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2020 Stats (Rank)
Total Offense: 6,113 (Ninth)
Offensive Touchdowns: 43 (17th)
Offensive Plays: 1,127 (First)
Pass Attempts + Sacks: 624 (12th)
Rush Attempts: 466 (Ninth)
Unaccounted for Targets: 136 (14th)
Unaccounted for Carries: 109 (14th)
Every season has its turning points, the moments that get it where it’s going. They usually come on the field, not in the training room. The Chargers, of course, don’t do “usually.” Tyrod Taylor’s errant Week 2 pain-killing injection forced No. 6 overall pick Justin Herbert onto the field earlier than expected. Also earlier than expected — arguably by years — was Herbert’s dominant play. He went toe to toe with Patrick Mahomes in his debut and rarely looked back, only losing steam as the Chargers’ embattled coaching staff ran out of ideas down the stretch. Everything draft analysts said Herbert was, that’s what he was not. Billed as conservative, Herbert checked out as the league’s eighth most aggressive passer amongst regular starters. Supposedly inaccurate deep, he produced a 107.4 QB rating and 12:3 TD:INT total on attempts of 20-plus yards. Believed to be a “project,” Herbert set six rookie passing records, including touchdown passes (31), total scores (36), completions (396), 300-yard passing efforts (eight), multi-touchdown passing performances (10) and three-score days (six). All this as the Bolts were 17th in neutral pass rate and 24th in average depth of target. Anthony Lynn’s stagnant staff has been ushered out in favor of Brandon Staley’s forward-thinking group.
Calling the 2021 plays for Herbert will be longtime Sean Payton acolyte Joe Lombardi, grandson of Vince. Unsurprisingly, Lombardi has pledged his attack will be funneled through his sophomore superstar. "Those are the most dangerous quarterbacks, where the quarterback becomes the system," Staley said in June. Staley and Lombardi have vowed to increase the tempo and feature more no-huddle, though in Lynn’s defense, the Bolts were fifth in neutral pace last season. The point is, Staley wants Herbert to dictate the terms of the offense, not the running game.
Herbert will be tasked with doing so with a good, not great, skill corps, one still led by 29-year-old Keenan Allen. Coming off his third 100-catch campaign in four years, Allen immediately hit it off with Herbert, averaging by far the most catches (7.1) and targets (10.5) per game of his career. In fact, Herbert and Allen bonded to such a degree that the former coaching staff believed it may have been to Herbert’s detriment. They feared he looked his slot blanket’s way too often, something evidenced by Allen’s nine 10-target performances in Herbert’s 12 starts before Allen’s hamstring injury. Maybe it was a valid critique, but Lynn is gone, as is Hunter Henry. There is nowhere better for Herbert to funnel his looks, and Allen’s summer ADP in the WR10-12 range is more than justified.
Opposite Allen is deep threat Mike Williams, whose recent career has been one of regression. The scorer of 10 2018 touchdowns, Williams predictably saw that number crater to two in 2019. Not so predictably, he posted a 1,000-yard campaign, leading the league with 20.4 yards per grab. Then he came back down to earth in 2020, goosing his scores from two to five but watching his yards decline from 1,001 to 756. There’s a grave targets need in this offense, particularly in the red zone following Henry’s departure. Henry’s loss freed up 14 painted area looks. 6-foot-4 Williams could help fill that niche. He saw 10 red zone targets under Hebert compared to 15 with Philip Rivers the year prior. At the very least, Williams should get back to that Rivers number, keeping him in the fringe WR3 mix even though he is well established as a strict boundary/size option who is probably never going to reach 100 looks.
Beyond Allen and Williams, No. 3 duties are up for grabs. First up is fellow deep threat Jalen Guyton, who turned 28 2020 catches into 511 yards (18.3 YPC) and three scores as a lid lifter. Guyton’s best game came with Allen and Williams hobbled in Week 15 against the Raiders, where he caught four balls for 91 yards. Four of Guyton's 28 grabs gained 49-plus yards. Guyton has the size (6-foot-1) and speed (4.35) to be more than a one-year wonder in this on-the-rise offense, but he seems unlikely to develop into more than a role player. The 23-year-old is worth an end-of-bench spot in Dynasty leagues but probably won’t develop an ADP in re-draft.
