OFFSEASON REVIEW: LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
By Simon Carroll
As one season ends and another one begins, 32 NFL franchises put 2020 firmly in the rear view mirror and gear up for another tilt at the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The hard work starts here, and for many has already begun; general managers and head coaches are finalising their staff and looking ahead to turning their rosters into potential challengers.
In this series we identify the key components that go into building a winning team, and what each franchise needs to do to be in the mix come the playoffs next January. We continue our team by team offseason review with a look at the Los Angeles Chargers:
2020 for the Chargers was a year of adversity laced with great excitement and hope for the future. Moving on from a franchise quarterback to a rookie is always a tough time for any franchise, and nothing is guaranteed in the NFL draft – no matter how high you take your signal caller of the future…
Incredibly, Justin Herbert proved to be instantly capable of leading this team. A rookie campaign that saw him set multiple NFL records was all the more remarkable considering it took a team doctor’s misplaced injection into Tyrod Taylor’s lung for Herbert to get thrust into the starting role. The former Oregon Duck started like a house on fire and never looked back.
With the biggest question mark answered, The Chargers found a familiar way to underwhelm. A heavy injury list to key players is now becoming a yearly trope of this franchise, and 2020 was no different; Austin Ekeler, Bryan Bulaga, Mike Pouncey, Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Joey Bosa and Derwin James all missing significant game time hamstrung the team.
Despite this, the Chargers were still competitive – until the final moments of each game at the very least. Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory is a calling card of this team – The Bolts lost seven of their first nine games, all by one score or less. Not even a rally of four wins to round out the year at 7-9 could save Anthony Lynn from being issued his P45. Much more is expected of The Chargers in 2021.
One thing the Chargers aren’t devoid of is talent. And the fact that Tom Telesco and his front office team remained largely intact despite the coaching changes alludes to the faith the Spanos family have in their General Manager.
The same couldn’t be said for their head coach Anthony Lynn who, despite being highly regarded inside the building, could never get this team firing on all cylinders. He was relieved of his duties on Black Monday, whilst defensive co-ordinator Gus Bradley was allowed to leave for the bright lights of Las Vegas.
New head coach Brandon Staley, who presided over the #1 defense at their neighbours The Los Angeles Rams last year, was hired as the new head coach. He brings a raft of changes to the coaching team, including replacing offensive co-ordinator Shane Steichen with Joe Lombardi and hiring Broncos secondary coach Renaldo Hill to lead the defense.
One coach the Chargers were disappointed to lose was QB coach Pep Hamilton, who did a fantastic job with Justin Herbert in his rookie year. He takes up a similar role with The Texans, whilst Shane Day comes across from San Francisco to replace him.
State Of The Roster
As alluded to, The Chargers are a talented football team. Sure, they have areas that need to be addressed (most notably the offensive line), but one glimpse at the depth chart shows you quality players at almost every other position.
Their defense is stacked with playmakers in Bosa, James, Melvin Ingram and Kenneth Murray. 2020 saw huge strides from guys like Rayshawn Jenkins and Mchael Davis in their secondary. And on offense, Herbert cannot complain with the weapons he has to throw to or the running game he can rely on as he enters his sophomore season. You could feasibly argue that, compared to lot of other teams, The Chargers don’t have much to tweak. And If they can pull it all together then this is a roster ready to compete with the Chiefs in the AFC West
Salary Cap & Cut Candidates
One of the reasons Tom Telesco is valued by this organisation is his frugality with money. That’s not saying The Chargers don’t spend – Joey Bosa’s contract will show you that when they need to open their chequebook, they do. It’s just not wasted. They had less than $60k in dead money against the salary cap – the lowest in the NFL by at least $150k. This attests to Telesco’s drafting and smart contracts – signing Austin Ekeler to a team friendly 4 year, $25m deal a perfect case in point.
With $19m in cap space, the Chargers are well set entering into this offseason. It means they have flexibility when making roster moves, and aren’t forced into one direction regarding veteran players on bigger deals. That being said, players like guard Trai Turner ($11m against the cap in 2021), Chris Harris ($7.5m) and Linval Joseph ($7.9m) are all aging veterans who would give all that money back to the cap if they were released. A similar situation befalls cornerback Casey Hayward ($9.7m), although with how valued he is in the organisation a re-structured deal makes more sense.
With TWENTY SEVEN players hitting some form of free agency this offseason, The Chargers have some decisions to make. Headlining the unrestricted free agents (those who can leave freely with no compensation) is Hunter Henry, the tight end they franchise tagged last year. This was a smart move at the time – giving the oft-injured playmaker a long term deal would have been reckless. But with almost identical production numbers in 2020 from the previous year, the same headache still exists. I foresee Henry testing the market and finding a team willing to pay him a lot more than Telesco would.
Another big name likely to leave is Melvin Ingram. The team tweaked his contract last training camp to make him a little happier entering the final year of his deal. But the key here is how Brandon Staley perceives Ingram’s best position. Under Bradley, Ingram played the ‘leo’ role as a stand up edge rusher on the defensive front. Staley employs a more standard 3-4 scheme which would make Ingram a classic outside linebacker. Regardless, I think he gets a better offer elsewhere and is on his way out.
Jenkins and Davis – the two defensive backs mentioned earlier – should be priorities this offseason. But Telesco will work with his new coaching team before coming to a decision on the futures of a trio of underwhelming linemen in Sam Tevi, Dan Feeney and Forrest Lamp. And Denzel Perryman’s durability will definitely be a factor in whether the thumping linebacker returns.
If The Chargers want to fulfil the promise that Justin Herbert showed as a rookie, they need to fix this offensive line. QB protection has been an issue for this team for a decade plus; Philip Rivers likely has a ring on his finger if he had more time in the pocket to operate. With Mike Pouncey retiring and Turner, Tevi, Feeney and Lamp all potentially gone, expect Telesco to dabble in free agency and the NFL Draft to aide a complete makeover of the position.
If Ingram goes, the only pass-rushing OLB that fits Staley’s scheme on this roster is Uchenna Nwosu. Joey Bosa will play the ‘JJ Watt’ role, manoeuvring along the defensive line to find mismatches, but speed pressure off the edge is a huge priority. #13 in the first round of the NFL Draft might be a touch early for Texas’ Joseph Ossai, but other prospects that fit the mould and might be there on day two include Penn State’s Jayson Oweh and Miami’s Quincey Roche.
With Chris Harris and Casey Hayward – if they return – tabbed as starters in the secondary, the need to get younger on the back end is apparent. It will be interesting to see if Staley goes after a name like Troy Hill, who shone as an outside corner in his scheme for The Rams last year.
PREVIOUSLY THE FOUNDER OF NFL DRAFT UK, SIMON HAS BEEN COVERING COLLEGE FOOTBALL AND THE NFL DRAFT SINCE 2009. BASED IN MANCHESTER, SIMON IS ALSO CO-CREATOR & WEEKLY GUEST OF THE COLLAPSING POCKET PODCAST.