Jacksonville Jaguars at Los Angeles Chargers: 2020 Week 7 NFL Pick

Jacksonville Jaguars (1-5) at Los Angeles Chargers (1-4)

Chargers rookie quarterback Justin Herbert hasn’t won a game yet in his four career starts, but the Chargers have been competitive in all four losses, including games against top level teams in the Chiefs, Buccaneers, and Saints, all three of whom the Chargers led in the first half. That’s more or less been the story for the Chargers over the past two seasons, as they are just 6-15, but have lost a ridiculous 13 games by one score or less (3-13 overall in such games). In fact, in games decided by more than one score, the Chargers are actually 3-2 over the past two seasons, including a blowout 45-10 victory over the Jaguars last year.

This rematch could easily be a similarly easy victory, as the Jaguars are still one of the worst teams in the league. They finished last season dead last in first down rate differential at -6.64% and in 2020 it’s been all downhill since a fluke week 1 win over the Colts, as they’ve been outscored by 61 points over their past 5 games, despite a mediocre schedule. Their offense hasn’t been horrible, but their defense has allowed a league worst 44.27% first down rate and are every bit that bad on paper as well, especially with top linebacker Myles Jack and top safety Jarrad Wilson out with injuries. 

When adjusted for schedule, only the Jets have a worse first down rate differential than the Jaguars’ -6.79% rate and the Jaguars are arguably even worse than that suggests, while the Chargers have a +1.49% first down rate differential when adjusted for schedule and are getting healthier, with defensive linemen Justin Jones and Melvin Ingram and probably right tackle Bryan Bulaga set to return this week. This line might be a little high at 7.5, but if Bulaga is confirmed playing or this line drops to a touchdown, I would consider a bet on the Chargers.

Los Angeles Chargers 27 Jacksonville Jaguars 17

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers -7.5

Confidence: Low

Los Angeles Chargers at New Orleans Saints: 2020 Week 5 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (1-3) at New Orleans Saints (2-2)

This is one of three games that will be played Monday/Tuesday this week and all three games are impossible to make a call on right now because the status of so many players is unknown. In the other two games (Bills/Titans and Patriots/Broncos) the uncertainty is because otherwise healthy players are on the COVID inactive list and could be activated before the game if they can pass protocol. 

In this game, the uncertainty is because the Saints have several players who could return from injury that are listed questionable and practiced all week, but only in a limited fashion, including top wide receiver Michael Thomas, starting defensive end Marcus Davenport, top cornerback Marshon Lattimore, starting tight end Jared Cook, and starting guard Andrus Peat. This game has a line posted, but it’s impossible to pick a side without knowing the status of the aforementioned players.

If the Saints are relatively healthy, I’ll likely bet on them, possibly for a big play. They’ve gotten off to a slow start this season, but they typically start slow before going on a run (4-17-1 ATS in weeks 1-2 since 2010, as opposed to 86-54-2 in weeks 3-17) and if they’re relatively healthy they’re still among the most talented teams in the league. The Chargers, meanwhile, are beat up on both sides of the ball, missing feature back Austin Ekeler, the right side of their offensive line in Trai Turner and Bryan Bulaga, starting defensive end Melvin Ingram, starting cornerback Chris Harris, and possibly #2 wide receiver Mike Williams, not to mention safety Derwin James and linebacker Drue Tranquill, who have been out all season. 

The Chargers don’t get blown out often (just 2 of their last 14 losses coming by more than one score), so they can keep this game close if the Saints are also going to be banged up, but I like a healthy Saints team to win this game with ease, if that ends up being the case. I’m tentatively on the Saints for a low confidence pick, but I’ll have an update for this on Monday, when I will hopefully have more clarity on the other two games as well.

Final Update: The Saints will have all of the aforementioned questionable players except Michael Thomas, who apparently could have gone but was suspended for a fight in practice. Thomas’ absence will hurt, as will starting cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who was ruled out earlier in the week, but this is arguably as healthy as the Saints have been all season, seeing as their injury problems started in week 1. Despite that, this line has dropped down to a touchdown. The Saints also have one advantage that I didn’t mention above, which is that they are going into a bye and home favorites of 7+ are 63-25 ATS before a bye since 2002.

The Chargers typically play teams close and will have wide receiver Mike Williams active, but they’re still so banged up on both sides of the ball, while the Saints are getting healthy quickly and could easily be starting to go on their annual mid-season run. I have 10 points of separation in my roster rankings between these two teams in their current state, so we’re getting significant line value with the host at only -7 and in a great spot as well. I like this for a high confidence pick.

New Orleans Saints 30 Los Angeles Chargers 17

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -7

Confidence: High

Los Angeles Chargers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2020 Week 4 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (1-2) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1)

The Buccaneers lost week one in New Orleans, but that was primarily due to the Buccaneers having a -3 turnover margin, which is not a predictable week-to-week metric. The Buccaneers actually won the first down rate battle by 8.18% in that game and they have gone on to defeat the Panthers and Broncos by a combined 32 points in the two weeks since. Overall, the Buccaneers rank 2nd in the NFL with a +6.31% first down rate differential. 

The Buccaneers haven’t had the toughest schedule, but I had high expectations for them coming into the season and, if anything I’ve been more impressed with them because of how they’ve achieved that 2nd ranked first down rate differential. While their offense has been nothing to write home about, ranking 21st in first down rate at 37.43%, their defense has led the league with a 31.12% first down rate allowed. 

Their offense figures to get better as the season goes on, given they have a lot of new parts to integrate, so it’s great to see their defense pick up right where they left off down the stretch last season, when they had the 4th lowest first down rate allowed in the league during the final 8 weeks of the season, in large part due to the development of their young secondary, which had previously struggled mightily. This might not be the best defense in the league all season, or even top-5, but their expected offensive improvement should more than offset that and it’s clear that this is a balanced team that can win a lot of different kinds of games.

