this pick to the Chargers straight up and place a small bet on both the spread at +3.5 and the money line at +155. The Raiders defense is arguably the worst in the league and their offense isn’t good enough to justify them being favored by more than a field goal over a competent opponent.

Los Angeles Chargers 31 Las Vegas Raiders 30 Upset Pick +155

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers +3.5

Confidence: Medium

Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Chargers: 2020 Week 14 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (4-8) at Los Angeles Chargers (3-9)

Both of these teams have had disappointing seasons in the win-loss column, but both have been better than their record. The Chargers were blown out 45-0 by the Patriots last week, but most of their losses have been close, as they previously hadn’t lost by more than 10 and seven of their nine losses have come by one score, including blown leads against high level teams like the Chiefs, Saints, and Buccaneers. The Falcons, meanwhile, don’t need to be told about blowing leads, as they’ve blown three leads in games in which they had a very high win probability late, which has them at 4-8 despite a +9 point differential. Despite both team’s losing records, both teams have actually spent more time with the lead than trailing this season. 

The Chargers rank a little higher in schedule adjusted first down rate differential (-0.49% vs. -1.00%), but the Falcons have the better offense (-0.51% vs. -2.04%), which is more predictable and consistent, and they have the edge in my roster rankings as well (16th vs. 22nd). Overall, I have the Falcons about 2 points better than the Chargers, which gives us a calculated line of Atlanta -1.5 if we give the Chargers a half point for nominal homefield advantage. Unfortunately, that’s exactly where this line is, so we’re not getting any line value either way. I’m taking the Chargers purely because I think they’ll be the more motivated team, trying to avenge last week’s blowout loss (teams are 63-39 ATS since 2002 after losing by 35 or more points), but I don’t have much confidence in them.

Atlanta Falcons 24 Los Angeles Chargers 23

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers +1.5

Confidence: None

New England Patriots at Los Angeles Chargers: 2020 Week 13 NFL Pick

New England Patriots (5-6) at Los Angeles Chargers (3-8)

The Chargers are just 3-8, but it’s well-known that they have been competitive in most of their games, even against good teams, as they’ve only lost one game by more than one score all season, including near victories over the Chiefs, Saints, and Buccaneers. However, their offense hasn’t been all that impressive, ranking 24th in first down rate over expected at -1.29%, which is a concern because offensive play is much more consistent week-to-week than defensive play. 

The Chargers rank 9th in first down rate allowed over expected at -1.55%, but aren’t guaranteed to be that good going forward, especially given that they are missing key players due to injury, including stud defensive end Melvin Ingram and top linebacker Denzel Perryman and that they traded away talented slot cornerback Desmond King at the trade deadline. They could also be without top cornerback Casey Hayward and Melvin Ingram’s replacement Uchenna Nwosu, who are both considered questionable for this game.

The Patriots are almost an opposite team from the Chargers, ranking 9th in first down rate over expected at +1.72% and 22nd in first down rate allowed over expected at +1.53%. You might not think of them as a good offense because of their passing game issues, but they have a strong offensive line and versatile running game, with both power running back Damien Harris and quarterback Cam Newton finding success on the ground. That formula won’t work against every team, but it should be effective against a team like the Chargers, especially with the Chargers missing their top linebacker. 

The Patriots’ defense has been a problem this season, but defensive play is very inconsistent week-to-week and I trust Bill Belichick and company to make the right defensive adjustments as much as any coaching staff in the league. Belichick should particularly be at an advantage this week against a rookie quarterback, a situation he is 15-4 straight up in throughout his career. The Patriots are the more talented overall team and matchup well with the Chargers on both sides of the ball, so they should be favored by at least a couple points, rather than being slight underdogs. This isn’t a big bet, but there’s enough line value here for the Patriots to be worth betting and I may increase this bet if it turns out Hayward and/or Nwosu can’t play.

New England Patriots 23 Los Angeles Chargers 20 Upset Pick +105

Pick against the spread: New England +1.5

Confidence: Medium

Los Angeles Chargers at Buffalo Bills: 2020 Week 12 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (3-7) at Buffalo Bills (7-3)

The Chargers have once again been one of the most injury prone teams in the league. It started when they lost stud safety Derwin James, arguably their top defensive player, for the season with injury before the season even began and over the first half of the season the Chargers lost several other key players. Last week against the Jets was arguably the healthiest they’ve been since the beginning of the season, with key players like stud defensive ends Joey Bosa (2 games missed) and Melvin Ingram (3 games), starting defensive tackle Justin Jones (3 games), starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga (4 games), #2 wide receiver Mike Williams (1 game), and starting right guard Trai Turner (7 games) all active after missing time earlier this year.

However, that really only lasted a week, as the Chargers have since lost top cornerback Casey Hayward and talented defensive ends Melvin Ingram and Uchenna Nwosu (their top-two edge defenders after Bosa) to injuries. The Chargers could be getting some reinforcements from injured reserve, with starting running back Austin Ekeler and starting cornerback Chris Harris potentially being activated after being designated to return, but, even with those two, the Chargers would still be far from full strength. 

