2019 NFL preview: Chargers can win Super Bowl, if they can avoid doing Chargers things

Yahoo Sports

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2019 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on July 31, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)

From late September through a playoff win at Baltimore, the Los Angeles Chargers looked like they were good enough to win a Super Bowl.

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But they’re still the Chargers. They always find a way to surprise, and not in a good way.

On Nov. 18, they blew a home game to a bad Denver Broncos team, losing in the final seconds. Los Angeles gave Denver that chance by throwing a third-down incompletion inside the two-minute warning, which gave the Broncos extra time for a final drive. The Chargers were mauled by the Baltimore Ravens at home in Week 16, right after they beat the Chiefs to take the pole position in the AFC West and for the AFC’s No. 1 seed. Losing to the Ravens isn’t the worst thing, but the season could have played out much differently had the Chargers grabbed the No. 1 seed, and it was right there for the taking. After paying back the Ravens in the wild-card round, the Chargers’ playoff run crashed into a wall with an inexplicably awful game plan against the New England Patriots.

This has been the Chargers’ problem for years. They have losses that make no sense, more than any other team. They do things like follow up an amazing last-minute win at Kansas City, which put them in a position to win the AFC West, with a dreadful performance at home to the Ravens to give the division away. And the way they were out-coached in New England was shocking. The Chargers went 12-4, won a playoff game, and it still felt like they underachieved.

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It’s getting to be now-or-never time for Philip Rivers and the Chargers. The Chargers arguably have the best roster, top to bottom, in the NFL. It’s not without flaws, but the top-end talent is remarkable. Yet, the window won’t stay open forever, especially with Rivers about to turn 38 years old in December.

Chargers defensive end Melvin Ingram isn’t backing down from expectations, telling the Los Angeles Times, “We’re definitely going to win the Super Bowl.”

“We’re the team to beat in the NFL, not just the AFC West, it’s the NFL,” Ingram said. “We feel like when we’re going against our offense that we need to beat them because they’re the best. They need to beat us because we’re the best. That’s how we’re going to get better.”

And just when it seemed safe to expect big things (again) for the Chargers, running back Melvin Gordon said in mid-July that he wanted a new contract or he’d hold out. Yahoo Sports’ Charles Robinson reported that the situation could get messy.

Over the last three seasons, Gordon has 4,372 yards from scrimmage, 38 touchdowns and has made two Pro Bowls. This isn’t exactly what the Chargers needed right before training camp.

With or without Gordon, the Chargers have exceptional talent. Rivers is a marvel. His 105.5 passer rating last season tied for the highest in his career. Keenan Allen is a great No. 1 target and former top-10 pick Mike Williams flashed the ability to give the Chargers two No. 1 receivers. Tight end Hunter Henry returns from missing most of last season with a torn ACL, and he can be a big difference-maker.

Defensively, the Chargers have two of the league’s best pass rushers in Joey Bosa and Ingram. Their cornerback duo of Casey Hayward and Desmond King is among the best in the NFL. And the Chargers hit a grand slam last year in the draft, taking safety Derwin James with the 17th pick. James made All-Pro as a rookie and his future looks limitless.

And, aside from whatever happened in that Patriots playoff loss, Anthony Lynn looks like a very good NFL head coach. He did a remarkable job in 2017 after (“Chargers doing Chargers things” alert) the team started 0-4 while blowing multiple games. They went 9-7 and almost snuck into the playoffs, all while dealing with a difficult relocation from San Diego. After a 1-2 start last season, the Chargers were among the best teams in football, though they did so without much fanfare because they play in a market that doesn’t seem to want them.

There aren’t many tangible reasons to pick against the Chargers. They’re balanced, deep and have as much blue-chip talent as anyone, including a quarterback who is one Super Bowl win from becoming a Hall of Fame lock. Now, we just have to trust the Chargers to get it right.

Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (17) is coming off an impressive season. (AP)
Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (17) is coming off an impressive season. (AP)

How the Chargers settle the Melvin Gordon situation could affect the grade, but we’ll leave that out of the equation for now. The Chargers had a pretty quiet offseason, which isn’t bad. In free agency they lost receiver Tyrell Williams and signed longtime Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis. Signing quarterback Tyrod Taylor is the first significant investment the team has made at backup quarterback in a while. There weren’t any other massive additions or subtractions. Notre Dame defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and Delaware safety Nasir Adderley were the team’s top two draft picks and both should contribute right away, though they’re not exciting. It was a bland offseason, which is fine for a team that already felt good about its roster.

