2021 NFL Team Previews: Los Angeles Chargers

2021 NFL Team Previews: Los Angeles Chargers

This article is part of our Team Previews series.

Los Angeles Chargers

Justin Herbert's ascent was a bright spot in an otherwise dark 2020 season. New coach Brandon Staley should help clean up the unforced errors that plagued the Chargers' previous staff, but he'll need healthy versions of Derwin James and Joey Bosa to fix a defense that ranked among the league's bottom third.

Offseason Moves

Key Acquisitions

Fills the void created by the departure of Hunter Henry.

Will serve as Justin Herbert's backup, replacing Tyrod Taylor.

The 6-1, 210-pounder is a fluid route runner with good hands.

Set to battle Justin Jackson and Joshua Kelley for a depth role.

Immediately slots into the team's pressing need at left tackle.

A big-ticket signing who reunites with former teammate Bryan Bulaga.

Key Losses

Dealt with a variety of injuries in his five years with the Bolts.

Ends Chargers stint No. 4 all-time among franchise sack leaders (49).

A Look Under the Hood

Head Coach: Brandon Staley (Year 1)

Offensive Coordinator: Joe Lombardi (Year 1) - West Coast Offense

Defensive Coordinator: Renaldo Hill (Year 1) - 3-4 scheme

2021 Vegas Projected Wins: 9 (T-14th)

   

2020 Record: 7-9

2020 Points Scored: 384 (T-18th)

2020 Points Allowed: 426 (23rd)

2020 Point Differential: -42 (20th)

2020 Run-Play Rate: 41.4 percent (16th)

2020 Offensive Snaps: 1,127 (1st)

2020 PFF O-Line Ranking: No. 32

Full 2020 Team Stats

   

Projected 2021 Depth Chart

QB: Justin Herbert / Chase Daniel / Easton Stick

RB: Austin Ekeler / Justin Jackson / Joshua Kelley / Larry Rountree

FB: Gabe Nabers

WR1: Keenan Allen / Jalen Guyton / Josh Palmer / KJ Hill

WR2: Mike Williams / Tyron Johnson / Joe Reed

TE: Jared Cook / Donald Parham / Tre' McKitty

O-Line: LT Rashawn Slater / LG Matt Feiler / C Corey Linsley / RG Oday Aboushi / RT Bryan Bulaga  (RotoWire Rank: No. 18)

Kicker: Michael Badgley / Tristan Vizcaino / Alex Kessman

Full 2021 Depth Chart

Top Storylines

Prime Time for Ekeler

It wasn't exactly a disastrous season, but things could have gone better in Austin Ekeler's first full year as the Chargers' clear-cut top back. While the 5-10, 200-pounder nearly scraped his way to 1,000 total yards while finishing sixth among running backs in receptions (54), a Grade 2 hamstring strain coupled with a hyperextended knee forced Ekeler to miss six games, most of which came during the peak of first-year rookie quarterback Justin Herbert's meteoric rise. The hamstring issue was essentially a fluky injury, not one brought on by an increased workload, but it was nevertheless a disappointing result as the offense was sputtering by the time Ekeler rejoined the lineup Week 12.

Upon his return, Ekeler didn't appear to be missing his trademark elusiveness – he posted 4.2 yards per carry post-injury – but an archaic game script tended to force-feed Ekeler a bevy of inefficient targets to the tune of 7.5 yards per catch, easily a career-worst mark. Look for improvements on that front under new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. Plus, it's also worth noting the team opted not to spend major resources upgrading the running back corps in the offseason. As long as he's able to stay healthy, Ekeler should be primed to make good on the hype that often had him among the first dozen selections in fantasy drafts last year.

Charging Up the Passing Attack

A late-season hamstring injury forced Keenan Allen to miss two games, causing him to fall just short of the 1,000-yard mark, but the superb route runner still managed to hit the 100-catch milestone for the third time in the last four campaigns. That he managed the feat despite an in-season quarterback change is all the more impressive, and he's back this season to reprise his PPR-friendly role in an offense directed by Justin Herbert.

Big-bodied target Mike Williams once again failed to haul in more than 50 passes and saw his receiving yards drop from 1,001 in 2019 to 756 last season. Now in the final year of his rookie deal, Williams will look to continue to build chemistry with Herbert and recapture some of the red-zone prowess he displayed while recording 10 touchdowns in 2018.

