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2021 Team Report: Los Angeles Chargers

Last updated: Wed, Sep 1

Offensive Philosophy

New Chargers offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi has spent twelve years with Sean Payton and the Saints, with two years as offensive coordinator of the Detroit Lions in the middle of that stretch. His tendencies and preferences are well known; like Payton, he prefers a pass-first offense that uses specific receivers to attack specific areas of the field, replacing a lot of designed runs with high-percentage passes to the running back, instead. The Saints during Lombardi's tenure have typically used a heavy running back by committee, but their backs remain some of the most productive in the NFL simply because no team has thrown anywhere near as many passes in their direction. Running back Austin Ekeler is one of the best receivers in the NFL and an early candidate to lead all running backs in targets this year.

Quarterbacks

Starter: Justin Herbert
Backup(s): Chase Daniel, Easton Stick

Starting QB: Herbert was an impressive passer at Oregon, but few expected such marked NFL success right off the bat. While many poked holes in his raw, uneven profile, all Herbert did was run away with Rookie of the Year honors and erupt out of Philip Rivers' shadow. Herbert sat for Week 1 but still produced 4,336 yards and threw 31 touchdowns, adding 5 more on the ground with ample goal-line usage. New coordinator Joe Lombardi will likely install a versatile scheme that pushes the ball through a wide range of weapons all over the field. That should benefit Herbert in his second-year development, though there's even further upside in his powerful yet precise arm. It's hard to project such firepower to carry over into 2021, but Herbert looked so good as a rookie, there's no reason not to.

Backup QB: Daniel has made his living - roughly $35 million over 11 years - as a backup and sounding board. His wisdom may prove invaluable for Herbert's development, but if he's pressed into action, the offense will take a noticeable step back. Over those 11 seasons, Daniel has thrown all of 8 touchdowns in his 5 starts. Stick is a versatile athlete who could conceivably find a niche in a Taysom Hill-type role.

Running Backs

Starter: Austin Ekeler
Backup(s): Joshua Kelley, Justin Jackson, Larry Rountree [R], Darius Bradwell
Fullback(s): Gabe Nabers

Starting RB: Ekeler has yet to post a 600-yard rushing season in the NFL, and he's run for just 9 touchdowns over his 56 games. But he's still an elite fantasy back, thanks to his dynamism and one of the league's highest-volume receiving roles. New coordinator Joe Lombardi wasn't just being sweet when we compared Ekeler to some of the prior backs he's coached - Reggie Bush, Darren Sproles, Alvin Kamara - who all fit a clear and fantasy-friendly pattern. Ekeler has posted 4.6 receptions a game over the past 3 years, more than James White, Nyheim Hines, and even wideout Robby Anderson. He'll face some competition for carries as always, though it's worth noting that current backups Kelley (3.2 yards per rush in 2020) and Jackson (has missed 19 of 48 NFL games) offer little in relief. Ekeler easily led this backfield with 170 touches in 2020 despite missing 6 games and most of a seventh. We may have already seen Ekeler's absolute ceiling, but few RB1s offer such an attractive floor, particularly in PPR formats.

Backup RBs: With Melvin Gordon out of town, the Chargers looked largely to rookie Kelley in 2020 as a runner alongside Ekeler. The results could hardly have been worse: the lumbering Kelley managed just 3.2 yards per carry and couldn't be counted on in short yardage. By season's end, he was a weekly scratch. Jackson is athletic and versatile, but may not be up to the task himself. He's missed 40% of his games as a pro, losing much of 2020 to various toe and leg injuries. Sixth-round rookie Rountree has a shot to sew up the No. 2 job in camp. He's not very explosive, but was extremely productive in the SEC. He'll at least push Bradwell, who has yet to touch the ball as a practice-squad type.

Fullback: Nabers should lock down the situational fullback role, but he's not a fantasy consideration. Chargers fullbacks have touched the ball all of 17 times over the past 2 years.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Keenan Allen, Mike Williams
Backups: Josh Palmer [R], Jalen Guyton, Tyron Johnson, K.J. Hill

Starting WRs: Allen remains one of the game's steadiest slot receivers and PPR fantasy producers. He's posted 97+ receptions in 4 straight seasons - only DeAndre Hopkins and Michael Thomas have caught more over that span. But Allen's per-catch production has dipped three years in a row, down to an anemic 9.9 last season. Never much of a red-zone threat, Allen's career 6.7% touchdown rate doesn't move the fantasy needle much. Allen is still a creative, sticky-handed slot dynamo, and a full season should net him plenty of PPR value. But it's unlikely the 29-year-old short-ball specialist has another gear to show us. If Justin Herbert opens up his downfield game in 2021, he'll look often to Williams, who's developed into a premier downfield weapon. Williams has been anything but a consistent fantasy producer - he's yet to post a 50-catch season, and he's topped 800 yards just once. But he offers great burst into the secondary, and he's one of the game's most dangerous threats on contested balls. His 10.0 yards per target over the past 3 years sits 10th in football, above the likes of Tyreek Hill, Julio Jones, and DK Metcalf. The emergence of phenom Herbert, who threw downfield much better in 2020 than Philip Rivers had in years, could catapult Williams into weekly WR2/3 appeal.

