Los Angeles Chargers 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The AFC is lucky that the Chargers did not qualify for the post-season last season, as they were arguably a top-3 team in a weak AFC. They went 9-7, but were a lot better than that suggested, as they went 3-6 in games decided by 8 points or fewer and had a +83 point differential that ranked 9th in the NFL. That’s despite the fact that they had arguably the worst special teams in the NFL last season. They ranked 31st in special teams DVOA, 30th in extra point percentage (88.1%), and dead last in field goal percentage (66.7%). With better special teams, they could have easily been a 11+ win team in 2017. They lost at least 2 winnable games on missed field goals.

Quarterback Philip Rivers had another strong year, one of the stronger of his career actually. He completed 62.6% of his passes for an average of 7.85 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions and ranked 6th among quarterbacks on PFF, his highest rank since he ranked 3rd in 2013. Rivers has remarkably made every start in 12 seasons since taking over for Drew Brees in 2006, 192 consecutive, and he’s earned positive grades from PFF in 11 of those 12 seasons. A possible future Hall of Famer, Rivers has completed 64.2% of his passes for an average of 7.76 YPA, 342 touchdowns, and 166 interceptions in his career. His 50,348 passing yards rank 9th all-time and his 95.0 QB rating since 2006 is 4th in the NFL over that time period among quarterbacks with at least 5,000 pass attempts, behind only Brady, Manning, and Brees.

His age is becoming a concern, going into his age 37 season, but he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down and has been as durable as they come in his career, so he could easily continue being the same quarterback for another couple seasons. The Chargers lack an heir apparent, but they made a trade last off-season for 2016 4th round pick Cardale Jones, who has upside as a long-term developmental prospect, and they signed Geno Smith, a capable backup, in free agency this off-season, so they have decent depth at the position as well. They’d be in trouble if Rivers went down, but most teams would be in trouble if they lost a quarterback like Rivers and it would definitely be unusual for him to miss an extended period of time.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

While Rivers has never missed time with injury, the Chargers seem to have among the most injuries in the league almost every year. They were middle of the pack in terms of adjusted games lost last season, but last season was their healthiest season in years. Now going in 2018, the Chargers are already down one key player, after losing tight end Hunter Henry to a torn ACL in OTAs. Not that there’s ever a good time to tear your ACL, but the injury is terrible timing for Henry, a budding 3rd year tight end who looked poised for a breakout season in his 3rd season in the league, after the Chargers parted ways with veteran Antonio Gates this off-season.

A second round pick in 2016, Henry has only played 61.4% of the snaps in 29 games in his career, but he’s totaled 81 catches for 1,057 yards and 12 touchdowns and is a strong run blocker as well. He’s caught 69.2% of his targets, averages 2.02 yards per route run, and Rivers has whopping a 131.6 QB rating when targeting him in his career. Despite the limited playing time, he’s ranked 13th and 2nd among tight ends on PFF in 2016 and 2017 respectively. Expected to play an every down role, Henry could have broken out as one of the top tight ends in the league in his age 24 season in 2018. He will definitely be missed and hopefully he makes a full recovery and has that breakout season in 2019.

Without him, the Chargers are barren on the depth chart at tight end. The only tight end on the roster with experience is Virgil Green, a blocking specialist who has just 71 catches in 7 seasons in the league. Because the injury happened after free agency and the draft, the Chargers did not have any good options to replace him. Their best option is probably reuniting with Antonio Gates, but he’s going into his age 38 season and was told earlier in the off-season that he would not be brought back. Circumstances have obviously changed and Gates is reportedly open to returning, but the Chargers would not be able to expect much from him if they did bring him back. He was about average on 499 snaps last season and had a 30/316/3 slash line on 52 targets. Given his age, I wouldn’t expect more out of him in 2018.

Instead, the Chargers figure to run a lot of 3 and 4 wide receiver sets, as that’s where their depth is. Top wide receiver Keenan Allen has been injury prone in his career, but the Chargers finally got a healthy season from him in 2017. He played all 16 games for the first time in his career, ranked 4th in the NFL with 102 catches and 3rd in the NFL with 1,393 receiving yards, and added 6 touchdowns. He also ranked 6th among wide receivers on PFF and got better as the season went on, catching 62 passes for 845 yards and 5 touchdowns in the final 8 games of the season. Allen missed most of 2016 with a torn ACL, so it’s a not a surprise that he was rusty to begin the season and the way he ended the season is very encouraging.

