Where does your franchise stand heading into 2022? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.
The Chargers are in a pretty good spot. After narrowly missing the 2021 playoffs -- they would have made it using fantasy football rules, where the last playoff spot is filled by the non-playoff team with the most points -- they loaded up to make a run for it this year. How far will they go? Let's take a look.
One high note from last season: Trouncing the eventual Super Bowl representatives from the AFC in Week 13. On the road in Cincinnati, the Chargers scored 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, blowing out the Bengals for a huge win.
Head coach: Brandon Staley. I am a huge fan of Staley and what he brings to the game. I know some might not like his analytics-driven approach and his willingness to defy conventional football wisdom. But you know what? That's exactly what the NFL needs. There was a time when throwing the football was deemed too revolutionary, and look at the game now.
Staley really does remind me of these kids who refuse to punt in Madden tournaments, who always go for 2-point conversions instead of the chip-shot PATs. I'm sure you get more buy-in from your players when you trust them to go out there and do their jobs.
The Chargers led the NFL in fourth-down conversions in 2021, both overall (22) and in the fourth quarter or overtime (12). Yes, they were 1-3 in games with more than four fourth-down conversions, but in one of those losses, the Ravens waltzed to a 28-point victory. Another was a high-scoring back-and-forth with the Chiefs. And the last was the regular-season finale against the Raiders -- SORRY! -- but it's worth noting the Chargers converted six of seven fourth-down tries in that one. Staley's first season on the job wasn't perfect, with the puzzling timeout call in that Vegas season-ender (sorry again!) standing out. But I love his aggressiveness, and I want to see it continue into Year 2 of the Staley era and beyond.
Quarterback: Justin Herbert. Look, I hate to admit that I wasn't 100 percent sold on Herbert when he was coming out of Oregon. But there is no doubt now that the No. 6 overall pick from 2020 is an elite-level NFL quarterback -- yes, even without having logged a single playoff appearance to date. Only Tom Brady passed for more yards than Herbert did last season (5,014). Only Brady and Matthew Stafford threw more TD passes than Herbert (38). Herbert became just the fourth quarterback in NFL history to record at least 5,000 passing yards in a season before turning 25 years old. And he became the seventh QB of any age to post 5,000 passing yards and 40 total touchdowns in a single season.
Herbert just has that "it" factor that makes him stand out -- the long, flowing locks, the farmer's tan. He also said in a recent interview that he doesn't even like vacations, because he wants to be constantly grinding and working harder on football. You have to love that if you're a Chargers fan. Not so much if you root for another team.
Projected 2022 MVP: Herbert. He's got a great shot at being league MVP this season -- NFL MVP voters seem to need a reason not to vote for Aaron Rodgers these days, and Herbert could give them one. Either way, Herbert is clearly so important to Los Angeles. Last season, the Chargers were 8-0 when Herbert had a passer rating above 100. They were 1-8 those other games. Herbert has 39 touchdowns and just four picks in his 15 career wins. He's had 30 touchdown passes and 21 picks in 17 career losses.
New face to know: Khalil Mack, outside linebacker. I love Mack with the Chargers, who traded for him in March, for a multitude of reasons. For one, I'm a Bears fan, and I hope the 31-year-old three-time All-Pro -- who spent the last four seasons in Chicago -- can chase a ring before his best years are behind him. It's also a lot of fun that they brought the former Raider (he was selected fifth overall by that franchise in 2014) back to the AFC West. The Chargers were able to put heat on QBs last season, ranking fourth in quarterback pressure percentage (30.9). But aside from Joey Bosa -- the only player on the team to notch more than five sacks -- they struggled to bring QBs down, ranking just 20th in sack percentage (5.9). Mack will change that, presuming he's healthy after missing much of 2021 with a foot injury.
2022 breakout star: Derwin James, safety. Even factoring in James' two Pro Bowl nods in his four-year NFL career, I feel like he's better-known in Southern California than he is nationally -- like Blink-182 back when they were a great local band, before they took off. Did you know James was one of just two players to log 100-plus tackles, two-plus interceptions, two-plus sacks and two-plus forced fumbles in 2021?
