The Chargers are well positioned to contend this season.
Our own Joe Banner not only views LA as one of the most improved teams entering opening day, but as one primed for sustainable success. Can head coach Brandon Staley steer his fleet of new acquisitions past the Chiefs in the AFC West? Let’s take a closer look at the Chargers:
Opening Win Total: 10
Current Win Total: 10
Schedule Difficulty: Hard
The 33rd Team’s Mike Martz talks about Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert as a historically relevant talent. Site founder Mike Tannenbaum has Herbert in his top tier of NFL quarterbacks. In LA’s two games against Patrick Mahomes’ Kansas City Chiefs last season, flip a coin to figure out the best quarterback on the field in those matchups.
Until further notice, Justin Herbert is a perennial MVP candidate with a dynamic skill set that’s capable of elevating the talent around him.
Per Sports Info Solutions, the 2021 Chargers offense was:
- 2nd in net passing yards
- 21st in rushing yards
- 5th in points per game
The Chargers’ offensive line is a top-ten unit. Second-year left tackle Rashawn Slater is the best player on this line, and center Corey Linsley was a first-team All-Pro for the Packers in 2020. The two best players in this unit play the two most important positions on an offensive line. The Chargers spent the No. 17 overall pick on guard Zion Johnson, adding another potential high-end talent to this group. The only question mark comes at right tackle, where Storm Norton and Trey Pipkins will compete for the starting job. One of my long-standing football tenants is you can play effective offense with one unreliable tackle, but not with two. Even if right tackle continues to be a weakness for Los Angeles, they can scheme around that issue.
Chargers coach Brandon Staley is a modern football mind employing a pass-centric offense led by offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. That’s primarily why Los Angeles was 21st in rushing yards last season, with the 22nd-fewest attempts. This run game is better than advertised, with the dynamic Austin Ekeler behind a strong offensive line. Speaking of Ekeler, he’s a very dangerous player in space and one of the best pass-catching backs in the sport. The pecking order behind Ekeler remains unresolved, though. One or more of Joshua Kelley, Larry Roundtree III and rookie Isaiah Spiller will be a factor in a secondary role this season.
Veteran wide receiver Keenan Allen is among the best route runners in football. Allen has exceeded 97 receptions and 992 yards in each of the last five seasons. He’s as reliable as it gets. Mike Williams is coming off his best season, which resulted in a three-year, $60 million extension. Williams is a tall, big-bodied receiver that pairs very well with Allen’s more technically refined skill set. An elite lid-lifter would be the perfect compliment to Williams and Allen. Second-year receiver Joshua Palmer doesn’t quite fit that mold, but he’s a well-rounded, promising talent. Palmer and inconsistent burner Jaylen Guyton will mix in as the third receiver for the Chargers this season. Tight end Gerald Everett is a good athlete that represents a slight upgrade over last year’s aging starter Jared Cook.
There may not have been a more disappointing unit than the Chargers’ defense last season.
Per Sports Info Solutions, the 2021 Chargers defense was:
- 30th in rushing yards allowed.
- 12th in passing yards allowed.
- 20th in sacks, 18th in hurries, 20th in knockdowns, and 22nd in pressures.
- 30th in points allowed per game.
Building your roster to defend the pass is smart, especially in the AFC West, but this run defense was a true liability last season. The additions of defensive tackles Austin Johnson and Sebastian Joseph-Day should improve this run defense. Former first-round linebacker Kenneth Murray missed considerable time last season. A healthy year out of Murray represents another potential upgrade to the Chargers’ run defense.
Recently extended safety Derwin James is a difference maker, as Bill Cowher says. The uniquely talented James headlines an improved secondary that added former Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson this offseason. Jackson is an obvious and important upgrade to this secondary. That said, Jackson is coming off two fantastic years in New England, and the Patriots let him walk. Few Bill Belichick-era Patriots have met their new, lofty expectations after leaving the nest in New England. That pattern might not necessarily apply to Jackson, but it’s worth keeping in mind.
Second-year cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. and safety Nasir Adderley are the other entrenched starters in this secondary. Both Samuel and Adderley are former second-round picks with a clear path to improvement. Former Broncos and Bears slot corner Bryce Callahan is a cheap, low-risk signing that could round out this secondary. If Callahan returns to the level of performance he exhibited in Chicago two seasons ago, he could even be a difference-maker.
Joey Bosa and the newly-acquired Khalil Mack make up what is arguably the league’s best EDGE duo. If these two players stay healthy, the Chargers could easily finish the season with a top-five pass rush.
Head coach Brandon Staley is a smart, forward-thinking coach that has gotten a lot of early praise. In his first year, he didn’t have the right personnel to optimally implement his defensive system. He does now, though.
The first half of the schedule puts the Chargers in a strong position to start fast. Their first eight weeks are against the Raiders, Chiefs (TNF), Jaguars, Texans, Browns, Broncos (MNF), Seahawks, a bye week, and a game against the Falcons. A 6-2 or better start is very possible through this stretch.
After their trip to Atlanta in Week 9, the Chargers schedule takes a brutal turn through the second half of the season. Their last nine games are against the 49ers (SNF), Chiefs, Cardinals, Raiders, Dolphins, Titans, Colts (MNF), Rams (SNF), and Broncos. Each of those nine opponents has a win total of at least 8.5 games. Four of them have double-digit win totals. The Chargers are capable of a 5-4 or better record through the second half of the season, but that’s hardly a given.
You could argue that the Chargers have the best roster in football. On offense, they have an MVP-caliber quarterback, a skill group with three proven impact players and a top-tier offensive line. On defense, they have two elite pass rushers, a cornerback with 17 interceptions over the last two years and Derwin James is one of the most dynamic defenders in the league.
This roster is built to win right now.
If everything goes as it should for the Chargers, their ten-game win total sounds like their floor. However, their difficult and absolutely brutal schedule keeps the over from being a slam dunk option.
Ultimately, I’m comfortable with betting on the Chargers to exceed ten wins, while being reasonably confident that they at least push.