Joey Bosa and the Chargers look to maintain momentum from last year's 12-win campaign
When Chargers owner Dean Spanos signed off on the hiring of Anthony Lynn, he believed Lynn could a change a culture mired in mediocrity and self-sabotage. The Chargers had won just one playoff game over the seven seasons prior to his arrival. Those instincts appear to have been on target, as Lynn has immediately engineered the Chargers' best two-season stretch in over a decade, giving direction to a franchise that had otherwise been aimless. The Chargers won 12 games in 2018, and when they were finally dealt a gut punch by the Patriots in the playoffs, player after player insisted that their charmed run wouldn't be a one-off.
With one of the most talented rosters in the NFL, it shouldn't be. Amid massive sea change in the AFC West, the team that won 12 games a year ago remains largely the same. With Philip Rivers still firmly in his prime, the Chargers offense should remain one of the league's most explosive. The defense, with ascending stars such as Joey Bosa and Derwin James, is perhaps the league's most balanced across the board.
The Chargers showed flashes of greatness a year ago. Could it finally be their time, in Year 3 of the Lynn era, to put it all together?
At 37, in his 13th year as the Chargers starting quarterback, Rivers was better than ever. It's unclear how much longer the Chargers' fiery captain will want to continue slinging it, but the team has already declared its intention to re-sign him to one last deal. They'd have to be insane not to do everything possible to ensure that he retires a Charger. Judging by his performance last season, in which he threw 32 touchdowns and completed 68 percent of his passes, Rivers' swan song still seems a long way off.
His quick trigger and innate calm in a collapsing pocket help mitigate what might otherwise be a subpar situation up front. Left tackle Russell Okung and center Mike Pouncey have been consistent tentpoles. But starting right tackle Sam Tevi is a former sixth-rounder better suited for a backup role, while Dan Feeney has graded out poorly in each of his first two seasons starting at left guard. Either could be replaced this fall, though the list of linemen who might displace them is frighteningly short.
Elsewhere on offense, there is no shortage of top-tier talent. The backfield tandem of Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler is arguably the NFL's best; together, they produced 2,333 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns last season. Those are eye-popping totals that may only increase in 2019 — if Gordon is able to stay healthy. He missed four games a year ago and gutted out injuries for a large swath of the season. Nonetheless, Gordon looked better than he ever had as a pro, as offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt experimented with new ways to use him and Ekeler together. Gordon is entering the last year of his rookie contract and has said, "I want to get paid." This situation will be worth monitoring, especially if he holds out and doesn't report to training camp on time.
As the Chargers offense emerged as one of the league's best a year ago, no one took a bigger leap than former seventh overall pick Mike Williams, who scored 10 touchdowns on just 43 catches. With Tyrell Williams in Oakland, Mike Williams is primed to catch a lot more balls in a far more critical red zone role this season. He has Pro Bowl potential if he continues progressing at his current pace. Keenan Allen, meanwhile, should continue to do the damage he always does in the slot, where he's reeled in 199 passes over the past two seasons. Add a healthy Hunter Henry to that mix, and the Chargers will have an entire fleet of sure-handed pass catchers for Rivers to rely on.
Not since LaDainian Tomlinson was his lead back and Antonio Gates was his top target has Rivers had a more complete set of offensive weapons at his disposal. If the offensive line can keep him upright and Gordon can stay healthy, the veteran quarterback might be on his way to another career season as he gets ready to turn 38 in December.
In the first round of the NFL playoffs, Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley rolled out a game plan to stop Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson. Using seven defensive backs, he smothered Jackson with speed and clogged throwing lanes with zone coverage. Now, considering just how deep the Chargers are at defensive back, a similar strategy might be worth revisiting this season.
A seven-defensive back look is the sort of thing you can only pull off with the help of a versatile safety like Derwin James, whose skill set allows him to function essentially as a cornerback, edge rusher and linebacker, wrapped into one. As a rookie, James excelled at everything the Chargers asked him to do, from manning up tight ends to rushing the passer, and in Year 2, Bradley is sure to find new, creative ways to deploy him.
A new free safety should allow for more experimenting with James. The Chargers released Jahleel Addae in the offseason after he struggled mightily in deep coverage a year ago. Rookie safety Nasir Adderley, who unexpectedly fell to L.A. in the second round of the draft, looks like the ideal replacement, with a sticky skill set that complements James' ability in the box. But first, he'll have to beat out Jaylen Watkins, who nearly won the job from Addae a year ago prior to suffering a season-ending injury.
His injury was one of many the team had to weather on defense a season ago, and with a clean bill of health, it's possible that the Chargers take a huge leap forward on that side of the ball. Bosa didn't even play a down until late November, and the Chargers pass rush collapsed without him. When he rejoined the defense, the Chargers won six of their next eight. He'll need to stay healthy for this defense to unlock the elite potential it has with Bosa and fellow edge rusher Melvin Ingram.
The rest of the rotation up front remains somewhat in flux. First-round defensive tackle Jerry Tillery should fit nicely at as a 3-technique, where his 6'6" frame and quick-twitch first step would help an otherwise non-existent interior rush. Veteran nose tackle Brandon Mebane was re-signed, but he's likely to cede snaps to his heir apparent, Justin Jones, who impressed with limited reps a year ago. The rotation beyond those three is undetermined, after the Chargers let several key contributors walk in the offseason.
The only free agent the Chargers added on defense came at weak-side linebacker, where 15-year veteran Thomas Davis will add athleticism and instincts to a scheme that's looking to prioritize those things. At 36, Davis is past his prime, but he's still a useful puzzle piece, one that should help anchor the Chargers run defense.
Like last season, the Chargers defense has plenty of scheme-versatile athletes who can be pieced together in myriad ways. It'll be up to Bradley to put that puzzle together, even if it might mean playing seven defensive backs at a time.
The years-long nightmare at kicker may finally be over for the Chargers. After Caleb Sturgis missed six extra points in 15 tries a season ago, Michael Badgley stepped in and made almost everything the rest of the season. The curse may finally be lifted. At punter, the news is less positive. The Chargers enter camp with two rookies vying for the job. UAB's Ty Long is considered the favorite, but it's likely wide open. The Chargers have plenty of options at returner, including Desmond King, who proved to be a natural a year ago.
The Chargers are bringing back most of the roster from last season's 12-win campaign and betting on key players to develop accordingly. All things considered, not a bad plan. Few teams have as many promising young players, and even fewer have a quarterback of Rivers' caliber. It'll be up to the 37-year-old future Hall of Famer to finally get over the hump, after a career without even a Super Bowl appearance. With numerous playmakers and very few obvious holes on the roster, this could be the year.