GRADE: C

There are plenty, but let’s focus on the Chargers’ two elite pass rushers. The Chargers went 12-4 last season and they didn’t get close to a full contribution from Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. Bosa missed the first nine games of the season with a foot injury. Ingram had seven sacks, which isn’t bad, but he’s capable of much more. The duo had 12.5 sacks combined after combining for 23 two seasons ago. Assuming better health, the two should return to a 20-sack level, with the capability of blowing well past that. And it’s not like the Chargers’ defense was bad last year with those two having relatively quiet seasons.

The biggest problem the Chargers have is the offensive line, and they didn’t do much to improve it. The weakness of the line was evident when it was overpowered by the Ravens’ defensive front in a Week 16 loss. It’s not ideal that this group struggles to protect a 37-year-old Philip Rivers. The team is hopeful 2017 second-round pick Forrest Lamp, a guard who was a favorite of draft experts coming out of Western Kentucky, wins a starting job after injuries held him back his first two seasons. That could help. Even if Lamp plays well, the Chargers’ line is still considered one of the worst in the NFL, and that’s troublesome if the team wants to win big this season.

Philip Rivers was fantastic in 2018. He threw for 4,308 yards and 32 touchdowns despite being in an offense that preferred a slow pace and limited him to 508 attempts. Rivers’ 68.3 completion percentage was the second-best of his career and almost six percentage points better than 2017. His 105.5 passer rating was fifth in the NFL. He was third among all NFL quarterbacks in Football Outsiders’ DVOA and DYAR stats. At some point Rivers will slow down, but he has great receiving talent around him and was as good as ever in 2018.

In the moment, it was strange that safety Derwin James fell to the 17th pick of last year’s draft. It looks really bad for those teams who passed on James after he became a star as a rookie. The Chargers got a gift when James fell to them. James is the type of defensive player every team should covet. He can line up deep, in the box, cover receivers from the slot or even wide, and opponents will even find him at the line of scrimmage on occasion. It’s beyond impressive that a rookie could handle all those roles and play at an All-Pro level. Could he be even better this season?

“He was a rookie last year. There’s so much room for development with D.J. No doubt about it,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said, according to The Athletic.

Stories about James this offseason say he’s in great shape and has a singular focus on getting even better his second season. It’s very hard for a safety to win NFL defensive player of the year, because quarterback sacks usually sway the vote, but James is the type of player who could win the award before he’s done.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “I don’t have any magic answers on the Melvin Gordon holdout. I like that this situation seems to have less acrimony than the Le’Veon Bell/Steelers stalemate last year. Generally, I expect football players to hear their biological clocks ticking and eventually side toward living in the now versus a prolonged absence. I think Gordon will likely play something close to a full season, but, of course, I have no proof.

“Over the past few days in the NFFC, Gordon’s ADP has fallen down to 16 (high of 11, low of 25). He’s now someone you can consider in the second round. I don’t see a perfect handcuff behind Gordon; Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson both have talent, but I’m not confident one back would take over Gordon’s workload and throw all others out of the way.

“Bottom line, Gordon is now a pick with absolutely zero floor, and I like my early picks to have sturdy floors. You have to trust your own tea-reading abilities on this one. If you take Gordon in the second round and the player and team make up quickly, you just landed a top-six fantasy commodity at a gigantic discount. It’s the type of move that could win a league for you. But if this goes south, you could regret this pick for the rest of the year. And you can at least theoretically imagine how this could be an extended standoff — we’re at a time where players want more agency in their careers, and franchises are starting to consider that perhaps premier running backs aren’t worth the big checks they’ve commanded in the past.

“Ultimately, Gordon is more reactive than proactive pick for me. I will consider him in the second round, but only if I am not excited about my other options at the time. I’m not taking him over Joe Mixon or Dalvin Cook at the moment. And to be clear, this is a fluid situation — when more information becomes available, I’ll revisit my stance. That’s how the game works.”