Backup WRs: Guyton and Johnson established themselves as true deep-ball weapons in 2020. The former undrafted free agents combined to turn 48 receptions into nearly 1,000 yards - 8 of those 48 catches went for 49+ yards. They may spin that into a long-term niche, but look unlikely to make much of a volume dent in this offense. Allen, Williams, and Ekeler should continue to dominate the ball; all that speed will mean more to the Chargers than to fantasy owners. Third-round rookie Palmer will push for snaps immediately himself. He's a big-framed prospect who makes a lot of sense starting on the outside, opposite the downfield-oriented Williams. Hill was a 2020 rookie who never emerged as an offensive factor (just 142 snaps). He had a 3-catch game late in the season, but will almost certainly have to fight for a weekly spot on the roster.

Tight Ends

Starters: Jared Cook
Backups: Donald Parham, Tre McKitty [R], Stephen Anderson

It was curious to see the Chargers not engage much in keeping Hunter Henry around. Instead, they'll bring 13-year veteran Cook into his sixth NFL offense. Cook is now 34 and saw his snaps and role gradually winnow down in New Orleans. He's still a situational threat, with the size and dynamism to win in the red zone and when sent up the seams. But Henry himself never emerged as a major target for Herbert in 2020 - he topped 50 yards in just 4 of their 13 games together - so there's little hope for a Cook breakout. Henry's TE2 production looks like an absolute ceiling for Cook, and his floor is quite low. There's a chance either Parham, who scored on 3 of his 10 catches in 2020, or Anderson, a converted wideout, works his way into a true supporting role. Third-rounder McKitty is a work in progress as a receiver, but likely boasts the best athletic profile of the bunch.

Place Kicker

Michael Badgley, Tristan Vizcaino, Alex Kessman [R]: Badgley wasn't bad enough to lose his job in 2020, but he doesn't exactly have a tight grip on it heading into camp. He was only 8-of-13 on kicks from 40-49 yards and 2-of-6 from 50+ yards. While he didn't miss from under 40 yards, the new regime still brought in Tristan Vizcaino, who made all five of his kicks for the 49ers in spot duty last year, and UDFA Alec Kessman. The possibility that Badgley is unseated in camp is strong enough to discourage you from drafting him even though he had top 10 kicker scoring opportunity in 2020.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Joe Reed, Nasir Adderly, Tyron Johnson

The Chargers bring back every player to log at least two kickoff returns last year, suggesting their kickoff return unit will look very similar in 2021.

Punt Returners: K.J. Hill, Joe Reed

Last year's top punt returner, K.J. Hill, is back and poised to reprise his role. The team's primary backup is no longer around, but kickoff returner Joe Reed could compete for those duties, as well.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Rashawn Slater, LG Matt Feiler, C Corey Linsley, RG Oday Aboushi, RT Bryan Bulaga
Key Backups: OL Trey Pipkins, OL Brenden Jaimes [R], C Scott Quessenberry

Rashawn Slater was drafted thirteenth overall to start at left tackle, He joins four new starters on this rebuild line. All-Pro center Corey Linsley joins the Chargers from Green Bay, while left guard Matt Feiler arrives from Pittsburgh. He has right tackle backup skills behind Bryan Bulaga. Oday Aboushi is the new right guard, an underrated player. This line is near the bottom due to turnover. But once the lineup settles, they have top-ten potential.

Team Defense

The Chargers D/ST was a middling fantasy unit in 2020, suffering a season without Derwin James and injuries that limited the impact of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram on the edge. Ingram is gone in free agency, but the team should have James back, and second-round pick Asante Samuel Jr. could be an instant hit in the secondary. New head coach Brandon Staley helped the Rams post top 3 D/ST numbers last year and he should have some tricks up his sleeve to keep opposing offenses off balance. Their opening schedule isn't easy, but if the Chargers defense hits their stride, they could become an everyweek start in time and will have some spot start matchups to exploit in the second half of the year in any event.

