Los Angeles Chargers season preview: A new era

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Man, what an offseason that was. After months of uncertainty and questions, the NFL is finally back and brings a new era of Los Angeles Chargers football with it.

Fresh uniforms, a modern stadium, and the first starting quarterback not-named Philip Rivers since 2005 await the Chargers in 2020. First up on the 16-game gauntlet for Anthony Lynn’s squad are the Cincinnati Bengals, who open a new chapter of their own Sunday. Let’s take a look at some of the Chargers’ storylines this year ahead of Sunday’s opener in Ohio.

It’s Tyrod Time on offense

As referenced above, it’s been a very, very long time since the Chargers have started someone under center other than Philip Rivers. The last signal-caller to start a game for the franchise was Drew Brees in Week 17 of the 2005 season.

The honor of breaking the nearly 15-year streak belongs to Tyrod Taylor. The trusty veteran QB enters his 10th NFL season and his second in Los Angeles.

Taylor is a stopgap transitional QB this season, as everybody knows by now. The sixth-overall pick in this year’s draft, Oregon’s Justin Herbert, is sitting behind Taylor, awaiting his chance after a solid training camp.

The job will be Herbert’s by Week 1 of next season, but that doesn’t mean Taylor should be counted out of a successful campaign. There’s a recipe there for it, and I’m going to share it with you.

1. A strong supporting cast

LA’s rotation of offensive skill players remains similar to the last couple of seasons. With the obvious omission of Melvin Gordon, Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson will man the backfield, aided by rookie Joshua Kelley. Keenan Allen and Mike Williams are the headliners with plenty of youth behind them in the receiving core.

This is a group that is well-suited to Taylor’s game.

Ekeler established himself as a premier two-way back in 2019 with his 92-reception, 993 receiving yard season out of the backfield. And that was while playing second fiddle to Gordon. Ekeler is a safety-net when things get hairy in the pocket for Taylor. When there isn’t a lane to tuck-and-run to, a dump-off to Ekeler will be his best bet. Fantasy players, rejoice!

Allen will also ease Taylor’s transition to QB1. Allen’s trademark route running will provide a consistent target for Taylor on short-yardage situations. Expect plenty of quick-slants to Allen on third down and goal-line opportunities.

2. Protecting the football

Here’s a stat for you: In 46 career starts and 70 total appearances, Taylor has thrown 20 interceptions. Philip Rivers threw 20 just last year in his 16 starts.

It would be disingenuous to assert that Taylor is an upgrade over Rivers – he doesn’t have anywhere near the ceiling Rivers had.

But Taylor protects the football. So many times over the last few seasons, there have been countless late-game comebacks and momentum-building drives thwarted by an untimely interception. Though sometimes spurred by poor pass-protection, Rivers tended to play “hero-ball” in high-pressure situations, and it turned out to be costly.

With Taylor, the Chargers sacrifice upside in favor of security. Taylor isn’t going to throw for 4,500 yards, and 30 touchdowns like Rivers has, and that’s okay. Taylor’s primary job will be to get the ball to the playmakers and let them do their thing. And he’s fully capable of serving as the supporter, not the star.

3. Audition reel

Enough with the tangibles, what about the massive cheesy nacho chip on Taylor’s shoulder? He’s about to be dismissed for a young QB for the third time in his career.

In 2018, Taylor was traded from the Buffalo Bills to the Cleveland Browns just before the NFL Draft, where Buffalo selected Josh Allen. In that same draft, the Browns picked Baker Mayfield. Taylor started just three games for the Browns. A Week 3 concussion gave Mayfield a shot at the job, and it was never relinquished.

He signed a two-year deal with LA in 2019, and served as Rivers’ backup that season.

Taylor is going to lose the Chargers job to Herbert following this season. Taylor’s a free agent following the season, and chances are the Chargers aren’t in the cards for him unless he’s okay with backing up the young gunslinger.

He’s playing for another payday and a chance at a starting job in this league. Repeatedly losing your job to 23-year olds cannot be the most flattering feeling, and Taylor could likely use this opportunity to prove himself.

Don’t sleep on him in LA.

A defense that is ready to take the next step

The Chargers defense has been touted as “up-and-coming” for about three years now.

