The Update: Los Angeles Chargers 2017 Preview

The Update: Atlanta Falcons 2017 Preview
July 9, 2017
The Update: Denver Broncos 2017 Preview
July 12, 2017

The Update: Los Angeles Chargers 2017 Preview

Justis Mosqueda

In an effort to break the two-paragraph preview trend of national writers, Setting the Edge has dedicated themselves to previewing all 32 teams in the NFL in a series called “The Update”, which will focus on:

  1. Where a team stands from a decision-maker standpoint
  2. Where teams were efficient and inefficient last year by using percentile radar charts
  3. Who the moving parts between the 2016 and 2017 seasons were
  4. Where a team is trending heading into the 2017 regular season

Justis Mosqueda will be writing the team previews while Charles McDonald posts film breakdowns based on the writing. After posts on entire divisions are finished, they will discuss teams on division-specific Setting the Edge podcasts which you can find on SoundCloud and iTunes. Five stars only. Tell a friend.

In the last decade, no team has had a more unlucky two-year stretch than the 2015-2016 San Diego Chargers. Throughout these previews, we’ve noted that close games, tangibly, are coin flips. Few teams end up more than two games over or under .500 in single-score games in a given season, and when they do, the “overrated” teams always have a worse record the next season and the “underrated” teams always have a better record the next season.

This is from our Chicago Bears preview:

Winning close games is much closer to a coin flip than a a tangible trait a quarterback or head coach has. In the 320 seasons from 2006 to 2015, only 15 teams (4.6%) were more than two games under .500 in close games. Of those 15 teams, every single one of them had an improved record the next season. Here’s the list:

  • 2006 Detroit Lions (1-8 in close games, 3-13 record to 7-9 record in 2007)

  • 2006 Jacksonville Jaguars (2-7 in close games, 8-8 record to 10-6 in 2007)

  • 2007 Miami Dolphins (1-6 in close games, 1-15 record to 11-5 record in 2008)

  • 2008 Green Bay Packers (1-7 in close games, 6-10 record to 11-5 record in 2009)

  • 2008 San Diego Chargers (2-7 in close games, 8-8 record to 13-3 record in 2009)

  • 2009 Washington Redskins (2-7 in close games, 4-12 record to 6-10 record in 2010)

  • 2010 Dallas Cowboys (3-8 in close games, 6-10 record to 8-8 record in 2011)

  • 2010 Cincinnati Bengals (2-7 in close games, 4-12 record to 9-7 record in 2011)

  • 2011 Minnesota Vikings (2-9 in close games, 3-13 record to 10-6 record in 2012)

  • 2012 Carolina Panthers (1-7 in close games, 7-9 record to 12-4 record in 2013)

  • 2012 Detroit Lions (3-8 in close games, 4-12 record to 7-9 record in 2013)

  • 2013 Houston Texans (2-9 in close games, 2-14 record to 10-6 record in 2014)

  • 2014 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-8 in close games, 2-14 record to 6-10 record in 2015)

  • 2015 New York Giants (3-8 in close games, 6-10 record to 11-5 record in 2016)

  • 2015 San Diego Chargers (3-8 in close games, 4-12 record to 5-11 record in 2016)

That’s right, the 2015 San Diego Chargers were 1 of those 15 teams, and they did improve by one win in 2016, but they went 5-11 by going 1-8 in single-score games. If you truly believe that single-score games are more luck than skill, which all the numbers suggest, then the likelihood that the 2016 Chargers would have gone 5-11 were the same odds that the team would have gone 12-4. Dating back to 2006, the 2015-2015 Chargers are the first team to record back-to-back season in which they finished more than two games under .500 in single-score games, good for falling six games under .500 over the last two years.

The only teams close to the Chargers’ recent track record, in terms of luck, were the 2011-2012 Carolina Panthers and the 2008-2009 Kansas City Chiefs. Those four seasons between those two teams produced a 19-45 record and no playoff appearances, as each squad was five games under .500 in single-score games over those two-year stretches. Carolina’s 2013 and Kansas City’s 2010, the years immediately following their “unlucky” streaks, produced a combined 22-10 record, plus two playoff berths.

Being “lucky” in the NFL just sets teams up for falling back to Earth. Being “unlucky” in the NFL just sets teams up for a bounce back. On paper, the now Los Angeles Chargers quietly have everything set up in their favor for a breakout season. In practice, playing in the NFL’s hardest division, the AFC West, could postpone that result for yet another season. Either way, you can run to the bank with the fact that the Chargers will at least improve in record this year, even if by just one win.

Offense:

Backs: When looking at the Chargers’ 2016 numbers, it’s really surprising how poorly they did on the offensive side of the ball. Even with an injured roster, plenty of “no name” receivers stepped up to bat, the squad implemented a strong two-tight end system and running back Melvin Gordon improved on a poor rookie season.