Despite injuries, the Chargers have played reasonably well this season, regardless of what their 3-7 record suggests, as they’ve been within one score in all seven losses, including early leads over top level teams like the Chiefs, Saints, and Buccaneers. However, with Ekeler and Harris’ uncertainty factored in, the Chargers still rank just 23rd in my roster rankings. The general public is also pretty aware that the Chargers have been competitive against good teams in their losses and, as a result, the Chargers are just 4.5 point favorites in Buffalo against a 7-3 Bills team, so we’re not getting any line value with them.

In fact, Buffalo -4.5 is my exact calculated line and, without any situational trends that apply to this game, my decision on which side to take for pick ‘em purposes is going to be entirely dependent on the status of Ekeler and Harris. For now, I’m taking the Chargers, but that would change if Ekeler and Harris were ruled out. Either way, I expect this to be a no confidence pick barring a significant change to the spread or some other unexpected circumstance.

Update: Ekeler and Harris are both in, but I’m leaving this as a no confidence pick.

Buffalo Bills 24 Los Angeles Chargers 20

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers +4.5

Confidence: None

New York Jets at Los Angeles Chargers: 2020 Week 11 NFL Pick

New York Jets (0-9) at Los Angeles Chargers (2-7)

In 2019, the Chargers were a solid team, but went just 5-11 because of a ridiculous 2-9 record in one score games. That type of thing tends to be very inconsistent on a year-to-year basis, but somehow the Chargers have been even worse in close games this season, going 1-7 in one score games. Rookie starting quarterback Justin Herbert has had even worse luck, as the Chargers one one-score victory came in week 1 in Cincinnati with veteran Tyrod Taylor under center. 

All seven of Herbert’s losses were one score games, even though he’s played a pretty tough schedule in those seven losses, with five of the losses coming against teams that are currently 6-3 or better, including near victories over the Saints, Buccaneers, and Chiefs. Meanwhile, Herbert’s only victory came by 10 over the Jaguars in a game in which the Jaguars scored on special teams and the Chargers won the first down rate battle by 12.24%. 

The Jaguars are one of the worst teams in the league, but the Jets are the one team that is clearly worse than them. Not only do they rank dead last in my roster rankings and in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -7.87% (the Jaguars are 31st at -5.43%), but they’ve lost every game they’ve played and most of them haven’t been particularly close, with 8 losses by 8 points or more and an average margin of defeat of 16.3 points per game. The Chargers are 9.5 point favorites in this game, but wouldn’t even have to come that close to the Jets’ average margin of defeat to cover this spread. 

The Chargers have played much better than their record and are arguably the healthiest they’ve been all season right now, with key players like defensive ends Joey Bosa (2 games missed) and Melvin Ingram (3 games), defensive tackle Justin Jones (3 games missed), right tackle Bryan Bulaga (4 games missed), wide receiver Mike Williams (1 game missed), and right guard Trai Turner (7 games missed) all being available for this game, so you can definitely make the case that they’re at least an average team. I don’t know if I like the Chargers quite enough for them to be worth betting, but they should be the right side and I ultimately may end up wagering on them.

Los Angeles Chargers 24 New York Jets 12

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers -9.5

Confidence: Low

Los Angeles Chargers at Miami Dolphins: 2020 Week 10 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (2-6) at Miami Dolphins (5-3)

Sitting at 3-3, coming off back-to-back wins by 24 points, the Dolphins made the surprising move during their bye week to bench veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick for rookie Tua Tagovailoa. Tagovailoa was drafted by the Dolphins with the 5th overall pick and was obviously the future of the position after the 38-year-old Fitzpatrick, but Fitzpatrick was solid last season as the starting quarterback, while Tagovailoa was still working back from a serious leg injury suffered at the end of his collegiate career, so it always seemed likely that Fitzpatrick would be the starter in 2020 unless he struggled mightily. Instead, even with Fitzpatrick playing similarly to last season and winning games despite poor offensive line play, the Dolphins took a big chance and went with the unproven rookie instead.

The Dolphins have continued winning, extending their winning streak to 4 games with wins in each of Tagovailoa’s first two starts, but the jury is still very much out on Tagovailoa. He struggled mightily in his debut against the Rams, with the Dolphins winning that game primarily because of defense and special teams and, while he looked much better in his second start, outdueling Kyler Murray in Arizona, that performance came against a weak Arizona defense that was also missing multiple starters with injury and illness. It’s very possible the Dolphins would be 5-3 regardless of their quarterback swap, so time will tell whether or not it was the right short-term decision for this team in 2020.

