The Chargers have probably been the unluckiest team in the league over the past 2 seasons. After back-to-back 9-7 seasons to start the Mike McCoy era in 2013 and 2014, the Chargers won just 9 games total over the past 2 seasons. A big part of that is because they’ve won just 4 of 20 games decided by a touchdown or less over those 2 seasons. In terms of first down rate differential, they’ve ranked 14th (-0.88%) and 7th (+1.58%) over the past 2 seasons. They have 55 more first downs and just 3 fewer offensive touchdowns than their opponents over the past 2 seasons.
On top of that, they’ve ranked 26th and 31st in adjusted games lost to injury in 2015 and 2016 respectively, making them arguably the most injury plagued team over the past 2 seasons. Both close losses and injuries tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis, so the Chargers could have a lot better luck in 2017. They fired head coach Mike McCoy this off-season and replaced him with another offensive mind, ex-Bills offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn. Perhaps that will help their play in close games.
One player the Chargers have never really had to worry about getting injured is quarterback Philip Rivers, who hasn’t missed a start since he took over as the starter in 2006, even playing the 2007 AFC Championship despite a partially torn ACL. Because of his durability and toughness, they’ve never really valued the backup quarterback position. The Chargers clearly are still not worried about the possibility of a Rivers injury, not adding a single quarterback in the draft or free agent this off-season, even though many thought they’d invest in a quarterback of the future, with Rivers going into his age 36 season.
The only quarterback added was undrafted free agent Eli Jenkins, who will compete with mediocre backup Kellen Clemens for the #2 job. Clemens has a career 69.4 QB rating on 630 pass attempts in 11 seasons in the league and is now going into his age 34 season. He hasn’t made a start since 2013 with the Rams, but should be considered the heavy favorite for the backup job. The Chargers would be in big trouble if Rivers were to get injured or show some signs of decline.
Rivers did finish below average on Pro Football Focus in 2016, for just the second time in 11 seasons as the starter, but he still finished 19th, which isn’t bad. He completed 60.4% of his passes for an average of 7.59 YPA, 33 touchdowns, and 21 interceptions. In his career, he’s completed 64.4% of his passes for an average of 7.75 YPA, 314 touchdowns, and 156 interceptions. He’s a gunslinger who has led the NFL in interceptions in 2 of the last 3 seasons, but he pushes this offense forward and has done a solid job over the past two seasons, despite so many injuries around him.
No injured Charger has been missed more over the past 2 seasons than Keenan Allen. Allen was on pace for a 134/1450/8 slash line in his age 23 season in 2015 through 8 games, but then ruptured his kidney and missed the rest of the season. In 2016, he had a huge first half against the Chiefs week 1, catching 6 passes for 63 yards, but then tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season. Injuries have been a problem for him dating back to college, as knee problems dropped him to the 3rd round in 2013. He had a strong rookie season, finishing with a 71/1046/8 slash line and becoming just one of 11 rookie receivers in the last 20 years to top 1000 yards, even though he didn’t become a starter until week 4.
However, his last 3 seasons were all been ended by season ending injuries. Still only going into his age 25 season, Allen still has the upside to be one of the top wide receivers in the league if he can stay healthy, but that’s becoming a very big if at this point. Rivers completed 69.8% of his passes for an average of 7.91 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions through the first 8 games of the 2015 season with Allen healthy, so he’s obviously hoping for a bounce back season from him. The Chargers gave him a 4-year, 45 million dollar extension last off-season.
The Chargers’ receiving corps still performed pretty well in Allen’s absence last season, thanks primarily to a breakout season from 2nd year undrafted free agent Tyrell Williams. Williams did his best Keenan Allen impression, catching 69 passes for 1059 yards and 7 touchdowns in the first significant action of his career, despite only starting 12 of 16 games. He finished 31st among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. He could see his numbers drop with Allen back, but he figures to be the starter opposite Allen. If both are healthy and at their best, they could be one of the best wide receiver duos in the league.
Their complementary receivers also had solid seasons in 2016, as ex-CFL star Dontrelle Inman finished with a 58/810/4 slash line as the #2 receiver and free agent acquisition Travis Benjamin finished with a 47/677/4 slash line as the #3 receiver. Inman finished 33th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, a significant improvement over 2015, when he finished 111th out of 121 eligible wide receivers on 691 snaps in the first significant action of his NFL career. Benjamin, meanwhile, came to the Chargers on a 4-year, 24 million dollar deal from the Browns. He has never finished above average on Pro Football Focus in 5 seasons in the league and is a one-dimensional deep threat, but he hasn’t been bad over the past 2 seasons.
