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2018 Team Report: Los Angeles Chargers

Offensive Philosophy

While Philip Rivers is far closer to the end of his career than the beginning, the Chargers offense remains totally reliant on his arm to carry them as far as they can go. In recent years, this has resulted in plenty of pass attempts, but Rivers has tended to start fast and wear down as the season progressed. Rivers is one of the best vertical passers of his generation, and San Diego's offense gives him plenty of opportunities to showcase that talent; among players with 8 or more starts, only Matt Ryan averages more yards per completion than Philip Rivers over the last two years. At running back, the Chargers are one of the last teams with a true workhorse, as Melvin Gordon not only received three quarters of the team's running back carries, he also finished second on the team in targets.

Quarterbacks

Starter: Philip Rivers
Backup(s): Geno Smith, Cardale Jones

Starting QB: Rivers enjoyed an age-36 resurgence of sorts in 2017, at least from an efficiency standpoint. With Keenan Allen back to full health, Rivers took great advantage of his safe underneath targets while still managing to complete the league's fourth-most passes of 20+ yards. All told, after three seasons of roller-coast effectiveness, Rivers posted his most adjusted net yards per attempt, which accounts for yards, sacks, touchdowns, and interceptions, since 2013. It was an objectively fine season, one that ended in a standard-league QB8 finish, on the heels of finishing QB12 and QB9 in the previous two. An iron man who's topped 28 touchdowns in 5 straight seasons, Rivers remains a solid QB1/2 option for fantasy leaguers who prefer to wait on their quarterbacks. But in fantasy valuation, it's generally much wiser to push in your chips on volume rather than efficiency, which doesn't help us if the volume drops and often wanes from year to year anyway. And Rivers has now seen his dropback totals dip in back-to-back seasons, from 701 to 614 to 583, a leveling of 17% over that span. It's not a massive drop, but it's plenty noticeable. If Rivers is going to make a run at another QB8 finish, he'll likely have to keep up those sterling efficiency numbers. That's a hard ask from a passer of Rivers' age; historically speaking, he's more likely to regress, if only a bit, back into the high-end QB2 range.

Backup QB: Smith should continue to hold off Jones, who's shown nothing but negative thus far, in the race to back up Philip Rivers. It's a formality; Rivers doesn't miss games and has trimmed his sack rate majorly of late, so his backups rarely take more than 20-30 snaps a year. And it's hard to project Smith to much fantasy relevance should he be forced under center. Dating back to 2013, of the 77 quarterbacks to attempt 200+ passes, Smith sits 61st in adjusted yards per attempt (which factors yards, touchdowns, and interceptions), and he hasn't made any noise as a runner since scoring 6 touchdowns as a rookie. Neither he nor Jones would be a fantasy consideration, beyond deep two-quarterback leagues, were Rivers to go down.

Running Backs

Starter: Melvin Gordon
Backup(s): Austin Ekeler, Justin Jackson [R]
Fullback(s): Derek Watt

Starting RB: Gordon's follow-up to his 2016 fantasy breakout was a successful one. He checked in 5th league-wide in scrimmage yards, 3rd in scrimmage touchdowns, and finished as the PPR RB5 overall. Perhaps most importantly, he suited up for all 16 games after seeing his first 2 seasons both culminate in season-ending injuries. Gordon carries a handful of immensely fantasy-attractive traits. He's an absolute workhorse, gobbling up 75% of the team's snaps and 76% of running back touches over the past 2 seasons. He's a PPR dynamo, averaging 3.4 receptions and 30.1 yards per game (and adding 6 touchdowns) over that same span. And he remains a stud on the goal line, turning 22 carries from inside the 2-yard line (4th-best in the league, despite missing 4 games) into 9 short touchdowns. And none of those attractive factors look likely to change in 2018. The Chargers still clearly entrust him to dominate their backfield, still keeping only scatback Austin Ekeler and a host of practice squad-caliber retreads behind him; if healthy, he'll easily top 300 touches again. As always, the concern over Gordon lies in efficiency, as he's posted a disconcerting 3.80 yards per carry as a pro. For all of his 2017 productivity, Gordon topped 80 ground yards just 6 times, including a Week 17 romp that few fantasy owners benefited from. There's still reason to expect a sudden uptick, though. Gordon is an elusive runner and a true speedster; he's posted elite breakaway (15+ yard runs) and missed-tackle metrics throughout his NFL tenure, often held in check by one of the league's worst front lines. An abrupt leap in efficiency could be just around the corner. Besides, with the position evolving as it has been, Gordon is just fine as a fantasy RB1 selection. His touchdown productivity and receiving supplements are more than enough to keep him an elite option at a position of relative uncertainty. There's a little injury risk at play, but Gordon remains a slam-dunk option late in the first rounds of fantasy drafts.

