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Justin Herbert
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Offseason Team Previews

2021 Chargers Offseason Preview

by Hayden Winks
Updated On: February 24, 2021, 1:54 am ET

My goal with the Offseason Preview series is to get caught up with each team’s 53-man roster, offensive and defensive schemes, team needs, and offseason capital within a 10-minute read. The basics will be at the top -- cap space, draft picks, cut candidates, notable departures -- and the film and analytics takes will be at the bottom. I hope to write these in a way that they’re referenceable throughout not just free agency and the NFL Draft, but also the 2021 season as we look into weekly matchups. The offseason is the time for me to get outside of our fantasy football bubble and learn more about what’s going on at the other positions. You can read the rest of my 2021 Offseason Previews here and can follow me on Twitter (@HaydenWinks).

 


Chargers 2020 Recap

Chargers2020

 

The Chargers began the 2020 season losing All-Pro safety Derwin James due to a torn meniscus and then proceeded to head into the bye with a 1-4 record. The season easily could have been wasted from that point on, but Justin Herbert exceeded expectations, ultimately winning the 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year after setting the new rookie passing touchdown record (31). He did so behind a highly questionable offensive line and with Austin Ekeler only playing 10 games. The Chargers return most key players on both sides of the ball and have a pristine cap situation with the fewest dead cap dollars ($58k) heading into free agency. An upgraded coaching staff, a high-ceiling quarterback, and plenty of offseason capital have me believing in the Chargers in the short- and long-term. When has that ever backfired?

 


Chargers 2021 Offseason

Notes

 

Chargers Cap Space

$24.2 million (10th)

Chargers Draft Picks

1.13, 2.47, 3.78, 4th, 5th, 6th, 6th, 7th, plus compensatory picks

Chargers Departures

EDGE Melvin Ingram, TE Hunter Henry, LB Denzel Perryman, CB Michael Davis, C Mike Pouncey (retired), LG Forrest Lamp, C Dan Feeney, LT Sam Tevi, SS Rayshawn Jenkins, QB Tyrod Taylor

Chargers Cut Candidates

RG Trai Turner ($11.5M in cap savings), CB Casey Hayward ($9.8M), CB Chris Harris ($7.5M), DT Linval Joseph ($7.9M), LB Kyzir White ($2.2M)

 


Chargers Depth Chart

Position

Base Offense

Notable Backups

Personnel

11

-

% of Passes

79%

-

QB

Justin Herbert

Easton Stick

WR

Mike Williams

Tyron Johnson

WR

Jalen Guyton

Joe Reed

WR (Slot)

Keenan Allen

K.J. Hill

TE

Donald Parham

 

RB (Early Down)

Austin Ekeler

Joshua Kelley

RB (Third Down)

Austin Ekeler

Justin Jackson

LT

Trey Pipkins

Storm Norton

LG

???

 

C

???

 

RG

Trai Turner

Scott Quessenberry

RT

Bryan Bulaga

 

 

Offensive Coordinator: It’s impossible to know how coach Brandon Staley and OC Joe Lombardi will set up the offense, but their press conferences centered around one mantra -- play to Justin Herbert’s strengths. To most, that’s his intermediate and deep ball passing and his out-of-pocket play-making. Lombardi talked about being aggressive on fourth downs, how passing is more efficient than rushing, and using analytics to help guide decision making. The Chargers’ No. 17 neutral pass rate from last year is likely to tick more pass-heavy, and their No. 5 neutral offensive pace is likely here to stay. Lombardi and Staley have already talked about playing up-tempo, something Herbert is comfortable with dating back to his Oregon days. Sign me up for a fast-paced, pass-heavy offense with an open-minded coaching staff. I’m betting the house that the Chargers finish ahead of 18th in points scored in 2021.

Passing Offense: Justin Herbert checks about every box as a high-ceiling franchise quarterback. His arm talent is off the charts, and he can make plays out of structure (video). It’s Mahomes-like, just without Mahomes’ rare instincts. Herbert finished 12th in passing EPA among 29 quarterbacks last season on his way to setting the rookie passing touchdown record (31). The Chargers will give Herbert a better offensive line in 2021, and the coaching change is very likely to be an upgrade overall. Expect the Chargers to finish higher than 24th in average depth of target with the more aggressive coaching staff. At receiver, the Chargers have a complementary one-two punch in Keenan Allen and Mike Williams for one more season. Allen and Williams have unaccounted for touchdown upside after the Chargers finished just 21st in percentage of red zone trips ending in a touchdown. Behind them, the Chargers have speedsters Jalen Guyton and Tyron Johnson. Hunter Henry is a free agent, but likely is a front office priority. If he finds more money elsewhere, the Chargers may turn to 6-foot-8 XFL legend Donald Parham at tight end. 

