The Los Angeles Chargers have started the season off strong, with a record of 5-3 to build off of. A look at the record would leave many to believe the team is on a path to the playoffs, but the tape always tells the true story of whether or not a team is a contender or pretender. The Chargers have a mixed bag between every single position group, as not a single group has had a perfect outing in terms of performance and cohesion. With that in mind, it’s difficult to give a grade to a position group such as the offensive line with players like Corey Linsley and Storm Norton competing in the same group or to properly grade Quarterback Justin Herbert with six excellent games along with two abysmal games.
Each high and low the team has to offer on the roster creates highs and lows on the field, and the team has both escaped with a win despite these issues and walked their way into a loss due to these issues. So each grade will hopefully shed some light on what areas the Chargers should look for improvements from this point onward, and what areas they can look for consistency and reliance.
Chargers Mid-Season Grades
There is always one position to key in on when grading a team. The position that creates fluidity and consistency along with the offense if he’s decisive and playing well, or creates problems like hesitation and lack of chemistry if playing poorly. Which leads to the quarterback Justin Herbert.
Herbert has had some truly up and down moments so far this season. With highs of MVP play, and lows of six points scored through a contest. Herbert so far has racked up 2,350 passing yards, 18 touchdowns, and six interceptions. This puts him on a pretty ridiculous pace on the season, with nine more games to play.
Herbert has shown the league arm talent that only three or four other quarterbacks can match, with throws that “no mortal can make” according to Head Coach Brandon Staley. Herbert already has four game-winning drives in 2021, which leads the NFL. I won’t buy into any immortality talk, but I will buy into Herbert’s MVP caliber play.
This isn’t to say it’s been perfect, hence the B+ grade. Herbert had rough outings against Baltimore and New England. While the blame has often been directed to the other offensive pieces, a lack of decisiveness and a hefty amount of hesitation led to a lot of timing and accuracy issues that sent the offense spiraling. If Herbert can avoid falling back into what made him ineffective in those two losses, then it becomes much easier to make this an A+ performance as the season goes along.
Running Backs: B-
This grade is… almost misleading. While Austin Ekeler has been fantastic and worthy of perhaps an A, this running back room is in trouble. Justin Jackson keeps the grade from being a C, but he struggles to remain healthy. If Jackson were to remain healthy and consistently available, he and Ekeler would be a dangerous duo that could pick this grade up to perhaps a B+ by the end of the year. Unfortunately, Jackson hasn’t been healthy, which leads to the reason this grade should probably be lower.
Joshua Kelley and Larry Rountree do not fit what Joe Lombardi wants to do. To bring an offense that featured Alvin Kamara to the team, and then to have two backs that have no business running that scheme, is puzzling, to say the least. More puzzling is that the Chargers seem content with the backs, so content that they would be willing to give them carries with the game on the line in a 4th and 2 situations.
The group avoids being a lower grade only because the actual starter is just so good, and the oft-injured Jackson just narrowly picks that grade up from a C. The grade is on thin ice, and can easily drop based on Jackson’s availability through the rest of the season.
Wide Receivers: B
It’s a shame that this grade isn’t an A+. That is the trend it was heading for if you look at the first few weeks alone. Despite the lack of a true third wide receiver, the play of Keenan Allen and Mike Williams was so dominant that you could overlook the Chargers not sending targets Jalen Guyton and Josh Palmer‘s way. This isn’t the case anymore. While many will point to the drops as a reason this grade is only a B, many of the issues there can also be directed to quarterback Herbert, and the issues mentioned in his grading. You can also point to the lack of a third receiver, but if you add Guyton and Palmer’s stats together, 262 yards isn’t so bad when you look at the guys ahead of them on the stat sheet.
It’s a combination of everything that brings this grade to a B. Williams disappearing for entire games, and not just because the Chargers aren’t looking for him, but because he has truly struggled to separate in certain instances. Chalk it up to the knee injury he suffered? Perhaps. When you have a two-game stretch where Allen has 11 receptions for 127 yards and a touchdown, and then the rest of the room has a combined 8 receptions for 111 yards and a touchdown, there is an issue.