Backup RBs: Undrafted 2017 rookie Ekeler burst onto the scene early last year, once Branden Oliver and Andre Williams proved unworthy of change-of-pace snaps behind Melvin Gordon. He wound up staking an impressive claim in the Chargers' seemingly one-man backfield, averaging 8.1 touches from Weeks 5-13, after which a broken hand virtually ended his season. In fact, he essentially led the Chargers backfield down the second-half stretch of a tight Week 10 game. He showed real explosiveness in the process, gaining 11+ yards on 18 of his 82 rookie touches. Going forward, Ekeler should continue to see roughly 25-30 snaps and 6-10 touches per game while Gordon is healthy, and he can certainly turn that workload into a handful of splash plays and a (wildly unpredictable) useful fantasy line or two. But his primary value will come as a Gordon handcuff. A Gordon injury would likely feed Ekeler into the streaming/flex conversation. He's one of the more intriguing picks from the running back rummage sale in the final few rounds of fantasy drafts. Jackson will compete with camp bodies for the RB3 role. A rookie seventh-rounder, he's a plus athlete who can catch the ball and could conceivably threaten Ekeler with a strong preseason.

Fullback: Watt is a lightly-used fullback valued almost solely for his situational blocking. J.J.'s younger brother has taken just 14 touches over his 32 NFL games and only one in the red zone; his brother in Houston is far more likely to make a fantasy dent or even find the end zone.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams
Backups: Travis Benjamin, Mike Williams, Dylan Cantrell [R]

Starting WRs: So that's what 16 games of Keenan Allen can bring. The oft-injured Allen not only played all 16 games in 2017, and not only led the NFL in targets per snap en route to 102 catches - he also showcased the open-field ability we hadn't seen since his rookie year. Allen remains overwhelmingly a slot-based underneath receiver; he finished 3rd in the league in receiving yards last year but just 14th in air yards. But his quickness and instincts on the catch and upfield are top-notch, which allowed him to truly maximize his massive opportunity stake in 2017. After dominating targets but averaging just 10.5 yards per catch from 2014-16, Allen nudged ahead to 13.7 last season. He's definitely not the prototype of a fantasy WR1: with so little a downfield game, he's not much of a touchdown threat, despite high usage in the red zone. And his jarring injury history will absolutely scare off a chunk of fantasy drafters. They're in the wrong for that, but their evaluation isn't lazy: Allen is a risky second-round pick, even in PPR leagues. He's only a marginal candidate to make a leap into the 8+ scores we need from that role, so both his yardage and touchdown ceilings are generally underwhelming. And with emerging talent all over the Chargers offense and the team throwing less in general, he's probably maxed out his volume outlook as well. Still, that volume should hold relatively steady as long as he's upright, and another 100-catch line would deliver Julio Jones-level value at a strong discount. Shrewd drafters will value Allen as a low-end WR1 type, one best targeted after a drafter has spent the first two rounds securing bellcow running backs. Tyrell Williams came into 2017 holding a lot of perceived fantasy value as opportunistic drafters awaited the inevitable Keenan Allen injury. It never came, though, and Williams spent the entire year as the third option behind the league's biggest target hog and a handful of situational options. He lost noticeable snaps down the stretch to Travis Benjamin and rookie Mike Williams, dipping from 83% in 2016 to 69% after last year's Week 5. Over those final 11 games, he drew just 11.3% of team targets, worlds below his 20.5% mark from 2016. Williams retains plenty of speculative fantasy appeal, of course, as a massive speedster (6'3" and 205, with a 4.48 40-yard dash in 2015) who generates touchdowns at an elite level. But there are plenty of conditions to his return to fantasy utility. The Chargers would likely have to reverse their downward passing trend of the past two seasons, and he'd have to continue holding off Mike Williams, last year's seventh overall pick, for prominence in the offense. It's easy to love his ability to erupt under the right circumstances, and he'll continue to maximize his limited opportunity. But as things sit now, last year's Round 8 darling looks more like a potential play in Round 14 or so of 2018 drafts.

