This is the second article of a three-part series previewing the 2021 AFC West landscape. You can find the Denver Broncos season preview here.
Los Angeles Chargers
Head Coach: Brandon Staley
2020 Record: 7-9, 3rd in AFC West
Almost immediately following the end of the Chargers season, Chargers ownership fired head coach Anthony Lynn. Lynn spent four seasons as Chargers head coach and made the playoffs in his second year, but followed up that showing with consecutive losing seasons.
Shortly after, the Chargers announced the hiring of Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley as their new head coach. Staley climbed the league’s coaching ranks quickly and is now a head coach for the first time in his coaching career.
New Orleans Saints quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi was hired to be Staley’s offensive coordinator, and Denver Broncos defensive backs coach Renaldo Hill was hired to be defensive coordinator. Needless to say, a lot of eyes will be on this inexperienced coaching staff this fall.
But the coaching staff will have plenty of talent to work with. Shortly after the new coaching trio was formed, QB Justin Herbert was named the 2020 AP Offensive Rookie of the Year. Herbert had a stellar season after being drafted #6 overall by the Chargers and taking over the starting job in Week 2.
Herbert threw for 4,336 yards and 31 touchdowns in 2020. He broke the rookie touchdown record, the record for most completions (396) and threw for the 2nd most-ever yards by a rookie. The Chargers should be thrilled to have found their franchise QB in the draft, considering Herbert was the third QB off the board behind Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa.
The Chargers made a splash in free agency by revamping their offensive line. They made former Packers center Corey Linsley the highest paid center in the NFL. They signed versatile lineman and former Steeler Matt Feiler to a three-year contract. The Chargers also signed veteran TE Jared Cook in free agency.
During the 2021 NFL Draft, the Chargers were given the gift of LT Rashawn Slater falling in their laps at the 13th overall pick. Team need matched best player available. The Northwestern prospect will start immediately and protect Justin Herbert’s blindside, and all indications out of Chargers camp are that Slater could be a smashing success.
The Chargers also added CB Asante Samuel Jr. in the second round, a highly-touted prospect from Florida State. Samuel Jr. will help fill the void left by Pro Bowl CB Casey Hayward Jr., who followed former Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley to the Raiders.
The Chargers are headlined by an offensive playmaking trio of QB Justin Herbert, WR Keenan Allen, and RB Austin Ekeler. Complementing those three are the aforementioned TE Jared Cook, former #7 overall pick WR Mike Williams, and 2021 third-round pick WR Josh Palmer.
I’m not convinced that the Chargers have built a strong enough supporting cast to truly have a breakthrough season. I’m ready to anoint Justin Herbert as a franchise quarterback, but I’m not ready to give him the title of ‘elite quarterback.’
Herbert is no doubt set up for success with a rebuilt offensive line and a couple of top options in Allen and Ekeler. But I just don’t view the rest of the skill position group as talented enough to give me overwhelming confidence in the offense as a whole. I project the offense to be above average, but too much of that projection is based on health and Herbert’s QB play. But if Herbert does join the club of elite quarterbacks, this offense could explode.
The Chargers defense also projects to be above average in my eyes with a high ceiling.
EDGE Joey Bosa is among the elite pass-rushers in the league and is an absolute weapon for this unit. He is the anchor of the defense, but is only complemented by average play along the defensive front. Bosa is a problem around the edge for any NFL offensive tackle and can be single-handedly responsible for disrupting opponents’ passing attacks.
The Chargers are returning All-Pro Safety Derwin James to lead their secondary, and his presence will change the complexion of the defense. James has been plagued by injuries in his short career. A stress fracture in his foot caused him to miss 11 games in 2019, and a torn meniscus cost him all of 2020.
But make no mistake – James is no bust. He was named an All-Pro in his only full NFL season, which was also his rookie year. Bad luck has kept him off the field, and you shouldn’t be surprised if he’s named to another All-Pro team in 2021.
Second-round pick Asante Samuel Jr. will be another name to watch this season. Rookie cornerbacks tend to struggle, but a decent season from Samuel Jr. could lift the Chargers cornerback group that also features veteran Chris Harris Jr., but little quality depth behind him.
The Chargers will also be counting on LB Kenneth Murray, 2020’s #23 overall pick out of Oklahoma. Murray had a promising rookie season and faces the difficult task of a linebacker improving all elements of his game. As NFL offenses become more exotic, linebackers are being increasingly neutralized and exploited. The Chargers need Murray to become a chess piece in the middle of the field.
– 2021 Prediction
The Chargers have many reasons for optimism in 2021, but they are a top-heavy team. There is a lot of fragility that comes with that. Justin Herbert looks like a solid starter at the very least, but whether or not he continues to develop into a star will go a long way towards determining the success of this team.
My overall projection of the Chargers would be much higher if it weren’t for a brutal schedule for the first six weeks of the season (@ Washington, vs. Dallas, @ Kansas City, vs. Las Vegas, vs. Cleveland, @ Baltimore). 1-5 or 2-4 could be in the cards for the Chargers to start the year.
Despite the rough start, I expect the Chargers to be a fringe Wild Card team in 2021, but more likely to miss the playoffs than make them in the stacked AFC.
Projection: 9-8, 2nd in AFC West
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