2020 NFL Preview: Chargers have built a team that can win now, with one glaring exception

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 2020 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 5.

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

When it came to 21 of the starting positions on their football team, the Los Angeles Chargers went forth like contenders.

The Chargers were aggressive on helping their offensive and defensive lines. They signed cornerback Chris Harris Jr. even though that position was already a strength. They locked up running back Austin Ekeler to an extension and put the franchise tag on tight end Hunter Henry. Four of the top five free agents they signed from other teams were all 31 years old. That’s a win-now mentality.

But if you looked at only the quarterback position, you’d think the Chargers were in a rebuild.

The Chargers parted ways with Philip Rivers, which made sense because Rivers showed signs of decline last season. The Indianapolis Colts still thought enough of Rivers to give him $25 million for one season. The Chargers didn’t do much to replace Rivers. They claimed they were fine with Tyrod Taylor. They drafted Justin Herbert sixth overall, and didn’t try to move up. They claimed to like Cam Newton but passed for reasons that don’t make sense considering they treated every other position like they expect to compete this year.

This isn’t a Joe Burrow-Cincinnati Bengals situation, in which a very exciting quarterback prospect is stepping right into the starting job, no questions asked. Herbert might be the Week 1 starter or get the job early in the season. That’s far from a guarantee.

“I’m going to do anything I can to be the best quarterback I can be,” Herbert said, via the Los Angeles Times. “If I’m the guy, that’s great. I love playing football and I want to be the guy. But if I have to sit back and learn, I’m going to do everything I can to become the quarterback I need to be.”

“Thank God I have some time on task with Tyrod Taylor, and he understands the offense that I want to run and what we’re going to do,” coach Anthony Lynn said, according to the team’s site. “And so, I’m very comfortable about that.”

Taylor wasn’t a bad quarterback with the Buffalo Bills, but he wasn’t great and hasn’t been a full-time starter since 2017. Herbert could be a future star, but isn’t considered a can’t-miss prospect. Any starting quarterback ranking would have to put the Chargers in the NFL’s bottom five, no matter who wins the job.

If the Chargers had a middle-of-the-road quarterback to go with the rest of the blue-chip talent — Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, Derwin James, Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Ekeler, Henry, Casey Hayward, Harris — they’d be a potential contender. Maybe they still can be, but a lot will have to go right around the quarterback position.

The Chargers are also notorious for everything somehow going wrong. They lose games in ways that boggle the mind. The Chargers were 5-11 last season amid injuries and more bad luck. As soon as you start to talk yourself into the Chargers, you get stuck on their recent history and the quarterback situation.

Perhaps the Chargers will look back and have regrets over not being more aggressive for Newton, Tom Brady, Teddy Bridgewater or even trading up to land Tua Tagovailoa. The Chargers mostly went about the offseason acting like they were playoff contenders. It’s possible their fatal flaw will be neglecting to properly address the biggest piece.

Joey Bosa is part of a defense that could be one of the NFL's best. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)
Joey Bosa is part of a defense that could be one of the NFL's best. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

The Chargers helped two trouble spots by signing offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga and defensive tackle Linval Joseph. Scooping up cornerback Chris Harris Jr. from the AFC West rival Denver Broncos should help. First-round pick Kenneth Murray should calm down the linebacker position, another long-term problem. Los Angeles traded up for Murray and coach Anthony Lynn gushed about the Oklahoma linebacker. Losing running back Melvin Gordon III was inevitable, but Los Angeles should be fine without him. Trading offensive tackle Russell Okung to the Carolina Panthers for guard Trai Turner helps the interior of the Chargers’ line, but creates a hole at tackle. Of course the big shift was at quarterback. Philip Rivers started the Chargers’ last 224 games at quarterback and made eight Pro Bowls. His long-term replacement is Justin Herbert, the sixth pick of the draft. The Chargers’ offseason was a little strange, fixing many spots with strong moves but then being strangely passive at quarterback. Herbert can make that look like a genius move. We’ll see.

GRADE: C-plus

Justin Herbert will start at some point this season. Since 2006, the year after the Green Bay Packers took Aaron Rodgers, 35 of 37 first-round quarterbacks have started at least one game as a rookie. Jake Locker and Brady Quinn are the only two first-round quarterbacks in that time to not start at least one game as a rookie. It seems very unlikely Tyrod Taylor can hold off Herbert all season. The question is, when will the change happen? A weird offseason doesn’t help Herbert. Anthony Lynn seems set on going with Taylor right away due to comfort level. That can change if Herbert shines in the preseason like Daniel Jones a year ago. Los Angeles’ bye isn’t until Week 10 so it’s probably not prudent to wait until then. However, the Chargers have some favorable matchups against poor pass defenses early in the season, so Taylor could hang on for a while. But the first sign of trouble will have everyone wondering when the rookie will get a shot.