This week, the Buccaneers host a banged up Chargers team, which is missing starting cornerback Chris Harris, starting edge defender Melvin Ingram, starting wide receiver Mike Williams, and the right side of their offensive line, guard Trai Turner and right tackle Bryan Bulaga, in addition to stud safety Derwin James, who has been out since training camp. The Buccaneers aren’t at full strength either with Chris Godwin out, but they still have Mike Evans and other weapons and they haven’t had their receiving corps at full strength really all season, so their injury situation isn’t really comparable to the Chargers’ situation, which primarily involves new injuries as of the past week. 

I have the Buccaneers 10 points better than the Chargers in their current injury situation, as they are one of the top teams in the league facing off against a team that is in the bottom third without their key absences. Given that, we’re getting a lot of value with the Buccaneers as mere 6.5-point home favorites. This is a team that could easily start to go on a big run and they should be able to win this game by at least a touchdown, if not possibly a lot more. This is my Pick of the Week.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 23 Los Angeles Chargers 10

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay -6.5

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Carolina Panthers at Los Angeles Chargers: 2020 Week 3 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (0-2) at Los Angeles Chargers (1-1)

This is the toughest game of the week for me, as I have the line calculated right at 6.5, which is where it is on the board, and there aren’t any situational edges on either side. The Panthers are one of the worst teams in the league without their top offensive player Chrisitan McCaffrey and their top defensive lineman Kawaan Short, but the Chargers have a raw, unproven quarterback under center in Justin Herbert and, while he showed some success against the Chiefs last week after regular starter Tyrod Taylor was a late scratch with a medical issue, I wonder how much he benefited from the Chiefs game planning for a different kind of quarterback all week. 

Herbert will have a full week with the first team in practice this week, which he didn’t have last week, but the Panthers also won’t be caught off guard by him and at least have some professional tape of him in this offense. Ultimately, I’m taking the Chargers since the most likely outcome is then winning by a touchdown, but the Panthers could easily keep it closer and they have the kind of offense, even without McCaffrey, that is very capable of a backdoor garbage cover late in the game.

Los Angeles Chargers 24 Carolina Panthers 17

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers -6.5

Confidence: None

Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Chargers: 2020 Week 2 NFL Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (1-0) at Los Angeles Chargers (1-0)

The Chargers snuck out a close victory in Cincinnati last week, on the strength of a +2 turnover margin. That was certainly not the norm last season, as the Chargers finished with a 2-9 record in games decided by 8 points or less and had a league worst -17 turnover margin on the season. It’s not unexpected though, as turnover margin and close game record tend to be highly inconsistent year-to-year. Case in point, the Chargers were 6-1 in games decided by 8 or less and had a +1 turnover margin in 2018, with largely the same roster as 2019.

The Chargers only finished 5-11 last season, but they actually ranked 7th in the NFL in first down rate differential (not far behind their 2nd ranked finish in 2018), which bodes well for their chances in 2020, as first down rate is a much more predictive stat than turnover margin or close game record. I wouldn’t expect the Chargers to be as good this season in first down rate differential, downgrading from Philip Rivers to Tyrod Taylor under center, and they haven’t started the season with better injury luck, losing stud safety Derwin James for the season after he missed 11 games last season, but Taylor is better than most give him credit for, now in an offense that fits his skillset well again, and the Chargers are getting healthier this week, as big off-season addition Trai Turner will make his debut at right guard after missing the opener, which should give this offense a boost.

The Chargers are running into a juggernaut in the Chiefs, but they played the Chiefs twice down the stretch last season when the Chiefs were hot and on their eventual Super Bowl run and the Chargers kept those games between 7 and 10 points and were even closer in first down rate differential at -2.12% and -1.75% respectively. This line gives them 9 points of cushion and they’ll also have one benefit that they didn’t have last season, which is that they won’t have to face a road crowd, something they always do against the Chiefs, regardless of where they play, even at home. In fact, with the Chargers able to pump in fake crowd noise, this team might have some real homefield advantage for the first time in years. 

The Chiefs are also in a tough spot, as they could easily look past the Chargers with a huge Monday night matchup in Baltimore on deck, while the Chargers have an easy game against the Panthers on deck. Underdogs are 76-38 ATS since 2016 before being favorites when their opponent will next be underdogs and all three of those conditions are almost definitely true here. I like the Chargers’ chances of keeping this close, especially with the Chiefs pretty banged up on defense with starting #1 cornerback Chavarius Ward and rotational defensive linemen Alex Okafor and Khalen Saunders out. This would be my Pick of the Week if I wasn’t terrified of the Chiefs.

Kansas City Chiefs 31 Los Angeles Chargers 27

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers +9

Confidence: High

Los Angeles Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals: 2020 Week 1 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (0-0) at Cincinnati Bengals (0-0)

The Chargers won just five games a year ago, but they actually finished the season 7th in first down rate differential at +3.84%. How is that possible? Well, the Chargers went just 2-9 in games decided by 8 points or fewer and they also had a league worst -17 turnover margin. Turnover margins and a team’s record in close games tend to be highly inconsistent on a year-to-year basis. Case in point, the Chargers went 6-1 in games decided by 8 points or fewer in 2018 and had a +1 turnover margin, with a very similar roster. The Chargers’ impressive first down rate differential from last year should be much more predictive than their turnover margin or record in close games.

The Chargers first down rate differential is even more impressive when you consider that they frequently played in front of visiting crowds at home, if they played in front of any crowd at all, and that they had terrible injury luck. They had the 3rd most adjusted games lost to injury in the league and those injuries disproportionately affected their top level players, so you could argue they were the most injury affected team in the league last season. 

Safety Derwin James (11 games), center Mike Pouncey (11 games), left tackle Russell Okung (10 games), safety Adrian Phillips (9 games), edge defender Melvin Ingram (3 games), and tight end Hunter Henry (4 games) all missed significant time with injury and all were big absences. This year, the Chargers won’t have to play in front of fans at home at all (or possibly even on the road) and they should have better injury luck as well, as adjusted games lost to injury tends to be a highly inconsistent statistic year-to-year as well. Even though the Chargers are downgrading from Philip Rivers to Tyrod Taylor under center, I still liked the Chargers’ chances of being a playoff contender this off-season.