Injuries will always be a concern with him, as he’s dealt with ankle, knee, shoulder, and kidney injuries already in his career, but he’s averaged 74.3 yards per game in 54 games in his career, which ranks 10th over the past 5 seasons and extrapolates to 1,188 yards per 16 games. Still only in his age 26 season, Allen should remain frequent target in this offense with Hunter Henry out and could easily have the best statistical season of his career if he can stay healthy all season again. His ability to line up in any receiver spot makes him a matchup nightmare for defenses. He played 216 snaps on the right side of the formation, 276 snaps on the left side of the formation, and 387 snaps on the slot in 2017.

Tyrell Williams had a 43/728/4 slash line as the #2 receiver opposite Keenan Allen last season and led the team with a 69/1059/7 slash line as the #1 receiver in Allen’s absence in 2016, but he has plenty of competition for snaps. His biggest competition will come from 2017 7th overall pick Mike Williams. Back problems limited him to 234 underwhelming snaps as a rookie, but the Chargers still love his upside and have big expectations for him in his 2nd season in the league. Tyrell Williams has been a reliable target for Rivers, but the former undrafted free agent has only been about a league average receiver on PFF and Mike Williams possesses a much higher upside.

The Chargers also still have veteran speedster Travis Benjamin in the mix. Signed to a 4-year, 24 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, Benjamin has averaged 15.4 yards per catch on 81 catches in 2 seasons with the Chargers as a rotational deep threat (56.3% of the snaps). He has the versatility to play inside and outside and should have a similar role in 2018, even with Williams pushing for a much larger role. Given their lack of receiving options at tight end, all 4 receivers should play significant roles. This is still a good receiving corps, but they have a glaring hole at tight end.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

The Chargers also figure to incorporate their running backs into the passing game heavily again. Rivers loves checking down to running backs and that is unlikely to change now that he doesn’t have a reliable tight end over the middle. He threw 132 of his 583 attempts to running backs last season and that number could easily be 150+ in 2018. Gordon received 83 of those targets, catching 58 passes for 476 yards and 4 touchdowns, but it could be more of an even 50/50 split between Gordon and second year passing down back Austin Ekeler in 2018.

Gordon is a capable receiver, but he also handles 17-20 carries per game and Ekeler flashed on 195 snaps as a rookie. Despite running just 122 routes, Ekeler caught 27 passes for 279 yards and 3 touchdowns (2.29 yards per route run, 4th in the NFL among running backs) and he also averaged 5.53 yards per carry on 47 carries. The Western State undrafted free agent still has a lot to prove, but Rivers has always liked having a reliable 3rd down back like Darren Sproles and Danny Woodhead and Ekeler flashed some of that same ability as a rookie. Undersized at 5-10 200, he’s not a threat to Gordon’s workload as a runner, but will mix in as a change of pace back and could easily have 40+ catches.

Gordon has averaged just 3.80 yards per carry on 722 carries in 3 seasons in the league, but a lot of that can be blamed on the offensive lines he’s run behind. He’s a solid all-around back and has finished in the top-13 among running backs on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 2 seasons. Only going into his age 25 season, Gordon could easily have his best season in 2018. The Chargers also added Northwestern running back Justin Jackson in the 7th round of the draft and he could prove to be a steal long-term, but he’s also not an immediate threat to Gordon’s workload. He could finish with more carries than Ekeler if he proves himself though.

One area the Chargers really need to improve is goal line carries, as they punched in just 5 of 19 carries from inside 5 yards last season. As the result, they ranked just 28th in red zone offense, scoring touchdowns on just 46.81% of their red zone trips. That, coupled with their poor kicking, really hurt this team offensively. They had the 5th most first downs in the league, but just 38 offensive touchdowns, 10th in the NFL, and 22.2 points per game, 13th in the NFL.

Their inability to score from in close can largely be blamed on their offensive line, but it’s also something that is inconsistent on a year-to-year basis, so the Chargers could be better in that metric even if they don’t get better offensive line play. Case in point, the Chargers punched in 9 of 20 carries from inside 5 yards and scored on 51.61% of red zone trips in 2016 (21st in the NFL), even with offensive line issues. Melvin Gordon had 10 rushing touchdowns in 13 games in 2016, but that dropped to 8 in 16 games in 2017. They should be more effective in close next season and that alone should add a few touchdowns to their total. This is a solid backfield.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

Their offensive line should be better in 2018 as well. Left tackle Russell Okung was their only starting offensive lineman to earn a positive grade in 2017. Signed to a 4-year, 53 million dollar deal the previous off-season, Okung stabilized a position that had been an issue for a long-term, finishing 33rd among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 15 starts. His age and injury history are concerns though, as he’s going into his age 31 season and has only played all 16 games once in 8 seasons in the league (25 games missed total). He’s also been inconsistent throughout his career, getting negative grades from PFF in 4 of 8 seasons, including as recently as 2016, when he finished 63rd among offensive tackles out of 83 eligible. He’s not a guarantee to be as good in 2018.