[Yahoo fantasy preview: Los Angeles Chargers]

Football Outsiders had the Chargers ranked as one of the best teams in football last season. They finished the regular season third in their DVOA per-play metric, which measures efficiency based on situation and opponent. Only the Chiefs and Rams finished higher. The Chargers were four spots ahead of the eventual Super Bowl champion Patriots. The Chargers were also the only team to finish better than 10th in DVOA on offense and defense, which shows how balanced they are. Don’t sleep on how good the Chargers were last season.

WHAT HAPPENS IF MELVIN GORDON HOLDS OUT?

We can’t know if or when Gordon will report to the Chargers. He seems serious about getting a new deal. The Chargers are hesitant to pay him. Perhaps Gordon reports before the regular season. Maybe the Chargers trade him. A fair deal for both sides could be worked out. It seems like there’s no likely answer; anything is in play. Let’s look at the scenario in which Gordon isn’t with the Chargers at all this season. They might be OK without him. Gordon is a fantastic player, but Los Angeles doesn’t rely on him the way Dallas relies on Ezekiel Elliott. The Chargers played four games without an injured Gordon last season and went 4-0. Austin Ekeler has been very efficient as a runner in his two NFL seasons and is a dangerous threat as a receiver. He has a 5.3-yard average as a runner and averages more than 10 yards on his receptions. Justin Jackson, a 2018 seventh-round pick, was a very productive back at Northwestern and did look capable in limited action last season (4.1-yard average over 50 carries). Los Angeles might not have a back like Gordon who gets most of the work, especially if they don’t want to overload the 200-pound Ekeler, but it seems they have enough to replace Gordon if Gordon digs in on his holdout threat.

The Chargers can be the best team in football. The Chargers had road wins over Seattle, Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Baltimore last season. They had a top-10 offense and a top-10 defense, even without Joey Bosa for more than half of the season. I still don’t know what happened the week of the Patriots playoff game, but I still buy Anthony Lynn as a good coach. Philip Rivers doesn’t look to be in any decline. It’s hard to buy into the Chargers because baffling losses are in their DNA, but talent-wise it’s clear their upside is a Super Bowl title.

It seems weird to say about the Chargers, but other than a Philip Rivers injury or a rash of bad injuries in general, their floor seems to still be above .500. It’s really hard to envision the Chargers being bad. They’re too deep. There are challenges, most notably that they basically play no home games. There’s no fan support for them. But they have played well in their temporary soccer stadium home, usually in front of fans rooting for the opponent, so that might not be an issue. It’s a unique situation though. Melvin Gordon’s holdout could end up being a detriment and as we saw last season in Pittsburgh, that can affect chemistry. Perhaps Rivers simply falls off a cliff as he turns 38 — you never know when it’ll happen — but there are no signs pointing toward that. Basically the worst case for the Chargers is what we’ve seen before: some crazy losses they’ll regret as they barely miss the playoffs, and another year passes without a deep playoff run.

I really like the Chargers. They’re just hard to trust. As much as I’d like to buy all the way in, due to the talent on both sides of the ball, it’s hard. They lead the league in misplaced optimism. The Melvin Gordon situation, while manageable from a football standpoint, doesn’t bolster confidence. I believe this team could surpass the Chiefs in the AFC West. They did win at Arrowhead late last season, after all. And I also think they’re capable of winning a Super Bowl. We’ll see if I can talk myself into picking them to win it all before the regular season starts. It seems like a good way to be let down.

32. Arizona Cardinals

31. Miami Dolphins

30. Oakland Raiders

29. New York Giants

28. Cincinnati Bengals

27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

26. Washington Redskins

25. Detroit Lions

24. Buffalo Bills

23. New York Jets

22. Denver Broncos

21. San Francisco 49ers

20. Jacksonville Jaguars

19. Atlanta Falcons

18. Tennessee Titans

17. Carolina Panthers

16. Minnesota Vikings

15. Seattle Seahawks

14. Baltimore Ravens

13. Pittsburgh Steelers

12. Houston Texans

11. Dallas Cowboys

10. Cleveland Browns

9. Green Bay Packers

8. Philadelphia Eagles

7. Chicago Bears

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab

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