2020 NFL Team Previews: Los Angeles Chargers
2020 NFL Team Previews
By Professor MJ
Los Angeles Chargers
Anthony Lynn’s first two seasons as the Chargers head coach were successful with 9-7 and 12-4 records. However, last year was a clear disappointment as the team finished dead last in their division with a 5-11 record. That included losing six of the final seven matchups.
Obviously, the team is entering a new era with a big QB change. They hope the 10-year drought without a division title is going to get snapped sooner than later.
2. Offensive Position-by-Position Breakdown
2.1 Quarterbacks (QBs)
After spending 16 seasons with the Chargers, Philip Rivers signed with the Colts. His 23-to-20 TD-to-INT ratio last year was the worst of his whole career. He still racked up 4,615 passing yards, though, but his arm looked weaker than ever. He also struggled as soon as he felt the rush coming.
Before the draft, head coach Anthony Lynn kept repeating that Tyrod Taylor was in the driver’s seat to get the starting nod under center. Does that still hold true after drafting Justin Herbert with the No. 6 overall pick? I doubt it.
Herbert is one of the most polarizing prospects. Some experts believe he’ll have a great career, while others see bust written all over him.
He is physically gifted with good size, an elite arm strength and mobility that allows him to elude the rush and pick up first downs with his legs. He is also known for being able to make all types of throws.
The knocks on him are as follows. First, some people question his leadership ability because he’s an introvert. Also, his decision-making isn’t always the best, he fumbles way too many times and a 64% college career completion rate isn’t all that impressive.
Tyrod Taylor might still have a shot to start under center, but his chances have clearly diminished with Herbert on the team. He has 54 career TD passes versus 20 interceptions, while adding 16 rushing TDs to his resume.
Taylor’s best years were with the Bills from 2015 to 2017. Over that time span, he completed 774-of-1236 passes (62.6%) with 51 TD passes and 16 picks. He helped Buffalo reach the playoffs for the first time in 18 years.
He tends to get blamed for being too conservative. He does limit the turnovers, but throwing 51 touchdown passes in 44 games in Buffalo was far from breathtaking.
After a bad experience in Cleveland in 2018 and not playing in 2019, can Taylor revive his career? It seems pretty doubtful. He makes for a great backup QB, though.
2.2 Running Backs (RBs)
Melvin Gordon left for Denver, which leaves the door wide open for Austin Ekeler to take over as the clear-cut #1 back.
Ekeler was excellent in both facets of the game: as a runner and as a receiver. For the second straight year, he rushed for about 550 yards with 3 TDs on the ground. However, he did a lot more damage through the air by catching a jaw-dropping 92 balls out of 108 targets, which included 8 receiving TDs and an extremely good 10.8 yards-per-catch average.
The undrafted runner from Western State has averaged 4.8 yards per carry thus far in his three years in the big league. This figure is likely to go down now that he’ll be the workhorse back, but he’s expected to get a lot more rushing attempts.
Gordon’s departure inserts Justin Jackson into the #2 RB role. He was picked in the 7th round of the 2018 draft and his main problem has been staying healthy. He missed three games in his rookie season and nine more the following year. In both cases, he rushed for close to 200 yards.
It’s unclear what Jackson can bring to the table due to his limited time on the field. Based on his draft status it’s hard to expect great things, but the jury is still out about his future.
2.3 Wide Receivers (WRs)
This position was dominated by two players: Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. All other guys caught less than 10 passes.
You can’t say enough about Keenan Allen. He’s just a super reliable target.
He was often the victim of the injury bug in the past, but he’s now played all 16 games in each of the last three years. During this time period, he has been extremely consistent by averaging 101 receptions for 1,263 yards and 6 TDs. He will be entering his age-28 campaign, so he still has plenty of gas left in the tank.
Mike Williams was the #7 overall selection in the 2017 draft out of Clemson. His numbers have increased each year, except the TD output which inexplicably dropped from 10 to 2 last year.
Williams had a whopping 20.4 yards-per-catch average, second-best in the league behind Mecole Hardman. He battled through knee injuries throughout the year.
The depth at the position is worrisome. The team drafted a couple of guys in later rounds: Joe Reed from Virginia and K.J. Hill from Ohio State.
2.4 Tight Ends (TEs)
Hunter Henry is one of the top tight ends in the league when healthy. The problem has been just that: staying healthy.
He tore his ACL during OTAs in 2018, which caused him to miss the entire regular season.
Last year, he missed four additional games due to a knee injury but he still set career-highs in receptions (55) and receiving yards (652). He has scored 17 TDs in 41 career games, which amounts to 6.6 per 16 games.
Virgil Green is the projected backup TE. He couldn’t get anything going even during Henry’s absence last year. It does not bode well for him. The former seventh-rounder has never caught more than 22 passes since joining the league nine years ago.