Jalen Guyton, who emerged late in training camp last year to claim the team's No. 3 job, played the 12th-most snaps on offense of any wide receiver, but he was targeted sporadically, instead being used primarily as a blazing decoy on the outside. He'll face competition for depth-chart slotting from second-year player Tyron Johnson, who parlayed multiple plays of 50-plus yards early last season into a more significant role. Beyond Guyton and Johnson, 2021 third-round pick Josh Palmer and 2020 fifth-rounder Joe Reed round out the depth chart.

Cooking without Henry

Though Hunter Henry had his moments during his stint with the Chargers, the tight end never produced at an elite clip. The 2016 second-rounder thus was allowed to walk in free agency, quickly inking a three-year, $37.5 million deal with the Patriots. After the initial league-wide spending frenzy cooled, the Chargers moved to acquire Henry's replacement, Jared Cook, who joins the team on an incentive-laden, one-year deal.

The 34-year-old was productive during two seasons with the Saints, compiling 80 receptions, 1,209 yards and 16 TDs, despite seeing his snap share dip dramatically. Cook likely will be tasked with a similar receiving-heavy workload in Los Angeles. He won't be the only tight end expected to make up for the production of the oft-injured Henry, however.

There's also the possibility that former XFLer Donald Parham will absorb an increased share of the TE targets in his second season with the team. Despite generally operating as a run blocker, the 6-8 behemoth was quietly dangerous in his limited opportunities last year, recording 159 receiving yards and three scores despite playing just 220 snaps. The team also took Tre' McKitty, 97th overall, in the 2021 NFL Draft, but as a rookie look for the Georgia product to do most of his damage as an inline blocker.

Barometer

⬆️  Rising: WR Jalen Guyton

The team's new offensive scheme should benefit Guyton, who caught just 28 passes last season despite plenty of playing time. If he locks down the No. 3 wide receiver role, he could thrive as an explosive deep threat.

⬇️  Falling: RB Joshua Kelley

The 2020 fourth-rounder logged 47 touches across his first three NFL games but closed the season as a healthy scratch. With Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson healthy, Kelley's path to steady volume is murky.

😴  Sleeper: WR Josh Palmer

Palmer could emerge as a nice complement to Keenan Allen in the intermediate game. Jalen Guyton and Tyron Johnson slot ahead of the rookie on the depth chart, but there's room to move up with a break or two in his favor.

🌟  Pivotal Player: Justin Herbert

Not many predicted the level of success Herbert would enjoy when pressed into action Week 2 last season, but after taking over for Tyrod Taylor, the No. 6 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft never looked back. In the process, Herbert set multiple rookie quarterback records, while earning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.

Medical Tent

WR Keenan Allen

A strained hamstring essentially forced the star wide receiver to miss the final three weeks of the regular season, but Allen also landed on the COVID-19 list Week 17, officially ending his chance at a fourth consecutive campaign with 1,000 or more receiving yards. Still, it was a successful effort for Allen, who immediately emerged as QB Justin Herbert's favorite option, amassing a whopping 144 targets in just 13 games while seeing a massive jump in red-zone usage. The 29-year-old appears completely healthy entering 2021 and once again profiles as a target magnet in new coordinator Joe Lombardi's offense.

LB Joey Bosa

Two separate concussions forced the three-time Pro Bowler to miss four games scattered across 2020, with the latter ending his campaign Week 16. A third-year leap from 2019 first-round pick
Jerry Tillery could go a long way in helping the now-healthy Bosa return to his lofty sack totals, especially with talented pass rusher Melvin Ingram now in Pittsburgh.

S Derwin James

After an excellent rookie season, James has played in just five games since 2018, with a meniscus tear ending his most recent campaign before it even began. The FSU product was present at OTAs and by all accounts seems completely healthy.

Job Battle

Austin Ekeler remains the Chargers' top back, but backup slotting in the team's backfield will need to be sorted out during training camp and the preseason. Whoever emerges as the No. 2 option will carry a degree of fantasy value as insurance for Ekeler, who missed six games last season. As a 2020 fourth-rounder, Joshua Kelley has a chance to seize the role, but the Chargers' new coaching staff may not be beholden to the UCLA product's draft status. Also in the mix to serve as Ekeler's top backup are Justin Jackson – whose 4.9 career yards-per-carry average underscores his explosiveness as a change-of-pace option – 2021 sixth-rounder Larry Rountree and Darius Bradwell.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joe Bartel
Joe Bartel is RotoWire's Operations Specialist and football contributor among many other things. When not at the office, he's probably playing a variety of Gen 4 console games or rooting on his beloved Green Bay Packers.
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