Allen has been the lone consistency in the WR room for the duration of the season, but even he and QB Herbert have had issues with timing, chemistry, and drops through the first eight games. His most recent outing of 12 receptions for 104 yards hopefully stays the norm and allows for other receivers to step up as the team’s WR1 continues to draw double and triple teams.
Tight Ends: A
The two previous problems? The starter picked up the grade of the depth. The problem here? The depth might be better than the starter. Stephen Anderson and Donald Parham have been a tremendous duo behind Jared Cook, whether as blockers or receivers. Parham has proved to be a valuable asset in the red zone and on physical catches, and Anderson is a valuable asset in the trenches and on tight-end screens. Even rookie tight-end Tre McKitty looked great as a blocker in the Chargers’ last contest in Philadelphia.
While Cook’s blocking ability had me tempted to knock the grade down slightly, it wouldn’t be right when you consider that it was in the Chargers’ plans the whole time to sign Cook as a receiving tight-end. Not to mention, the strength of the depth behind Cook hides a lot of his weaknesses as a player when the game plan goes smoothly.
Offensive Line: B
Another position group that falls victim to high-tier play on one end of the depth chart, and extremely poor play on the other. Rashawn Slater, Matt Feiler, and Linsley are a phenomenal trio on the left side of that OL. When Oday Aboushi was healthy, that extended to Right Guard, and the grade would most likely be a step higher. However, Michael Schofield and Storm Norton have struggled to step up with Aboushi and Bryan Bulaga out.
Norton is on pace for an incredible amount of pressures this season, and if the Chargers don’t get Bulaga back soon to even out the play on the right side of the line, this grade can’t rise. Now, it isn’t just Norton that brings down the grade. There are also communication issues along the offensive line that have gotten the team into trouble. You can count on a free rusher to get after Herbert at least 2-3 times per game, which is unacceptable when you have Herbert and Linsley working together to set protections.
Still, it’d be a shame to focus on the negatives when this group has been fantastic overall, especially in comparison to past seasons. The Chargers are one year away from having an elite offensive line in Los Angeles, which wasn’t even a thought just a year ago. With Slater having the most dominant season from a left tackle that Chargers fans have ever seen, it’s hard not to get excited about the future of the offense.
Interior Defensive Line: D
Not pulling any punches here. The Chargers rank 32nd in the NFL against the run, and it shows on tape. The Chargers’ interior defensive line gets absolutely bullied on the field. The only reason this grade isn’t an F is that they have improved the rushing average over the last couple of games with the return of Justin Jones. Linval Joseph‘s resurgence has also been a tremendous help. However, teams have made it a priority to run into Jerry Tillery‘s gap, and Tillery does a fine job of putting himself into a position that affects the rest of the interior defensive line negatively.
It’s not just the interior defensive line that gives opponents the ability to run the ball at will, but it certainly hangs the other position groups out to dry if you are getting dominated upfront. In this case, the Chargers just aren’t consistent enough at this position group to handle physical teams, and it should be the second priority in the offseason after a right tackle is found.
Edge Rushers: C-
Joey Bosa is Joey Bosa. That is why this grade isn’t also in the range that the interior defensive line is at. Uchenna Nwosu is struggling to win his one-on-one matchups and often gets turned around against the run. No EDGE should find his back turned to the ball carrier, but it’s almost like Nwosu lives that way.
Kyler Fackrell and Chris Rumph had many fans in the fan base thinking that this EDGE group could be one of the strengths of the roster, but outside of one or two flash players from Fackrell, the two have been quiet. Rumph has shown some good technique, and great pursuit, but hasn’t received enough snaps to find a rhythm or opportunities. This group has the talent to get things on track, but so far it has been extremely disappointing.
Kyzir White is making his case as the most underrated player on the Chargers. He is playing like a top 5 linebacker in the entirety of the AFC. He is constantly flying around the field, always near the ball carrier at the end of the play if he’s not the one bringing him down. The Eagles seemed to avoid him early on and found success doing so. If the Chargers can fix their problems in the trenches and give White more room to work, I think you can see him become a franchise player for the Chargers, if he isn’t already.
