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Los Angeles Chargers 2018 Season Preview

Read Sport logo Read Sport 12/08/2018 David Howell

The Los Angeles Chargers are back for the second of what will be a three-year stint in the NFL’s most comically unsuitable stadium, thus extending a run of goodness knows how many years the team held from their days in San Diego. While they wait to become tenants of Stan Kroenke, they actually have a decent team to talk about.

a group of baseball players that are standing in front of a crowd: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images Sport © Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images Sport Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images Sport

2017 summary

New year, new city, but some things stayed the same for the Chargers. They lost their opening game on the road in the bat hours of Monday night – this time in Denver – and Jason Verrett suffered a season-ending injury. There were also empty seats at their home opener, despite there only being about 30,000 to fill in the first place, and the loudest cheers came from the visiting Dolphins fans. When a team from a tourist city three timezones away can manage a bigger road support than your home support, you may possibly be short of fans.

The Chargers continued to lose games for the first month of the season, setting up a Week 5 clash with the New York Giants that was billed as a chance for two 0-4 teams to take a big step towards a high draft pick to use on replacing the aging quarterbacks the two teams drafted for each other back in 2004. The Giants took that chance, thanks to seemingly their entire WR corps getting injured, and duly secured the second overall pick (and, erm, used it on a running back). The Chargers, having crashed their tank, inexplicably became a good NFL team for the first time in three years.

They ended up winning nine of their last 12 games, and two of the three teams to vanquish them contested the AFC Championship Game. (The other loss came against the Kansas City Chiefs, who haven’t lost to the Chargers since before Ed Sheeran had his first UK number one. This is a real fact.) That wasn’t quite enough to get them to the playoffs, but it was enough for them to only miss out on a complicated multi-way tiebreaker, which made for a really bad look in the eyes of some Chargers fans (yes, they do exist) given that the Buffalo Bills won that tiebreaker despite a thumping home loss to the Chargers. (You may remember that game for Nathan Peterman‘s NFL career being declared DOA in a five-INT first half.)

Still, at least the Chargers looked somewhat relevant again.

Personnel changes

a man holding a sign posing for the camera: Tom Pennington/Getty Images Sport © Tom Pennington/Getty Images Sport Tom Pennington/Getty Images Sport

The Chargers looked like they’d fallen out of position to take one of the top prospects of the 2018 NFL Draft with that futile run out of an 0-4 hole. However, when one of those prospects was a safety and the entirety of the NFL seemed to be dedicated to ignoring that position in the offseason, that didn’t pan out. Derwin James, a consensus top-ten talent, landed in the Chargers’ laps without even a trade up from the 17th pick. Second-day selections were used on Uchenna Owusu and Justin Jones, both of whom add defensive depth, while there was an intriguing seventh-round compensatory selection in running back Justin Jackson. Given how efficient Melvin Gordon isn’t, that could be a name for fantasy owners to watch for.

The Chargers were among the smallest spenders in free agency, but did pick up one headline acquisition in center Mike Pouncey, a Dolphins cap casualty. TE Virgin Green wasalso added, and just as well, because Hunter Henry is out for the season with a torn ACL. Welcome back to the Chargers injury-go-round.

Team strengths

The Chargers have built one of the best secondaries in the league just a few years after having one of the worst, even without the man who was meant to be the catalyst for rebuilding that unit in Verrett. Casey Hayward has turned into one of the league’s elite corners since escaping Green Bay and their dubious defensive schemes under their now-departed defensive coordinator Don Capers. Opposite him, Trevor Williams had a breakout season and a half. Desmond King made a mockery of his fifth-round rookie status as the slot corner.

It probably helped that the corners didn’t often have to cover for too long with Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram rushing off the edge. The deadly duo combined for 23 of the team’s 43 sacks… and in a sign that the Chargers were finally winning on the other side of the trenches too, they only allowed 18 themselves all season. Was that the revamped line – which now gains Forrest Lamp after spending his rookie year rehabbing his preseason ACL tear – or was it the late-career smarts of Philip Rivers?

Team weaknesses

The defense may look great against the pass, but even in today’s NFL that’s not enough by itself. The Chargers’ young linebackers took a step back in 2017, the unit falling apart during Denzel Perryman‘s injury absence, and the defensive interior was nowhere near as good as the edge-rush duo flanking it.

The Chargers could do with being better on the ground themselves. As mentioned, bellcow back Gordon has not been as productive as his headline yardage totals implied, as he averaged under four yards per carry for the third time in his three-year NFL career. Getting 284 such carries is great for his fantasy owners, but it’s terrible for the team.

With the Henry injury leaving block-first Green as the leader of the TE unit, this offense is going to be highly dependent on its theoretical WR depth actually being visible in practice.. That requires Keenan Allen to not get hurt, Mike Williams to not look like one of the worst draft picks of all time, Tyrell Williams to be more than a sporadic big-play threat, Travis Benjamin to be at least a sporadic big-play threat, and Rivers retaining enough of an arm to deliver big plays. At least one of those won’t happen.

Best case

This team could be basically the 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars with a much better QB. Those Jaguars reached the AFC Championship Game and only a fumble-six being wrongly whistled dead kept them out of the Super Bowl. Who’s to say these Chargers couldn’t go one step further? Maybe even two steps further?!? This team has an honest-to-goodness path to a Lombardi Trophy; worse teams than this have won it. 13-3, first in AFC West, win Super Bowl

Worst case

The Chargers had their best injury luck in years last season and they still only went 9-7. That suggests they’re actually a below-average team, and with Rivers due to hit terminal decline (it’s now five years since he won a Comeback Player of the Year award without even coming off an injury!) and the defense still unable to stop the run, they will turn out to be exactly who we thought they were this time last year.

Nobody in LA will even begin to care about the Chargers when LeBron James is playing in Lakers purple and the Rams are competing for the championship, and the empty seats at ironically-sponsored StubHub Center will leech away whatever confidence is left. Even draft position for a new QB won’t seem so great in a year currently considered a feeble one for draft prospects at the position, and the future of the Chargers will look well and truly murky.

5-11, fourth in AFC West

Prediction

The Chargers seem so “underrated” at this point they may actually be overrated.

With that said, they’re probably one of the three best teams in the AFC on paper. There’s two problems with that statement, though: firstly, the game’s played on grass and FieldTurf, not paper; secondly, being the second-best team in the AFC is like being the second-best team in the Scottish Premiership.

And, to be honest, someone else in the AFC ought to be able to prevail against the Chargers in a few injuries’ time. 9-7, first in AFC West, lose in wild card round

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