Looking to challenge Guyton will be No. 77 overall pick Josh Palmer. The 21-year-old enters the league having never reached 500 yards in a college season, and 100 yards in a game only once. That did not stop a few coaches from comparing him to Terry McLaurin following the Senior Bowl. Palmer has 4.51 speed at 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, and is willing to play physical, excelling at contested catches. Palmer’s third-round pedigree and Herbert upside make him someone to keep an eye on in 14-team leagues, but not someone to draft.
Up the seam, free agent addition Jared Cook followed Lombardi from New Orleans. There’s a non-zero chance Cook ends up the No. 4 passing game target behind Allen, Williams and Austin Ekeler, though the 34-year-old looked to be on fumes in 2020. Nevertheless, his $3.5 million salary is a genuine commitment. Especially considering Henry’s loss in the red zone, Cook could remain a priority TE2 streamer. The next man up behind Cook is probably third-rounder Tre’ McKitty. Projected as a 6th-7th rounder by NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein before his Day 2 selection, McKitty doesn’t stand out at any one aspect of seam work. He gets a Dynasty gander because he has third-round draft capital in an ascending offense with a long-term need at tight end.
Cook and McKitty’s arrivals have probably taken Donald Parham off the board, but the former XFLer is still only 24 (in August). 6-foot-8 Parham could be a mismatch waiting to happen in the hands of a competent coaching staff. The Chargers seem to have that.
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With Melvin Gordon gone for Denver, Austin Ekeler had the Bolts’ 2020 1A role to himself. “Ekeler SZN” began with a whopping 63 touches in three games but was derailed when a Week 4 hamstring ailment landed him on injured reserve. Ekeler returned in Week 12 and gobbled up 25 more touches before looking less efficient down the stretch as he picked up a quad issue. Through it all, he averaged 93 yards from scrimmage compared to 97 in 2019, providing 4.5 yards per carry and 5.4 catches per game. Although it was the floor fantasy managers expected, the ceiling was undermined by the injuries.
Last year’s injury issues were probably the final nail in the coffin of Ekeler ever expanding his “deluxe pass-catching back” role. It scarcely matters for fantasy, where Ekeler was an RB2 by average points even in standard formats last season. He will continue to return RB1 value in PPR and push for it in half PPR. It’s worth remembering that Lombardi arrives from the league’s pre-eminent pass-catching backfield in New Orleans. He has compared Ekeler to Alvin Kamara, Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles, all of whom minted PPR gold for the Saints.
Behind Ekeler is one of the league’s most confusing early-down jumbles. Justin Jackson is probably the first man up, but there has been loose media chatter J-Jax isn’t even a 53-man roster lock. Injuries limited Jackson to nine 2020 appearances and 59 carries, but he averaged a respectable 4.57 yards per tote, turning in three 20-plus yard runs. He also made a few big plays in the passing game, producing a 19/174/0 line. Jackson was flashing on the FLEX radar before his knee landed him on injured reserve in Week 10. His big-play pedigree remains intriguing. Jackson has reached now-or-never territory, though the “now” remains in play. At least as of early July, Jackson offers late-round upside.
The No. 112 overall pick of last year’s draft, Joshua Kelley was a comprehensive bust, failing to the degree that the Bolts ended up giving Kalen Ballage legitimate workloads. Already 23, Kelley lived up to his unexplosive billing as a rookie by wheezing to 3.2 yards per carry and drawing only 23 targets. Even if Jackson is on the outs, there isn’t much in Kelley’s profile to get excited about beyond #EstablishIt carries.
The only new addition is sixth-round rookie Larry Rountree. Although a highly productive college back, Rountree didn’t test well and isn’t much of a pass catcher. On film, Rountree does have impressive burst for his 5-foot-11, 211-pound frame. He’s a zero-risk final round pick in 14-team leagues. Add him to the rolodex on 12-team waiver wires.
The Chargers are typically listed at nine or 9.5. Warren Sharp ranks their schedule as middle of the pack. We know you hear this every year, but the Bolts are one of the league’s most projectable teams. With Staley on defense and Herbert on offense, they have the right leaders on both sides of the ball. Staley has ample talent to deploy, though Herbert’s supporting cast is somewhat slight. The Chiefs are a nearly insurmountable impediment to a division title, but the Raiders and Broncos’ presence put the over squarely in play. The hype is justified. Maybe the Chargers will finally live up to it.