Fortunately, the rest of this offensive line should better. Right guard and center were their biggest positions of weakness in 2017, as Kenny Wiggins and Spencer Pulley made all 16 starts and finished 78th among 80 eligible guards and 37th among 38 eligible centers respectively. They’ll be replaced by Forrest Lamp, a second year player returning from a torn ACL, and Maurkice Pouncey, a veteran center who was signed to a 2-year, 15 million dollar deal this off-season. Lamp was the 38th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft before the injury and still has a bright future. He could easily be a major upgrade over Wiggins.

Pouncey is also an injury concern, as he’s dealt with hip injuries for years, part of why the Dolphins opted to release the 3-time Pro Bowler, rather than paying him 8 million non-guaranteed. The Chargers gave him a good contract, so they don’t seem too concerned about his durability, but he missed 17 games from 2014-2016 and was not the same player in 2017. He made all 16 starts, but finished 34th among 38 eligible centers and reportedly may need further surgery long-term. He’s only going into his age 29 season and he finished 11th among centers as recently as 2016, but he’s finished below average on PFF in 3 of the last 4 season and seems to be breaking down physically. He has upside and it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over Pulley, but he’s a risky signing.

The Chargers also might get a bounce back year from right tackle Joe Barksdale, who finished 66th among 76 eligible offensive tackles on PFF in 2017. He also struggled in 2016, finishing 63th among 83 eligible, but he earned positive grades in 3 straight seasons from 2013-2015 and is an experienced starter with 71 starts in the past 5 seasons. Going into his age 30 season, Barksdale’s best days may be behind him, but he’s not completely over the hill yet so he could easily be better in 2018, especially if he can stay healthier. Left guard Dan Feeney could also be better, after struggling in 9 starts as a 3rd round rookie in 2017. He could still develop into a capable starter or better. This is an improved offensive line, but they still have some issues and they need to stay healthier.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

While the Chargers will likely be more efficient in the red zone on offense, they might not be quite as good on defense, as they allowed opponents to score touchdowns on just 36.11% of red zone trips, best in the NFL. However, they also allowed opponents to pick up first downs at just a 31.09% rate (4th in the NFL), so they should remain a strong defense regardless. Their strength defensively last season was their pass defense, as they had a great secondary and arguably the best pass rush duo in the league in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. They allowed just 6.02 yards per pass attempt, 4th best in the NFL.

Both Bosa and Ingram are former first round picks, Ingram going 18th overall in 2012 and Bosa going 3rd overall in 2016, and both made all 16 starts in 2017, in their first season in their new 4-3 defense. Bosa and Ingram combined for 23 sacks, 23 hits, and 102 hurries and finished 1st and 3rd respectively among 4-3 defensive ends in pass rush grade. Neither is a one year wonder either, as Ingram has ranked in the top-11 at his position in 3 straight seasons and Bosa finished 3rd among 3-4 outside linebackers as a rookie in 2016.

They should both play well again in 2018, with Ingram in the prime of his career in his age 29 season and Bosa possibly still getting better in his age 23 season. If he continues improving, Bosa could be one of the best defensive players in the league for years to come. They also added USC’s Uchenna Nwosu in the 2nd round of the draft and he figures to be their primary reserve at the position, giving them even more depth. Tenny Palepoi and Chris McCain were their top reserves in 2017 with 269 snaps and 240 snaps respectively, but both struggled.

Against the run, on the other hand, the Chargers’ defense did a terrible job, allowing an average of 4.88 yards per carry on the season, highest in the NFL. While their pass rushers and secondary were strong, they had major issues at defensive tackle and linebacker and their defensive ends did not play the run all that well either. Brandon Mebane (535 snaps), Darius Philon (509 snaps), Corey Liuget (415 snaps), and Damion Square (362 snaps) rotated at defensive tackle, but three of them (Mebane, Philon, and Square) earned negative grades, including Mebane, who finished 76th out of 79 eligible defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus.

Liuget was the only one who finished with a positive grade, but he was still forced to take a significant pay cut this off-season to stay on the roster, going from 8 million to 3.715 million. Signed to a 5-year, 51.25 million dollar extension in 2015, despite being about a league average starter for his career, Liuget earned negative grades in 4 straight seasons before 2017 and his positive grade in 2017 came on only 415 snaps, hardly a role deserving of his salary. Liuget could still be a useful rotational player in 2018, but he’s also suspended for the first 4 games of the season for performance enhancing drugs and has never been consistent in his career.

