Juggernaut Index No. 14: The San Diego Chargers

Roto Arcade

San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers finished with 4,624 passing yards last year, the 20th highest single-season total in NFL history. But fantasy owners largely ignored the achievement, because bigger numbers were being delivered elsewhere — much bigger numbers. We witnessed four of the all-time top-six yardage performances in 2011. Drew Brees topped Rivers' passing total by a 852 yards. If you wanted to make headlines last season, you pretty much needed to reach 5K, with something like 40 TDs.

Whenever the fantasy community discussed Rivers last season, the conversation usually began with this: "What's wrong with him?" And then, "Is he hurt?"

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Rivers threw a career-high 20 interceptions last year, and he posted his lowest touchdown total since '07. At no point did he blame an injury for his less-than-stellar performance, and he's maintained that position during the off-season. Back in April, when asked if he'd been hiding an injury, Rivers had this to say:

"It's not true, but I appreciate that nobody thinks that I would throw 20 picks unless I was hurt. So I guess that's a good thing."

It is a good thing. Entering last season, we held Rivers to the highest possible standard, so a 20-pick season hardly seemed possible.

If you review the low-lights from Rivers' 2011 campaign, you'll see a few forced throws, timing issues, tipped passes, slow wobblers, and several picks that were intended for Vincent Jackson (who of course is no longer with the team). We can't go so far as to say his INT total was a fluke, but I don't think we should assume a hidden injury, either. Remember, most of the key receiving weapons in San Diego's offense dealt with health issues last year — Mathews, Floyd, Gates, et al — so Rivers only rarely practiced with a full crew. Those regular reps matter, even with veterans — even with elite QBs.

And again, when all the numbers were finally in, Rivers totaled over 4600 passing yards and ranked as the No. 7 scorer at his position in standard leagues. That ain't bad. At Rivers' current draft price (ADP 72.3, QB11), there's plenty of profit potential.

Antonio Gates is coming off another season in which he was limited by foot issues (plantar fascia), yet he still finished as the No. 4 per-game scorer among tight ends. The off-season reports on Gates have all been glowing — full participation in practices, excellent physical condition, etc. — so we have every reason to expect a terrific year. He'll be drafted as a top-three tight end in most fantasy leagues, and deservedly so. Gates should be taken ahead of any San Diego wideout; he has a clear shot at a 75-1000-10 fantasy line, and we can't say that about many tight ends.

The presumptive No. 1 wide receiver on this roster is Robert Meachem, a new acquisition who spent the first four years of his career with the Saints. While Meachem isn't exactly like V-Jax, he does have size (6-foot-2), excellent speed, and get-deep ability. The local writers seem to be expecting big things, and we certainly saw flashes of Meachem's talent in New Orleans. He's drafted relatively late, considering his place in the receiving hierarchy (ADP 82.5), so I'm likely to end up with several shares. Maclom Floyd is typically selected 7-10 picks later (ADP 90.7), where he too could be a steal. Whenever Floyd is healthy, he's capable of big things. In fact, if he could have played the full 16 games each of the past two seasons, he'd be coming off back-to-back 1000-yard campaigns. Floyd has averaged 68.4 yards per game since 2010. He's a big-play receiver with great size (6-foot-5), born to win jump-balls.

Eddie Royal is ticketed for slot duties, though he's been slowed by a groin issue recently. If you've only been playing fantasy for the past three years, then the stats listed for Royal in 2008 must seem like an embarrassing series of misprints. However, I can assure you that they're real. Royal once caught 91 passes in an NFL season, for 980 yards. He was legitimately useful. But that was forever ago. As a fourth or fifth option in this passing game, Royal does not appear to be poised for a re-breakout, but of course stranger things have happened. There's no need to draft him in leagues of standard size.

Second-year wideout Vincent Brown destroyed the Packers' junior varsity defense in San Diego's preseason opener, and he had a few terrific moments as a rookie, too, in limited duty. It wouldn't be a surprise if he emerged as a useful, starting-quality fantasy commodity at some point during the regular season — perhaps early, if either Meachem or Floyd are sidelined. Brown has found his way onto many sleeper lists; his ADP has been climbing steadily since the exhibition performance against Green Bay. If you want him, you'll have to gab him in the 115-120 range.

[Update, August 19 - Well, there's lousy injury news to report on Brown from preseason action. This via the Union-Trib's Kevin Acee: "Brown has broken ankle. Expected to miss at least eight weeks. That means at least five games, probably." It's not a season-ender, but it's enough to take Brown off the draft board in standard leagues. Brutal.]

Ryan Mathews, as most of you know, is quickly developing a reputation as the NFL's answer to Nick Johnson. Mathews has been hyped and re-hyped, sold as a top-five back with the potential scrimmage-yardage monster ... and then he broke his collarbone on his first preseason carry. It seems as if there's always something wrong with this guy. Following the most recent injury, Mathews' ADP crashed into the 20s.

I'm actually plenty interested in Mathews as a second-round pick in fantasy drafts, as he's not expected to miss much time (if any) in the regular season. The original estimate on his recovery time was 4-6 weeks, and there haven't been any reports suggesting a setback. Mathews averaged 4.9 yards per carry last year, he topped the 1000-yard plateau as a rusher, and he caught 50 balls on 59 targets. The running back position gets heavy use in this passing game, so Mathews figures to be an outstanding PPR asset. You might recall that Mike Tolbert, now in Carolina, finished third among all backs in targets last season (79). For however long he's healthy, Mathews should get all the work he can handle in a productive offense. This guy may be a punchline in the fantasy community, but he can still assist your fake team in a significant way.

The Chargers are likely to use a committee approach to cover any Mathews absences, featuring several familiar names: Ronnie Brown, Le'Ron McClain, Curtis Brinkley and Jackie Battle. If you're looking to add one of these guys to a fantasy roster, Brown should be the top choice. He'll likely serve as the head of any early-season committee, and he has a shot at a supporting role when Mathews is active. Check the recent camp comments from his head coach, via the San Diego Union-Tribune's Michael Gehlken:

"Ronnie Brown is a very, very explosive player," [Norv] Turner said. "He's got great quickness. He's got great understanding. He knows how to attack a defender. He's got great hands. He's got a great ability to adjust his body to the ball. I couldn't be more excited about a player than I am about him."

Turner also said Brown has "everything you'd look for in a third-down running back," listing his combination of speed and size and ability as a rusher, route runner and pass protector.

But again: You can't write off Mathews, not yet. His set-up in 2012 is still appealing.

The San Diego defense? Um ... no thanks. This D needed a rebuild, so the Chargers used their first three picks on defensive players, plus they changed coordinators. Things are bound to improve for a defense that finished last in third-down efficiency and rarely reached the quarterback (32.0 sacks), but perhaps not to the point where we'll own the team DEF in fantasy leagues. If you need an IDP from this group, take safety Eric Weddle (88 tackles, seven INTs). If you need another, consider linebacker Donald Butler (96 tackles).

2011 team stats: 25.4 PPG (NFL rank 5), 116.5 rush YPG (16), 289.0 pass YPG (6), 38.17 yards/drive (4), 0.169 turnovers/drive (28)

Previous Juggernaut posts: 32. Miami, 31. St. Louis, 30. Indianapolis, 29. Jacksonville, 28. Cleveland, 27. Arizona, 26. Seattle, 25. Minnesota, 24. Tampa Bay, 23. Buffalo, 22. New York Jets, 21. Washington, 20. Oakland, 19. San Francisco, 18. Kansas City, 17. Cincinnati, 16. Denver, 15. Tennessee

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