After the ugliness of the Chargers’ attempted move to Los Angeles, 2016 will be the most pivotal year in franchise history. After agreeing to stay in San Diego at least one more year rather than join the Rams in L.A., the Chargers are attempting to qualify a ballot initiative for the No. 8 election to raise hotel taxes to help pay for a $1.8 billion stadium-convention center annex. The Chargers will play eight games before Election Day.
Everyone knows that San Diego likes a winner, and the team is hoping a strong start will help convince voters to support its plan. Victory at the polls would solve the long, bitter attempt to replace aging Qualcomm Stadium. Defeat could hasten the Chargers’ exit, if they’re willing to play at the Los Angeles Coliseum for two seasons before joining the Rams in Inglewood in 2019.
It’s hard to imagine a team led by Philip Rivers finishing 4-12 and going winless in the AFC West, but that’s what happened. In short, everybody has to play better, starting with the line. The blocking was ineffective, and the starters couldn’t stay healthy. The Chargers didn’t select a left tackle in the draft, in part because they had given King Dunlap an extension a year ago and extended right tackle Joe Barksdale this offseason.
The Chargers will have to quickly solve the mystery of their 2015 first-round draft pick, running back Melvin Gordon, who failed to score a touchdown or record a 100-yard game before missing the final two games with a knee injury. Gordon reportedly underwent microfracture surgery on his knee in January but maintains he will be ready for preseason camp. Gordon showed flashes of the back he was at Wisconsin, but a lot of his problem was simply a lack of good blocking. Perhaps conveniently, the Chargers drafted his Badgers fullback, Derek Watt, the younger brother of Texans star J.J. Watt, hoping they could rekindle their college chemistry.
One training camp battle will be at center, where USC’s Max Tuerk, a third-round draft pick, and free-agent signee Matt Slauson are added to the mix with veterans Chris Watt and Trevor Robinson. Watt missed the second half of the season with a shoulder injury. Tuerk comes in after missing the Trojans’ final nine games with a knee injury. When he’s finished his rehab, he’ll join the competition for the starting spot.
The Chargers will benefit greatly from the return of star wide receiver Keenan Allen, who missed the final eight games with a lacerated kidney. How good is Allen? His 67 catches through eight games were the third-most in NFL history. Despite missing the final eight games, he still finished second on the team with those 67 catches, for 725 yards and four touchdowns. He was voted the team’s Offensive Player of the Year and in June signed a four-year contract extension worth $45 million.
While Allen returns, Rivers lost one of his favorite receivers when Malcom Floyd, a deep-ball threat, retired. San Diego will replace Floyd with Travis Benjamin. When Benjamin signed with the Chargers as a free agent from Cleveland, he said the main attraction was the chance to catch passes from Rivers. He’ll also be tapped to help bolster the return game.
San Diego has loaded up with tight ends, including drafting Arkansas’ Hunter Henry. Star tight end Antonio Gates was given a two-year contract extension, assuring that he will retire as a Charger. Gates is still pursuing that ever-elusive Super Bowl championship and is looking to play a full season after missing the first four games of 2015 due to a PED suspension.
After purging most of the offensive coaching staff, including offensive coordinator Frank Reich, the Chargers brought back Ken Whisenhunt as coordinator. Whisenhunt held that job with San Diego in 2013 before being hired as Tennessee’s head coach. He was fired by the Titans after a 1-6 start in 2015. During his first tenure as coordinator, Whisenhunt was instrumental in helping Rivers bounce back from a few rough seasons.
Whisenhunt also will get the chance to work with another of his former players in quarterback Zach Mettenberger, whom the Chargers claimed on waivers after the Titans released him in May. Mettenberger, who went 0-10 as the starter in Tennessee in 2014-15, will battle veteran Kellen Clemens for the backup job.
It’s out with safety Eric Weddle and in with defensive end Joey Bosa. The Chargers move on from their messy separation with Weddle, one of their undisputed leaders, and begin what they hope is a long run with Bosa giving them some long-lacking punch up front. While most observers thought the Chargers would use the No. 3 overall draft pick on a left tackle or a flashy pick such as Jalen Ramsey, they took Bosa, the former Ohio State star whose father, John, was a first-round pick of the Miami Dolphins in 1987. Bosa is described as being all football, all the time. He’ll be asked to do it all, from boosting the often-anemic pass rush to helping stop the run.
There are other reasons for optimism on defense. That hope centers around a young nucleus that includes cornerback Jason Verrett and linebackers Jerry Attaochu, Kyle Emanuel and yes, Manti Te’o. San Diego needs to continue the momentum developed on defense late in the season, when it did its job by holding division rivals Denver and Kansas City to 10 offensive points on consecutive Sundays, only to watch the offense fail to fire. Verrett has become one of the game’s top young ball-hawking corners, as evidenced by his interception of Kansas City’s Alex Smith that halted the quarterback’s streak of 312 attempts without a pickoff. Despite his small size, Verrett has more than held his own against opponents’ top wideouts. After his rookie season was cut short by injury, he benefited from a full 2015. Denzel Perryman and Attaochu need to continue to develop into the kind of thumpers that Donald Butler failed to be after he signed a long-term deal. Butler was released in the offseason.
The Chargers went the free-agent route to continue to punch up the defense, adding nose tackle Brandon Mebane and free safety Dwight Lowery, who has been penciled into the spot vacated by Weddle. The Chargers hope to get from Mebane the kind of disruptive force they really haven’t had inside since nose tackle Jamal Williams left after the 2009 season. Cornerback Brandon Flowers has to reappear after going MIA following a multi-year deal.
The Chargers have gotten younger — and cheaper — at punter and kicker. Mike Scifres, who had been with the team since 2003, was released after the Chargers drafted Drew Kaser out of Texas A&M. While hailing Scifres as perhaps the best punter in franchise history, the Chargers are moving on because of the veteran’s sub-par 2015 performance. Kaser joins fellow Aggie Josh Lambo, a younger and cheaper replacement in 2015 for Nick Novak. Lambo made 26-of-32 attempts, including a long of 54. He made 28-of-32 extra points.
The Chargers think so much of coach Mike McCoy that they gave him a contract extension through 2017 while firing most of his offensive staff. McCoy, known for his conservative bent and clock-management issues, is 22–26 in three seasons, with a playoff victory and loss in his rookie season of 2013. With only one playoff appearance in the last six seasons, the biggest improvement has to come in division play, where the Chargers have only two wins the last two years. If anything carries the Chargers to the playoffs, it will be the will of Rivers and Gates. Otherwise, this could be the Bolts’ last hurrah in San Diego.