Juggernaut Index, No. 15: The San Diego Chargers

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Juggernaut Index, No. 15: The San Diego Chargers
Juggernaut Index, No. 15: The San Diego Chargers

At the halfway point of the 2012 season, Philip Rivers was beginning to look like Marc Bulger, circa 2008.

That is to say, Rivers appeared to be shell-shocked, over-sacked and turnover-prone. Stuff like this was happening. It was awful — sometimes funny-bad, but generally awful.

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But somehow Rivers managed to close the season with a string of not-terrible performances, directing the Chargers to wins in three of their final four games, tossing eight TD passes and no interceptions down the stretch. When San Diego re-booted its offense in 2013 under new head coach Mike McCoy and then-OC Ken Whisenhunt, Rivers absolutely thrived. The system emphasized quick huddles and quick strikes, allowing the quarterback to read and adjust. The team's O-line was better than anticipated and new receiving threats emerged.

The result, as most of you know, was a Comeback Player of the Year season for the QB and a postseason berth for the Chargers. Rivers completed a career-best 69.5 percent of his passes for 4,478 yards and 32 scores. His yards per attempt jumped from 6.8 to 8.2 while his turnovers dropped from 22 to 13. Rivers finished among the top-five fantasy scorers at his position for the first time since 2010.

In a nutshell, Rivers was outstanding. This year's offense shouldn't look radically different under Frank Reich, who was promoted from position coach to coordinator. Rivers' setup is excellent, and the offense should benefit from year-to-year continuity. If you're a wait-for-a-QB sort of fantasy owner, Rivers needs to be one of the names on your list of targets. He's a no-risk/high-reward option at his current Yahoo ADP (102.8). The Chargers open the season with a pair of dangerous defenses (at Ari, Sea), but the schedule gets a bit friendlier thereafter. Don't assume Rivers can't repeat last season's performance.

Draft him, then taunt your friends with this face.

Keenan Allen and Dontrelle Inman, post-TD (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)
Keenan Allen and Dontrelle Inman, post-TD (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

San Diego's receiving corps is deep and experienced, but a second-year wideout is the most interesting player of the roster for fantasy purposes. Keenan Allen had a spectacular rookie season, finishing with 71 catches for 1,046 yards and eight TDs — not bad for a guy who didn't play an offensive snap in Week 1. Allen is a highly skilled young receiver, a versatile route-runner with good size (6-foot-2) and respectable speed. He's working to add a deep-threat dimension to his game, and he already enjoys excellent rapport with Rivers. We shouldn't assume that Allen will make a leap in value in his second NFL season, but it would be a surprise if he slipped substantially. If you draft him at a price that reflects last year's numbers, I don't think the kid will let you down.

Allen is one of several pass-catchers now being mentored by Antonio Gates, a 34-year-old no-doubt future Hall of Famer. Gates actually led the Chargers in both receptions (77) and targets (116) last season, but a disappointing touchdown total (4) limited his fantasy impact. Still, we have to accept that he'll remain a non-trivial piece in this offense — sorry, Ladarius Green lovers. Obviously Green is a high-upside player, a guy with freakish size (6-foot-6), speed (4.53) and athleticism. It's not unreasonable to expect a 40-600-6 season from Ladarius, but the depth of receiving options on this roster is an issue for ... well, for everyone. Rivers is pretty clearly the safest investment here. We might be chasing different San Diego receivers all year.

Malcom Floyd is back in the mix following a year lost to injury. Eddie Royal is still lurking, as are Vincent Brown and Seyi Ajirotutu. CFL grad Dontrelle Inman is making exhibition noise, too. And of course Danny Woodhead is still around, a PPR badass coming off a 76-catch season (on 86 targets, which ain't easy).

So, again, it's a big pile of pass-catchers. Allen is the guy to covet. The tight ends will likely cannibalize each others' stats. Everyone else, for now, is off-limits as a standard-league fantasy starter.

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Woodhead is a reliable back who delivered 1,034 scrimmage yards last year — 429 by ground, 605 by air — and he found the end-zone eight times. Those numbers seem awfully close to his fantasy ceiling, but it's an impressive outer limit. You can't bank on the touchdowns, but Danny has clear and significant value in the PPR world. It's not really worth discussing average draft position with such a format-reliant player, but Woodhead's price isn't at all intimidating (ADP 120.7).

Yeah, he'll do that from time to time (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Yeah, he'll do that from time to time (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Ryan Mathews is entering the final year of his deal, coming off his second 1,000-yard rushing season. He stunned the fantasy world by appearing in all 16 games in 2013, but he was limited by an ankle malfunction during the playoffs. There's little question that Mathews is a talented ball-carrier (4.4 YPC), though he remains fumblier than the average back, and less durable. Fantasy-wise, he's not for everyone. You'll rarely sleep well, plus you'll feel compelled to handcuff. Mathews' receiving usage has dipped, so there's no PPR bump here. And it's worth emphasizing the fact that San Diego isn't yet committed to Mathews beyond the current season. Donald Brown is the guy with the three-year deal.

Mathews himself has referred to the Chargers' backfield as a "three-headed monster", although he and Woodhead have roles that seem relatively well-defined. Brown is a 'cuff who should initially play a supporting role. Still, I don't expect to own any Mathews shares if his ADP remains at or near 37.3, where it sits as of this writing. In Yahoo drafts, guys like Jennings and Gore are generally available 20-30 picks later.

San Diego's defense didn't generate enough turnovers (18) or sacks (35.0) last season to emerge as a factor in our game, and this group ranked 29th in the league against the pass (258.7 YPG). Safety Eric Weddle is the IDP to target, if you're determined to own a Chargers defender. It's tough to build a case for this D/ST as a useful fantasy commodity, except as a matchup play.

2013 team stats: 24.8 PPG (NFL rank 12), 279.9 pass YPG (6), 32 pass TDs (5), 122.8 rush YPG (13), 30.4 rush attempts per game (6), 34.0 pass attempts per game (22)

Previous Juggernaut Index entries: 32. Oakland, 31. Miami, 30. Jacksonville, 29. NY Jets, 28. Tennessee, 27. Cleveland, 26. Baltimore, 25. Carolina, 24. Buffalo, 23. Tampa Bay, 22. St. Louis, 21. NY Giants, 20. Kansas City, 19. Houston, 18. Arizona, 17. Minnesota, 16. Pittsburgh

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