Mebane, Philon, and Square also return, but it’s possible they all struggle again, so the Chargers used a 3rd round pick on NC State defensive tackle Justin Jones and will have close to an open competition for snaps at the position. Mebane played the most snaps in 2017, but he was also the worst of the three and is now going into his age 33 season. He was an above average starter in his prime, but he’s earned negative grades from PFF in 3 of the past 4 seasons and his best days are clearly behind him.

Philon and Square, meanwhile, have never been anything more than rotational players and have never earned a positive grade from PFF for a season either. Undrafted in 2013, Square’s 362 snaps in 2017 were a career high, while Philon has averaged about 309 snaps per season in 3 seasons in the league since going in the 6th round in 2015. I wouldn’t expect much from either this season. Unless the rookie Justin Jones has a surprise breakout year, defensive tackle figures to continue being a position of weakness, but this defensive line is also led arguably the best pass rush duo in the NFL.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The Chargers’ linebackers also struggled last season. Part of that is because Denzel Perryman missed 9 games with injury, including the first 8 of the season with an ankle injury, and didn’t play well while on the field, as he was likely never 100%. A 2nd round pick in 2015, Perryman was a good run stuffer in a part-time role in his first 2 seasons in the league and has bounce back potential if he’s healthy in 2018, which would help this team against the run, but he’s unlikely to be an every down player because of his issues in coverage.

They’ll need him to be healthy, because they didn’t really do anything to address the linebacker position this off-season. In Perryman’s absence last season, this linebacking corps was led in snaps by Jatavis Brown (504 snaps) and Hayes Pullard (474 snaps) and backup safety Adrian Philips also played 393 of his 519 snaps as a linebacker, primarily in sub packages. All three players earned negative grades.

Brown has by far the most potential of the trio, as he’s earned a positive coverage grade in both seasons in the league, since going in the 5th round in 2016, but the 5-11 221 pounder has major issues in run defense, which is why he fell in the draft in the first place. After trying him in an every down role as a rookie, Brown played just 48.1% of the snaps in 16 games in 2017 as a pure coverage specialist. He’s valuable in that role and could continue improving, but it’s unclear if he will ever develop into a true every down linebacker.

Phillips also figures to continue seeing heavy snaps as a linebacker in coverage situations. The 5-11 210 pounder earned a positive coverage grade in 2017, but, like Brown, he is also a liability against the run and has earned a negative overall grade in all 4 seasons in the league, since going undrafted in 2014. He could be pushed for his role by 2017 4th round pick Rayshawn Jenkins, a 6-1 220 pounder who flashed on 76 snaps as a rookie.

That likely leaves Hayes Pullard to play in base packages, even though he finished 49th among 52 eligible middle linebackers in 2017 on 474 snaps. The 2015 7th round pick played just 186 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league and does not have a high upside as a defensive player. He’s neither good against the run nor in coverage, but the Chargers will be counting on him for a big role as a base package run stuffer, for lack of a better option.

Kyle Emanuel will likely remain the 3rd linebacker in base packages. Like Pullard and Perryman, he’s purely a base package run stuffer, as the 6-3 250 pounder is a converted defensive end. He’s never done much as a pass rusher, but is a capable run stuffer in a limited role. With the Chargers frequently in sub packages using 5 defensive backs, Emanuel played just 301 snaps in 2017 and could be pushed for his role by Uchenna Nwosu, who has the versatility to play both base package outside linebacker and sub package defensive end in a 4-3 defense. The Chargers may also use Emanuel and Nwosu together in base packages, as they try to patchwork together a linebacking corps that once again looks thin.

Grade: C

Secondary

This secondary was by far the strength of this defense. It came as a bit of a surprise, as Jason Verrett, who the Chargers were counting on as a starter in his first season back from a torn ACL, re-injured his knee week 1 and needed another surgery. Verrett was a first round pick in 2014 and was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked cornerback in 2015, but he’s been limited to just 25 of 64 games in 4 seasons in the league by a variety of injuries and returns to a secondary where he’s probably the 4th cornerback, given how well their top-3 cornerbacks played in his absence last season. Stuck with him at a 8.526 million dollar salary that is guaranteed for injury, the Chargers may be viewing anything they get from him in 2018 as a bonus.

Casey Hayward, Trevor Williams, and Desmond King were their top-3 cornerbacks last season and they all played well in a significant role. Hayward made all 16 starts, Williams made all 15 starts after Verrett got hurt, and Desmond King played 716 snaps as the 3rd cornerback, despite playing just 3 snaps week 1. They ranked 1st, 10th, and 12th respectively among cornerbacks on PFF. Hayward is clearly their top cornerback and may be the top cornerback in the entire NFL. In addition to his dominant 2017 campaign, Hayward also ranked 6th among cornerbacks on PFF in 2016 and flashed in limited action as a depth cornerback with the Packers in his first 4 seasons in the league.