It’s not off to a good start for the Chargers injury wise though, as Derwin James is out for the season, Mike Pouncey will miss this week, and new offensive linemen Trai Turner and Bryan Bulaga could join him on the sideline as well, which would leave the Chargers very thin upfront. Wide receiver Mike Williams could be out as well, after topping 1000 yards receiving in 2019. The Bengals won’t have stud interior defender Geno Atkins, but it’ll be hard to pick the Chargers as three point road favorites here if they’re missing multiple offensive line starters and their #2 receiver. I’m taking the Chargers for now, but I’ll need to check injury reports before deciding on this one.

Los Angeles Chargers 24 Cincinnati Bengals 20

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers -3

Confidence: None

Los Angeles Chargers 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Chargers in 2019. They finished just 5-11, but most of their losses were close, with 9 of 11 coming by 8 points or fewer, giving the Chargers just a 2-9 record in such games. They actually finished with a winning record in games decided by more than 8 points (3-2) and their -8 point differential was much more in line with a 8-8 record. That’s despite the fact that the Chargers had a league worst turnover margin at -17. Turnover margins tend to be highly inconsistent on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis and in terms of first down rate differential, which de-emphasizes the turnover margin, the Chargers actually finished 7th in the NFL last season at +3.84%, far better than their record suggests.

That’s despite the fact that the Chargers weren’t close to full strength all season due to injuries. They had the 3rd most adjusted games lost to injury in the league and those injuries disproportionately affected their top level players, so you could argue they were the most injury affected team in the league last season. Safety Derwin James (11 games), center Mike Pouncey (11 games), left tackle Russell Okung (10 games), safety Adrian Phillips (9 games), edge defender Melvin Ingram (3 games), and tight end Hunter Henry (4 games) all missed significant time with injury and all were big absences. 

Given their turnover margin, the amount of talent they were without for much of the season, and how many close games they lost, not to mention the fact that they play in front of road crowds every week in Los Angeles, it’s actually pretty impressive this team was even able to go 5-11 last season. Injuries, turnovers, and close games tend to vary highly from year-to-year and the Chargers might not have to play in front of fans at all this season, so the Chargers at first glance appear to have a lot of potential for a big jump forward in the win total. 

This is a very different Chargers team in some ways though. The Chargers ranked middle of the pack with the 16th fewest snaps lost this off-season, but the big change is at the quarterback position, where Philip Rivers wasn’t brought back as a free agent for his age 39 season, after starting 224 straight games for the Chargers over 14 seasons dating back to his 3rd season in the league in 2006. 

Rivers never led the Chargers to the Super Bowl, but that usually wasn’t his fault, as he finished in the top-10 among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in 10 of those 14 seasons and completed 64.7% of his passes for an average of 7.81 YPA, 397 touchdowns, and 198 interceptions overall, likely putting him in Hall-of-Fame territory even without the Super Bowl appearance. However, he fell to 17th among quarterbacks on PFF last season, while completing 66.0% of his passes for 7.81 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions, prompting the Chargers to move on, rather than try to match the 1-year, 25 million dollar deal Rivers received from the Colts this off-season.

To replace Rivers, the Chargers used the #6 overall pick on Oregon’s Justin Herbert and they still have incumbent backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who started 46 games from 2015-2018 with the Bills and Browns, and he could potentially open the season as the starter. At first glance, Taylor and Herbert may seem like very different quarterbacks, but Herbert is a better runner and athlete than you’d expect, while Taylor’s passing skills are underrated, so the Chargers can do some of the same things with both quarterbacks. Both fit what head coach Anthony Lynn looks for in a quarterback better than the statuesque Rivers, who carried just 12 times for 29 yards last season.

Taylor also already has experience with Lynn, not only last season as Rivers’ backup, but in 2015 and 2016 with the Bills, where Lynn was the assistant head coach and eventually offensive coordinator, prior to leaving to take the head job with the Chargers. Taylor had some success in Buffalo, completing 62.6% of his passes for an average of 7.17 YPA, 51 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions in 3 seasons as the starter from 2015 to 2017 (43 starts), while adding 1,575 yards and 14 touchdowns on 283 carries (5.57 YPC). 

Taylor only averaged 28.2 pass attempts per start, leading a run heavy offense, and he didn’t make many big plays downfield, but he was a big part of that run heavy offense himself as a runner, he did a good job protecting the ball and not committing turnovers, and his receiving corps was a big part of why he didn’t have many big plays downfield. Overall, he finished 11th, 16th, and 9th among quarterbacks in 2015-2017 respectively on PFF and went 23-20 with an underwhelming roster around him.

Taylor’s time with the Browns stands out as a rough stretch, as he completed 42 of 85 (49.4% for 473 yards (5.56 YPA), 2 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, before being replaced by Baker Mayfield midway through the 3rd game of the season, which is likely why he was available as a backup for the Chargers the following off-season, but that stretch can be chalked up to him being a poor fit for Todd Haley’s scheme. In a more familiar scheme, he has a good chance to win the starting job over an inexperienced rookie and could start later into the season than most expect if he plays like he did with the Bills, as the rest of this roster is talented enough for Taylor to win with if he does that. Herbert could also win with this roster, but he’s a more questionable option as a rookie and the Chargers may hesitate to bench Taylor if he’s winning. Either way, this isn’t a bad quarterback situation.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

I mentioned Tyrod Taylor had problems with his receiving corps in Buffalo, but that won’t be the case with the Chargers. Wide receiver Keenan Allen and Mike Williams put up slash lines of 104/1199/6 and 49/1001/2 respectively, making them one of five wide receiver duos in the league to both surpass 1000 yards receiving last season, and, while they’ll have trouble doing that again on what figures to be a run heavier offense, they should remain a big part of the offense in 2020. 