Defensive Line

Starters: DE Jerry Tillery, NT Linval Joseph, DE Justin Jones
Backups: NT Christian Covington, DE Cortez Broughton, DE Joe Gaziano, NT Breiden Fehoko

Starting DL: Melvin Ingram is gone after nine strong years, so Tillery and Joey Bosa will make up the backbone of the Chargers pass rush. Tillery was the team's first-round pick in 2019, and new coach Brandon Staley has already talked up his value as an interior rusher. He produced just 3.0 sacks last year, but his 22 overall pressures hint at a jump may be coming. If Staley's impact is as expected, it wouldn't be surprising to see Tillery and Bosa combine to post 20+ sacks. Joseph and Jones are run-game specialists who will likely rotate on and off the field more than usual now. Neither is a fantasy option, especially if they start to cannibalize each other's snaps and opportunities.

Backup DL: Covington, signed away from the Bengals in May, could work his way quickly into the run-stuffing rotation. Still, he's no more than a functional piece in the middle. Broughton and Gaziano are practice-squad types that could stick if they show the ability to bounce between positions.

Linebackers

Starters: OLB Joey Bosa, ILB Kenneth Murray, ILB Kyzir White, OLB Uchenna Nwosu
Backups: OLB Chris Rumph [R], ILB Drue Tranquill, OLB Jessie Lemonier, ILB Emeke Egbule

Starting LBs: New coach Brandon Staley oversaw a nickel base set and three-man front for the vast majority of his time with the Rams. But there's no personnel grouping that keeps out Bosa, one of the league's premier edge men. He'll play most downs and bounce all over the formation, rushing from his feet, his hand, and from the interior. Bosa has produced a 16-game average of 12 sacks, with a solid 61 tackles to boot, making for an elite DL1 play any format. Across the field, Nwosu is a former second-round pick looking to fill the shoes of Melvin Ingram. He's one-dimensional, but he's been productive in limited time, racking up 10.0 sacks over 989 career snaps. On the inside, Murray, last year's first-round pick, looks to push past a shaky rookie season. He posted solid LB2 numbers (107 tackles, 1.0 sack) but struggled noticeably as a tackler and in coverage. His leash may not be particularly long for Staley, whose scheme values athletic coverage guys on the second level. White looks likely to take over next to him, and he has some sleeper appeal. A former safety, White fits Staley's profile nicely and made plays at a great rate last year (77 tackles over 11 games).

Backup LBs: Rumph is a dynamic prospect off the edge, and he'll likely push Nwosu for pass-rush action. Slight but explosive with a nose for the backfield, Rumph racked up 25 tackles for loss over his two full-time years at Duke. If his recovery from a broken ankle is on schedule, Tranquill could also compete for snaps right off the bat. A converted safety who looked promising in his 2019 time, he'll platoon to some degree with White in Staley's 3-3-5 scheme. Lemonier will fight for rotational snaps rushing off the edge; he impressed in 2019 training camp. Egbule is a special-teams specialist looking to hold onto the No. 4 job inside.

Defensive Backs

Starters: SS Derwin James, FS Nasir Adderley, CB Michael Davis, CB Chris Harris, CB Asante Samuel [R]
Backups: SS Alohi Gilman, CB Tevaughn Campbell, FS Mark Webb [R], CB Brandon Facyson

Starting DBs: James will again open his season on the tail end of a long injury layoff - he's played just five games over the last two years. When on the field, he's a true difference-maker in all facets of the defense. His 2018 rookie breakout was a true fantasy gem, featuring 105 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 3 interceptions, and 13 pass breakups. James' recovery has been on-track, and that DB1 ceiling remains fully intact. He's capable of making plays in the box, in the slot, and down the field, so IDP players can't ask for much more in terms of upside. He should be one of the first few DBs off any draft board. Adderley was uneven in 2020, but Staley has talked up his potential as a centerfield-type safety. For the first time since 2015, Casey Hayward won't open the year as the Chargers' top cornerback. The team got great value in the rookie Samuel, who should claim run right off the bat, possibly pushing Harris or Davis into a nickel role. Davis was shaky at best in 2020, while Harris has declined noticeably at 32.

Backup DBs: Samuel is a fairly raw prospect in terms of technique and control, but he brings a tenacity to coverage that projects great into the slot. Gilman projects as depth as an in-the-box specialist at best. Rookie Webb is an athletic prospect from an SEC background; he could easily win snaps off the bat. Campbell and Facyson will also battle new additions for roster spots and opportunities.