Three Biggest Storylines Ahead Of Chargers Training Camp
The end of the offseason is finally upon us. Several teams have already started training camp, and the Los Angeles Chargers will join them on Tuesday. There has never been a more exciting time to be a Chargers fan, and anyone who is able should do their best to make it to a training camp practice in person.
That being said, there are some palpable question marks and storylines about the Chargers roster that will determine just how successful the team is in Brandon Staley’s first year.
Who Steps Up To Generate Pressure Opposite Of Joey Bosa?
The Chargers struggled to get after the quarterback in 2020, a problem exacerbated by former defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s unwillingness to blitz. In previous years, they had always been able to count on Bosa and Melvin Ingram to generate that pressure on their own. However, both of those players struggled to stay healthy last season and Ingram recently signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Chargers added Kyler Fackrell, who had 19 total pressures and four sacks for the Giants last year, in free agency, Chris Rumph II via the draft to go along with Uchenna Nwosu and Bosa. Fackrell and Nwosu have spent the bulk of their career thus far being supplemental pass rushers and Rumph II is considered a bit of a long-term project.
They will be counting on development from two defensive linemen, in particular, to help aid their pass rush: Nwosu as Bosa’s new Robin, and Jerry Tillery from the interior. Each member of that duo improved this past season, but they only combined for 62 total pressures, and eight sacks. Those numbers will have to improve even more in 2021.
Nwosu finished tied for 14th in PFF’s pass rusher win rate, ahead of players like Demarcus Lawrence, Trey Hendrickson, and Za’Darius Smith. Nwosu only logged 195 pass rush reps in 2020 and presumably will log closer to 350 in his new starter role. In an ideal world, he should be able to mirror the kind of season that Leonard Floyd had for the Los Angeles Rams last year when he registered 45 total pressures and 10 sacks, which would be a fantastic season for the Chargers second-best pass rusher.
Tillery took a nice step forward in his second season, and if you’ve been reading my work throughout the offseason you know how high I am on him for this upcoming season. His 35 total pressures last year would have been top 20 among all defensive tackles and tied with Buffalo’s Ed Oliver. 2021 will be a make-or-break season for him, but I do firmly believe that he will be able to get into the top 10 among all defensive tackles in total pressures – Ndamukong Suh was 10th last year with 50.
The new staff will also blitz more often than the previous one, and Kenneth Murray in particular should be more involved as a blitzer. Ultimately, the success of the pass rush will hinge on the development – or lack thereof – of Nwosu and Tillery. Bosa is arguably the best edge rusher in the league, but he needs more help than just sending blitzes at a higher frequency. Nwosu and Tillery have to become legitimate running mates for him, otherwise, the Chargers will have to do some overhauling of the defensive line next offseason.
How Does The Wide Receiver Rotation Shake Out?
Wide receiver is arguably the deepest position on the Chargers roster, and they have a very interesting collection of talent behind Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. They are expecting big things from that duo, but how the rest of the group shakes out is going to be fascinating.
Jalen Guyton and Tyron Johnson are legitimate burners. Josh Palmer and K.J. Hill are very solid route runners, Palmer also has some intriguing deep-ball ability. I’m still high on Joe Reed’s ability to develop into that Deebo Samuel type of receiver. Jason Moore, Austin Proehl, and John Hurst make up the roster longshot crowd.
The Chargers will likely carry six wide receivers on the roster, something that has become the norm in the NFL lately. Allen, Williams, and Palmer are locks to make the roster. Johnson and Guyton are essentially locked as well after exceeding expectations last year. So that last spot will likely come down to special teams performance. Reed, Hill, and Proehl all have backgrounds in the return game, and Moore was lauded for his ability as a blocker by the previous regime.
Beyond the roster construction, it’s going to be fascinating to see who seizes that third spot throughout training camp and the season. Guyton was a favorite of the previous staff and received double the amount of targets than Johnson did. Can Guyton keep Johnson at bay again this year? Staley and company loved Palmer, but is he ready to be that guy as a rookie? The new offensive staff has constantly talked about being a matchup-based team but someone is going to be third in targets on the team at the end of the year, and I think Palmer, Guyton, and Johnson each have an argument to be that player.
Did The Chargers Do Enough To Support A Justin Herbert Sophomore Leap?
The most important detail that will influence the Chargers 2021 season is how much of a leap forward Herbert is able to take. By now the struggles of the offensive line in 2020, and how frequently Herbert was under pressure are well documented. As are the improvements they made to the starting unit, in particular at the center position with Corey Linsley and left tackle position with Rashawn Slater.
That being said, an overhaul of this scale – essentially replacing all five starters – is unprecedented and the Chargers have a very difficult opening schedule. How quickly the offensive line develops together will have a huge impact on whether or not they are able to go on the road and beat Chase Young and the Washington Football Team, or win a potential shootout against Myles Garrett and the Cleveland Browns. The schedule eases up at the tail end, so the playoffs could be in reach if they are able to stay afloat in the first half of the season.
Beyond the starters, the depth will need to be sorted out in the coming months. Scott Quessenberry is a solid depth piece along the interior, and Brenden Jaimes has intriguing potential as a swiss army knife that could play every spot except center. One of the more interesting position battles in training camp will take place at swing tackle with Trey Pipkins and Storm Norton. Neither player really established themselves in Bulaga’s stead last year but someone has to win that spot. The good news is that Matt Feiler has the ability to kick out there and gives the Chargers options if they don’t feel like Pipkins or Norton are ready to be a full-time starter. The right tackle spot is definitely one to keep an eye on next offseason.
The other aspect of this is the offensive scheme that the Chargers will be bringing in around Herbert. Staley, offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, and the rest of the staff will be attempting to combine the best parts of the best systems in the league. They’ll be influenced by the schemes presently in place in New Orleans, San Francisco, Green Bay, and Las Vegas. If that transition becomes too complicated, the Chargers could start off slower than we all anticipate.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Duncan, author of Payton and Brees: The Men Who Built The Greatest Offense In NFL History, on the Guilty As Charged Podcast a few weeks ago, and one of the things he pointed out was that the marriage between Sean Payton and Drew Brees actually took a few years to come together. Everyone thinks that offense was great from the start but they took some lumps at the beginning of that era of Saints football.
The Chargers are saying all the right things right now, but the reality is that we likely won’t see the peak of this system in the first year of its creation. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, they should still be able to improve from the 2020 unit – as long as they are able to become more efficient on a per play basis and the redzone.
Mike Williams was a guest on the PFF podcast and noted that Herbert has been more vocal this offseason and appears to be more comfortable in his own skin. That is a huge deal for his individual growth, both on and off the field. Herbert should be expected to improve upon his Rookie of the Year campaign, but whether or not he reaches the actual ceiling of his sophomore season will likely depend on the supporting cast around him – particularly the offensive line and offensive coaching staff.