Examining The Chargers Offensive Depth Chart After The Draft
The 2021 NFL Draft has come and gone and the Chargers were able to check off a lot of needs to their roster. Despite all the rumors, they kept all of their nine picks and were able to upgrade quite a few spots on the roster. Most importantly, they put a nice pretty bow on their quest to upgrade their offensive line. That being said, let’s go position by position on the offense and look at who could sit atop each spot. We will tackle the defense in the next article!
Starter – Justin Herbert
Primary Backup – Chase Daniel
Developmental Piece – Easton Stick
I would argue that the biggest individual winner of the NFL offseason has been the 2020 NFL Offensive Rookie Of The Year. There is obviously a lot of change going on around him but the Chargers have massively upgraded their offensive line through the draft and free agency, and he’ll at worst have a more modern and analytically driven coaching staff – which should bode well for his efficiency. His overall statistics might regress a little, but his overall quality of life as an NFL quarterback should improve. He is the Chargers franchise quarterback and unquestioned starter.
The Chargers brought in Daniel to bring in some familiarity with new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. They’ll also hope Herbert, and to a lesser extent Stick, take advantage of his experience in the league. He is a fine backup and should serve as a quality mentor for both of the Chargers’ young quarterbacks.
Stick was a very intriguing draft selection a few years ago. He’s been serving as their developmental piece ever since, and unfortunately, no one was impacted more than Stick by the cancellation of the 2020 preseason. A lot of fans were confused why they signed Daniel when they had Stick, but the reality is that no one knows enough about Stick (including the Chargers) right now due to the lack of reps. He could still develop into their long-term backup, which is what they drafted him for.
Starter – Austin Ekeler
Primary Backup – Justin Jackson
Developmental Pieces – Joshua Kelley, Larry Rountree III, and Darius Bradwell
The upgrades along the offensive line and new coaching staff should also benefit Ekeler. The Chargers offense will be heavily influenced by the Shanahan and Payton systems, both of which have made life very easy for running backs over the last few decades. Ekeler is likely looking at working in a sort of Raheem Mostert/Alvin Kamara hybrid role. He is the unquestioned starter and if he is able to stay healthy, should have a monster year.
Jackson, unfortunately, hasn’t been able to stay healthy throughout his career but he is undoubtedly the second-best running back on the team. He’s the only one of the bunch that has been able to somewhat mimic the efficiency of Ekeler. If he wants to remain a Charger after this season, he will have to play a full season. The Chargers have some interesting pieces that will take his place next year if he doesn’t.
Kelley and Rountree III were each surprise selections when they were drafted. Kelley clearly was an Anthony Lynn selection, but his skill set is intriguing if he can regain his confidence. Rountree III has a similar skill set as a physical downhill runner, but I expect him to serve as the third running back on game days or possibly even push Kelley out of a job due to his special teams acumen. He is a fantastic pass blocker and had a lot of experience as a core special teams player at the University of Missouri. Kelley’s benching last year was in large part due to his fumbling and lack of confidence, but he was also terrible on special teams last season.
Bradwell, another one of Lynn’s guys, should remain a practice squad and “break glass in case of emergency” type of player. I would be shocked if he made the roster or even the practice squad for that matter.
Starter – Gabe Nabers
Primary Challenger – Hunter Kampmoyer
Nabers did improve as a blocker towards the end of the season and showed some versatility as a pass-catcher. One of the things that never improved, however, was his performance on special teams. This is where fullbacks often make their mark the most, as we all recall when Derek Watt led the league in special teams tackles in 2019.
Kampmoyer is technically a tight end but he was mostly used in college as a blocker and did a lot of the dirty work for the Ducks. He initially was recruited to Oregon as a defensive end and then made the switch to tight end after redshirting. He’s got a very similar skillset as Nabers, but if he’s able to prove to be a better blocker and special teams player then he could push Nabers out of a job. This could be a case where I’m reaching, but I have a sneaky feeling that Kampmoyer was brought in as a fullback and not as a tight end. If there were a prop bet for which Chargers undrafted makes the roster, I would put money down on Kampmoyer.
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Starters – Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, and Tyron Johnson
Primary Backups – Jalen Guyton and Josh Palmer
Developmental Pieces – K.J. Hill, Joe Reed, Jason Moore, John Hurst, Eli Stove
Allen remains one of the best receivers in the league, and like Herbert, his efficiency should only go up with the new staff. The way the previous coaching staff used him is a borderline jailable offense. Hopefully, the Shanahan and Payton influences will allow them to expand Allen’s role and not just have him serve as a slant or screen type of player. Either way, he should remain Herbert’s number one target.
