In just over a calendar year, Los Angeles goes from having zero, to two NFL franchises. Both the Chargers and Rams had disappointing seasons for a variety of reasons, but are incredibly different. While they both will have rookie head coaches in 2017, the Chargers are in a much better position to rebound. With Anthony Lynn at the start of his head coaching career, and Phillip Rivers at the end of his playing career, what will the Los Angeles Chargers look like in 2017?
2016 Evaluation – Offense
Entering the 2016 season, one could argue that Melvin Gordon was the biggest offensive question mark. At this point, you know what you get with Phillip Rivers. He’s going to take chances and sometimes they don’t always work out. But, when an organization spends a first round pick on a running back who failed to reach the end zone in his first season, that can raise some eyebrows. Thankfully, Melvin Gordon did not disappoint. Gordon was effective even though the Chargers finished as a bottom third rushing attack. Despite missing the final three games and only playing eight snaps in another, Gordon rushed for 997 yards averaging 3.9 yards per carry.
As most Chargers fans know, Gordon wasn’t able to be as much of a factor because of negative game flow. The offense often had to resort to throwing their way back into the game. As a whole, the Chargers finished 9th in points and 14th in yards according to Pro Football Reference. This offense had one fatal flaw, turnovers. Rivers led the NFL with 21 interceptions. The Chargers also lost 14 fumbles, tied for 2nd highest in the league. Meaning, this offense must become more efficient in 2017 if they want to compete. One way to become more efficient is to have better balance on offense, starting with the offensive line.
Like many teams, the Chargers suffered from multiple critical injuries; they must upgrade the offensive guard position. Using Pro Football Focus player rankings to compare players at the same position, the Chargers suffered from poor offensive guard play. D.J. Fluker and Orlando Franklin were ranked the 56th and 69th out of 75 eligible players at guard. Getting consistent, average play at this position will allow the Chargers to be more efficient and turn the ball over less.
When an offensive line is strong at the guard position, they can eliminate immediate pressure up the middle. This means that Melvin Gordon will be able go an extra third or half yard before being contacted by a defender. Aging quarterbacks also benefit more. Rivers is comfortable moving forward in the pocket and evading edge rushers. However, when the pressure forces Rivers outside the pocket, he becomes less efficient and more turnover prone. While I believe Rivers is an underrated athlete, he’s not capable of producing like Russell Wilson or Aaron Rodgers outside the pocket.
2016 Evaluation – Defense
Despite their overall record of 5-11, the Chargers had one of the NFL’s underrated defenses. On the surface, that seems absurd. How can a defense be ranked 29th in points and 16th in yards be underrated? The Chargers finished tied for 4th in terms of creating turnovers with 28 on the season. The two defenses they tied with, were Arizona and Baltimore, two of the best defenses this season. What Arizona and Baltimore didn’t have to deal with was their offense being first in giveaways. Those put the defense in impossible positions. If the offense becomes marginally more protective of the football, the defense will improve.
The Chargers have multiple players on defense that will no doubt allow them to improve next season. According to Pro Football Focus, the Chargers have the 5th and 6th best edge defenders in the NFL with Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa. While they play different positions, they often have similar responsibilities, thus, them being classified as edge defenders and not as a linebacker or lineman. These players, along with Brandon Mebane, make for a stout defensive front; however, it is not without flaw. Corey Liuget did not play well this year and has sadly been declining since 2014. Maybe he would play better in a limited role on defense, but the Chargers need to have a better every down on the interior.
In the back end, the Chargers have an emerging star in Casey Hayward. Hayward has been playing well for years, but ascended to another level this season by shadowing the opposition’s best receiver. When Hayward is playing at such a high level, Jason Verrett and Brandon Flowers will be heavily targeted. Both players had to deal with injuries this season, which contributed to their decreased production. The Chargers need to make sure that they have adequate players that can produce in a relief role.
If Anthony Lynn has learned anything in his coaching tenure, it’s that you have to build a team that can compete in their division. Thankfully, Lynn will have the 2nd most talented quarterback in the division entering 2017. The offense has to improve up front. What do the Broncos, Chiefs, and Raiders all have in common? They all have at least one great pass rusher. We already talked about the need at guard for the Chargers. They can also upgrade the tackle position if an appropriate free agent or prospect makes sense.
Currently, there isn’t a tackle or guard that warrants selection in the top ten. Jahleel Addae will become a free agent at seasons end, so they could look at drafting Malik Hooker, the play making safety out of Ohio State. However, they could still select Cam Robinson if he is universally rising up draft boards late in April. It’s likely that they will use second day picks to address the offensive guard position. That could mean selecting Dan Feeney out of Indiana or the versatile Taylor Moton from Western Michigan who could play guard and tackle.
I don’t think the Los Angeles Chargers need to spend multiple picks on offensive weapons for Rivers. Both Tyrell Williams, Dontrelle Inman, and Hunter Henry proved they can produce in this offense. With Keenan Allen and Melvin Gordon returning from injuries, this team can be explosive in 2017. If this team can upgrade their offensive line and add depth on defense, they will be poised to rise up in the AFC West.
Post Season Prospects
The Los Angeles Chargers have some work to if they want to make a playoff push in 2017. There are key offensive and defensive metrics that can help predict postseason success. Here are the categories and where the Chargers stack up compared to the rest of the league.
As I’ve said in my previous evaluations, you don’t have to be elite in every statistic. But, a team can’t have a glaring hole and hope to compete in the playoffs. Every divisional winner this season was top 15 in two or more categories on each side of the ball. We already know the Chargers need to be better up front. Upgrade those positions and they will give up less sacks and allow them to have more prolonged drives. Thus, improving their time of possession as well.
The future of the Chargers defense is not as bleak as their overall rankings may suggests. I’ve talked at length in this series about how the points allowed statistic can be misleading. Yards allowed, 3rd down defense, and turnovers are all stats that the defense alone can control. In two of those areas, they are just outside the top 15 and top five in the third. If the offense can be more efficient, the defense will benefit tremendously.
Despite my positive outlook for the Chargers next season, I don’t think their record will improve much. First time head coaches rarely have immediate success. Not to mention, the transition to becoming the Los Angeles Chargers. While their weekly schedule isn’t set, their opponents are. Having to face the AFC and NFC East divisions does not bode well. Thankfully, the Chargers get the Brown and the Jaguars as their other non divisional games. I think the Chargers will finish 7-9 next season and last in the AFC West.
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