Completely overlooked by the entire league as a free agent two off-seasons ago, despite being a 2nd round pick in 2012, the Chargers got Hayward on a steal of a deal, 15.3 million over 3 years and he’s still a good value even after they gave him a 3-year, 33.25 million dollar extension this off-season, ahead of what would have been the final year of his original 3-year deal. He’s only the 12th highest paid cornerback in the NFL in average annual salary. Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, Hayward has played all 16 games in 5 of 6 seasons in the league and should continue his strong play into 2018.

Williams and King, meanwhile, are much less proven. Williams went undrafted in 2016 and struggled on 389 snaps before his breakout 2017 season, which could easily prove to be a fluke. King, meanwhile, was a mere 5th round rookie last season. They could both keep playing well into 2018 and develop into consistently good players long-term, but that’s far from a guarantee. Verrett may prove useful as insurance. This is arguably the deepest cornerback group in the NFL.

The Chargers also got good play at safety, with Jahleel Addae and Tre Boston both making all 16 starts and finishing 22nd and 36th respectively among safeties. That was a bit of a surprise too, as neither was a proven player coming into the season. Boston was not retained as a free agent, as the Chargers were not willing to pay him what he wanted based off of just one year, but they got a gift handed to them when Derwin James fell to the with the 17th overall pick. James is a plug and play every down safety that can replace Boston and possibly even be an upgrade immediately. He could develop into one of the better safeties in the league in a few years.

James is also a good fit with Addae, because Addae is best as a box safety and played 89.9% of his snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage in 2017, 5th in the NFL, while James is best in deep coverage and is replacing a player in Tre Boston who played just 14.8% of his snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage, 3rd fewest in the NFL. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley comes from the Pete Carroll coaching tree and uses his safeties in a very similar way, one box safety in the Kam Chancellor role, one deep safety in the Earl Thomas role.

Addae is not Kam Chancellor, but the 2013 undrafted free agent has developed into a capable starter, making 43 starts in 5 seasons in the league, including 36 in the past 3 seasons, and finishing above average on PFF in 3 of 5 seasons, including each of the past two seasons. He should have another solid season in Bradley’s scheme again in 2018. With Pete Carroll’s Legion of Boom falling apart, it’s possible Bradley has the best secondary in the NFL with the Chargers. They’ll need young players to continue playing well, but Hayward is arguably the top cornerback in the NFL, Derwin James is a perfect fit as a replacement for Tre Boston, and the return of Jason Verrett from injury could prove to be valuable.

Grade: A

Conclusion

I had higher expectations for this team before the Hunter Henry injury, as not having a reliable tight end for the first time in his career could be a problem for Philip Rivers, but this was one of the better teams in the league last season, despite an underwhelming roster, and looks like a very competitive roster on paper again in 2018. They’ll need to be better on special teams and can’t afford too many more major injuries, but they look like the early favorite in the tough AFC West. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC West

Oakland Raiders at Los Angeles Chargers: 2017 Week 17 NFL Pick

Oakland Raiders (6-9) at Los Angeles Chargers (8-7)

I’ve bet the Chargers frequently this season, as they’ve been on my underrated list all season. They are just 8-7, but they have a point differential of +63 that ranks 10th in the NFL and they have 43 more first downs and 8 more offensive touchdowns than they’ve allowed, giving them a first down rate differential of +5.09%, 5th best in the NFL. However, I’ve always been hesitant to bet them at home (where they are 3-4 ATS this season, as opposed to 6-2 ATS on the road), given that they’ve had a lot of trouble attracting home fans in their first season in Los Angeles. This week is no exception, especially since they are hosting the Raiders, who still have a ton of fans in Los Angeles from when they used to play there in the 80s and 90s.

With that in mind, I really like the Raiders to cover in this one and not just because the crowd will be on their side. The Raiders are also an underrated team that has been better than their 6-9 record, as they rank 13th in first down rate differential at +0.78%, despite Derek Carr missing time with injury early in the season. That’s actually a better first down rate differential than they had last season, when they finished 19th at -0.49%, despite finishing with a 12-4 record.

The big difference between 2016 and 2017 for the Raiders is turnover margin, as they finished tied for first in turnover margin at +16 last season, but rank 4th worst in the league this season at -12. Turnover margins tend to be unpredictable on a week-to-week basis and year-to-year basis, so I don’t hold that against them too much (case in point, the 2016 and 2017 Raiders). Just like they weren’t as good as their record suggested last season, they aren’t as bad as their record suggests this season. We’re getting good value with them as 7.5 point underdogs in Los Angeles against the Chargers, especially when you take into account the Chargers’ lack of homefield advantage.

