Juggernaut Index, No. 26: The San Diego Chargers

The Juggernaut Index is our annual preseason ranking of NFL teams for fantasy purposes. Repeat: FANTASY PURPOSES. Here, we care about yards and points, not wins and losses. This isn’t your standard NFL power ranking. If a team’s roster features upper-tier fantasy assets, that group will rank near the top of the J.I.

With this team, the same two-part question applies to pretty much every starting skill player:

"Have we already seen _______'s best seasons, and does he have anything left to offer the fantasy community?"

We have to ask this of Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates and Malcom Floyd, and probably Ryan Mathews, too. And we'd ask it of Eddie Royal and Robert Meachem, if anyone still cared about those guys. Danario Alexander is perhaps the safest fantasy option on San Diego's roster, and he might have the team's ugliest medical history — Mathews included.

The Chargers enter 2013 with a new head coach (Mike McCoy), new general manager (Tom Telesco), and a new offensive coordinator (Ken Whisenhunt). But they have the same old quarterback, and he's been a turnover-prone mess over the past two seasons.

Rivers posted the lowest yards-per-attempt average of his career last year (6.8) while absorbing an AFC-high 49 sacks. He's also been responsible for 47 giveaways since 2011. The 31-year-old has never really had textbook mechanics, but, in his best years, he was one of the NFL's most efficient passers, routinely exceeding 4,000 yards despite low attempt totals. More recently, however, Rivers has been a reckless, shell-shocked disaster.

San Diego addressed its O-line on draft day, selecting right tackle DJ Fluker in the first round, but obviously he can only fill one spot. (Plus he's not a flawless prospect. It's no given that Fluker will dominate in pass protection.) The left side is a worry, as is the middle. Take note of where Evan Silva slotted this group in his sweep of the league's offensive lines. There's not much reason to think the Chargers will suddenly dominate in the trenches. Protection was a problem in 2012; it's likely to remain a problem in 2013, even under new O-line coach/guru Joe D'Alessandris. And this, of course, is an issue for Rivers.

Thus, four out of five Yahoo! experts agree: Rivers will not rank as a top-16 fantasy quarterback in the year ahead. (Pianowski slotted him at 15; the rest of us have him 20, 21, 22 and 18.) The new San Diego playbook will almost certainly feature fewer slow-developing vertical routes, because the line can't block 'em and the quarterback struggles to throw 'em. A quick-strike attack could go a long way toward maximizing the talents of a few members of the Chargers' receiving corps — particularly breakout candidate Vincent Brown — while minimizing the burden placed on this line. Or at least that's the theory. But I'm still not giving Rivers serious consideration on at the draft table, except in two-QB setups.

If the vertical passing game is in fact de-emphasized, then Malcom Floyd is really going to have a difficult time achieving fantasy relevance. While he has several useful stat lines on his resume, the 6-foot-5 Floyd is at his most dangerous as a deep threat jump-ball specialist. Brown was a buzzy player during OTAs, and the widespread expectation is that he'll emerge as a big piece of the offense in 2013. We all remember the ridiculous game Brown had against the Raiders on Thursday Night Football in his rookie season, right? Expect a few more like that this season. The Chargers used a third round pick on Cal wideout Keenan Allen on draft day, but the rookie will have a tough time finding targets in this offense. He's certainly a talent, but of much greater interest for the dynasty crowd. This team has a cluttered depth chart at receiver.

Danario Alexander demonstrated last year that when he's healthy and operating at full capacity, he's an every-week must-play — even in a lousy offense, paired with a sketchy quarterback. DX wasn't even in the gameplan until Week 9, yet he finished the season with 658 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. Yes, he has a deep history of knee trouble, but he has a tremendous combination of size (6-foot-5), hands and athletic ability. He rates as a WR2 on my board, and I'll be happy to take him at his current Yahoo! ADP (80.0).

I will not, however, be drafting Antonio Gates as a fantasy starter, though the rest of you are still doing so (TE11, ADP 98.9). At this stage, he's a 33-year-old with a history of foot issues, coming off a disappointing campaign. Gates averaged just 35.9 receiving yards per game in 2012, and that just won't pay the fantasy bills. It seems highly doubtful that he'll regain his status as the top option in this passing game. Gates has had a Hall of Fame career, no doubt, but he appears to have entered the decline phase. Move along, gamers.

As much as I'd love to avoid any discussion of Ryan Mathews altogether in this preview, that hardly seems responsible. His name is still on top of this backfield hierarchy, after all. Earlier this week, I actually talked through most of Mathews' negatives during a video segment...


...and the only detail worth adding is the thing you already know: He's as delicate as spun sugar, and cannot be relied upon for a full 16 games. Mathews has dealt with injuries in every season of his college and pro career. Last year, broken collarbones served as bookends for his season. The new management team in San Diego isn't seriously invested in Mathews, and they've brought Danny Woodhead on board to work in both third-down and two-minute situations.

If you want to target Mathews as, say, a sixth-round fantasy pick ... well, I'm willing to look the other way. But I will not give this player yet another dose of hype. He hasn't earned it.

IDP owners should care about veteran safety Eric Weddle (97 tackles) and linebacker Donald Butler (77 tackles in 12 games), and they're free to take a flier on rookie Manti T'eo. But this team D/ST is pretty much a spot-start unit in standard formats, a group you might stream when it faces the Raiders (Weeks 5 and 16), Jacksonville (Week 7) and Miami (Week 11).

And that's that. Nope, still no Rams. Please keep checking back; every team gets a turn.

2012 team stats: 21.9 points per game (20), 225.4 passing yards per game (22), 91.3 rushing yards per game (27)

Previous Juggernauts: 32. NY Jets, 31. Oakland, 30. Jacksonville, 29. Buffalo, 28. Cleveland, 27. Tennessee

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