Williams was the 7th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, flashed on 234 snaps as a rookie, posted a 43/664/10 slash line and averaged 1.74 yards per route run as the 3rd receiver in 2018, and then had a mini breakout last season, when he averaged 1.91 yards per route run and finished 33rd among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Still only in his age 26 season, Williams could keep getting better and should remain an above average starter regardless.

Allen, meanwhile, has been playing at a high level basically since he entered the league as a 3rd round pick in 2013, averaging a 97/1192/6 slash line per 16 games in his career. He’s had injury problems in the past, including 23 of 32 games missed from 2015-2016, but he’s shed the injury prone label by playing in 48 straight games over the past three seasons. Over those 3 seasons, he’s finished 5th, 4th, and 14th among wide receivers on PFF and, still in his prime in his age 28 season, he should continue playing at the same level in 2020.

Wide receiver depth was a big problem last season though, as the Chargers didn’t have another wide receiver with more than 9 catches. Andre Patton ranked 3rd among Chargers wide receivers with 507 snaps played, but he averaged just 0.18 yards per route run (worst among wide receivers with at least 15 targets) with a 6/56/0 slash line on 303 routes run and he finished dead last among qualifying wide receivers on PFF, in the first action of the 2017 undrafted free agent’s career. It would be hard for Patton to be worse in 2020, but he’s not necessarily a guarantee to be better and, despite that, all the Chargers did to address their wide receiver depth this off-season was use a 5th round pick on Joe Reed and a 7th round pick on KJ Hill, who will both have opportunities to earn roles, even as late round rookies.

To mask their lack of wide receiver depth, the Chargers threw frequently to tight end Hunter Henry and pass catching back Austin Ekeler. Henry put up a 55/652/5 slash line, despite missing 4 games with injury, and finished 14th among tight ends on PFF in overall grade, while Ekeler had a 92/993/8 slash line that ranked him 2nd among running backs in receiving yardage and he finished 1st among running backs in pass catching grade on PFF.

For Henry, staying healthy has always been the key, as he’s missed 23 of 64 games since the Chargers drafted in the 2nd round in 2016. He’s averaged a 53/667/7 slash line per 16 games, despite spending his first two seasons as a part-time player behind Antonio Gates on the depth chart, and he has averaged 1.87 yards per route run and 8.85 yards per target in his career, while also faring well as a run blocking and finishing in the top-14 among tight ends in all 3 seasons in which he’s played a snap. 

Despite missing time last season, he still finished 9th among tight ends in receiving yards and was on a 73/869/7 pace that would have put him among the best in the league at his position. He’s always an injury risk, but he’s still only going into his age 26 season and has all the tools to have a big year if he can put it all together, so the Chargers were wise to keep him on the 10.607 million dollar franchise tag, rather than letting him leave or signing him to a big long-term deal with significant guarantees. He could easily end up as one of the top overall tight ends in the league this season. With only blocking tight end Virgil Green (99 catches in 131 career games) behind Henry on the depth chart, the Chargers badly need Hunter to stay healthy this season.

Ekeler, meanwhile, could be taking on an even larger target share with tandem back Melvin Gordon leaving for the Broncos last season, after receiving 55 targets in 12 games and turning it into 42/296/1 last season. Justin Jackson will likely take over as the #2 back and he’s averaged just 5.23 yards per target on 30 career targets in two seasons in the league, so he’s not nearly the threat Gordon was out of the backfield. 

This offense figures to be run heavier with Herbert and especially Taylor under center, so Ekeler might not necessarily see more targets overall even if his target share goes up, but he’s averaged 2.49 yards per route run in 3 seasons in the league, while finishing in the top-9 among running backs in pass catching grade from PFF in all 3 seasons. With Allen and Williams leading the way at wide receiver and Henry and Ekeler involved as intermediate passing options, the Chargers lack of depth at wide receiver, however severe, isn’t a big deal, barring injuries.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Taylor taking off and running on his own is a big part of why this offense figures to be run heavy, but the Chargers’ running backs figure to be heavily involved as well, even without Melvin Gordon. Gordon averaged just 3.78 YPC on 162 carries last season and, while that might have been partially due to Gordon being out of shape after an ill advised holdout, Ekeler was still the better runner, averaging 4.22 YPC on 132 carries. 

Ekeler hasn’t been as good as a runner as he’s been as a receiver, but he’s still averaged an impressive 4.81 YPC in his career. The concern is that he’s never topped 132 carries in a season, with just 285 carries total in 3 seasons in the league, and, while he should exceed that this season, it’s fair to wonder by how much, as Ekeler also figures to see a bunch of touches in the passing game and the Chargers are likely to be wary of how much they overload the 5-10 200 pounder. 

With that in mind, there should be opportunities for their backups to see carries, not just 2018 7th round pick Justin Jackson, who has flashed with a 5.14 YPC average on 79 carries as the #3 back over the past two seasons (3.28 YPC after contact), but also 4th round rookie Joshua Kelly, who could also see action, even if he opens the season as the #3 back. Both are unproven and it’s unclear if either can translate to being a capable #2 back, let alone the 1b to Ekeler’s 1a they may need if they want to avoid overloading Ekeler. This isn’t a bad backfield, especially when you factor in Ekeler’s pass catching, but they may want to add a veteran early down back to the mix if they want to run the ball consistently to protect either Taylor or the rookie Herbert.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Chargers’ biggest problem on offense last season was their offensive line, which ranked 2nd worst in pass blocking grade on Pro Football Focus and 6th worst in run blocking grade. Injuries were part of the problem, with left tackle Russell Okung and center Mike Pouncey being limited to just 257 snaps and 305 snaps respectively, and they didn’t get good play from anyone else, with right guard Michael Schofield being their only healthy starter to earn even an average grade from PFF.