Despite all this depth at wide receiver and Keenan Allen set to return from injury, the Chargers shocked everyone by selecting Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams 7th overall. Williams was not expected to be a top-10 pick, but was arguably the best receiver in the draft class and is certainly not a bad addition. The issue is how much he’ll actually play. I assume Allen and Williams are locked in as the top-2 receivers, so that leaves Williams to compete with Dontrelle Inman and Travis Benjamin for the #3 receiver job.
As talented as he is, that’s a competition he might not win, especially since he injured his back in off-season practice and could be out until Training Camp, which puts him behind the 8-ball in a tough competition. The Chargers legitimately go 5 deep at wide receiver when they’re healthy, but it’s fair to wonder if the 7th pick could have been put to better use. I know they wanted to get Philip Rivers as much help as possible, but it doesn’t help him if the team’s 7th overall pick is sitting on the bench when they could have drafted a starter at another position. Inman is going into the final year of his rookie deal and Benjamin is owed a non-guaranteed 5.75 million in 2018, and both now look like they are entering their final season with the Chargers. The selection also calls into question whether or not they will extend Tyrell Williams when his time comes (he has two years left on his rookie deal) and how confident they are in Keenan Allen’s long-term durability.
The Chargers are deep at tight end too, as 2016 2nd round pick and future Antonio Gates replacement Hunter Henry showed promise as a rookie, while Gates could have another strong season left in the tank, even in his age 37 season. Henry, who finished 12th among tight ends on Pro Football Focus on 574 snaps in 2016, is expected to be the starter with Gates taking on more of a complementary role. Henry posted a 36/478/8 slash line on just 54 targets (6th on the team) and 254 routes run last season and is a capable run blocker at 6-5 250. He could easily have a breakout 2nd season in the league. Philip Rivers seems to love throwing to him on the goal line, where he is very tough to defend on jump balls.
Rivers loves throwing to Gates on the goal line too, as he has 23 scores in the past 3 seasons and caught 7 last season, despite playing just 585 total snaps in a crowded receiving corps. He’s never been much of a run blocker, but has finished above average as a pass catcher on Pro Football Focus in every season of his career. His age is obviously a concern, but he could still play a role in this receiving corps. He might have his worst statistical season since his rookie season in 2003 (the last season in which he had fewer than 500 receiving yards), but that could be more because of how many other passing options they have, rather than Gates declining in a big way. This is arguably the deepest receiving corps in the league.
The Chargers also had a lot of injuries at the running back position, most importantly a torn ACL suffered by Danny Woodhead that cost him the final 14 games of the season. Woodhead caught 75+ passes in his previous 2 healthy seasons as a passing down back and also provided some change of pace on the ground, so he was a big loss. The Chargers also lost Branden Oliver for the year when he tore his achilles before the season even began. Undrafted rookie Kenneth Barrow finished 2nd on the team in carries with 60 and averaged just 3.20 yards per. Melvin Gordon was their feature back for most of the season, but missed the final 3 games with injury and, because all of their other useful backs were injured, the Chargers had to turn to a combination of Farrow and Andre Williams, who was signed mid-season and who has just a 3.30 career YPC on 323 carries.
Danny Woodhead signed in Baltimore this off-season, so Melvin Gordon remains the every down back. The 15th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, that is what Gordon was drafted for, but it looked like he might be a bust after his disappointing rookie season. He averaged just 3.48 yards per carry on 184 carries, caught just 33 passes for 192 yards, and didn’t score once. He finished the season 65th out of 69 eligible running backs on Pro Football Focus. To make matters worse, he had off-season microfracture surgery on his knees, so a breakout second season in the league seemed unlikely.
However, he surprised all his doubters, finishing the season 5th among running backs on Pro Football Focus. He only averaged 3.93 yards per carry on 254 carries, but that was largely because he didn’t have good blocking all season. He ran with great toughness, pushed through contact, and broke tackles. He also added 41 catches for 419 yards through the air and scored 12 times total. A knee injury cost him essentially the final 4 games of the season, but he averaged 20.92 carries per game through 12 games, which would have been the 3rd highest among all running backs last season, behind only Ezekiel Elliott and Le’Veon Bell. With better blocking, he could have a monster statistical season in 2017. He has a huge upside and is only going into his age 24 season. Durability is a bit of a concern for him though, between last off-season’s knee surgery and the knee injury that ended his season in 2016.