The Raiders are also in a couple of great spots. For one, this is a revenge game for them, as the Chargers narrowly defeated them in Oakland earlier this season when the Raiders missed a 4th quarter extra point that ended up being the margin of victory (17-16). Road underdogs are 68-39 ATS since 2002 in regular season divisional revenge games against a team that previously defeated them earlier in the season as road underdogs, as the Chargers were in Oakland.

On top of that, road underdogs are 122-81 ATS since 2008 in their second of two road games after a road loss and the Raiders are coming off of a road loss in Philadelphia. That trend results from the fact that teams typically do better in their second of two road games than they do in an average road game, but lines don’t really adjust for that. Teams are 262-283 straight up in their 2nd of two road games since 2008, getting outscored by an average of 0.96 points per game. On average, road teams get outscored by about 2.60 points per game over that same time period, a difference of about 2 points.

The Raiders are dealing with a major injury with left tackle Donald Penn out for the season, but no one is completely healthy at this point in the season and, even with Penn out, they are relatively healthy. The Chargers have their own injury issues, as they were without left tackle Russell Okung, middle linebacker Denzel Perryman, tight end Hunter Henry, and defensive tackle Corey Liuget in an underwhelming performance against the lowly Jets last week.

Okung, Liuget, and Perryman have a chance to return for this game, but none of them practiced in full during the week, so all three are still major question marks, as is running back Melvin Gordon, who left last week with an ankle injury and only got in limited practices on Thursday and Friday this week. Even if all 4 somehow play, they’re unlikely to be 100% and Henry, a valuable pass catcher and run blocker, remains out. The Raiders are my Pick of the Week.

Los Angeles Chargers 24 Oakland Raiders 20

Pick against the spread: Oakland +7.5

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Los Angeles Chargers at New York Jets: 2017 Week 16 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (7-7) at New York Jets (5-9)

The Chargers lost last week 30-13 in Kansas City, but the game was closer than the final score suggested. The Chargers actually led 13-10 in the 3rd quarter before turning the ball over on 4 straight possessions. Turnover margins tend to be unpredictable on a week-to-week basis though (teams that have a -4 turnover margin, on average, have a turnover margin of +0.0 the following week), so I don’t expect the Chargers’ turnover problems to continue into this week. They are still +7 in turnover margin on the season anyway and they are facing a Jets team that is starting backup quarterback Bryce Petty, who has thrown at least one interception in each of his first 5 career starts.

This line dropped from 10 on the early line last week to 6.5 this week, crossing two key numbers (7 and 10), which is a huge overreaction to the Chargers’ loss in Kansas City. I am still very high on the Chargers, who still have a +56 point differential on the season, despite the 17-point loss last week. If you exclude their 2 games against the Chiefs, who seem to have their number and who won the turnover battle by 7 in their 2 games, that point differential is +87. They are just 7-7, but their other 5 losses have come by a combined 18 points, with three of them coming against the Eagles, Patriots, and Jaguars, who are among the best teams in the NFL.

In first down rate differential, they are even better, as they rank 4th in the NFL at +4.80%, despite the middling record. Making that even more impressive is the fact that they have next to no homefield advantage in Los Angeles. With a reasonable homefield advantage and better luck in close games, they could easily be 9-5 and in the driver’s seat in the AFC West, despite the two losses to the Chiefs. Outside of Los Angeles, the Chargers have been a great team against the spread this season, going 5-2 ATS, with one of their non-covers coming in an 8-point loss in New England as 7.5-point underdogs. That actually dates back a few years, as the Chargers had next to no homefield advantage in their final years in San Diego. Since 2015, they are 15-8 ATS on the road.

The Jets have had success at home this season, going 6-1 ATS, with the one non-cover coming in a 8-point loss as 6-point underdogs against the Panthers, a game in which the Jets led until the Panthers had two return touchdowns in the fourth quarter. This is where I think their home success runs out. Not only are the Chargers a great road team, but this isn’t the same team without quarterback Josh McCown, who is out for the season with a broken hand. McCown was having one of the best seasons of his career prior to going down and was the main reason this team was surprisingly winning some games, despite having one of the weakest rosters in the NFL.