Schofield is no longer with the team and the same is true of Okung, who was sent to the Panthers for Trai Turner, who will replace Schofield at right guard. It’s strange to see two offensive lineman get traded for each other, but the move made some sense for the Chargers, as Okung was owed 13.5 million in his age 32 contract year in 2020, with Turner is still only going into his age 27 season and has 20.5 million in non-guaranteed money left over the remaining 2 years of his contract. A 3rd round pick by the Panthers in 2014, Turner has made 80 starts in 6 seasons in the league and has earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 6 seasons, with his best years coming in 2015 (10th among guards) and 2017 (16th). Coming off of a 37th ranked finish and still in the prime of his career, he should remain an above average starter in 2020.

The Chargers also added right tackle Bryan Bulaga in free agency on a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal. The Chargers probably got a bit of a discount with Bulaga because he’s going into his age 31 season and has an extensive injury history (45 games missed in 10 seasons in the league), but he made all 16 starts last season for just the second time in his career and he’s shown no signs of slowing down yet, finishing in the top-26 among offensive tackles on PFF in each of his last 3 non-injury ruined seasons (2016, 2018, 2019), including a 13th ranked finish last season. Even if he does decline a little bit in 2020, he should remain an above average starter.

Turner and Bulaga should play well, but the rest of this line is a concern. They get center Mike Pouncey back from injury, but injuries have been a persistent problem for him in recent years. A first round pick in 2011, Pouncey’s career got off to a great start, as he made 46 of 48 starts in his first 3 seasons in the league and finished above average on PFF in all 3 seasons, including a pair of 9th ranked finishes in 2012 and 2013, but then he was limited to 12 games in a down season in 2014 season, en route to missing 28 games over the past 6 seasons. 

Those injuries seem to have taken their toll on him, as he’s finished below average on PFF in each of the past 4 seasons, including 28th out of 36 qualifying centers on PFF last season. Now going into his age 31 season, not only are his best days almost definitely behind him, but he could be on his last legs. 2018 5th round pick Scott Quessenberry wasn’t an upgrade in 9 starts in the first significant action of his career last season (27th among 36 qualifying centers), but it wouldn’t surprise me to see him in the starting lineup by season’s end, whether by Pouncey getting hurt or getting benched.

Dan Feeney returns at left guard, but the 2017 3rd round pick has been middling at best in 41 career starts, including a 70th ranked finish out of 88 qualifying in 2019. He’s likely locked into the job because his only competition is Forrest Lamp, also a 2017 draft pick, who has played just 174 mediocre snaps in 3 seasons in the league due to a combination of injury and ineffectiveness. Regardless of which player starts, they are likely to struggle, even if there’s a small chance one of them takes a significant step forward, now in their 4th season in the league.

Left tackle is up for grabs, with at least three players in the mix to replace Okung, and regardless of who starts, this figures to be a position of weakness. Sam Tevi is the incumbent right tackle who is losing his job to Bulaga and could flip over to the left side. He’s made 29 starts at right tackle over the past two seasons, but the 2017 6th round pick has struggled in both seasons, finishing 78th among 85th qualifying offensive tackles in 2018 and 61st out of 89 qualifiers in 2019, and he’s unlikely to be better on the blindside.

Trent Scott made 9 starts as an injury fill in last season (7 at left tackle and 2 at right tackle), but the 2018 undrafted free agent struggled mightily in the first significant action of his career, finishing 83rd among 89 qualifying offensive tackles on PFF. 2019 3rd round pick Trey Pipkins is probably their best option as he held his own on 251 snaps as a rookie and could take a step forward in his second season in the league, but he’s hardly a reliable option either. This offensive line should be better than last season, but it could be largely by default.

Grade: C+

Edge Defenders

As I mentioned, turnover margin was a big problem for the Chargers last season, as they finished dead last at -17, which, given how many of their losses were close, could arguably be the sole reason why this team didn’t win nearly as many games as their 7th ranked first down rate differential would suggest. Turnover margins are highly inconsistent on a year-to-year basis though and it’s not hard to see how the Chargers could be significantly improved in that area. 

Philip Rivers’ interceptions were part of the problem and that is something that will almost definitely improve with the more careful Tyrod Taylor under center, even if their offense becomes less explosive as a result, but their defense was actually a bigger part of the problem with a league low 14 takeaways. They ranked 14th in first down rate allowed at 34.78%, and have much more talent than their takeaway total would suggest, so the takeaways should come eventually. Even getting to the 20 takeaways they had with similar personnel in 2018 would make a big difference and they certainly have the talent to do so.

Arguably the top player on this talented defense is edge defender Joey Bosa. Bosa arguably got overshadowed by his younger brother Nick, who won Defensive Rookie of the Year and made the Super Bowl with the 49ers last season, but Joey is the more proven player. Since going #3 overall in 2016, Bosa has totalled 40 sacks, 44 hits, and a 14.8% pressure rate in 51 games, while also holding his own against the run. Aside from an injury ruined 2018 season (7 games), he’s finished in the top-8 among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus in every season in the league, including a 5th ranked finish in 2019, and he could easily keep getting better, only in his age 25 season.

Melvin Ingram remains as the starter opposite Bosa, coming off of a season in which he was limited to 13 games by injury, one of several key players to miss time on this defense. Ingram still played pretty well when on the field, especially as a pass rusher, with 7 sacks, 5 hits, and a 12.5% pressure rate. His age is becoming a concern in his age 31 season and he has fallen off a little bit over the past two seasons, but falling off for him means finishing 36th and 27th among edge defenders on PFF in 2018 and 2019 respectively, after finishing 10th and 12th in 2016 and 2017 respectively. He’s still not totally over the hill and the 3 games he missed last season were his first since 2014, so he could easily remain an above average starter and, even if he continues to decline, he still should be someone you can do a lot worse than.

