2024 Los Angeles Chargers WR Preview: Who Will Emerge as Keenan Allen’s Successor?

Can any of the Los Angeles Chargers wide receivers fill the shoes of Keenan Allen?

Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Chargers went through quite a wide receiver shift during the offseason. They lost Mike Williams to the Jets and Jalen Guyton to the Raiders. And the heartbreaker, which I’ve already said I’ll never get over and I stand by that, is the loss of Keenan Allen. He was a Chargers institution, having been with the team since 2013.

It’s not just his talent and experience that make this a great loss, but it’s also that unspeakable connection with Justin Herbert, that chemistry and trust the two built. So in looking for the next Keenan Allen on the Chargers, it may not be the wide receiver with the most experience, nor the most talent, it may just be the one with that connection and chemistry with Herbert.

I know the plan is for the Chargers to be more of a running offense than passing this season, but the team will still need a reliable number-one receiver. Here are my top three candidates who may be able to pick up the “Allen torch,” and not only be that number one receiver, but they’re also the ones who have some of Allen’s intangibles, in addition to skills to complement the new offense under head coach Jim Harbaugh

Los Angeles Chargers WR Preview

  1. Joshua Palmer 
NFL: New York Giants at Los Angeles Chargers
Los Angeles Chargers: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Josh Palmer seems like the most logical choice to take over for Allen this season. He’s reliable, can handle that larger target share, and has already replaced both Allen and Williams before when both were out with injuries in 2022. He was the one that Herbert trusted in addition to running back Austin Ekeler that season.

Daniel Popper of The Athletic said in an article that Palmer “already has an established rapport with quarterback Herbert, and that trust should lead to a No.1-level target share for Palmer this season.” He also remarked that Palmer “is a good route runner. He has strong hands and can make plays in contested-catch situations. He has the size and quickness to create mismatches in the slot…He is a willing blocker.” 

Palmer has the most intangibles like adaptability, versatility, and chemistry with Herbert, with a touch of blocking ability for a run-heavy offense. Without Allen or Williams, there isn’t as much of a worry about him getting pushed down the depth chart and disappearing in games as he sometimes has in the past.

But I do think if Ladd McConkey shows enough production, he could end up being that missing receiver-one piece, overshadowing Palmer. Palmer is really dependable but whether he can take the “Allen torch” and play this big offensive role, remains to be seen.

  1. Ladd McConkey
NFL: Los Angeles Chargers-OTA
Los Angeles Chargers: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Ladd McConkey from Georgia was the 34th pick in the second round, as the result of a trade from the Patriots. During Harbaugh’s press conference after day two of the draft, he said they liked McConkey because of his versatility and that he could be an inside or outside receiver. Harbaugh said that he had good yards after the catch, was a terrific route runner, and that he has quickness and speed.

He also remarked that there were plays where McConkey was blocking and making space for his teammates. McConkey had a Pro Football Focus (PFF) run-blocking grade of  73.4  in 2022 when he played the most run-blocking snaps of his college career, so he’s already on his way to being suited for this run-first offense. 

According to PFF, McConkey had his most yards after catch in 2022 (378), which also marked his best college season with 762 receiving yards and seven receiving touchdowns. He also played the most pass snaps in the slot (90) that year though mostly played on the outside.

A hallmark trait of Allen’s is his versatility, as he had his fair share of time on the outside but has spent a bit more time in the last few years in the slot. It’s great that McConkey can play in both areas, and they may need him on the inside, especially if they end up kicking Palmer outside with Quentin Johnston. That reliable guy in the middle of the field, who can make those tight window catches, is key. 

Keenan Allen also has great route-running ability, adapting his routes effortlessly every play. McConkey is equally adaptable. In his draft profile Lance Zierlein said,  “If pass rushers have rush plans, McConkey has route plans that allow him to uncover on all three levels. His pace and rhythm make cornerbacks more reactive than proactive.” The Chargers need someone who can make the play in clutch moments, and McConkey may be that person. 

Not only is someone with versatility and adaptability needed, but also someone that Herbert can trust with a larger target share. When healthy in the last few years, Allen had the most receiving targets of all players on the team.

McConkey in 2022, along with tight end Brock Bowers, each had the most targets of the team (82), while in 2021 McConkey had the third most (39). McConkey’s college experiences prove that he can handle a big workload and also demonstrate the trust that former Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett had in him during those two seasons.

And as a good sign of things to come, “Herbert is already developing a connection with rookie second-round pick Ladd McConkey. McConkey played both inside and outside Monday, but the majority of his snaps with the first-team offense came in the slot. On the second play of the first 11-on-11 period, McConkey beat rookie cornerback Tarheeb Still down the seam, and Herbert hit him for an explosive gain.” according to Popper on the first day of OTAs.

It looks like chemistry is starting to form, so with enough reps, maybe McConkey can be Herbert’s go-to, and handle a bigger workload, helping him eventually make a move to number one on the depth chart 

  1. Quentin Johnston
NFL: Detroit Lions at Los Angeles Chargers
Los Angeles Chargers: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve written extensively about Quentin Johnston, including whether he could step up in 2024 and well, the jury is still out. In terms of if he can be the go-to target like Keenan Allen was,  I would say “yes”,  if his ball-handling skills get better. In terms of whether he has that route running, versatility, and adaptability that Allen has, definitely not, but those are skills he can hone this summer as he’s given more opportunities.

He will probably be more of an outside guy than a slot guy, fitting the former role of Williams, with the expectation of making those contested catches and explosive plays. I do expect Herbert to have more chemistry with Johnston this year, which could make all the difference.

He has one year under his belt and has the physical pieces to do well, he just has to sustain them.

Should he be that number one receiver as of now? No, but ask me again this time next year. Allen has longevity in this league and with each year, despite some injuries, keeps getting better. Johnston has to show in years two, and three, that he can keep getting better in every aspect of his game and increase that trust with Herbert to prove he deserves to be a number-one receiver. 

Honorable Mention: 

Brenden Rice

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers-OTA
Los Angeles Chargers: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

I had to mention Brenden Rice, given his NFL family history. Rice was picked at 225 in round seven. The son of a hall-of-famer Jerry Rice, he has football coursing through his veins. Chargers assistant general manager Chad Alexander said after the third day of the draft that Rice has a lot of explosive plays down the field, can stretch the field vertically, and can block for his teammates.

In 2023, which was a career-high year for Rice in terms of receiving touchdowns (12) and receiving yards (791), six of Rice’s receiving touchdowns were from deep receptions of 20+ yards. Rice spent most of college on the outside, so he would be more of a fit to take on that Mike Williams big-bodied wideout role, at 6’3’’, 210. 

And in terms of being a reliable target who can handle a large workload, Rice had the second most targets of the team last year at 70, which shows the trust of former USC quarterback Caleb Williams. If given the chance, perhaps he can develop that same rapport with Herbert.

According to the PFF draft guide, Rice is a “smooth runner who can gain separation at all three levels of the field” and his blocking is “fundamentally sound and does not give up on blocks quickly.”

Given his family history and how he showed up and showed out his last year at USC, he has the building blocks, and though he may have others in front of him like Palmer, McConkey, and Johnston, he may turn into a number three receiver sooner than later. And depending on how he develops, he could become number two next year.