The Chargers didn’t add another back this off-season, so they seem confident in Gordon as an every down back again and think he can stay healthy. Branden Oliver is back from his achilles injury and has the inside track on the #2 back job. Prior to last season’s injury, Oliver averaged just 3.61 yards per carry on 191 career carries, but is a tough runner who runs through contact and contributes in passing situations. The 2014 undrafted free agent is inexperienced and has played just 22 career games in 3 seasons in the league, but finished about average on Pro Football Focus in limited action in both 2014 and 2015. He isn’t a bad backup, but the Chargers will obviously be hoping that Gordon can stay healthy all year and handle 300+ carries. If he can, he could easily finish the season in the top-5 in rushing yards.
As mentioned, the Chargers had major problems on the offensive line last season. In response, they changed things up this off-season and will have new starters at 3 of 5 positions upfront. The Chargers released starting left tackle King Dunlap and starting guards Orlando Franklin and DJ Fluker this off-season, saving them 6.75 million, 6 million, and 8.821 million respectively. None of them played well in 2016 or were worth their salary. Dunlap, who retired this off-season, finished 53rd out of 78 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. Franklin and Fluker, meanwhile, finished 66th and 54th respectively out of 72 eligible guards. They won’t be missed.
They made a big splash in free agency to replace Dunlap, signing Russell Okung away from the Broncos, for whom he started all 16 games last season. Okung finished last season 38th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 2016 and should be an upgrade, but they overpaid him, giving him a 4-year, 53 million dollar deal that makes him the 2nd highest paid offensive tackle in the league in average annual salary. Last season was the first season in his career in which he played all 16 games, missing 24 games in his first 6 seasons in the league combined. He’s also only finished above average just 3 times in 7 seasons in the league on Pro Football Focus. Now going into his age 30 season, it shouldn’t be surprising if Okung regresses or gets injured. His backup is Chris Hairston, who has 31 career starts, but has never played well.
The Chargers replaced their guards by drafting a guard in both the 2nd and 3rd rounds, taking Western Kentucky’s Forest Lamp and Indiana’s Dan Feeney, who will likely start at right guard and left guard respectively. Even though they are just rookies, they could have solid rookie seasons, as they were arguably the best two guards in the draft. They may have some growing pains, but it wouldn’t be hard for them to be an upgrade over what they had at guard last season. The Chargers also have the option of shifting Matt Slauson from center back to guard, where he spent the first 7 seasons of his career before moving to center last season. In that scenario, last year’s 3rd round pick Max Tuerk, who didn’t play a snap as a rookie because of knee problems, would start at center.
For now, Slauson is the starting center, after finishing about average in his first season at the position in 2016 (18th out of 38 eligible centers). At guard, Slauson finished above average in each of his first 6 seasons in the league, including 9th in 2015 with the Bears, but he’s now in his age 31 season, so the Chargers seem to prefer him at center. He could easily have another solid season there though. The 2009 6th round pick took over as a full-time starter in 2010 with the Jets and has made all 16 starts in 6 of 7 seasons since.
Veteran Joe Barksdale rounds out the offensive line at right tackle. Barksdale has made 60 starts at right tackle over the past 4 seasons, 2 seasons with the Rams and the past 2 seasons with the Chargers. He too struggled last season, finishing 58th out of 78 eligible offensive tackles in 15 starts, but he finished above average in the previous 3 seasons and 21st as recently as 2015. Only going into his age 29 season, he could easily have a bounce back season on what looks like an overall improved offensive line.
With Anthony Lynn coming in to replace Mike McCoy, the Chargers replaced defensive coordinator John Pagano with Gus Bradley, who will transition this defense to a 4-3. Bradley wasn’t good as a head coach with the Jaguars, but was a good defensive coordinator with the Seahawks before that and has some good talent to work with. The player who could benefit most from the scheme change is Joey Bosa, the 3rd overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Bosa was an odd fit in the Chargers’ 3-4 defense at 6-5 280, which makes his rookie season even more impressive.
The Defensive Rookie of the Year missed the first 4 games of the season with a stupid holdout and an injury, but finished 2nd among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus and had 10.5 sacks on 563 snaps. Now back in the 4-3 defense in which he dominated in college, he could take another step forward in full first season in the league. Only going into his age 22 season, the sky seems like the limit for his potential right now. He will line up as a defensive end in base packages, but could see a fair amount of snaps on the inside in sub packages. He showed the ability to disrupt the quarterback from multiple spots as a rookie and also plays the run well.