Drue Tranquill has been decent. While not the star White has been, he has made solid plays, especially in blitz packages. He does get lost in traffic, and he has looked a step slow in some of his reads, but when asked to shoot the gap he has been fantastic. Many of his issues thus far can be chalked up to the interior defensive line not doing their job, and that’s a fair point, but he has missed opportunities that were presented to him. This was especially evident against the Eagles. Still, Tranquill has proved to be far more capable than Kenneth Murray at the position and is a clear improvement.
Beyond those two, the linebacker room is not great. Anyone that has tried to fill the role that either White or Tranquill have played have not done great. This includes Murray, the team’s second first-round pick in 2020. Murray has been injured for a majority of the first eight weeks, but even when healthy it didn’t look good. The reads were late, hesitation was the norm, and when asked to defend the pass he looked lost in his zone. The team has mentioned rotating him at EDGE, and hopefully, that gives Murray what he needs to start becoming a decisive attacker at linebacker.
This might come as a surprise, but this Cornerback group, minus one individual, is phenomenal. Asante Samuel Jr. plays the ball incredibly well and is a tremendous playmaker. With more experience, you’ll see a lot of the close catches he allows turn into pass breakups and interceptions. The technique he displays, and his ball-hawking skills, are tremendous.
Michael Davis has continued his stellar play in 2021, and teams don’t often attempt to throw against him. He has improved a lot as a tackler and is fast enough with solid technique to keep up with the likes of Tyreek Hill. Tevaughn Campbell has been the surprise of the group, with near-perfect technique that has allowed him to break up passes on fade routes time and time again. Teams continue to test him, and Campbell continues to perform well.
Now, the negative is unfortunately a starter in the slot. Chris Harris Jr. has been the weak link of this group. The Chargers were forced to play Kemon Hall and Ryan Smith against the Eagles, and Harris was still the worst Corner on the field. It was apparent immediately when Harris returned from his injury, and the blown coverages started. At first, it was chalked up to Samuel Jr. being a rookie, but the problems have continued whether Harris is lined up next to Hall, Campbell, or Davis. The Chargers have a great cornerback room, but unfortunately, the best three aren’t always on the field.
Derwin James and Nasir Adderley have played a fantastic season. While Adderley isn’t quite where you want to see him as a ballhawk, he has been a much-needed help against the run and has shown great ability to break up the pass. Overall, Adderley has just been a playmaker, especially in moments where the Chargers need it. The amount of touchdown-saving tackles Adderley has made is ridiculous, and thank the football gods for it, because I don’t want to imagine what the numbers would look like without him on the field.
Derwin James is Derwin James. Every time he is in the box, something good happens against the run. Every time he is targeted downfield, something good happens down the field. Every time he is guarding the flats, the flats are locked down. There isn’t much more to say here. Everything the Chargers have asked of James, he has taken the task and performed splendidly. The best defender against the run on the team, the best defender with the ball in the air on the team, the best EDGE on the team, there isn’t much more you can ask from a player in the NFL.
The Chargers have also developed second-year safety Alohi Gilman at a surprising level. He made a key interception against the Chiefs and has mostly been very solid as the team’s third safety.
Both the players recently added to the Special Teams unit are just too new to grade properly. It has been a clear improvement, but where does that put the team overall when you compare it to the rest of the league? Dustin Hopkins hit a game-winner, and Andre Roberts has made the return game watchable because I swear by the vampire lord Tom Brady serves it wasn’t watchable prior to those two showing up.
All we can do is wait and see how the Special Teams pans out over the course of the season, but it’s trending up, at least. The coverage teams still have plenty of issues to work out, but you can bump up Adderley’s grade even more because of that due to him being another reason why the unit looks better recently.
Conclusion: Talented but Flawed
This team is so close to being ready. It has talent in every level of the field, it just needs a coaching point here, a player there, and for someone to sacrifice something to the Football God of Special Teams. The Chargers are close, and perhaps they can get there if they get into a rhythm once the playoffs come around. However, the lows are hard to miss, and well-coached teams like the Baltimore Ravens and the New England Patriots will exploit those weaknesses. Hopefully, as the season goes along this team can gel, and find their identity of who they will be as a team for a very long time.