Juggernaut Index No. 5: The San Diego Chargers

Andy Behrens

The Juggernaut Index is our annual ranking of NFL teams for fantasy purposes. Repeat: FOR FANTASY PURPOSES. We're interested in yards and points here. These ranks are astonishingly accurate and highly collectible. Please enjoy them responsibly.

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5. San Diego Chargers

Last year, Philip Rivers(notes) had the 13th highest single-season passer rating in NFL history (105.5) and he tied for the league lead in touchdown passes (34). Yet somehow he wasn't in the MVP discussion and he wasn't selected to the Pro Bowl, which was just…well, it was entirely wrong.

Rivers was outstanding, a huge fantasy asset, as valuable to his team as any player in the NFL. He finished 12th in the league in pass attempts (478), but he was fifth in yardage (4009). His 8.4 yards per attempt easily led the NFL, and he threw only 11 interceptions. Rivers' offense is loaded with talent this year and the defenses in his division didn't exactly distinguish themselves in 2008. The Broncos allowed more points than any team in the AFC (28.0), the Chiefs allowed the second-most (27.5) and the Raiders yielded the fourth-most (24.3).

So Rivers' situation seems favorable in '09. If you own him, your biggest worry entering the season is whether the Chargers offense will be too efficient, thus limiting his pass attempts. A secondary concern, of course, is the return to health of LaDainian Tomlinson(notes).

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Back in '06, Tomlinson set the single-season touchdown record (31) and he became one of only 14 backs to ever top 1800 rushing yards. He's never failed to reach double-digit TDs or 1000 yards in any of his eight seasons. His career low in receptions is 51. Tomlinson is on the short list of the greatest running backs of all-time, no doubt.

He's also a problem at the draft table. At age 30, Tomlinson is covered in red flags. He's coming off his worst season as a pro – great for anyone else, bad for him – and he's suffered MCL, groin and toe injuries over the past 20 months. Backup Darren Sproles(notes) was franchised during the offseason after finishing with three consecutive triple-digit yardage performances (132 in Week 17, then 150 and 106 in the playoffs).

Nonetheless, San Diego coach Norv Turner had this to say back in July:

"I would expect LT to be among the top three or four rushers in the league. And depending how our season goes and the games go, he'll be a factor in the rushing title. Darren is going to complement him."

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Sproles is only 5-6 and 185 pounds (and crazy quick), so he's rarely considered more than a complementary player. He's looked awfully tough at the goal line, though. If Sproles can ever work his way into a committee, anywhere, we'll be drafting him early. Expect a career high in receptions this year; he delivered five TDs on 29 catches in '08, and he's a threat to score on the simplest screen. Still, a majority of the San Diego carries belong to LT.

The bottom line on Tomlinson, for me, is that you don't bet on a renaissance for a high-mileage player, not when he has a recent history of injuries. I'm not willing to forecast a better season for Tomlinson than the one he delivered in '08 (1110 rush, 52 receptions, 12 TDs). That certainly wasn't a useless year, but it's not top-of-the-draft material. LT's Mock Draft Central ADP is 6.8; that's four or five picks earlier than I've been willing to go in standard formats. If you're looking for a more optimistic take, I'll refer you to Mr. Funston (video link).

Rivers claimed the centerpiece role in San Diego's offense while Tomlinson was hobbled, and it's difficult to believe the Chargers will lean less heavily on their QB after he delivered one of the all-time seasons. San Diego has a terrific receiving corps, led by top-tier tight end Antonio Gates(notes) and wideout Vincent Jackson(notes), a man who saved his best for the fantasy playoffs last year (18 REC, 348 yards, 2 TDs in Weeks 14-16). Gates is a preferred red zone target who's healthier now than he was a year ago, when he battled foot issues. Jackson is a giant target (6-5) and a serious deep threat, coming off his finest season (59-1098-7). Neither Gates nor Jackson are draft bargains – their ADPs are 52.3 and 50.2 – but they're unlikely to disappoint. Chris Chambers(notes) hasn't had a 100-yard game in the regular season since Week 3 in '07, when he was a Dolphin, and he didn't find the end zone in the second half last year. The taller (6-5) and younger (28) Malcom Floyd(notes) basically matched Chambers' production in '08.

Third-year receiver Legedu Naanee(notes) has two preseason TDs and, like so many other Chargers, he appears to be a highlight waiting to happen. "He's going to be a big player for us," Rivers has said. But how many big players can one team realistically have?

Bolts Notes: The San Diego defense needs to be owned, if only because the AFC West looks like a turnover buffet. Shawne Merriman(notes) (knee) isn't yet at full strength, and it's tough to recover during an NFL season. The Chargers offer other IDPs of interest, however: Eric Weddle(notes) (127 tackles), Stephen Cooper(notes) (98 in 12 games), Shaun Phillips(notes) (76 tackles, 7.5 sacks) and Antonio Cromartie(notes) (10 INTs in '07). … The Chargers love the potential of fourth-round rookie RB Gartrell Johnson(notes), but if he's getting touches this year, something will have gone wrong. Or San Diego is on top of Denver, 56-3. … Hawkeye great Nate Kaeding(notes) returns for another season of 110-plus point production. Please share your favorite Nate memory (not this one) in comments…

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Earlier Juggernauts: 32) Oakland, 31) Cleveland, 30) St. Louis, 29) Miami, 28) NY Jets, 27) Baltimore, 26) Washington, 25) San Francisco, 24) Tampa Bay, 23) Kansas City, 22) Detroit, 21) Seattle, 20) Buffalo, 19) Cincinnati, 18) Jacksonville, 17) New York Giants, 16) Tennessee, 15) Pittsburgh, 14) Denver, 13) Chicago, 12) Minnesota, 11) Arizona, 10) Green Bay, 9) Dallas, 8) Carolina, 7) Atlanta, 6) Indianapolis.

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