Rushing Offense: The Chargers will be overhauling their offensive line this offseason. C Mike Pouncey retired, and LG Forrest Lamp (100% snaps), C Dan Feeney (100%), and LT Sam Tevi (87%) are all free agents. Plus RG Trai Turner (46%) is a cut candidate after an injury-filled 2020 season ($11.5M in cap savings). Most of the Chargers’ offseason capital will be spent at filling out this line that ranked 26th in short-yardage rushing EPA last year. At running back, the Chargers will welcome back Austin Ekeler who was PPR’s per-game RB6 on RB4 fantasy usage in 2020. He’ll handle his hybrid bellcow role with Joshua Kelly and Justin Jackson sprinkling in behind him. Kalen Ballage is a free agent. OC Joe Lombardi, a long-time Saints assistant, compared Ekeler to Alvin Kamara, Darren Sproles, and Reggie Bush. A worse millennial sports writer would add a rocket ship emoji here.

 

Position

Base Defense

Notable Backups

Coverage

Cover 2/4

 

% of Plays

???

 

CB

Casey Hayward

 

CB

???

 

CB (Slot)

Chris Harris

 

SS

Derwin James

 

FS

Nasir Adderley

 

LB

Kenneth Murray

Drue Tranquill

LB

Kyzir White

 

DT (1T)

Linval Joseph

 

DT (3T)

Justin Jones

 

Edge (5T)

Jerry Tillery

 

Edge (7T)

Joey Bosa

Uchenna Nwosu

 

Defensive Coordinator: The Chargers Defense will be undergoing one of the bigger scheme changes this offseason. They used two-high safeties on 31% of their plays last year (32nd) and a one-high safety at the highest rate (76%). Brandon Staley’s Rams were the exact opposite, running two-high looks at the highest rate (77%) and single-high at the lowest (17%) per NextGen Stats. Staley’s setup is far better at stopping the pass and defending the modern offense, and he has the two star defenders (Derwin James, Joey Bosa) to somewhat replicate what he had with Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald. The Chargers were 23rd in points allowed last year. I’ll bet the house that they finish better than that in 2021.

Passing Defense: Derwin James is the wildcard of the pass defense. He can play free safety in quarters and Cover 2, but he can also play corner and defend tight ends if needed. James will be one of the most fun defenders to watch in 2021. His safety running mate will be 2019 second-round FS Nasir Adderley, who has underperformed his draft slot through two seasons. He’s a candidate for a third-year leap as a 24-year-old. At corner, the Chargers have 32-year-old CB1 Casey Hayward and 32-year-old slot man Chris Harris with CB2 Michael Davis heading into free agency. It’s a position of need, both in the short- and long-term. Up front, top-five edge rusher Joey Bosa will wreak havoc but will do so without free agent Melvin Ingram. 2018 second-round speed rusher Uchenna Nwosu will play more snaps, as will 2019 first-round bust DE Jerry Tillery. They will be key in improving the Chargers’ No. 22 adjusted sack rate defense.

Rushing Defense: The Chargers just drafted 2020 first-rounder Kenneth Murray to headline the position, but they need more bodies behind him with starting LB Denzel Perryman and backup LB Nick Vigil unsigned. Getting versatile back-seven specialist Derwin James will help mask the loss of Perryman to some degree. Up front, Los Angeles has a nice mix of veterans (DE Nick Bosa, DT Linval Joseph) and youngsters (DT Justin Jones, DE Jerry Tillery) even with DE Melvin Ingram set for free agency. It won’t be too big of a surprise if the Chargers drop out of the top-15 in rushing EPA defense as they transition from a single-high to two-high defense, but the unit should be respectable regardless. They were 13th in rushing EPA last year.

 


Chargers Team Needs

1. Offensive Guard(s) - Chargers LG Forrest Lamp heads to free agency after four shaky seasons as a second-rounder. A one-for-one replacement is necessary, and the Chargers easily could trade 2020 trade acquisition Trai Turner after an injury-filled career-worst season. Turner can be released with $11.5 million in cap savings and $0 in dead money.