2.5 Offensive Line (OL)
Mike Pouncey’s first five years in the league were pretty good after being selected in the 1st round by the Dolphins nine years ago. Then, his PFF grades started to decline steadily. Things got worse last year when he suffered a career-threatening neck injury. He is on track to return in 2020, but his play has been below-average of late.
Right tackle Bryan Bulaga is now on the wrong side of 30, but that didn’t scare the Chargers off. They signed him to a three-year deal worth $30 million. He will solidify the line without a doubt. He played very well last year in Green Bay; he secured the #15 spot out of 81 tackles based on PFF rankings.
With Michael Schofield about to hit the free agent market, the Chargers acquired Trai Turner from the Panthers. Both received very identical PFF marks, but Turner is three years younger. He’s set to play left guard.
Dan Feeney won the preseason battle for the left guard position during preseason, and he ended up starting all 16 games for the second year in a row. However, once again the quality of his play left a lot to be desired. He rated as the 64th-best guard out of 81 qualifiers.
The Trent Scott experiment on Philip Rivers’ blind side was a huge failure last year. He was atrocious.
Can Trey Pipkins be the answer at left tackle? The third-round pick from last year didn’t play many snaps last year, so it’s hard to evaluate.
Or will it be Sam Tevi taking over at this key position? He did play left tackle as a junior with the Utah Utes. The 6th rounder has never received a PFF grade above 60 in his three-year career, so it’s hard to get excited about him.
2020 VS 2019 OFFENSE
Despite all the criticism around Philip Rivers, he still threw for more than 4,600 yards. Can Justin Herbert and/or Tyrod Taylor do better? I doubt it.
Also, am I the only one worrying about the depth at many positions on offense?
Instead of having a nice Gordon-Ekeler duo at running back, the team must now rely on unproven Justin Jackson as the backup runner. At wide receiver, what happens if either Keenan Allen or Mike Williams gets hurt? If Hunter Henry misses time at tight end, the team must turn to Virgil Green. We’re talking about HUGE talent dropoff between the starters and the backups at those positions.
At least the team upgraded its offensive line, but not that much. I like the additions of Bulaga and Turner, but Okung and Schofield left. To me, that represents a small net gain for the team.
Overall, I believe this unit suffers a small downgrade over 2019.
Final call (2020 vs 2019):
Big downgrade-Moderate downgrade-Small downgrade-Stable-Small upgrade-Moderate upgrade-Big upgrade
3. Defensive Position-by-Position Breakdown
3.1 Defensive Linemen (DLs)
All four guys receiving the most playing time on the interior of the line last year received poor PFF grades. Justin Jones finished 93rd, Brandon Mebane 112th, Damion Square 73rd and Jerry Tillery 114th out of 114 qualifiers. That’s awful.
Two of those players are now off the team: Mebane (who turned 35) and Square. Neither of those losses represent a blow to the defense.
Justin Jones improved slightly from his rookie to his sophomore year, but he’ll need to take a bigger leap in his third year. The former third-round pick out of N.C. State has not been very impressive thus far.
As for Tillery, he was the #28 overall pick from the 2019 draft. It’s too early to call him a bust, but ranking dead last among all DLs can hardly be viewed as a successful season. He posted two sacks, but was awful against the run.
The Chargers hope to boost the position with the acquisition of Linval Joseph. The 10-year veteran received high marks from 2015 to 2017, but his play deteriorated a little bit in the past two years. Granted, he still ranked as the 42nd-best interior defenders out of 114 guys last year. He’ll be playing his age-32 campaign, so hopefully his play won’t drop even further.
3.2 Defensive Ends (DEs) / Edge Rushers (ED)
Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are the team’s clear-cut sack leaders. They recorded 11.5 and 7 sacks respectively last year, while the third-best turned out to be just 2.5 by Desmond King. Ouch.
Bosa is a beast. Plain and simple. Bosa had 10.5, 12.5, 5.5 and 11.5 sacks during his first four years in the NFL. The 5.5 sacks picked up in 2018 were obtained in seven games; if you project those numbers into a full 16-game season, that equates to 12.5. As can be seen, he’s been very consistent.
Ingram’s sack output has decreased a little bit recently. After posting 10.5, 8.0 and 10.5 from 2015 to 2017, he got exactly 7 sacks in each of the last two years. He remains clearly an above-average edge rusher and likely has a gas left in the tank at 31 years old.
Uchenna Nwosu will continue to be a rotational player in this defense. He played 37% of the snaps and the former second-rounder has 5.5 sacks in two years.
3.3 Linebackers (LBs)
Thomas Davis provided quality play, especially coming from a 36-year-old linebacker. The team still decided to cut ties with him in order to create cap space and to get younger at the position.
The team has three guys who all played between 37% and 39% of the snaps last year: Drue Tranquill, Kyzir White and Denzel Perryman.