The Chargers don’t have much need for reserves at this position, but they return their top-2 reserves from last season in Uchenna Nwosu (362 snaps) and Isaac Rochell (274 snaps). A 2nd round pick in 2018, Nwosu has shown a lot of promise in two seasons in the league and could arguably be a starter in his own right, but he’s been limited to 628 snaps total at a position where Bosa and Ingram dominate the snaps when both are healthy. Rochell, meanwhile, is more of a deep reserve, as the 2017 7th round pick has struggled throughout his career on a total of 862 snaps in 3 seasons in the league. With a talented starting duo and a high level reserve in Nwosu, the Chargers are in good shape at this position.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

By contrast, the Chargers were not nearly as good on the interior of their defensive line last season. Justin Jones (504 snaps), Brandon Mebane (408 snaps), Damion Square (402 snaps), and Jerry Tillery (354 snaps) all saw significant action and all finished with below average grades on Pro Football Focus. There are reasons to believe they can be significantly improved at this position in 2020 though. For one, they let Mebane go after he finished 121st out of 125 qualifying interior defenders on PFF last season and replaced him with free agent acquisition Linval Joseph, who figures to be a significant improvement.

Once one of the top interior defenders in the league in his prime, Joseph is clearly on the decline, now going into his age 32 season, but he’s still finished 43rd and 38th among interior defenders on PFF over the past two seasons respectively and, even if he continues declining, he should still be a significant upgrade unless his abilities totally fall off a cliff. The 2-year, 17 million dollar deal the Chargers signed him to doesn’t break the bank, so he was a very smart signing at a position of desperate need.

The Chargers should also get more from Jerry Tillery this year, even if only by default, as the 2019 28th overall draft pick shockingly finished as PFF’s worst ranked interior defender as a rookie. Tillery struggled as a pass rusher (2 sacks, 1 hit, and a 5.4% pressure rate) and, more importantly, he consistently offered little resistance against the run. Tillery has nowhere to go but up and he still has a high ceiling as a former first round pick, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he took a big step forward in 2020, but even a big step forward might not make him even a middling starting option.

Tillery could earn the starting role next to Joseph, but he’ll have to compete with Jones and Square, who still remain from last season. Jones has the most upside of the two, as he was a 3rd round pick just two years ago and is still only in his age 24 season, while Square is going into his age 31 season and has never been more than a capable reserve (414 snaps per season over the past four seasons), but Jones has struggled on 804 career snaps and is not a guarantee to improve. Regardless of who wins the starting job, all four players will likely play significant snaps at this position. Even with Joseph coming in and Tillery likely improving, this group still has problems, but they should still be noticeably improved from last year’s weak group.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

Off ball linebacker was also an underwhelming position for the Chargers in 2019. They weren’t as bad as they were at the interior defender spot, but they lacked a standout player and got middling play at best. Thomas Davis led the position with 805 snaps played and earned a middling grade, but he’s no longer with the team. Instead, the Chargers traded up to select Kenneth Murray 23rd overall in the first round and they added veteran Nick Vigil on a 1-year, 2.4 million dollar deal to compete with holdovers Denzel Perryman (359 snaps), Dre Tranquill (382 snaps), and Kyzir White (372 snaps) for playing time in this linebacking corps.

Even though he’s a rookie who has never played a snap, Murray is arguably their best off ball linebacker going into the season, as Vigil and the rest of the options are all underwhelming. As a result, Murray seems likely to play a three down role in the middle as a rookie, even as early as week 1. Vigil and Perryman are the veterans of the group, making 37 starts in 4 seasons in the league and 45 starts in 5 seasons in the league respectively, but Vigil was largely starting out of necessity with the Bengals, while Perryman is purely a base package player who has been injury prone throughout his career and has never topped 481 snaps in a season. He should at least earn a base package run stuffing role, but he likely wouldn’t play every down, even without a better option.

Tranquill and White, meanwhile, are less proven, but come with more upside, as they went in the 4th round in the 2019 and 2018 NFL Drafts respectively and have shown promise in limited action thus far, Tranquill on 382 snaps as a rookie last season and White on 514 snaps between two seasons in the league. Both players will have significant opportunity to earn playing time in this unsettled group, though both are obviously projections to larger roles. The Chargers also like to use 3 safeties together in sub packages, with one playing around the line of scrimmage as a coverage linebacker, and that’s something they figure to continue doing to mask their lack of coverage ability at linebacker. With an unproven rookie leading the way, this is a shaky group.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The Chargers’ expected week 1 starting safeties last season were Adrian Phillips and Derwin James, but injuries limited them to just 7 games and 5 games respectively, while 2nd round rookie Nasir Adderley, who could have started in their absence, was limited to 10 snaps by an injury of his own. Despite that, the Chargers’ secondary wasn’t bad last season and they should be a lot better this season. Phillips is no longer with the team, but both James and Adderley are expected to return from injury and the Chargers also added veteran cornerback Chris Harris on a 2-year, 17 million dollar deal.

Harris has been one of the best cornerbacks in the league over the past decade with the division rival Denver Broncos, finishing in the top-18 among cornerbacks in each of his first 8 seasons in the league, including five top-4 finishes and a pair of #1 finishes, but he fell to 38th last season and now is going into his age 31 season, so he was greeted by a relatively cold market. Harris was also a weird fit for the Chargers because he’s been best in his career on the slot, while the Chargers seemed to need an outside cornerback more than anything. Playing primarily outside was part of the reason why he wasn’t the same player last season in Denver and he would be more likely to continue declining if he has to play more outside in Los Angeles.

With the Chargers, it’s unclear where he’ll play primarily. Michael Davis has made 21 starts outside over the past two seasons, but he’s been middling at best and is coming off of a season in which he finished 92nd among 135 qualifying cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus on 659 snaps, while slot cornerback Desmond King has allowed an impressive 1.05 yards per route run on the slot in 3 seasons since the Chargers took him in the 5th round in 2017 and has finished in the top-31 among cornerbacks on PFF in all 3 seasons.