This week Tagovailoa will square off with the quarterback drafted one spot behind him, Justin Herbert, who went 6th overall to the Chargers. Herbert didn’t take as long to get into the starting lineup, although it took a fluke injury to veteran starter Tyrod Taylor to give Herbert his initial start in week 2, after Taylor won the season opener in Cincinnati. Since being plugged into the lineup, Herbert has won just one game, against the Jacksonville Jaguars, but that win came by 10 in a game in which the Chargers won the first down rate battle by 12.24%, while his 6 losses have all come by one score or less, including near victories over the Chiefs, Buccaneers, and Saints, who are among the best teams in the league.

By comparison, the Dolphins have faced a pretty easy schedule and they have benefitted from things like a +5 turnover margin, a +3 return touchdown margin, and a 55.56% opponent’s field goal percentage, three things that tend to be totally unpredictable on a week-to-week basis. In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, the Dolphins rank 25th at -1.36%, well behind the Chargers, who rank 5th at +2.28%. The Dolphins have the slight edge on offense, ranking 19th in first down rate over expected at -0.23%, while the Chargers rank 25th at -1.44%, which is significant because offensive performance is much more predictive than defensive performance, but the Dolphins’ offense has statistically been worse overall with Tagovailoa under center rather than Fitzpatrick and the Chargers have a big edge on defense.

The Chargers are missing probably their most important defensive player in defensive end Joey Bosa, but this isn’t his first absence and otherwise they’re much healthier than they’ve been, as key players like defensive end Melvin Ingram (3 games missed), defensive tackle Justin Jones (3 games missed), right tackle Bryan Bulaga (4 games missed), wide receiver Mike Williams (1 game missed), and right guard Trai Turner (7 games missed) are all set to play this week. 

The Dolphins, meanwhile, will be without #2 wide receiver Preston Williams and two of their most important defensive players Christian Wilkins and Kyle Van Noy this week for the first time this season. In their current states, I have the Chargers 2.5 points better than Miami in my roster rankings, so we’re getting some line value with them as 1.5 point road underdogs. There isn’t quite enough here for the Chargers to be worth betting, but they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes and the money line at +110 is a good bet as well, as the Chargers should be considered no worse than 50/50 to win this game straight up.

Update: Kyle Van Noy must have been a false positive because he was cleared to play after just a day in the COVID protocol, while Wilkins remains out. Van Noy’s presence will be a boost to Miami’s defense, but I still have the Chargers as just slightly better than 50/50 to pull the upset. I would lower this a couple confidence points though, with Van Noy in the lineup.

Los Angeles Chargers 17 Miami Dolphins 16 Upset Pick +110

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers +1.5

Confidence: Low

Las Vegas Raiders at Los Angeles Chargers: 2020 Week 9 NFL Pick

Las Vegas Raiders (4-3) at Los Angeles Chargers (2-5)

The Raiders have a couple more wins than the Chargers, but the Chargers have the edge in most of the key season-long stats, including point differential (-6 vs. -16), DVOA (-4.1% vs. -12.3%) and first down rate differential (+1.92% vs. -1.58%). The Raiders have faced one of the toughest schedules in the league, but the Chargers’ schedule hasn’t been much easier and they have managed to keep all of their losses within a touchdown, something they did frequently last year as well, when 9 of their 11 losses came by a touchdown or less. On top of that, the Chargers have led, in some cases by significant amounts, in most of their losses and rank 11th in the league in average lead. In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, the Chargers rank 6th at +2.08%, still significantly above the Raiders in 22nd at -0.38%.

The bad news for the Chargers is that they’ve been very reliant on their 6th ranked defense in first down rate allowed over expected (their offense ranks just 26th in first down rate allowed over expected) and defenses tend to be much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis than offenses, where the Raiders have the edge with a 17th ranked offense in terms of first down rate over expected. Making matters worse for the Chargers, their defense will be without it’s best player this week in Joey Bosa, who is out with a concussion, and they could also be without top outside cornerback Casey Hayward, after already trading away top slot cornerback Desmond King to the Titans this week.

It’s not all bad news on the injury front for the Chargers, as the injuries aren’t anything new for them and key players like defensive end Melvin Ingram (3 games missed), defensive tackle Justin Jones (3 games missed), right tackle Bryan Bulaga (4 games missed), wide receiver Mike Williams (1 game missed), and possibly right guard Trai Turner (6 games missed) are set to play this week after missing time earlier in the season. Meanwhile, the Raiders remain without a pair of starting offensive linemen in left guard Richie Incognito and right tackle Trent Brown and could be missing a third with left tackle Kolton Miller questionable, while their defense will be without one of it’s top players in defensive tackle Maurice Hurst. 

I still have the Chargers as the better team in my roster rankings, but only by a half point. With fans still not allowed in the Chargers’ home stadium, we’re not getting much line value with them on an even line against the Raiders, but they are the pick for pick ‘em purposes. Depending on the status of Trai Turner, Casey Hayward, and Kolton Miller for this game, I may issue an update before gametime, but I don’t expect to be betting on either side regardless.

Los Angeles Chargers 26 Las Vegas Raiders 24

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers PK

Confidence: None