Williams is playing in a contract season and should have an expanded role due to the departure of Hunter Henry. I expect him to be very motivated and put up a huge year if he’s able to stay relatively healthy. Last year we were told repeatedly that he had expanded his route tree in the offseason, but that didn’t really come to fruition. If he is able to do that and stay healthy, he should be in for a big payday in 2022. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Chargers work out an extension with him, but that seems unlikely. He should be Herbert’s second option on a weekly basis.
This third one is more of me projecting my opinion and hoping that the Chargers actually make this happen. I’m a big believer in Johnson’s skill set as a deep threat. We also saw him expand his route tree on the fly last year, in particular against the Raiders on Thursday night. And unlike his counterpart, he doesn’t have an atrocious drop rate. I’m very interested in seeing how the battle for number three works out between these two because Guyton seemed like a Lynn favorite, despite being the worse player.
The selection of Palmer gives the Chargers another physical route runner and red-zone presence. I expect the Chargers will work him in slowly to the rotation as the fourth receiver, but he should improve every week and earn more snaps each game as the season goes along. He will make an impact as a rookie, but he should be a full-time starter in 2022.
I will remember a lot of things in a negative fashion about the Lynn era for the Chargers. One of those moments is when he stood at the podium for a press conference in training camp and compared Reed to Percy Harvin, and then essentially refused to play him at all during his rookie season. Hill not playing all that much after being a seventh-round draft pick makes sense, but the way Lynn’s staff handled Reed did not make any sense. Reed should see an expanded role, at least as gadget player and return man. Hill is probably the odd man out after the selection of Palmer, but hopefully, they can keep him on the practice squad.
If the Chargers only carry five receivers on the active roster again as they have in the past, that means Reed, Hill, Moore, Hurst (who was added after the season on a futures designation), and Stove (2021 undrafted free agent) will be fighting for ONE roster spot. Stove is an interesting addition to the roster because his skillset is basically the exact same as Reed’s.
Starter – Jared Cook
Primary Backups – Tre’ McKitty and Donald Parham
Developmental Pieces – Stephen Anderson and Matt Sokol
Cook will be experiencing several reunions with the Chargers. Linsley was his teammate in Green Bay. Offensive line coach Frank Smith was his position coach in Oakland. Then of course Lombardi was the quarterback coach in New Orleans. The duo of Smith and Lombardi should know how best to maximize his talent. He is not the same athlete he once was but he can still be a matchup nightmare and stretch the field vertically, which should be a nice change of pace from Henry. His signing gives the Chargers flexibility and will allow them to bring on Parham and McKitty slowly while he serves as the top option.
McKitty is a rookie, but he might end up playing more snaps than anyone in this group due to his blocking ability, and he is frankly the only legitimate blocking option on the roster. Parham could develop that part of his game but for now, McKitty will likely serve as the primary option in that regard.
Parham is one of the most intriguing players in the league due to his sheer size and athleticism. He certainly has the profile to take over for Cook as the top option in 2022, but I would still expect Cook to get a far greater amount of targets in 2021. Parham will definitely have more than 10 catches this year, though.
Anderson flashed some high-level traits down the stretch while Henry was on the Covid list. However, the third tight end on the active roster is generally used as a core special teams player and Anderson was utterly horrendous in that role. McKitty should be an upgrade in that regard, so Anderson might be on the outside looking in – in terms of securing a roster spot. Sokol has been on the practice squad pretty much ever since he was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Michigan State in 2018.
Starters – Rashawn Slater and Bryan Bulaga
Primary Backups – Trey Pipkins and Brenden Jaimes
Developmental Pieces – Tyree St. Louis, Storm Norton, Kyle Spalding, and Darius Harper
Tom Telesco and company deserve a lot of credit for staying patient and STILL landing Slater. The Chargers had a gaping hole at left tackle heading into the draft. I don’t think anyone would have faulted him for trading a small fortune to ensure that they landed one of the draft’s top tackles. The rumors were there, so we know they were doing their due diligence on that front. Instead, they stuck with their nine picks and it couldn’t have worked out better. They managed to land their franchise left tackle AND the heir apparent to Casey Hayward in the first two rounds. Had they traded up, that likely would have meant giving up their 47th pick, so credit where credit is due.
Slater is extremely polished and some analysts are looking at him as having a Tristan Wirfs-type impact for the Chargers. As you might recall, Wirfs received All-Pro votes and some minimal buzz for the award that Herbert eventually (and rightfully) ended up winning. His versatile skill set will obviously give the Chargers flexibility long term, but it’s clear that Telesco and Brandon Staley view him as a left tackle FIRST, which is fantastic news.
