Chargers head coach Brandon Staley says his biggest disappointment of the 2021 season was not leading his star quarterback Justin Herbert into the playoffs to face the best of the best. Staley's top priority after the Chargers hired him was to ensure that Herbert was set up for success, and he did that by building a strong offensive line and an offense that suited the strong-armed quarterback. But none of that mattered to Staley after the heartbreaking loss in Las Vegas that kept the Chargers out of the playoffs.
Staley continued what he started by making aggressive moves in his second offseason with the Chargers to prevent Herbert and his teammates from missing another postseason. First, Staley reunited with star edge rusher Khalil Mack in a blockbuster trade and followed that with the signing of Pro Bowl cornerback J.C. Jackson. The Chargers underwent a drastic defensive makeover with hopes of producing frequent stops and takeaways to assist Herbert and his dynamic offense and ultimately become a playoff team in 2022.
The Chargers' offense looks similar to last year's because last year's was productive and efficient. Herbert broke several records, wide receiver Keenan Allen made another Pro Bowl and running back Austin Ekeler and wide receiver Mike Williams enjoyed career years. But the Chargers added to their high-powered offense by drafting offensive guard Zion Johnson in the first round and running back Isaiah Spiller in the fourth round. Ekeler totaled 20 touchdowns last season, but he admitted that the heavy workload took a toll on him late, and it didn't help that the right side of the offensive line struggled to block. Expect the Chargers to still be a pass-heavy offense this season, but the additions of Johnson and Spiller could improve the rushing attack and close out games. Spiller will compete with Joshua Kelley and Larry Rountree III, two running backs the Chargers drafted the past two springs.
The Chargers could have one of the better offensive lines in the NFL with Johnson projected as the starting right guard and teaming with left guard Matt Feiler, left tackle Rashawn Slater and center Corey Linsley — the latter two were named to the 2021 Pro Bowl. But the Chargers settled for familiar faces to fill their vacancy at right tackle, and that might disrupt Herbert and his rhythm with the offense, especially in a loaded AFC West with many standout pass rushers. The Chargers released veteran Bryan Bulaga in the offseason and will have Storm Norton and Trey Pipkins III compete for the right tackle job, two players who have struggled. It might be wise for the Chargers to make a trade or sign a veteran free-agent tackle. If they don't, Pipkins has improved enough to take the job from Norton, who started 15 games at right tackle last season.
Herbert will have many playmakers to target, including free agent tight end Gerald Everett, but they're still missing a speedy deep threat. Herbert's best speed option will likely be Jalen Guyton for the third consecutive season. Guyton has struggled to be a consistent No. 3 wide receiver and hasn't gotten open enough downfield to distract defenders from Allen and Williams. Second-year wideout Joshua Palmer showed promise in his rookie year and is considered a breakout candidate, but his game is similar to Allen and Williams and doesn't provide speed. It's head-scratching that Herbert, who has arguably the strongest arm in the NFL, doesn't have a reliable burner. But the Chargers aren't hurting at wide receiver with Allen, Williams and the potential of Palmer.
Staley and Chargers general manager Tom Telesco created a logjam of defensive backs in the offseason after having one of the worst third-down defenses in the NFL last year due to depth issues.
Jackson, who signed a five-year, $82.5 million contract, will take over as the new No. 1 outside cornerback. But the other cornerback roles are unclear heading into training camp. Asante Samuel Jr., last year's rookie standout, is the front-runner to start on the outside opposite Jackson, but the team has mentioned him as a possible candidate to play slot cornerback. The Chargers also have Michael Davis, who struggled as the team's No. 1 outside cornerback last season, and recently signed veteran Bryce Callahan. Expect Samuel and Jackson to start the season as the two outside corners in base defense, with Samuel moving to the inside and Davis playing on the outside for the nickel package. Callahan could also rotate at slot cornerback.
Staley took three DBs in the draft, including third-round safety JT Woods. Woods might compete with Nasir Adderley at free safety, but he could also be the sixth defensive back for the dime package. Also, the extra defensive backs will allow star safety Derwin James Jr. to be more of a playmaker near the line of scrimmage. Last season, the Chargers relied heavily on James' coverage skills, and that took away from his impact plays.
While James was doing most of the heavy lifting for the secondary, edge rusher Joey Bosa was carrying the defensive line last season. The Chargers provided Bosa assistance by trading for Mack, whose presence will likely give Bosa more opportunities. The Chargers are expecting Mack to return to his All-Pro form and create havoc. Bosa and Mack are considered sack artists, but they're also known for knocking the ball away from QBs. With the additions of Jackson and Mack, the Chargers should see an increase in takeaways.
But the Chargers' star-studded defense won't work without a better run defense this season. The Chargers might have overlooked that area by waiting until the second wave of free agency to sign defensive tackles Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson. They're not household names, but the Chargers are banking on their upside, and their size and skills fit better with Staley's defensive system. The Chargers also drafted defensive tackle Otito Ogbonnia in the fifth round and re-signed defensive tackle Christian Covington. Jerry Tillery, who struggled against the run last year, might be without a role after the Chargers signed veteran outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy in May. The Chargers' front four for obvious passing situations could be Bosa, Mack, Van Noy and Joseph-Day. The Chargers also have second-year edge rusher Chris Rumph II to compete for snaps.
The Chargers are thin at linebacker with Drue Tranquill, Kenneth Murray Jr. and Troy Reeder. Murray underwent offseason ankle surgery and has struggled to find consistency since the Chargers drafted him in the first round in 2020. Reeder was brought in to be a rotational player, but it wouldn't be a surprise if he landed one of the two starting ILB jobs.
The Chargers made improvements on special teams last season, but not enough for Staley, who decided to make a coaching change by hiring Ryan Ficken as the coordinator of the unit. Ficken and Staley revamped special teams by adding new faces to many critical positions. The team signed punter JK Scott and long snapper Josh Harris, who was a Pro Bowler for the Falcons last season. They also signed wide receiver DeAndre Carter to be the return specialist. Carter had a breakout season in Washington and recorded a kickoff return touchdown last year. The Chargers re-signed kicker Dustin Hopkins after he proved to be reliable as a midseason acquisition in 2021.
Staley now has the defensive players to run his complex two-high system smoothly, but they might have neglected the depth issues on the defensive line. The Chargers could have problems stopping the run again, but they added enough defensive playmakers to give Herbert more opportunities on offense. If the Chargers get steady play from the right tackle, Staley will achieve his goal of getting Herbert in the playoffs. Look for the Chargers to contend for an AFC West title and make noise in the postseason.