One possibility is the Chargers could play Davis outside, Harris on the slot, and move King to safety at least in passing situations, which would allow the Chargers to regularly use three safeties together in sub packages, to mask their lack of linebacker depth. It would be a risky move because King has played so well on the slot, but some pegged him as a safety coming out of college, so it could be a relatively natural fit for him and it would allow Harris to play his natural position on the slot. The other two safeties in three safety packages would be Derwin James and either Nasir Adderley, who is now healthy after missing his most of his rookie season, or Rayshawn Jenkins, 2017 4th round pick who was middling in 16 starts in the first significant action of his career last season.

Adderley and Jenkins are decent options with some upside, but Derwin James is obviously the best of the bunch. The 17th overall pick in 2018, James burst onto the scene with a 6th ranked finish among safeties as a 16-game starter as a rookie and his absence was the one that affected the Chargers the most last season, as he didn’t return from an off-season injury until week 13. Upon his return, he was still PFF’s 7th ranked safety from week 13 on and, only going into his age 24 season, James still has a massive ceiling if he can stay healthy long-term. He could easily be one of the top safeties in the league this season, so he’s a huge re-addition. He’s also incredibly versatile with his ability to play anywhere in the back seven and he would likely be the one who would work as a linebacker in sub packages when the Chargers use three safeties.

#1 cornerback Casey Hayward is also one of the best in the league at his position and he remains locked into his role as an every down outside cornerback. Hayward has finished in the top-17 among cornerbacks on PFF in each of his four seasons with the Chargers (62 starts) and, though he’s going into his age 31 season, he’s yet to show any decline, finishing 4th among cornerbacks on PFF last season. Even if he does start to decline this season, he should be more than capable of being a top cornerback.

Who plays where besides Hayward is still up in the air. The most likely scenario is Hayward and Harris play together outside in base packages with James and either King, Jenkins, or Adderley at safety and then in sub packages, Harris will move to the slot, Davis will enter as the 3rd cornerback and play outside, and the Chargers will frequently use three safeties at once to mask their lack of linebacker depth. They have some versatile options in a secondary that should be significantly better with Derwin James healthy and Chris Harris being added.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Chargers went 5-11 last season because of close losses, injuries, and a league worst turnover margin, three things that are highly inconsistent on a year-to-year basis. Case in point, with a very similar roster in 2018, the Chargers went 6-1 in games decided by 8 points or fewer, had a +1 turnover margin, and ranked 20th in adjusted games lost to injury, and, largely as a result, they won 12 games and made it to the 2nd round of the post-season. The Chargers don’t have Philip Rivers anymore, but I’m higher on Tyrod Taylor than most, now in a system that fits his skillset again, and the rest of this roster has a lot of talent. They’re obviously behind the Chiefs in the AFC West, but they should be in the mix for one of the three wild card spots in the AFC. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Final Update: The Chargers’ playoff chances were dealt a big blow when they lost safety Derwin James for the season with injury. The Chargers get to play the Jaguars and Dolphins as part of their last place schedule, so they may win more games than the Raiders or Broncos, but they’re slightly behind those teams in talent level without James.

Projection: 8-8 (2nd in AFC West)

Los Angeles Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (5-10) at Kansas City Chiefs (11-4)

The Chargers lost at home to the Raiders last week in a game that was embarrassing for multiple reasons. Not only did they lose to a team that entered the game 29th in first down rate differential, with 6 losses by 18 or more, but the crowd appeared to be somewhere around 95% Raiders fans, forcing the Chargers to regularly use silent counts at home. The Chargers’ lack of fans in Los Angeles is nothing new and they’ve struggled at home since moving in 2017 (7-15 ATS), so I’ve typically used 1 point for homefield advantage for the Chargers rather than the typical 2.5 or 3 points, but I’m starting to think the Chargers are actually a better team on the road than at home. 

The Chargers have to deal with opposing crowds regardless of where they play, but that’s to be expected on the road. It has to be demoralizing to deal with that on your own home field. Overall, they are 7-9 straight up at home over the past 2 seasons and 10-5 on the road, the 4th best road winning percentage over that time period. At the very least, all Chargers games should be considered neutral site games going forward and I’ve considered actually taking away a point from their calculated line at home and giving them a point on the road, for psychological reasons.

The Chargers really seemed to not give much effort last week in a meaningless game where the home crowd was supporting the visitor, but I would expect a better effort this week on the road against a tough Kansas City team that is playing for playoff seeding. Given that, we’re getting good line value with the Chargers as 9-point road underdogs this week. The Chiefs have somewhat quietly been a very complete football team since getting Patrick Mahomes back from injury, allowing a 32.67% first down rate in their past 9 games (6th in the NFL over that stretch) and moving the chains at a 42.12% rate in games started and finished by Mahomes, but the Chargers have played much better than their record suggests, even without any homefield advantage.

On the season, they rank 5th in first down rate differential at +4.16% and have a positive point differential at +2, with all but one of their losses coming by a touchdown or less and the only exception being a game in which they lost the turnover battle by 6. Turnovers have killed them overall this season, as they rank last in the NFL with a -16 turnover margin, but turnover margins are highly unpredictable, so the Chargers aren’t necessarily going to lose the turnover battle in this game just because they’ve struggled with turnovers all season. In fact, teams with a turnover margin of -10 or worse over a 5-game stretch, like the Chargers, have an average turnover margin of just -0.1 in their next game and, as a result, cover at a 55% rate. Those are somewhat arbitrary endpoints, but the fact remains that there’s next to no correlation week-to-week between turnover margins. 

The Chargers are also healthier now than they’ve been most of the season, especially with stud safety Derwin James returning a few weeks ago. Even with the Chiefs being relatively healthy themselves and ranking 4th in my roster rankings this week, I still only have the Chargers 5 points behind them and, given that I’m treating all Chargers games as neutral site games, that gives us a calculated line of Kansas City -5.

I was hoping this line would be double digits after the results of last week’s games, but oddsmakers likely know that sharps would be all over the Chargers at +10 or higher, so I don’t expect this line to go there. Even at +9, I like the Chargers a lot. Even with the injury and turnover problems they’ve had, they’ve been competitive in most of their games and I wouldn’t expect this one to be any different, even as well as the Chiefs have played in recent weeks.

