Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire
Despite entering their second season in their new home, it still hurts for me to write “Los Angeles” in front of the Chargers. They will always be the San Diego Chargers to me and I’m a tinfoil hatter that they’ll find their way back there within 10 years. 2017 was another frustrating season for Chargers fans where the talent is all there, but a blocked kick, a botched kick, the worst punt return in history, and a costly fumble were just a few of the mind-numbing things that creates a 9-7 team out of a potential 14-game winner and takes them out of playoff contention. Fans looking for optimism will point out that the Chargers’ 5 non-Chiefs losses were by an average of 3.6 points and they followed up their 0-4 start by finishing the season 9-3 including an 8 point loss at New England and that 3 point loss to Jacksonville, both of which probably should’ve been wins. Ok, enough about the past because Chargers fans always have to live in the future. The team is still built around a very strong core, built around NFL Ironman Philip Rivers. Seriously, the guy hasn’t missed a game since taking over for Drew Brees in 2006. The rushing attack is still spearheaded by Melvin Gordon, who finally broke 1,000 yards after coming 3 yards short in his rookie campaign, and the eyebrow-raising Austin Ekeler, who failed to top 10 touches in any game after his costly fumble linked to above. The receiving corps is mostly still the same with Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams, Travis Benjamin, and Mike Williams, but the TE group features only former Bronco Virgil Green for now, though a reunion with Antonio Gates has been rumored since Hunter Henry went down with a torn ACL. On defense, the Bolts remain as terrifying as ever with arguably the best pass-rushing duo in football (Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa), plus a ball-hawking secondary that can match up with anyone in the game. Overall, it’s an exciting time to be a Chargers fan. Checks notes. Yeah, I’ve said that line the last 5 years. For your fantasy teams though, the Chargers offer perhaps the least talked about group of potential fantasy superstars.
Let’s run down the players you should draft or keep a close eye on during the season to bolster your depth chart.
Ok, quiz time. Just two QBs have thrown for at least 4,000 yards 9 out of the last 10 seasons, who are they? Drew Brees and Philip Rivers. Of all the names you could take at the QB position, Rivers may be the least sexy, but the man defines NFL consistency. Now that Eli Manning failed to start for a game last season due to the presence of studly now-Chargers backup Geno Smith, Rivers has the longest consecutive start streak in football at 196 games, which means you can pencil him in every single week without fail. Last year, Rivers ranked in the top 10 in passer rating (9th), yards/pass attempt (4th), INT% (9th), pass attempts (2nd), and sack rate (1st), finishing as QB8. This year, he adds first-round wideout Mike Williams, who was on the roster last year but spent most of the year recovering from back surgery. He does lose both TEs Hunter Henry and Antonio Gates, but with a deeper receiving corps than he’s ever had and the receiving ability of both his RBs, Rivers is poised for another strong season as one of the few QBs being drafted out of the top 10- he’s currently going at QB13 according to FantasyPros- with QB5 upside. He’s finished outside the top 14 QBs just once in the last 10 years, finishing in the top 5 more often than out of the 14, and is all upside at this point. Snag him with confidence in the 9th round.
Ok, I’d like to address this issue head on- it’s time to end the claim the Keenan Allen is “injury prone.” He missed the 2015 and 2016 seasons with a lacerated kidney and a torn ACL. Two freak injuries. He returned last year to finish as the WR3 with a 102-1393-6 line. That was in just his first season back after missing two years- he is poised to build on that with no more Antonio Gates or Hunter Henry eating up targets. If there’s a knock on Allen’s 2017 season, its that he didn’t find paydirt enough- only 6 touchdowns. For those concerned about that, there’s good news. Keenan Allen finished second in football last year with 24 red zone targets and held the 3rd highest percentage share of red zone targets for his team, behind only Jimmy Graham and Davante Adams. On top of that, he finished second and seventh in those stats within the 10 yard line. 31% of Philip Rivers’ red zone targets from last year are up for grabs and a good amount are going to go to Allen- he has the ability and opportunity to finish as the overall WR1 but is being drafted as the WR7, behind guys like Julio Jones and Michael Thomas whom he thoroughly outplayed last year. Grab him in the early to mid second and reap the rewards all season.