Backup WRs: Williams lost the majority of his rookie season to injury, ultimately playing just 234 snaps across 10 games (he only topped 35 once), so we don't know much yet. He can be an effective deep threat, which he flashed plenty at Clemson, on instinct and physicality. But he's not a burner by any stretch, and he jumped especially poorly at his combine, so it's hard to view him as the next Dez Bryant. He looks like a prototypical intermediate target, which made it all the more disconcerting that he caught just 11 of his 23 rookie targets. He doesn't match Tyrell Williams in athleticism or downfield ability, so even in a best-case scenario, they'll continue to rotate snaps and opportunities. There's a decent WR3 ceiling in place for 2017, somewhere around 60 catches and above-average touchdown production. But his floor is truly putrid; he may never leapfrog Tyrell Williams, and barring an injury to Keenan Allen he has no real chance at being better than a second or third option. And as it stands, he's far less acclimated and woven into the offense than Benjamin, so his climb is truly massive. Williams makes a ton of sense as a late-round fantasy flier, but not among the top 50-55 names. Benjamin is an extraordinarily streaky fantasy play far more valuable to the Chargers than to us. He sees 30-40 snaps on a given week, and occasionally Philip Rivers looks his way disproportionately - he did top 50 yards 4 times last year. But he's a limited player with far better pedigrees ahead of him on the depth chart. He'll likely remain a bit player atop the offense, and anything beyond 35 receptions looks iffy. Sixth-round rookie Cantrell will look to fight off veteran special teamers in camp for the final roster spot. He's big-bodied (6'3" and 226 pounds) but lacks athleticism. Williams and Benjamin could have larger roles with the loss of Hunter Henry in OTA's.

Tight Ends

Starters: Virgil Green
Backups: Sean Culkin, Braedon Bowman

Hunter Henry's torn ACL throws the Chargers offensive plans into tumult. The personnel department is almost certain to bring in a veteran. Whether it's convincing Antonio Gates to return for another year, or pursuing a trade, or waiting for veteran cuts, there's virtually no way the team is going into the season with Virgil Green and Sean Culkin at high snap counts. Green is primarily here for his blocking, but is an intriguing flier for the Chargers, and he could certainly wind up playing the Gates role from last year (52 targets, 3 touchdowns). Green was used lightly in Denver, catching just 71 balls over 7 years, but he always tended to grade highly in his limited opportunity. Culkin will also chime in, as the Chargers frequently use two- and three-tight sets, but he's still not a fantasy factor. He and Jeff Cumberland shared the TE3 role last year and combined for just six receptions. Bowman will spend camp battling for a roster, or more likely, practice squad spot.

Place Kicker

Caleb Sturgis, Roberto Aguayo: The Chargers 2017 was torpedoed in part by a terrible kicker performance that included four different players at the position. They collectively made only 20 of 30 attempts, making only 3 of 11 from 40 or more yards. This offseason they made a bid to fix it by signing Caleb Sturgis to a two-year deal with one million dollars guaranteed. Sturgis's stock had been trending up entering last season, but was put on injured reserve after tearing his hip flexor in the season opener. Former second-round pick Roberto Aguayo is on the roster to give Sturgis competition, but the job will be his as long as he has a decent camp and preseason.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Desmond King, Austin Ekeler

With both of 2017's top options under contract, the Chargers are likely to again use Desmond King and Austin Ekeler as their primary kickoff returners in 2018.