Kansas City Chiefs 24 Los Angeles Chargers 19

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers +9

Confidence: High

Oakland Raiders at Los Angeles Chargers: 2019 Week 16 NFL Pick

Oakland Raiders (6-8) at Los Angeles Chargers (5-9)

The Chargers have had a very disappointing 5-9 season, a year after going 12-4, but they’ve been much better than their record suggests, entering this game 6th in first down rate differential at +4.08%, especially impressive when you consider they basically play 16 road games, as they completely lack a fan base in Los Angeles. Most of their losses have been close, with their only loss by more than a touchdown coming last week against the Vikings, a game against one of the best teams in the league that was closer than the final score (Chargers lost the first down rate battle by just 4.36% in a 29-point loss). 

Turnovers have killed the Chargers more than anything, as they rank dead last in the NFL with a -16 turnover margin and have had more than a couple losses that have swung on turnovers. Fortunately, turnover margin tends to be very unpredictable on a week-to-week basis, so the Chargers’ awful turnover margin doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll continue losing the turnover battle going forward.

One of their losses that swung on the turnover battle was their first matchup with the Raiders, back in week 10 in Oakland, a game in which they won the first down rate battle by 7.58%, but ended up losing by 2 because of a -3 turnover margin. Outside of those 3 snaps, the Chargers outplayed the Raiders significantly. The Chargers don’t have a homefield advantage, but I like their chances a lot in the rematch in Los Angeles, assuming turnover neutral football, which should almost always be assumed. 

Not only did the Chargers outplay the Raiders for most of the previous rematch, but they also have stud safety Derwin James available this time around, while the Raiders are missing a trio of key contributors on offense, running back Josh Jacobs and offensive linemen Richie Incognito and Trent Brown. The Chargers are without left tackle Russell Okung, which is a significant absence for them, but Okung only played 7 snaps in the previous matchup before getting hurt and has been absent for most of the season, so his absence is not anything new.

The Raiders, meanwhile, have had Incognito, Jacobs, and Brown on the field for most of the season, and, despite that, the Raiders have been significantly worse than their 6-8 record suggests. While their largest margin of victory this season is just 8 points, but all 2 of their losses have come by at least 18 points, with the only exceptions being a game in Houston in which they lost the first down rate battle by 9.28% and last week’s game at home against the Jaguars, who are arguably the worst team in the NFL and had lost their previous 5 games by at least 14 points prior to last week’s win. 

In terms of first down rate differential, the Raiders rank 29th in the NFL at -5.31%, a long way behind the 6th ranked Chargers. Their defense has been the biggest problem, ranking dead last in the NFL with a 41.36% first down rate allowed, but their offense, which ranks 36.06% in first down rate at 17th, could have a lot of trouble this week too without their feature back and a pair of talented offensive linemen. 

I typically don’t like betting on the Chargers at home, but I would expect this to be yet another blowout loss for the Raiders. Despite these teams records, the Chargers have significantly outplayed the Raiders on the season and they are also in a significantly better injury situation. We’ve lost line value with the Chargers going from 6.5-point favorites on the early line last week to 7.5-point favorites this week, but I still like the Chargers enough to bet on them. If this line drops back down to a touchdown before gametime, I’ll probably increase this bet.

Los Angeles Chargers 31 Oakland Raiders 20

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers -7.5

Confidence: Medium

Minnesota Vikings at Los Angeles Chargers: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

Minnesota Vikings (9-4) at Los Angeles Chargers (5-8)

The Chargers’ victory in Jacksonville last week was highly impressive. The Jaguars have been an awful team in recent weeks, but the Chargers still gave them their biggest loss of the season by score of 45-10 and they won the first down rate battle by a ridiculous 31.50%, the highest single game margin of the season, eclipsing New England’s week 2 victory in Miami (29.66%). The Chargers are still just 5-8 after going 12-4 last season, but don’t let the record fool you. The core of last year’s 12-4 team is still there and is more or less healthy right now.

Earlier in the season, tight end Hunter Henry (4 games), left tackle Russell Okung (8 games), defensive end Melvin Ingram (3 games), running back Melvin Gordon (4 games), safety Adrian Phillips (9 games), and safety Derwin James (11 games) all missed significant time, but they’re all active now. They have a pair of expected starters on injured reserve, center Mike Pouncey and wide receiver Travis Benjamin, but neither was playing well before going down, so that’s not a big deal.

Even with the injuries they’ve had, the Chargers still rank 5th in first down rate differential at +4.72%, as they’ve managed a +38 point differential despite a -10 turnover margin. Turnover margins tend to be highly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis, so the Chargers aren’t necessarily going to continue losing the turnover battle going forward. Given that all 8 of their losses have come by a touchdown or less, in several cases swinging on a turnover or two, there’s a good argument to be made that the Chargers would be competing for the AFC West title right now if they had their key players healthy all season.

Unfortunately, we’re starting to lose some line value with them, as the Chargers are only 1.5 point home underdogs this week against the Vikings, after being 3 point underdogs on the early line last week. I don’t like to bet the Chargers at home anyway, as they have no fans in Los Angeles. Since moving in 2017, they are 7-12-1 ATS at home and 15-8-2 ATS on the road. Especially with the Chargers out of the playoff race, I would expect this crowd to be mostly Vikings fans. I only use a 1 point for homefield in Chargers games (instead of the traditional 2.5 or 3) and I have these two teams about even, so my calculated line is Chargers -1. The Vikings are in a potential trap game spot with a big divisional matchup against the Packers on deck, but there isn’t enough line value with the Chargers for them to be worth betting at +1.5. The money line isn’t a bad bet at +105 though, as this game is slightly better than a toss up for the Chargers.

Los Angeles Chargers 26 Minnesota Vikings 24 Upset Pick +105

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers +1.5

Confidence: Low