Tranquill was picked in the 4th round of last year’s draft and he enjoyed a very respectable rookie season. He ended up as the #25 LB out of 89 players, based on PFF marks. He is a good candidate to improve his game since he converted from safety to linebacker just three years ago.
White is another former fourth-rounder, but he was taken a year earlier. He has earned 65.6 and 66.6 PFF grades in his first two seasons. His 2019 grade is actually identical to Tranquill’s.
Perryman is unlikely to become a full-time starter in the NFL. He has yet to establish himself as a true starter in five years, so all signs point towards the former second-rounder to end up no more than a reserve player.
The Chargers have added two pieces to the group: free agent Nick Vigil and Kenneth Murray via the draft.
Vigil is no better than what the Chargers already had. As a matter of fact, he has earned weaker marks. He will still get a shot at the starting lineup considering his experience.
With the 23rd overall selection, the Chargers drafted Kenneth Murray out of Oklahoma. The kid plays with great passion and he started at middle linebacker with the Sooners at 17 years old, which is quite impressive!
Murray can literally fly on the field; he’s a playmakers who’s willing to take some risks. His style leads to many tackles for a loss. He needs to get better at reading plays and shedding blockers, however.
3.4 Cornerbacks (CBs)
Casey Hayward is among the league’s top cover corners. He graded as the third-best CB in the NFL last season, according to PFF rankings. He has 22 interceptions in eight years and figures to have another productive season in 2020. He hasn’t missed a single game in six years!
Desmond King is most effective in the middle of the field as a slot corner. Strangely enough, the Chargers signed Chris Harris, formerly of the Broncos, who also butters his bread in that position. It remains to be seen how to team juggles with these two guys. Both received above-average grades despite subpar years compared to previous seasons.
How does Michael Davis fit in the mix? He could be the odd man out. He did pick up his first two interceptions of his young career after signing as an undrafted free agent in 2017, but he wasn’t particularly good.
3.5 Safeties (S)
Derwin James missed the first 11 games last season. His presence was sorely missed on the field. The #17 overall pick from the 2018 draft enjoyed a spectacular rookie season with 105 tackles, 3 interceptions and 3.5 sacks. Now with a clean bill of health, James projects to play a big role in 2020.
The other starting safety is Rayshawn Jenkins. He’s not nearly as good as his fellow teammate. He racked up the first three picks of his career last year, but he only managed to obtain the 60th spot among 87 safeties, according to PFF grades. He has yet to have a big impact, and he’s unlikely to do.
The team lost some nice depth when Adrian Phillips left for New England. The #3 safety will likely be either Roderic Teamer or sixth-round pick Alohi Gilman. You don’t want either of them to start, so the Chargers must cross their fingers that neither James nor Jenkins gets hurt.
2020 VS 2019 DEFENSE
How will the 2020 Chargers defense fare compared to the 2019’s group?
The team upgraded the interior of the line a little bit with the addition of Linval Joseph.
Tackle leader Thomas Davis is gone, while the organization acquired Nick Vigil and drafted Kenneth Murray. Vigil isn’t a solid linebacker, so Chargers fans must hope for Murray to develop quickly, or perhaps see Drue Tranquill elevate his game.
Getting Chris Harris at corner is another good, albeit not spectacular, addition to the team. However, losing Adrian Phillips will put the Chargers in trouble if one of their two starting safeties get hurt.
Los Angeles allowed the 14th fewest points in the league last year. I expect them to remain around this spot in 2020.
Final call (2020 vs 2019):
Big downgrade-Moderate downgrade-Small downgrade-Stable-Small upgrade-Moderate upgrade-Big upgrade
4. Regular Season Wins
According to sportsbooks, the Los Angeles Chargers are expected to win 8 games this season. Should we bet the “over” or the “under”?
Here is the methodology I used in order to answer this vital question:
- Use BetOnline.ag’s point spreads on all 256 regular season games.
- Convert those point spreads into win probabilities.
- Simulate each of the 256 games, according to those win probabilities, via the R statistical software.
- Repeat the previous step one million times (you get 1M simulated seasons).
- Count the proportion of seasons where the Chargers won more or less than 8 games.
Here are the results:
- Tip: Bet UNDER 8 wins
- Return On Investment (ROI): +12.1%
- Rank: 23rd-highest ROI out of 32 teams
- Minimum odds required to bet (i.e. ROI = 0%): -135
Here are BetOnline’s point spreads for the Chargers’ 16 regular season games:
- HOME: -2.5 vs ATL, -6.5 vs CAR, -5 vs DEN, -7 vs JAX, +7 vs KC, +4.5 vs LV, 0 vs NE, -4 vs NYJ.
- ROAD: +5 @ BUF, -3 @ CIN, +2 @ DEN, +11 @ KC, +2 @ LV, 0 @ MIA, +9 @ NO, +6.5 @ TB.
Note: The “Best odds” from the table above were obtained after looking at 13 well-known online sportsbooks on May 18th, 2020.
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