Joey Bosa’s counterpart on the other side of the defensive line, Melvin Ingram, is not as clean of a fit in this new defense. The Chargers don’t seem concerned though, giving him a 4-year, 66 million dollar extension this off-season, after franchising tagging him. That deal is risky for a number of reasons. Ingram has 18.5 sacks over the past 2 seasons combined and has finished 8th and 3rd among 3-4 outside linebackers in the last 2 seasons respectively, but the 2012 1st round pick managed just 6 sacks in 29 games in his first 3 seasons in the league, thanks primarily to injuries. He’s played all 32 games over the past 2 seasons, but his injury history makes him risky on a long-term deal.
Ingram is also older than most players with his experience, already going into his age 29 season, so he might only have 2-3 strong seasons left in the tank at best. On top of that, the 6-2 247 pounder is a better fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker. He’ll rush the passer from more or less the same spot in the new defense, but could struggle against the run as a base defensive end and doesn’t get to utilize his impressive coverage skills either. He could still be a strong pass rusher for them, but he was a risky re-signing on an expensive long-term deal.
In sub packages, when Bosa moves inside, Jeremiah Attaochu and Kyle Emanuel are the top candidates for snaps outside opposite Ingram. Attaochu, a 2014 2nd round pick, finished 19th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 12 starts in 2015, but was limited to 178 disappointing snaps in 8 games in 2016 by ankle problems and an eventual broken leg that ended his season. He didn’t play much as a rookie in 2014, so he’s a one-year wonder, but, only going into his age 24 season, he could easily have a bounce back season in a situational role in 2017. He’s also a candidate for the base package outside linebacker job. Emanuel is probably the favorite for that job, with Attaochu more likely to see sub package snaps at defensive end. A 5th round pick in 2015, Emanuel has struggled mightily as a pass rusher in 2 seasons in the league, but played the run pretty well last season.
At defensive tackle, Corey Liuget and Brandon Mebane will start. Liuget is an every down player, but Mebane is just a base package run stuffer. Mebane played at a high level last season, not just stopping the run, but also getting some pass rush, but only played 340 snaps in 10 games as a situational player, before tearing his biceps and going down for the season. Mebane has always been a good run stuffer, but is going into his age 32 season and has missed 14 games with injury over the past 3 seasons, so there’s some uncertainty with him.
In Mebane’s absence last season, Damion Square took over as the nose tackle, making 7 starts in total and playing 364 snaps in 11 games. The 2013 undrafted free agent had started just one career game before last season, but did a solid good against the run and figures to be part of the rotation again in 2017. Tenny Palepoi, a 2014 undrafted free agent who struggled on 378 snaps in 2016 in the first significant action of his career, could also be in the mix for snaps.
Liuget, meanwhile, has 87 starts in 90 games in 6 seasons in the league and played 812 snaps last season, most among Charger defensive linemen. The 2011 1st round pick signed a 5-year, 51.25 million dollar extension two off-seasons ago, but is not as good as his salary suggests. He’s finished above average just twice in 6 seasons in the league and finished slightly below average in 2016. Still only going into his age 27 season, Liuget is still in his prime, but he’s an overrated and overpaid player. This is still a strong defensive line though, especially on the edges.
As mentioned, either Jeremiah Attaochu or Kyle Emanuel will play the base package outside linebacker job. Going into last season, Manti Te’o and Denzel Perryman were their two every down linebackers, but Te’o missed 12 games with injury, while Perryman missed another 4 games. The injuries were actually a blessing in disguise, because it allowed couple young linebackers to get a chance and they played pretty well in their opportunity. Jatavis Brown was the biggest beneficiary, as the 5th round rookie finished the season 19th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus, playing 600 snaps in 12 games and making 7 starts. He will be an every down player at outside linebacker this season. He’s still a relatively unproven one-year wonder and the fact that he fell all the way to the 5th round a year ago isn’t irrelevant yet, but he could easily have a strong season in his new role.