Three key dates:
- Week 2 at Kansas City Chiefs (Thursday night). The Chargers have won three of their last four games in Kansas City. If they want to dethrone the winners of the past six AFC West titles, they need to continue to push the Chiefs on the road.
- Week 13 at Las Vegas Raiders. I wrote in my look at the Raiders that most California residents do a good job forgetting our previous losses in Las Vegas; I'll add here that we always gleefully head back.
- Week 18 at Denver Broncos. This game could be huge, the culmination of a final stretch that includes dates with the Dolphins, Titans, Colts and Rams. I mean, at least Houston's not in that mix! (Sorry, too soon.)
Will the Chargers be able to ...
... field a Super Bowl-caliber defense? The Chargers allowed 27 points and 138.9 rushing yards per game last year, which ranked them in the bottom three in the NFL in both categories. In games where they allowed 25-plus points, they were 2-7; in games where they held opponents under that benchmark, they were 7-1. Getting the defense back on track is going to be very important. Which is why they paired Mack and Bosa. Each veteran has broken the 10-sack mark four times since 2015. From 2016 through 2021, Bosa's pass-rushing grade from Pro Football Focus ranks second among edge defenders, while Mack's grade ranks third. Then there's cornerback J.C. Jackson, signed to a five-year, $82.5 million deal in free agency, who led the NFL in passes defensed (23) and ranked second in interceptions (eight) with the Patriots in 2021. Jackson also compiled a league-best 47.8 passer rating allowed in coverage last season, according to PFF. Adding Mack and Jackson to a group that already included Bosa and James could make the Chargers' defense one of the best.
... continue to improve Herbert's protection? In 2020, Herbert was sacked 32 times in 15 games, ninth-most in the NFL, and pressured on 30.3 percent of dropbacks, sixth-most among those with a minimum of 400 pass attempts, per NGS. Los Angeles signed center Corey Linsley last offseason, then drafted Rashawn Slater in Round 1 to play left tackle. Both players made the Pro Bowl, and Herbert was sacked 31 times despite playing two more games, good for 16th in the NFL, while his pressure rate dropped to 26.2 (14th). If this year's first-round pick, guard Zion Johnson, follows the Pro Bowl trend, the line could take another step forward. And as good as Herbert has been under pressure (his 2,290 passing yards when pressured are the most in the NFL over the past two seasons), imagine what he could do with even better protection.
One storyline ...
... people shouldn't overlook: How great the Chargers' receivers are. I feel like the Bolts never get as much respect as they should whenever people rank the best receiver groups and/or best pass-catching tandems. Keenan Allen and Mike Williams were the only pair of receiver teammates to each post 1,100-plus receiving yards and six-plus touchdowns last year. Allen has hauled in 100-plus catches in three consecutive years, which is the longest active streak in the NFL, and he's had 95-plus receptions in five straight seasons, the second-longest streak in NFL history. I'm not saying you must call them the best, like my colleague Bucky Brooks does here. Just give them some love.
... people shouldn't overthink: The addition of a rookie to the running back room. I'm happy for Isaiah Spiller, the running back selected by the Chargers in Round 4. He's worth a flier in your fantasy leagues. But he's not displacing Austin Ekeler. I had to defend Ekeler on Good Morning Football recently because my esteemed colleague Dan Hanzus didn't include him in his NFL superstar club. Which, I have to say again, was wrong. So very wrong. Ekeler tied the Colts' Jonathan Taylor for total touchdowns last season with 20. Ekeler also leads all running backs in receptions over the last three years (216). I know he's not a huge guy like Eric Dickerson. (Google him, he was good.) Ekeler doesn't run for a lot of yards. But he's a great player. Seems super down-to-earth, as well, which you love to see. Give him some respect!
For 2022 to be a success, the Chargers MUST:
- Make the playoffs. That's it. Sure, a Super Bowl run would be nice. But the Chargers are the only team in the NFL to post a combined winning percentage over .500 over the past five seasons and not reach the postseason more than once in that span. I mean, it's frustrating, living out here in Southern California entertaining the possibility that MLB stars Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani won't make the playoffs with the Angles this year. If the same trend starts to take hold with Herbert, it's going to be a huge disappointment.