Punt Returners: Travis Benjamin, Desmond King

Former free agent acquisition Travis Benjamin has struggled to make an impact on offense, but the result is that Los Angeles has played him more and more on special teams. He handled all but one of the Chargers' punt returns in 2017.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Russell Okung, LG Dan Feeney, C Mike Pouncey, RG Forrest Lamp, RT Joe Barksdale
Key Backups: Donovan Clark, Michael Schofield, Spencer Pulley, Sam Tevi, Scott Quessenberry

Center Mike Pouncey arrived via free agency from the Miami Dolphins and if healthy, he should immediately become the Chargers' best lineman. Right guard Forrest Lamp was a promising rookie from last season coming back from injury, Should he return to form, it would impact the line like another high draft pick. The tackles of Russell Okung and Joe Barksdale are solid players and Dan Feeney should have the left guard spot in the wake of Matt Slauson's departure. Michael Schofield is a decent swing option. Overall this Chargers' offensive line enters the season as a mid-tier option.

Team Defense

The Chargers were a top seven fantasy defense in most scoring systems, albeit inflated by an ill-advised start by Nathan Peterman against them that resulted in five interceptions and two defensive touchdowns. The team sports the best edge rush duo in the league - Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, and they added another strong edge rusher in the second round. Uchenna Nwosu (USC) can allow them to put Bosa or Ingram inside one-on-one against a guard on passing downs and make life even harder for opposing quarterbacks with lethal pressure inside. Their cornerback group is also one of the best in the league with Trevor Williams and Desmond King emerging in 2017, and it will be almost unfair to opponents if Jason Verrett can come all the way back from his second ACL tear in his left knee. The team also added Derwin James (Florida State) in the first round of the draft, a safety who is an excellent blitzer with versatility to cover the slot, cover downfield, and provide run support. The Chargers defense should be drafted in the top 6-8 D/ST's in most leagues and may finish the year in top three.

Defensive Line

Starters: LE Joey Bosa, NT Brandon Mebane, DT Damion Square, RE Melvin Ingram
Backups: DT Corey Liuget (sus), DE Chris Landrum, DT Darius Philon, DT Justin Jones [R]

Starting DL: Bosa's follow-up was a rousing success; he tallied 12.0 sacks and forced 3 fumbles, all while finishing second among linemen with 70 combined tackles. The fact that he provided a stout 75 pressures hints that his sack numbers aren't situational or inflated, and that he's a perennial threat to hit 15 or more. Only Calais Campbell stands as a stronger and safer fantasy DL target, and even that's a legitimate question. Ingram also enjoyed a wildly successful 2017, checking in near the top of the second fantasy tier. He registered a solid blend of tackles (55) and sacks (10.5), and he's forced 11 fumbles over his past 55 games, an elite rate. Long plagued by nagging injuries, Ingram hasn't missed a game over the past two seasons and looks rock-solid as a top-10 DL selection. Mebane will again man the middle on early downs following a successful 2017 Chargers debut. He's a fine run-stuffer, but doesn't make plays and hasn't topped 24 tackles in 5 years. Corey Liuget's season-opening suspension will likely set up an early rotation between Square and Darius Philon at under tackle; neither is particularly dynamic or fantasy-relevant.

Backup DL: Liuget will open the year on a four-game suspension, dooming whatever faint fantasy relevance he once carried. Since an impressive 2012-14 stretch that saw him average 49 tackles, 5.2 sacks, and 3.3 pass deflections, he's posted just 31-1.7-1.7 over the last 3 years. Opening on suspension won't help, and he likely won't see more than rotational snaps for much of the season anyway. Landrum missed his rookie year, but has drawn coach praise in early OTAs. He'll likely serve as the top backup off the edge. Philon surprisingly drew 510 snaps last year, registering 4.5 sacks in rotational work, and should see a similar role again. Philon, Jones, and Rochell will share rotational snaps at 4-3 tackle and 3-4 end, though neither offers any statistical upside; they'll be tasked with absorbing blocks for the playmakers.

Linebackers

Starters: WLB Jatavis Brown, MLB Denzel Perryman, SLB Kyle Emanuel
Backups: MLB Hayes Pullard, SLB Uchenna Nwosu [R], MLB Nick Dzubnar

Starting LBs: Both Perryman and Brown lost chunks of their 2017s to injury and other factors, and neither boasts nearly the sizzle they did entering last season. Perryman is a strong run-stuffer, grading consistently well and averaging a respectable 5.7 tackles per game over his injury-riddled career. But that's only LB2 tackle production at best, and he doesn't supplement it with much on passing downs. Given the uncertainty and mediocre volume, he's not an appealing LB2 target. After a promising 2016 rookie year, Brown saw his playing time reduced markedly down the stretch, drawing just 31% of defensive snaps after coming off the injury report in Week 8. He's battled injuries his whole career, and he comes off the field in most nickel sets, so he's lost virtually all of his fantasy appeal. Emanuel is a rotational guy on the strong side; he played sparingly in 2017 and has averaged just 3.0 tackles a game over the past 2 years.

