Joey Bosa and the re-tooled Chargers look to compete for a playoff spot in the rugged AFC West
Philip Rivers is gone, and Tom Brady never arrived. The Chargers didn’t land a star quarterback for their first season at SoFi Stadium, but they did find one they could develop for the future and potentially play for many seasons at the new stadium. Justin Herbert was drafted sixth overall in this year’s draft to be the long-term successor to Rivers.
Teams with first-round quarterbacks are often in rebuild mode, but not the Chargers. They spent money in free agency and plan to be ready to make a playoff run regardless of who’s starting at quarterback in 2020.
For the first time since Rivers and Drew Brees were teammates, the Chargers will have a quarterback battle. Veteran quarterback Tyrod Taylor is currently the starter, but the Chargers want competition. Taylor and Herbert are similar in style in that they can throw deep and move around in the pocket but struggle with accuracy and intermediate passes. Taylor, however, holds the advantage of being familiar with a run-heavy Lynn-operated offense. Lynn was Taylor’s offensive coordinator in 2016, when the Buffalo Bills led the league in rushing yards. Expect Taylor to open the season as the starter. If the Chargers are in playoff contention, Herbert will likely not see the field in 2020.
The Chargers’ 2020 draft class made it clear they’re shifting away from a traditional pass-first scheme. Expect to see run-pass options, pistol formations, zone reads and zone run blocking. Lynn will attempt to blend new trends (think Lamar Jackson and the Ravens) with old school (think Dalvin Cook and the Vikings). Lynn won two Super Bowls as a reserve running back with the Denver Broncos in the late 1990s. The zone blocking that Kyle Shanahan uses with the San Francisco 49ers debuted in the NFL with those Broncos teams. Shanahan’s father, Mike, coached Lynn in Denver. Now, Lynn will attempt to recreate what the younger Shanahan has done, but with his own flavors.
The Chargers’ offense was top-heavy with cornerstone pieces such as running back Austin Ekeler, tight end Hunter Henry and wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. Thanks to the draft, the Chargers have depth and the pieces to open the playbook.
Ekeler had a breakout 2019 season because of his versatility as a runner and pass catcher. The addition of rookie wide receiver Joe Reed will make it difficult for teams to focus on Ekeler. The Chargers plan to use Reed as a gadget player who can contribute out of the backfield and as a deep threat. They also added power with rookie running back Joshua Kelley, who will replace Melvin Gordon III and perhaps take snaps away from Justin Jackson. Kelley’s physicality will likely make him the second running back on the depth chart over the athletic Jackson.
The Chargers revamped their offensive line by trading for right guard Trai Turner and signing Bryan Bulaga, but there are many question marks at the other three positions. Center Mike Pouncey is coming off neck surgery. Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney will battle at left guard. Perhaps this is the year Lamp, the team’s 2017 second-round pick, lives up to his potential and stays healthy.
Second-year player Trey Pipkins III is the projected starting left tackle after the Chargers didn’t draft an offensive tackle or sign one to replace Russell Okung, whom the team traded to the Carolina Panthers for Turner. The Chargers were pleased with Pipkins’ rookie season, but they might be underestimating the value of a seasoned left tackle.
With a run-first offense, the offensive line won’t need to hold the pocket for too long. They have players who are capable of getting open quickly with Allen, Ekeler and rookie slot receiver KJ Hill.
The Chargers learned from their mistake of expecting Derwin James to be on the field at all times to play multiple roles. The addition of cornerback Chris Harris Jr. will give the Chargers’ star-studded defense another versatile playmaker.
Many are assuming Harris will take Desmond King II’s job as the slot cornerback. The Chargers, however, are searching for ways to have Harris and King on the field together. One option could be rotating Harris as an inside and outside cornerback. This would allow King to contribute as a safety blitzer, an area where he excels. King’s physicality makes him the lead candidate to replace Adrian Phillips as the do-it-all defensive back.
The Chargers are crowded in the secondary, but they’ll be ready in case another injury occurs. One of the biggest competitions of the summer will be for the free safety spot next to James, who missed the first 11 games last season because of a foot injury. Many are expecting 2019 second-round pick Nasir Adderley to emerge as the starter after missing most of his rookie season because of a hamstring injury, but don’t count out Rayshawn Jenkins, who impressed the coaching staff as the starter last season.
Linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. could have the biggest impact from the Chargers’ 2020 draft class. Murray’s versatility will likely make him the starting weakside linebacker. He has the speed and power to contribute as a pass rusher, giving the Chargers depth on the defensive line. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley is at his best when he has two waves of pass rushers. Murray and Uchenna Nwosu can provide that behind star defensive ends Melvin Ingram III and Joey Bosa.
Murray played middle linebacker at Oklahoma, but that role likely belongs to last year’s rookie standout Drue Tranquill. Murray, who was recruited as an outside linebacker in college, should replace Thomas Davis Sr. as the other inside linebacker. The linebackers didn’t provide much production in 2019, but now the Chargers have depth with Denzel Perryman, Kyzir White and free-agent addition Nick Vigil in the rotation.
Bosa had another Pro Bowl season despite the lack of pass-rush help. The free-agent signing of nose tackle Linval Joseph should give Bosa and Ingram more space to operate. Joseph is known as an interior pass rusher who can contribute as a run stopper.
On paper, the Chargers should have a top-five defense, and that could go a long way in helping Taylor and the offense.
The Chargers said goodbye to many key special teams players after the unit failed to produce in 2019. But the front office didn’t neglect this area, which often gets overlooked in the NFL. They signed return specialist and wide receiver Darius Jennings and drafted Reed, who was an All-America kick returner last season. Expect the Virginia products to split the kickoff and punt return duties.
Michael Badgley is one of the best kickers in the league, but the Chargers need him to stay healthy. He missed eight games last season because of a groin injury. Punter Ty Long and long snapper Cole Mazza formed a strong tandem as rookies last season.
The Chargers are built to win in 2020 with a strong roster, but they might be relying too much on Taylor and Pipkins to produce at a high level. Quarterback and left tackle are two of the most important positions in football, and they might be this team’s weaknesses. Taylor is a quality starter, but he’s been shaky in years past with the Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns. But this is arguably the best roster he’s ever had, and perhaps that’s enough to give him a Rich Gannon-like resurgence in Year 10 of his career.
Taylor might need to just be Trent Dilfer or Brad Johnson because of the Chargers’ loaded defense. And Lynn’s job may depend on it. He can’t afford to have an average season and miss the playoffs for the third time in four seasons.