The Field- Tyrell Williams, Mike Williams, and Travis Benjamin
After Keenan Allen, the waters get very muddy in the LA receiving corps. Last year, Tyrell Williams finished as the WR39 last year and WR14 in 2016. Despite this, there is overwhelming belief that he will cede #2 duties to Mike Williams this year who is simply better than the 6’4 undrafted Western Oregon product. One would expect that someone of Tyrell’s size would get plenty of red zone targets, but he got only one last year and I don’t see significantly more for him this year, though he could get some of Gates/Henry’s targets and stay relevant in the passing game.
The big talk is Mike Williams, who was taken with the 7th overall pick in 2017 after a 98-1361-11 season with Clemson and he disappointed big time last season, all stuff you know. What you may not know is he’s beasting during camp. Reports are he was able to best All-Pro Marshon Lattimore during the Chargers-Saints joint practice. He’s taking advantage of Tyrell Williams’ foot injury at this point in camp and is likely to break camp as the #2 WR. Currently going as WR50 at ADP 134.4, he’s a massive steal in the 12th round of 12 teamers, as Tyrell Williams showed what a Chargers #2 WR can do fantasy-wise (though he was #1 in 2016). Just check out this elite leaping ability from Week 2 of the preseason on a pass from Geno Smith.
Travis Benjamin’s role is unclear- if he’ll be the slot receiver or if he’ll be relegated to exclusively return duty. There are reports that Benjamin is on the roster bubble and could get cut, but I highly doubt it. He’s invaluable to this passing offense for what his speed offers, not only deep bombs, but his ability to draft the safety out of coverage to open up the middle of the field for Keenan Allen. Expect to see Benjamin running his traditional deep routes all season.
The biggest knock on Melvin Gordon is his low career YPC, which sits at 3.8, including 3.9 YPC last year, good for 29th in football. So why should you invest a first-round pick in a guy who clearly struggles between the tackles? Well first and foremost, the Chargers beefed up the interior of their line this season, adding All-Pro C Mike Pouncey from the Dolphins and finally getting second-rounder from 2017 Forrest Lamp at RG. The guard and center positions are by far the most important when evaluating a RB because their blocking abilities will often dictate the kind of space the RB has to operate.
There is plenty of reason for optimism though- just like his teammate in the passing game, Gordon dominated touches in the red zone. He finished second in red zone carries in football, first in percentage of team carries in the red zone, and third in both carries inside the 10 and the 5. Most RBs converted between 25 and 40% of their carries inside the 10 into TDs, but Gordon was at just 21.6% last year, a rate I expect to improve. He’ll also continue to get plenty of receptions in an offense that should barely feature the TEs, making him a huge PPR asset.
I don’t have much to add on Austin Ekeler- the team lost faith in him after his fumble vs Jacksonville that cost the Chargers the game. However, he’s earning it back with an 11-72 preseason. He has RB2 value if Gordon goes down with an injury, and has low-end FLEX appeal on his own. Very low end, but I could see a dart throw for value.
As you can infer from previous sections, I do not expect Green to be a big factor in the passing game, largely because he’s never eclipsed 250 receiving yards in his career, despite being an every week starter the last two seasons with Denver. Green is largely a blocker- and a damn good one. Check out this block on a Detrez Newsome TD last week vs New Orleans. He’s a big boost for Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler.
Defense/ Special Teams
The Chargers have put together one of the best defensive units in football this year, with arguably the best pass rush duo in football in Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa and an elite secondary highlighted by Casey Hayward, Trevor Williams, Rayshawn Jenkins, Desmond King, first rounder Derwin James, and Jahleel Addae. Expect the Bolts to be near the league lead in INTs and sacks this year, while limiting points allowed. As long as Travis Benjamin can stay out of his own endzone, this unit stacks up as a top 5 unit in football.
The Los Angeles Chargers have established themselves as one of the best teams- talent wise- in the AFC and will contend for the AFC West title. They have perhaps the best outside chance at a Super Bowl run of any team, but knowing this team, something wild will happen that will send the 2018 season into a tailspin. And here I am buying a ticket for the ride, just like last year. At least the team’s failure will not hurt your fantasy teams.