Backup LBs: Pullard filled in decently for Perryman last season, playing 476 snaps but drawing weak grades in the pass game. He's ideally a rotational run-plugger, but could be pressed into action again behind the oft-injured Perryman. He's still not an IDP target, though. Dzubnar also provides depth inside, but would enter a rotation in a best-case scenario. Second-rounder Nwosu is an intriguing edge prospect, boasting a solid 4.65 40-yard dash at 251 pounds. He's raw, but should work his way into relief of Melvin Ingram and could make a run at 4-6 situational sacks.

Defensive Backs

Starters: LCB Jason Verrett, SS Jahleel Addae, FS Derwin James [R], RCB Casey Hayward
Backups: CB Trevor Williams, CB/FS Desmond King, FS Adrian Phillips, CB/FS Jaylen Watkins, SS Kyzir White [R]

Starting DBs: The safeties, as usual, carry most of the appeal here. Addae has been strong across 24 career starts, averaging 6.0 tackles with 11 passes defensed. He grades well, too, so he appears locked into 95-100% of snaps and makes for a sneaky DB2 with real DB1 upside. Tre Boston ran with the starting free safety job in 2017, racking up 79 total tackles, batting down 8 passes, and intercepting 5, but he wasn't brought back. Instead, the team will pit incumbent candidate Adrian Phillips against first-round rookie James for the job. James looks like the clear frontrunner: a surprise draft-day slider, he's widely considered a franchise-cornerstone type of defensive back. He's ideally a strong safety, with great size and run-tracking skills, but was exceptionally stingy in coverage opportunities at Florida State. He shouldn't have much trouble winning the majority of FS snaps, though he may not lock down enough to make him a prime target in IDP drafts. He's best approached as an upside DB3 unless he makes a serious move in camp. The Chargers stull field one of the league's best cornerback duos - when they're healthy. Both Verrett and Hayward are sticky-handed ballhawks, and both are weekly threats to make splash plays. Hayward has absolutely excelled since coming over from Green Bay, averaging 5.5 interceptions and 21.0 pass breakups over the past 2 seasons. He's one of the top playmaking CBs to target in fantasy, but doesn't quite compare to the top 20-25 safeties. Verrett carries a lot of upside himself, as he's also quite adept at making plays on the ball, but he's missed 40 of 64 games as a pro. The uncertainty makes him generally hands-off in fantasy, unless you're required to start multiple CBs.

Backup DBs: Williams was a revelation in 2017, his second year in the NFL. Reveling in Gus Bradley's physical scheme, he stepped in for Verrett and played 1,006 snaps, drawing top-notch coverage grades in the process. Williams didn't generate much by way of fantasy numbers (56 tackles, 13 pass breakups, 2 interceptions), and he's more valuable to the Chargers than to us. But he'll be worth a look in CB-required leagues if Verrett gets hurt again. King was a true spark plug as a 2017 rookie, making plays all over the field on both defense and kick returns. He registered 36 tackles on defense (25 more on special teams), an impressive 4 sacks, and a 90-yard pick-six. The team will keep working him onto the field whenever possible - he saw 716 defensive snaps as a rookie - but unless Verrett goes down, his time will remain limited. Phillips did a serviceable job in a rotational role in 2017, racking up 65 tackles and breaking up 5 passes. But he's a poor bet to hold the job over prized rookie Derwin James, so he'll likely spend 2018 in a deeper situational role. Watkins came over from Philadelphia and should find a special teams role. He's versatile, with experience at both safety and slot cornerback, but the numbers aren't in his favor to find the field on defense. Fourth-round rookie White, a big-bodied thumper, is a much better bet to work his way into the gameplan.

Last modified: 2018-06-17 11:50:17