Korey Toomer also flashed in limited action last season, finishing 16th among middle linebackers on 479 snaps and excelling in coverage. The 5-year veteran made the first 8 starts of his career last season, so he’s still a one-year wonder, but he showed enough to compete for a role in 2017. Manti Te’o is in New Orleans now, but Denzel Perryman returns, so he and Toomer could compete for the starting middle linebacker job. Perryman, a 2015 2nd round pick, has only played 884 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, but plays the run well. He and Toomer could platoon, with Toomer coming in for Perryman in base packages obvious passing situations. This is an underrated linebacking corps.
While the injury to Keenan Allen was probably their biggest loss last season, a torn ACL suffered by cornerback Jason Verrett was also a huge blow to this team. Verrett was a first round pick in 2014 and has played well whenever he’s been on the field, but has been limited to just 24 games in 3 seasons in the league by injury. In addition to the torn ACL that ended his 2016 season after 4 games, he was limited to 6 games as a rookie by shoulder surgery. He was Pro Football Focus’ #2 ranked cornerback in 2014 when he went down and their 6th ranked cornerback in his one healthy season in 2015, so the sky is still the limit in terms of his upside, only going into his age 25 season, but he’s a major injury risk.
If Verrett is healthy, the Chargers could have one of the best cornerback duos in the league, as free agent acquisition Casey Hayward excelled in Verrett’s absence last season in his first season with the Chargers, making 14 starts and finishing 6th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. Hayward was an absolute steal on a 3-year, 15.3 million dollar extension. Hayward came so cheap because he only started 20 games in 4 seasons with the Packers, who drafted him in the 2nd round in 2012, but he always flashed in limited action, so he’s hardly a one-year wonder. He finished 4th among cornerbacks as a rookie in 2012, 9th among cornerbacks in 2014, and then 16th in 2015. One of the most underrated players in the entire NFL, Hayward is also one of the best cornerbacks in the league.
Their depth is very weak at cornerback though, even more reason why they need Verrett to stay healthy. Brandon Flowers started the season as their 3rd cornerback, but he missed 10 games with concussions and is no longer with the team. Instead Craig Mager (408 snaps) and Steve Williams (388 snaps) are their top returning reserves, but they both struggled mightily in 2016, finishing 105th and 99th respectively among 111 eligible cornerbacks.
Despite that, they didn’t add a single cornerback this off-season. Mager was a 3rd round pick in 2015 and has the most upside of the two, so he’s probably the favorite for the #3 job, but he could easily struggle again. Williams, meanwhile, is a 2016 undrafted free agent who was called up from the practice squad as a rookie. He was predictably overwhelmed and doesn’t look like anything more than maybe a #4 cornerback long-term.
Jason Verrett and Brandon Flowers were not the only Charger defensive backs to miss significant time with injury last season, as a broken collarbone limited safety Jahleel Addae to 510 snaps in 8 games. Addae had a strong season when on the field, finishing 12th among safeties on Pro Football Focus, so he was definitely missed. Addae finished 76th out of 89 eligible safeties in his first full season as a starter in 2015 and hadn’t finished above average since his rookie season in 2013 (437 snaps), so he’s a one-year wonder, if you can even call him that, considering how much time he missed. However, he’s still only going into his age 27 season and definitely has upside. The Chargers were able to bring him back on a 4-year, 22.5 million dollar deal this off-season, a pretty reasonable deal.
Dwight Lowery returns as the other starter. The 9-year veteran missed 28 games in a 5-year stretch from 2009-2013, but hasn’t missed a game in 3 seasons since and has finished above average 7 times in 9 seasons in the league. He’s never been a great player and only finished last season 42nd among safeties, but he’s still a capable starter. The one concern is his age, as he goes into his age 31 season. The Chargers drafted a pair of safeties in the mid rounds, 4th rounder Rayshawn Jenkins and 5th rounder Desmond King, as potential long-term options. This is a solid secondary.
Looking through this roster, this does not look like a team that’s gone 9-23 over the past 2 seasons. If they can stay healthy and do better in close games, they could easily compete for a playoff spot in their first season under new head coach Anthony Lynn. Some of their top players, like Jason Verrett and Keenan Allen, are not durable, but this team definitely has upside. My one complaint is that they drafted Mike Williams at 7, even though he didn’t fill an immediate need, when they could have added much more needed players like Alabama defensive tackle Jonathan Allen, Ohio State safety Malik Hooker, and Ohio State cornerback Marshon Lattimore. Given Rivers’ age, it didn’t make sense for this team to not add an immediate starter with that pick. Still, this should be one of the most improved teams in the league in terms of wins.
Prediction: 9-7, 2nd in AFC West