With that being said, of the eight efficiency categories that we measure, the Chargers were only even above average in just one of them. In the passing game, they were 3rd in yards per completion, 17th in sack percentage, 22nd in completion percentage and 30th in interception percentage. If you thought that every Chargers game last season ended on a Philip Rivers interception, you weren’t totally wrong. As we mentioned, San Diego was particularly unlucky in single-score games last year, and Rivers’ NFL-leading turnover number may not totally reflect his talent at this point in his career.

Was he reckless with the ball? Yes. Do you get more reckless with the ball when your back is against the wall and the clock is your enemy? Yes. If this trend continues, maybe we can start talking about the potential drop off of Rivers, but this new coaching staff didn’t think low enough of Rivers to draft Patrick Mahomes of Texas Tech or Deshaun Watson of Clemson, two quarterbacks picked within five picks after their first-round selection.

By this time next season, we’ll know if Rivers’ hiccup of a season was due to his accuracy declining or the odd situations he was put in during the 2016 season.

At running back, Gordon was the only significant name in San Diego’s backfield last season. With no real significant additions this offseason, you can assume that the Chargers will be running a true one-back offense in 2017. The team may have the weakest depth at running back in the league, but the former first-round pick took 254 carries for 3.9 yards per carry and 41 receptions for 10.2 yards per reception, an amazing number for someone coming out of the backfield.

Last year, San Diego was 16th in fumble percentage, 21st in run percentage, 26th in yards per carry and 29th in TFL percentage. You can make the argument that Gordon outperformed his offensive line and that the team leaned on the ground game a bit too much, relative to their results. With a revamped offensive line, if the new coaching staff continues to commit to the ground game, Gordon could have his “breakout” season in terms of efficiency, not just volume numbers like in 2016.

Pass-Catchers: The Chargers’ passing game fell into the hands of just six players last season. While finishing third in yards per completion last year, the team targeted receiver Tyrell Williams 69 times (15.3 yards per reception), receiver Dontrelle Inman 48 times (14.0 yards per reception), tight end Antonio Gates 53 times (10.3 yards per reception), Travis Benjamin 47 times (14.4 yards per reception), Gordon 41 times (10.2 yards per reception) and tight end Hunter Henry 36 times (13.3 yards per reception). They had six pass-catchers record at least 36 receptions, with no one else recording more than 13 and just one other pass-catcher recording double-digit receptions. There was a clear split on who the Chargers did and didn’t want to work into their passing game last year.

Inman and Williams had by far the best seasons in their careers, while Benjamin had the second-best season in his career in his first year with the team. These opportunities were only awarded to the Chargers after receiver Keenan Allen tore his ACL in Week 1, following a four-year contract extension. That’s one mouth to feed that could take away reps from Inman, Williams and Benjamin. The second is first-round receiver Mike Williams, a big-body receiver who, like Allen, lives off his possession ability.

Here is the list of receivers who recorded at least 47 receptions and 14.0 yards per reception last year:

  • DeSean Jackson (56, 17.9)
  • Julio Jones (83, 17.0)
  • Marvin Jones (55, 16.9)
  • Dez Bryant (50, 15.9)
  • T.Y. Hilton (91, 15.9)
  • Alshon Jeffery (52, 15.8)
  • Tyrell Williams (69, 15.3)
  • Brandin Cooks (78, 15.0)
  • Kelvin Benjamin (62, 14.9)
  • Quincy Enunwa (58, 14.8)
  • Kenny Britt (68, 14.7)
  • A.J. Green (66, 14.6)
  • Rishard Matthews (65, 14.5)
  • Travis Benjamin (47, 14.4)
  • Mike Wallace (72, 14.1)
  • Adam Thielen (69, 14.0)
  • Dontrelle Inman (58, 14.0)

There were only 17 such players in the NFL last season, and the Chargers had three of them. Those players, a mega-deal receiver on the second year of his contract and a first-round wide out make up the team’s top five receivers. They also have a strong pass-catcher out of the backfield and two quality tight ends. There are too many mouths to feed to keep everyone’s numbers up, but the depth that the team has at receiver can contend with the best in the NFL.

Linemen: This is where the turnover is on the offensive side of the ball. No skill player that played a significant amount of time was lost in the offseason, but the Chargers moved on from three of their five-most played offensive linemen from 2016 in D.J. Fluker (one-year, $3 million contract with the New York Giants), Orlando Franklin (free agent) and King Dunlap (free agent, retired). The team returns center Matt Slauson and tackles Joe Barksdale and Chris Hairston as linemen with experience playing together. Barksdale and Hairston should compete at right tackle and swing tackle, with Russell Okung, who signed  four-year, $53 million deal, presumably lining up at left tackle.