2. Center - Mike Pouncey retired, 2017 third-round bust C Dan Feeney is set for free agency, and there’s not a starting-caliber replacement on the roster. The Chargers ranked 26th in short-yardage rushing EPA last season, mostly because the offensive interior couldn’t get any push.

3. Offensive Tackle - With better health, the Chargers should get quality right tackle play out of Bryan Bulaga moving forward, but left tackle is a potential need. Current starter Trey Pipkins is a 2019 third-round project from Sioux Falls. Risking Justin Herbert’s health with a developmental project at his blind spot isn’t something I’d be willing to do.

4. Outside Corner - The Chargers are missing a starter at the second outside corner spot and need to get younger at the position overall. Both CB1 Casey Hayward and slot CB Chris Harris are heading into the final year of their contracts as a 32-year-olds. Los Angeles was 13th in passing EPA defense last season.

5. Tight End - After playing through the franchise tag, Hunter Henry is set for free agency. Unless the Chargers love Donald Parham as much as Twitter does, adding a starter this offseason should be somewhat of a priority. The Bolts are also losing veteran run-blocker Virgil Green to free agency. With Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Austin Ekeler, and Parham already on the roster, the Chargers could value blocking more than pass-catching with the Hunter replacement.

 


2021 Fantasy Football Rankings

Consider these my way-too-early 2021 fantasy football ranking ranges ahead of free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft, and here’s where each player ranked in PPR points, expected PPR points, and PPR points over expected last year.

Austin Ekeler (RB1) - In seven healthy games with Justin Herbert removing Week 17, Ekeler averaged 19.4 PPR points on 20.1 expected PPR points. He caught 6.6 passes per game over that stretch, a number in line with Alvin Kamara’s averages under former Saints assistant and Chargers’ new OC Joe Lombardi. The Kamara to Ekeler comparison is a fair one from a tape, production, and “where he wins” perspective. Ekeler is a borderline top-five fantasy running back in PPR formats. 

Keenan Allen (WR1) - Only Davante Adams finished with more expected PPR points per game than Allen last season (19.2). That elite usage led to Allen’s WR6 per-game finish (19.6). A potentially incorrect narrative this offseason will be Allen’s on/off splits with Ekeler. He averaged 22.8 PPR points without Ekeler to 16.8 points with him, but Allen’s fantasy usage was identical in both splits (18.9 vs. 19.5 expected PPR points). If Hunter Henry is not re-signed, Allen will project for 8-12 targets weekly. He averaged 11.8 targets in his 12 healthy games last year. The slot man will be 29 years old in 2021.

Justin Herbert (QB1) - Cam Newton is the only rookie quarterback to have more fantasy points than Herbert in NFL history. He finished as the QB8 per game last year (22.5) and arguably will have a better supporting cast in year two with coaching and offensive line upgrades coming. OC Joe Lombardi’s comments about keeping the Chargers’ up-tempo offense are encouraging -- L.A. led the NFL in offensive plays in 2020. Few quarterbacks have Herbert’s arm strength and athleticism, and he has the pass-catchers to reach a top-five fantasy ceiling if things break his way. 

FA Hunter Henry (TE1/2) - While playing on the franchise tag last year, Henry had his lowest yards per target (6.6) of his career and finished as the TE13 per game on TE10 fantasy usage. He’s an unrestricted free agent this offseason, opening as Nick Mensio’s No. 1 free agent tight end. The Chargers have the cap space to keep him around if he remains a long-term priority, but Henry will have plenty of interest elsewhere. Heading into his sixth NFL season, Henry has maxed out as a mid-range to borderline TE1. His landing spot will determine where he fits within that range.

Mike Williams (WR4) - A contract-year player, Williams projects to have his best NFL season in 2021 with Henry potentially out and with a stud deep-field passer entering year two. Williams was a disappointment despite Herbert’s success last year, however. He was the WR91 out of 105 receiver qualifiers in PPR points per game over expected (-1.1) and has somehow only scored seven touchdowns in 30 games over the last two years. That either makes him an overrated player, or a positive touchdown regression candidate. To me, Williams is much better than his WR47 per-game finish from 2020.

Donald Parham (TE3) - Until Hunter Henry is re-signed, there are reasons to label Parham as a deep-league breakout candidate. He’s 6-foot-8, 237 pounds and did just enough on 20 targets last year to believe in his pass-catching upside. Parham, considered the best prospect coming out of the XFL last year, will be 24 years old in 2021 and may face little competition at the position if Henry signs elsewhere. Parham had multiple red zone plays drawn up for him as a rookie last year.