The biggest variable as to how much of an offensive line upgrade the Chargers will be looking at is Bulaga. There was a lot of excitement around his signing last year, and deservedly so because he’s been a fantastic player throughout his career. Then he went out and had a season from hell, dealing with every injury imaginable from back to ankle to knee. He even missed a game from food poisoning. His fight to stay on the field left Pipkins and Norton in an extremely difficult situation each week. Players need preparation, both on and off the field, and never knowing if you were going to be starting or inactive each week had to be a very taxing mental journey for the two young tackles. If Bulaga can manage to play 75% of the team’s snaps this year, the Chargers could have a top 15 unit on their hands. Staley’s experience with Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth could be beneficial here.
Staley called Pipkins “a developing player” a few weeks ago, and then Telesco gave Chargers fans an anxiety attack when he declared that they were still “bullish” on him. Similar to Stick, Pipkins was also strongly impacted by the lack of a preseason and offseason last year. The Chargers drafted him to be a long-term developmental player two years ago. He checks every single box physically of what NFL teams look for in NFL tackles but he was clearly not ready to play right away. And to be fair to him, it’s not his fault that he was thrust into action because Russell Okung and Bulaga couldn’t ever stay healthy in front of him. He will serve as the team’s swing tackle this year and could be the long-term answer at right tackle if things go well.
Jaimes was an incredible value pick for the Chargers this weekend. I viewed him as a top 15 tackle in the class, but he spent the week at the Senior Bowl taking reps at guard and did really well so there is definitely some versatility there. Like Slater, he enters the NFL being a pro-ready player who I think will end up serving as a swing interior lineman as a rookie but could also be the long-term answer at right tackle. Either way, getting this kind of player, who set a record at Nebraska with 40 consecutive starts has “steal of the draft” written all over it.
Telesco loves taking some long-term shots on players from time to time. Trent Scott was this player before Norton, the former XFL star. Norton flashed some good things against the Saints after Sam Tevi got poked in the eye, and against the Chiefs in the season finale – albeit against backups, but looked overwhelmed against the Patriots (who didn’t?). He’s an intriguing player, but one I hope does not see much action this year – and that’s not an insult.
Of the undrafted free agent tackles, Harper is the more intriguing prospect. He joins the Chargers by way of the University of Cincinnati. He possesses a great physical profile at 6’6 and 308 pounds. He jumped 30 inches in the vertical jump and ran a 5.05 40 yard dash at his pro day.
Spalding is much more limited athletically but has similar size and frame to Aboushi. He enters the league with a strong reputation as a run blocker. He could potentially kick inside to guard.
Starters – Matt Feiler and Oday Aboushi
Primary Backups – Jaimes, St. Louis, Scott Quessenberry
Developmental Pieces – Nate Gilliam and Spalding
The Chargers signed Feiler from the Pittsburgh Steelers to be their starting left guard. They haven’t technically stated that, but that’s where he played most recently for the Steelers. He also made several starts at right tackle, and could swing out there in case Bulaga misses some games. He was a great value signing and represents a sizeable upgrade over what Dan Feeney and Forrest Lamp have been at the left guard spot over the last few seasons.
Aboushi was arguably the best value signing of any free agent this year. The Chargers paid Trai Turner over 10 million dollars last year and signed an upgrade for nearly 70% of the cost. He has more consistently been a swing option for teams so far in his career, but he played the best ball of his career last year in Detroit. He should bring a physical and stabling presence to the Chargers’ right guard spot.
I didn’t mention St. Louis in the tackle portion because I happen to think he’s better suited at guard. His physical profile is almost identical to Aboushi, and he played pretty well in spot duty last year. He was one of six players to take snaps at right guard, and I actually think he might have been the second-best player to do so, Cole Toner being first on that list. The last Chargers regime refused to play Quessenberry at guard except in the case of emergency, but he does have the skill set to do so if called upon.
I already wrote about Jaimes, if Aboushi doesn’t start for the Chargers it will be because Jaimes beat him out. Which I think is a legitimate possibility.
Gilliam is a 2020 undrafted free agent out of Wake Forest, who we haven’t seen much of besides pictures on Herbert’s Instagram page.
Starter – Corey Linsley
Primary Backup – Quessenberry
Linsley presents the biggest upgrade of any free agent signing in the league. He was the best center in the league last year and Feeney was one of the worst. He’ll bring a much-needed veteran presence and high football IQ to the center position. His addition is arguably the single most important addition towards Herbert’s development. Linsley will be Herbert’s best friend sooner rather than later.
The lack of playing time for Quessenberry in 2020 was rather frustrating for all of us to watch, especially with the revolving door at right guard. I understand the rationale of wanting to give Feeney a full season of tape to evaluate him, however, I would also argue that Quessenberry was the better center, to begin with. When Mike Pouncey and Turner went down, the natural progression should have been to play Lamp at right guard and Quessenberry at center. Instead, Lynn refused to be flexible with Feeney which led to them putting inferior players on the field. Overall, Quessenberry is a fine backup to have behind Linsley.
This is the first part of this series, and the defensive outlook will come at a later time.