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Los Angeles Chargers: 2021 Preseason Predictions and Preview

Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers

Justin Herbert and the Chargers are poised to contend for a playoff spot in head coach Brandon Staley's first season

The Chargers mentioned they were looking for innovation when they fired Anthony Lynn after a disappointing 2020 season. Brandon Staley was hired to provide creativity and finally get the Chargers over the hump when it comes to one-score games. It’s too early to tell how Staley will do in late-game situations, but his schemes are expected to fit today’s NFL and possibly set new trends. Staley was also brought in to take Justin Herbert’s development to the next level and turn him into a future MVP quarterback.

But the Chargers can’t be all flash. They need to win games at SoFi Stadium to keep their L.A. fan base interested. They have the franchise quarterback and a roster filled with Pro Bowlers and promising players, but that’s what the pundits said for years when Philip Rivers was under center. The Chargers have made a habit of underperforming with a stacked roster because of late-game blunders and are often devastated with injuries.

Staley was hired to change that and finally turn the Chargers into a consistent winner in the NFL.

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OFFENSE

There will be no quarterback controversy this year. Herbert is the man in charge, and he’s the starter for a reason. Herbert went from rookie backup to NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2020, but now he’s faced with high expectations for his second season. Herbert will hit reset with a new head coach and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. All three have said they plan to retain a bulk of successful plays from the previous coaching regime to provide Herbert with comfort and consistency. Staley, however, says the spine of the new system emanates from the New Orleans Saints’ offense, one of the most successful operations in the NFL of the last decade under Sean Payton’s guidance. Lombardi spent 12 seasons on Payton’s coaching staff.

The Chargers have the playmakers to run an offense similar to the Saints, but Herbert isn’t Drew Brees, who released the ball quickly and allowed his skill players to work in space. When Herbert isn’t throwing screens to running back Austin Ekeler and slants to wide receiver Keenan Allen, he’ll look deep to wide receivers Mike Williams, Jalen Guyton and Tyron Johnson. Staley and Lombardi plan to tweak their offensive system to suit Herbert’s arm strength. The Chargers’ revamped offensive line will need to show stout pass blocking to allow Herbert to take downfield shots often.

Herbert was one of the best quarterbacks last season at completing passes that went further than 50 yards, but the offensive line did him no favors. The Chargers upgraded the offensive line by adding center Corey Linsley and offensive guards Matt Feiler and Oday Aboushi in free agency. They’ll need to find chemistry quickly with four new starters on the offensive line. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga is the only returning starter, but he’s familiar with Linsley from their six seasons together in Green Bay. The Chargers completed their new-look offensive line with the first-round selection of left tackle Rashawn Slater, a technician in pass protection and a powerful run blocker.

Last season, the Chargers masked their pass-blocking struggles with Hunter Henry and Virgil Green, two tight ends who excel as blockers. But the two tight ends won’t be on the roster this season, leaving the Chargers with a vacancy and putting more pressure on the offensive line. Jared Cook, who was brought in to replace Henry, is better suited in the passing game than as a blocker, and the same goes for backup tight end Donald Parham Jr. The Chargers are banking on rookie Tre’ McKitty to be the blocking tight end.

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Athlon Sports' 2021 Pro Football Magazine

DEFENSE

The Chargers’ defense is easier to predict than the offense because Staley will call the plays, something he did last season when he turned the Rams into the top-rated defense in the NFL. The Chargers will shift from Gus Bradley’s predictable zone-heavy defense with a single-high safety to an aggressive man-heavy defense with two high safeties.

Staley will make the defense complex with multiple disguises to keep quarterbacks guessing. He’ll utilize Derwin James Jr. as a defensive back who can cover and rush the passer, and he’ll move Joey Bosa often on the defensive line. The Chargers have a strong defensive nucleus to make Staley’s system work, but they’re thin behind the star players.

If Staley and defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill want to use two-high safety packages, they’ll need a third safety to step in when James is roaming near the line of scrimmage. Nasir Adderley is expected to start at free safety, but there’s a vacancy at the third safety spot.

The Chargers re-signed athletic cornerback Michael Davis to pair with veteran slot cornerback Chris Harris Jr., but they’re missing a second starting outside cornerback. Rookie Asante Samuel Jr. will likely fill that position because of the competitive drive he displayed at Florida State.

Middle linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. had early struggles but finished his rookie season on a high note. He’s a versatile linebacker who excels at stopping the run and improved in pass coverage in the second half of last season. Staley says he plans to keep Murray in the middle but will occasionally utilize his pass-rushing abilities. The Chargers will get back linebacker Drue Tranquill, who broke his ankle in the opening quarter of last season. Tranquill emerged as a rookie standout in 2019 due to his pass coverage skills. He and Murray will form a strong duo as off-ball linebackers.

The Chargers are thin at edge rusher and crowded at defensive tackle. The team remains high on Uchenna Nwosu, despite inconsistent performances throughout his first three seasons. Nwosu will replace Melvin Ingram III and be the No. 2 behind Bosa. The Chargers will require more pass rushers to contribute. Jerry Tillery started a few games at edge rusher last season, but Staley says the former first-round pick will play defensive tackle in 2021. Tillery will compete with Justin Jones for snaps, and veteran Linval Joseph returns as the starting nose tackle.

SPECIALISTS

Kicker Michael Badgley is coming off a rocky 2020 season in which he missed kicks in crucial situations. He’s penciled in as the starter, but the Chargers are making this an open competition in training camp with the addition of Tristan Vizcaino. Ty Long was the Chargers’ starting punter the past two seasons, but he’s also competing for his job after a down season. Lachlan Edwards has experience from his four seasons with the New York Jets. Adderley will likely be the team’s kick returner after giving special teams a spark late in the 2020 season. Wide receiver Joe Reed never found a rhythm as a return man, but he’ll likely get another opportunity to compete as the punt returner along with wide receiver KJ Hill Jr.

FINAL ANALYSIS

Herbert should have another dominant season, but there are plenty of unknowns with a new coaching staff. Staley says he wants to blend an offense with different schemes from across the NFL, but perhaps that makes things too complicated. This roster appears stacked on paper, but that’s been a repetitive theme for an organization that’s constantly snakebitten by injuries and comes up short in one-score games. This isn’t the first time general manager Tom Telesco has revamped the offensive line. He’s tried and failed multiple times. Herbert can be a top-10 quarterback, but there are many unknowns on this roster. The Chargers will be playoff contenders, but they’re a ways away from dethroning the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West.

Prediction: 2nd in AFC West