Slauson could also kick to guard, as 2016 third-round pick Max Tuerk has a history at center. With that in mind, Tuerk didn’t play a single snap as a rookie and now has a new coaching staff. The team also drafted Forrest Lamp of Western Kentucky and Dan Feeney of Indiana in the second and third rounds of the draft. Both project to guard, and their numbers suggest that they will be big impacts moving forward. A line made up of Okung-Lamp-Slauson-Feeney-Barksdale/Hairston seems likely, if the rookies can get their acts together, which makes Tuerks’ future in this new era basically dead on arrival. After finishing 17th in sack percentage and 29th in TFL percentage last season, the Chargers did need to switch things up.

Defense:

Line of Scrimmage: With defensive coordinator Gus Bradley coming to town, the Chargers will move, at least on paper, from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 defense. Luckily for Bradley, the former Jacksonville Jaguars head coach and Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator, San Diego was about average or above average in every statistical category on defense last year.

On the ground, the team was 2nd in TFL percentage, 6th in yards per carry, 14th in run percentage and 17th in fumble percentage, plus they were 15th in sack percentage. Their front seven was a strength overall, even if some individual pieces performed under the league average.

The team returns every significant name that you could imagine on the line of scrimmage. In terms of edge defenders, the team’s clear starters will be Joey Bosa, a 2016 first-round pick, and Melvin Ingram, who just signed a long-term extension after having the franchise tag places on him. After that, the projection gets murky. Will Kyle Emanuel and Jeremiah Attaochu, former college pass-rushers, go from playing in a two-point stance to transitioning to a three-point stance? Position listings and actual usage in an NFL game can be differentiated, so we likely won’t get this answer until Week 1.

On the defensive interior, Corey Luiget, Tenny Palepoi, Damion Square and Brandon Mebane were the team’s most-played linemen, and they all return. Palepoi and Sqaure are far from household names, but the unit that finished second in TFL percentage and sixth in yards per carry last year is virtually untouched. Expect the status quo on the line of scrimmage, which for the Chargers is a positive.

Backs: The biggest personnel question for switches between 4-3 and 3-4 base defenses is who will stick at off the ball linebacker and who will play on the line of scrimmage. As we mentioned before, Emanuel is the face of that issue, though it will likely be a backup role either way. Jatavis Brown, Denzel Perryman and Korey Toomer were the team’s most-played off the ball linebackers last season, and one should assume that Brown and Perryman will be full-time starters who also play in nickel looks. That third linebacker spot in base-only looks could come down to either Toomer, Emanuel or 2016 fourth-round pick Joshua Perry.

In the defensive backfield, the Chargers were very opportunistic. They were just 16th in completion percentage and 20th in yards per completion, but their were 2nd in interception percentage in 2016. With the decline in play of Brandon Flowers, who is now a free agent, and an injury to former first-round pick Jason Verrett, San Diego had to lean on Casey Hayward, a first-year free agent addition, Craig Mager and Trevor Williams, to build up their cornerback unit. With the return of Verrett and the drafting of potential nickelback Desmond King in the fifth round, the team could match their interception efficiency with coverage efficiency this season. I’m not sure words can explain how big a jump of talent Verrett, a former Pro Bowler, is from Mager, who went from Texas State to starting in the NFL in two seasons, or Williams, who was undrafted in 2016.

The Chargers three most-played safeties all return in Dwight Lowery, Adrian Phillips and Jahleel Addae. The team also drafted Rayshawn Jenkins in the fourth round out of Miami and Iowa’s King could also contribute at safety, if he’s not in the team’s plans in the slot.

2017 Prediction: The Los Angeles Chargers are my definition for cautiously optimism this season. They were unlucky last year. Their numbers may not tell the story of their true talent. Their numbers were fairly efficient other than their offensive line, which may have up to three new starters. Other than on their offensive line, the team only lost one player, cornerback Brandon Flowers, who played at least 30% of the team’s snaps on either side of the ball.

Historically, you’d say this is an amazing bounce back candidate. They have a deep receiver unit, and their line should help their backfield’s efficiency and put their quarterback in more risk-adverse positions. On defense, the team was quietly efficient and returns every significant player, plus they should get more out of a previously injured Pro Bowl cornerback.

The problem is that the Chargers play in the AFC West. In the AFC East or AFC North, they could be the second-best team in the division. In the AFC South, they could be the favorite to earn a home playoff game. In the AFC West, it’s entirely possible for any team to finish in first place or fourth place. In my opinion, you can make the case that four of the AFC’s six to eight top teams all play in the AFC West, which matters when one-third of an NFL schedule is made up of divisional opponents.

As far as I can tell, whoever wins the AFC West is getting the four seed. The West could get the other two wildcard spots. The West could cannibalize itself out of more than just one playoff bid. I can’t predict the future. I can just tell you not to sleep on the 2017 Chargers on Sundays, if you play in the AFC West or not.

Video Breakdown: Chargers’ Interior Offensive Line by Charles McDonald