Petty, meanwhile, is arguably the worst starting quarterback in the NFL. Outside of the Browns and maybe the Colts, the Jets are the worst team in the league right now with Petty under center. I still have this line at -10, so I’ll happily take the Chargers at -6.5, especially since the Jets are in a very tough spot with a game in New England on deck. Underdogs of 6+ are 39-60 ATS since 2014 before being underdogs of 6+ again, as it’s very tough for inferior teams to compete against superior teams when they have a tough upcoming game. On top of that, teams are just 32-52 ATS since 2014 before being double digit underdogs. If the Jets get down big early, they could quit in this meaningless game with a bigger game on deck. This is my Pick of the Week.

Los Angeles Chargers 24 New York Jets 10

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers -6.5

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Los Angeles Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs: 2017 Week 15 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (7-6) at Kansas City Chiefs (7-6)

When these two teams met in week 3, the Chiefs won 24-10 in Los Angeles, but the game was closer than the final score suggested. It was a 17-10 game until Kareem Hunt busted a largely meaningless 69-yard touchdown run to push the score to 24-10, when a simple first down would have allowed them to run out the clock. That’s despite the fact that the Chiefs dominated the turnover margin in that game with a +3 margin. In terms of first downs, the Chargers finished with a 24-16 advantage. Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week basis anyway, so I wouldn’t expect the Chiefs to win the turnover battle by 3 again, especially since the Chiefs are just +4 in turnover margin since that week 3 game, while the Chargers are +13.

A lot has changed since that matchup, as the Chiefs were 3-0 following their victory, while the Chargers fell to 0-3. Now both teams are 7-6 and competing for the AFC West title. Despite their equal records, I have the Chargers ranked significantly higher. The Chargers’ 6 losses have come by a combined 32 points, while their 7 wins have come by a combined 105 points, giving them a point differential of +73 that ranks 7th in the NFL. In first down rate differential, they are even better, ranking 2nd only behind the Eagles at +5.15%.

Making all of that even more impressive is the fact that the Chargers are doing this without a real homefield advantage in Los Angeles. For example, in their home loss to the Chiefs, the crowd was primarily Kansas City fans. Given that, it’s no surprise that they have a strong against the spread record on the road this season, going 5-1 ATS, with their one non-cover coming in an 8-point loss as 7.5 point underdogs in New England. If they had better luck in close games (1-4 in games decided by a field goal or less) and an actual homefield advantage, they could easily be 9-4 or 10-3 right now. They are much better than their record and legitimate contenders in a wide open league.

The Chiefs are a solid team, but they rank 11th in point differential and 21st in first down rate differential, both significantly worse than the Chargers. They also have struggled for most of the past couple months. They won last week at home against the Raiders, but they are still just 2-6 with losses to the Bills, Giants, and Jets since their 5-0 start, while the Chargers are 7-2 since their 0-4 start, with their two losses coming only against the Jaguars and Patriots, both strong teams in the AFC. Given how good the Chargers have been away from home, I have them favored by 4 points here in Kansas City, so we’re getting significant line value with the Chargers on an even line. They are the smart pick in this key divisional matchup.

Los Angeles Chargers 24 Kansas City Chiefs 20

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers PK

Confidence: High

Washington Redskins at Los Angeles Chargers: 2017 Week 14 NFL Pick

Washington Redskins (5-7) at Los Angeles Chargers (6-6)

The Redskins are only 5-7, but they’ve also faced the 2nd toughest strength of schedule in the NFL thus far. Unfortunately for them, their schedule doesn’t get much easier this week. The Chargers are only 6-6, but they rank 10th in point differential at +56 and 7th in first down rate differential at +4.28%. The Redskins have had some success against top level teams this season though, with wins in Los Angeles against the Rams and in Seattle against the Seahawks and a near win in New Orleans against the Saints.

They lost by 24 in Dallas last week, but that was on a Thursday night and the game was closer than the final score. That loss also puts them in a good spot, as road underdogs tend to cover in their 2nd of two road games off of a loss. Teams are 121-78 ATS in that spot since 2008. That’s because teams typically do better in their second of two road games, as opposed to a single road game sandwiched between two home games, but lines don’t really adjust for that. Teams are 256-274 straight up in their 2nd of two road games since 2008, getting outscored by an average of 0.89 points per game, as opposed to 379-523 straight up in a road game that’s sandwiched between two home games, getting outscored by an average of 2.94 points per game, a difference of about 2 points.

On top of that, the Redskins are also in a much better spot than the Chargers because, while the Chargers have a game that could decide the division next week in Kansas City, the Redskins have one of their easier games of the season next week, at home against the Arizona Cardinals. The Redskins are expected to be 6 point favorites in that game, according to the early line, while the Chargers are expected to be 2 point underdogs in Kansas City.