It’s time for it to be more than that. And with recent developments, that mission just got more difficult.

Derwin James Jr. was placed on injured reserve last week after a meniscus tear in camp. To say that this is a big blow to this defense would be an understatement.

His position is listed as a free safety, but about one series of watching him is all it takes to realize that it’s not an accurate label. He plays everywhere — outside linebacker, corner, defensive tackle, you name it. He’s played just about every position on the field.

So what that means is that the Chargers didn’t just lose a safety, they lost an All-Pro level player at every position.

How do you fill that gap? A really badass pass rush.

Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram return as one of the most dominant and disruptive duos in the NFL (and now, one of the richest too).

Despite Ingram missing three games last year, the pair combined for 18.5 sacks in 2019. Lining up on either side of the line, these two are primed to be the centerpieces of this defensive identity. Without James out there to wreak havoc in the secondary and the backfield, the concentration will be rushing the passer to bail out a young safety tandem.

Helping out the two superstars will be a young budding star.

The Chargers selected Kenneth Murray with the 23rd pick in this year’s draft. They traded up to select him. By all accounts, Murray is well worth the trade.

Murray will start at inside linebacker for LA in Week 1. He’s primed to bring versatility — a common theme — to the defense. Murray’s big, at 6-foot-2 and 241 pounds, and quick with a 4.52 combine 40-yard-dash.

But he’s not the only young player bringing an instant impact.

Meet Nasir Adderley.

A nagging hamstring injury forced Adderley to miss most of his rookie season last year. But the injury to James will open up an opportunity for the former Deleware Fightin’ Blue Hen to start at free safety.

His highlight tapes speak for themselves. He’s a hard-hitting ball-hawk safety that’s sure to be a breakout candidate for this season.

There are plenty more names to go through, like Casey Hayward or Chris Harris Jr. or Jerry Tillery, but you’re probably tired of players being listed.

That’s the point

In the past few years, the Chargers’ defense has contained an unbelievable collection of names and highlight tapes. But it hasn’t been among the elite defenses that you’d expect upon reading the roster.

The Chargers ranked 6th in terms of yardage allowed in 2019. They allowed the 14th fewest points, ranking lower than you’d expect (turnovers on offense doesn’t help with that, though).

You’re probably questioning how this isn’t good enough. But keep reading: the truly disturbing number with this defense was takeaways.

They forced just 14 turnovers last year, good for 32nd in the NFL. Dead last.

When you have a pass rush as valiant as this and a secondary this stingy, 14 turnovers is not acceptable. That’s what separates good defenses, like LA’s, from great Super Bowl-caliber defenses like the 49ers, Patriots, and Steelers.

When watching this defense this year, keep that in mind. The front-seven is going to generate pressure. The corner tandem is going to be one of the best in the league. The linebackers will be improved. But will they take the ball away? If they’re as good as they want to be, they’ll need to force more turnovers.

Prediction for the Los Angeles Chargers

The Los Angeles Chargers are going to be a good team. 5-11 wasn’t indicative of the talent on that roster and the coaching on the sidelines. Nine of those 11 losses were by a touchdown or less. Four of those nine were by a field goal or less.

With Philip Rivers gone to Indianapolis, those closer games will be more manageable. Tyrod Taylor isn’t going to turn the ball over in high-pressure situations. The Charger defense will force more interceptions with the addition of Chris Harris Jr. Things will be going in the right direction in LA.

But with as much praise as I’m giving Taylor in this piece, there’s simply a limited ceiling. Many of those close games mentioned above wouldn’t have been as close as they were with Rivers in the first place. The offense will be less vertical. That’s why the Chargers will be in playoff contention, but won’t necessarily make it deep.

This season is for the future. As we’ve seen in recent years in Seattle, Philadelphia, and Kansas City, the key piece of the Super Bowl formula is a quarterback on a rookie deal surrounded by dynamic weapons and an opportunistic defense. This year, the Chargers lay that foundation.

Final Record: 9-7

Austin covers the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Chargers for OT Heroics. Follow him on Twitter @AustinTurner_ . For more coverage on the NFL, check out the rest of the great content at Overtime Heroics. Find OTH merch powered by teespring here.

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