Derwin James played just five games in his second season after suffering a foot injury in August. In those five weeks, after almost four months off, he was the seventh-ranked safety in Pro Football Focus’ grades. James, an All-Pro as a rookie, is a special talent whose versatility fits perfectly in the modern NFL. He can do it all. Los Angeles didn’t go 5-11 because James missed the first 11 games of the season, but his injury surely didn’t help. Having James back in the lineup from Week 1 on gives the Chargers a chance to have one of the best defenses in the NFL.

I’ve been optimistic about the Chargers the past few years, but I just can’t do it anymore. The Chargers’ over/under win total at BetMGM is 7.5, and I’ll take the under. There’s a lot of talent, but there are questions at quarterback and the nagging thought that this team consistently finds ways to lose. After a while, it’s not just bad luck. On a more positive note, taking Justin Herbert at 20-to-1 to win NFL offensive rookie of the year is good value. Voters love quarterbacks, and there are only three rookie quarterbacks projected to start games (two if Tua Tagovailoa’s hip isn’t healthy). It’s not the worst idea to lean into voters’ proclivity to blindly back quarterbacks.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Keenan Allen used to carry an injury-prone tag, but he’s shed that in recent years. He hasn’t missed a game since 2016. But he’s also posted modest touchdown counts over the last three years, despite heavy volume. Check Allen’s cumulative ranks over the last three years: fifth in targets, third in catches, fourth in yards — but just 19th in receiving touchdowns.

“And now Allen starts all over again, with Tyrod Taylor [and perhaps rookie Justin Herbert] at quarterback. Departed starter Philip Rivers peppered Allen to a fault, and believed in a narrow usage tree. It’s unlikely Taylor will utilize the same strategy. Allen is still a top-20 wideout in early Yahoo draft results, but a number of receiving options in the Nos. 21-27 range look like much stronger values.”

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One of the most predictable things in the NFL year after year is the Chargers being bad on special teams. The Chargers had the 32nd-ranked special teams in the NFL last season, according to Football Outsiders, and by a good margin. The Chargers’ rankings in special teams at Football Outsiders the five seasons before that, starting in 2014: 23rd, 31st, 29th, 31st, 25th. At least they’re consistent. When we try to find a tangible reason for the numerous heartbreaking Chargers losses the past few years, dreadful special teams play every season has to be on the list.

What can Austin Ekeler do next?

Ekeler took full advantage of a great opportunity. When Melvin Gordon III held out, Ekeler took on a bigger role in the offense and had a big season with 1,550 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns. By the end, Ekeler got a four-year, $24.5 million contract extension and Gordon left in free agency.

Ekeler was the best receiving running back in the NFL last season. Christian McCaffrey had more catches and a few more yards, but Ekeler’s 10.8-yard average is really good for a running back, and he also scored eight touchdowns on catches. Ekeler’s ability to run routes at a high level from multiple positions creates matchup problems. Ekeler might need to take on more responsibility as a runner without Gordon around, especially since it seems the Chargers won’t be throwing it much. Ekeler had just 132 rushing attempts last season and has carried the ball more than 15 times just twice in 46 games. He has been effective as a runner (4.8-yard career average), but he’ll have to adapt as the offense around him changes.

Of course, there is a way to talk yourself into the Chargers being really good. Joey Bosa and Derwin James might be two of the 10 best defensive players in the NFL, and Los Angeles has a deep cornerback group too. The offensive line might still be an issue, but the Chargers have dangerous receivers, backs and a top tight end. There was a lot of buzz that some teams really liked Justin Herbert before the draft. What if his game translates right away to the NFL? On paper, the Chargers are good enough to get in playoff contention with just average quarterback play.

There’s a disconnect between the Chargers’ talent level and the results. They were quite good two years ago but still blew a chance to win the AFC West and wilted in a playoff blowout at New England. Then last year, the bottom fell out. And that was with Philip Rivers. Even with Rivers taking a step back, will the Tyrod Taylor/Justin Herbert combination really be better? No matter the talent on the roster, there is no floor for the Chargers. Another disappointing season would just be another chapter in a really long book.

I can afford to be negative in the Chargers preview, because they have no fans left to upset. It really feels like the Chargers’ window passed. They’re stuck trying to maintain a roster that always looks talented on paper but hasn’t won much and now might have the worst quarterback situation in the NFL. The Chargers will probably lose a few games they shouldn’t, and quarterback play will sabotage them in a few others to put them under .500 again.

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