Underdogs are 67-41 ATS since 2014 before being favorites when their opponent will next be underdogs and underdogs of 6+ are 44-33 ATS since 2008 before being favorites of 6+ the following week. Both of those trends are in play here. With a tough upcoming game, the Chargers could overlook the Redskins a little bit, while the Redskins should be completely focused. The Chargers also draw very few home fans in Los Angeles and have very little homefield advantage as a result, so the Redskins have a very good shot to give them a tough game. They are worth a small bet at +6.

Los Angeles Chargers 23 Washington Redskins 20

Pick against the spread: Washington +6

Confidence: Medium

Cleveland Browns at Los Angeles Chargers: 2017 Week 13 NFL Pick

Cleveland Browns (0-11) at Los Angeles Chargers (5-6)

The Chargers have been underrated for a while, but the public seems to be finally catching on. They started 0-4, but 3 of those 4 losses came by 3 points or fewer, including 2 in which they missed makeable field goals. They’ve also played better on the road than at home this season, going 3-2 with close losses to the Patriots and Jaguars, as opposed to 2-4 at home, but that’s not a huge surprise, considering they have no home fans in Los Angeles. Despite that, they rank 10th in the league in point differential and 5th in the league in first down rate differential. They could easily be 7-4 or 8-3 right now with better luck in close games and an actual homefield advantage.

That being said, I think this line is actually too high at 13.5. The Chargers still likely won’t have much of homefield advantage and I don’t think they’re 12-13 points better than the Browns. The Browns obviously haven’t won all season, but their defense has played better in recent weeks with Jason McCourty and Myles Garrett back healthy, while the offense gets Josh Gordon back this week after getting Corey Coleman back a few weeks ago, much needed additions to a once paper-thin receiving corps. Deshone Kizer is such a bad quarterback that he might screw it all up again, but the Browns have a good chance to keep this one close if they can avoid turning it over too much.

Los Angeles Chargers 20 Cleveland Browns 10

Pick against the spread: Cleveland +13.5

Confidence: Low

Los Angeles Chargers at Dallas Cowboys: 2017 Week 12 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (4-6) at Dallas Cowboys (5-5)

When I saw the Chargers were 4-point underdogs last week on the early line in Dallas in this Thanksgiving game, I liked them a lot. However, in the past week, the Cowboys were blown out at home by the Eagles, their second straight big loss without suspended feature back Ezekiel Elliott, and the Chargers blew out the Bills, who started overwhelmed 5th round rookie quarterback Nathan Peterman. I can’t complain too much about those outcomes because I picked both the Chargers and the Eagles last week, but, as a result, we’ve lost a ton of line value with the Chargers, who now enter now as 1 point favorites.

The public has completely soured on the Cowboys after back-to-back big blowout losses in nationally televised games, but the Cowboys will likely get talented left tackle Tyron Smith back from injury this week. The common thinking is that the Cowboys’ struggles in the last two weeks are primarily as a result of the loss of Elliott, but, considering how bad Smith’s backups have been, I think Smith was a bigger loss for this offense. Even if he’s not at 100%, his return is huge for this offense. Dak Prescott is a much better quarterback when he isn’t under pressure all game and Alfred Morris has done a decent job as the lead runner in Elliott’s absence.

The Chargers are still the better team even with Smith healthy though, as they rank 6th in first down rate on the season +3.66%, despite an underwhelming 4-6 record. Four of their 6 losses have come by 3 points or less, including two games in which they missed makeable field goals. Overall, they’re actually pretty impressive, considering their lack of homefield advantage in their new home in Los Angeles. With better luck in close games and an actual home field advantage, they could easily be 6-4 or 7-3 right now. Away from Los Angeles, they are 4-1 ATS this season, with their one non-cover coming in an 8-point loss as 7.5 point underdogs. That’s been a trend for them since their San Diego days, as they are 14-7 ATS on the road since 2015.

The Cowboys also have had no homefield advantage in recent years, but for different reasons. Because they tend to attract fans throughout the country, their advantage at home significantly less and that’s noticeable in the numbers. They are 33-28 on the road since 2010 (35-26 ATS), with a scoring differential of -0.07 per game, as opposed to 31-32 at home (22-41 ATS), with a scoring differential of +1.27 per game. Homefield advantage hasn’t even counted for a full point for them over the past 7 seasons. They’ll also still be without linebacker Sean Lee, who is arguably their most important defensive player. Given all of that, I have the Chargers about 3 points better than the Cowboys and I have this line calculated at about -2 or -2.5. We aren’t getting much line value with the Chargers, but they should be the right side for pick ‘em pool purposes.

Los Angeles Chargers 23 Dallas Cowboys 20

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers -1

Confidence: Low