Monday, July 2, 2018
Chargers Offensive Profile Under Ken Whisenhunt
2013, 2016-2017 Pass Attempts Rank: 22nd, 15th, 8th
2013, 2016-2017 Rush Attempts Rank: 6th, 22nd, 15th
2013, 2016-2017 Play Volume Rank: 12th, 17th, 14th
2013, 2016-2017 Yards Per Play Rank: 5th, 13th, 4th
Unaccounted for Air Yards from 2017 (Rank): 1,066 (18th)
Unaccounted for Carries from 2017 (Rank): 49 (23rd)
Projected Starting Lineup
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Passing Game Outlook
Philip Rivers enters his 15th NFL season as a perennial fringe fantasy QB1 with top-15 quarterback results in nine of the last ten years but zero top-five finishes in the last seven. Rivers is entrenched as a high-volume passer, clearing 570 attempts in four straight years after reaching that mark once in the previous decade. Rivers overcame a prior tendency to fade late in seasons by finishing 2017 hot, completing 66.4% of his passes and averaging 333.5 yards with an 11:3 TD-to-INT ratio over the Chargers’ final six games. Just as the Bolts finally cobbled together what has a chance to become one of the NFL’s premier offensive lines, Hunter Henry tore his ACL during OTAs and will miss the season. Henry’s loss will be especially felt in the red zone, where he converted an efficient 10-of-29 targets (34.5%) into touchdowns over the past two seasons and was slated for a bigger scoring-position role with Antonio Gates moving on. Losing Henry limits Rivers’ upside, but his floor should remain intact as a safe, late-round QB1.
Keenan Allen overcame hard-luck injuries for his first-career 16-game season in 2017, capitalizing for top-five finishes in targets (159), catches (102), and yards (1,393) at his position. Allen scored only six TDs despite leading all receivers in red-zone targets (24), hinting at forthcoming positive-touchdown regression; Allen hit pay dirt on just 5.9% of his catches after scoring on 7.2% of receptions in his first four years. Allen’s early-career injuries were bad breaks: a broken collarbone, lacerated kidney, and non-contact knee ligament tear. Henry’s ACL tear won’t help the offense, but it further solidifies Allen as Rivers’ go-to guy in scoring position with double-digit TDs inside Allen’s range of potential outcomes. Allen is my fantasy WR5 behind Antonio Brown, DeAndre Hopkins, Julio Jones, and Odell Beckham.
Tyrell Williams followed his 1,059-yard breakout 2016 campaign with a 2017 downer, his volume metrics suffering in target-hog Allen’s return. Williams’ Yards Per Route Run dipped from 1.87 to 1.40 in an offense that employed Williams as more of a clear-out route runner than intended target. Rivers did log a 106.7 passer rating when targeting Williams, far above their 2016 mark (80.9). Williams averaged a league-best 7.8 yards after catch, but the Chargers refused to prioritize feeding him. Williams’ 2018 snaps should be secure after the Bolts tendered him at the second-round level in restricted free agency and Henry tore his ACL, necessitating more three-wide 11 personnel. Williams may need another Allen injury to become re-draft reliable, but he’s one of my highest-owned late best-ball picks.
Minus Henry, Travis Benjamin and 2017 first-round pick Mike Williams both have shots at bigger roles in an offense that should lean heavily on wide receivers. Benjamin appeared in all 16 of the Bolts’ 2017 games but played just 53.5% of Los Angeles’ offensive snaps and exceeded 50 yards four times. The Chargers have shown they view Benjamin as only a situational player. The No. 7 overall pick in last year’s draft, Williams missed all offseason practices with a herniated disk in his back, then didn’t play until Week 6. Williams suffered a knee injury in Week 11 and drew only eight more targets for the rest of the season, catching two for 11 yards. Coming out of Clemson, Williams flashed Alshon Jeffery-like traits as a contested-catch winner with limited separation. After a non-productive rookie year, Williams enters a worrisome cohort of recent wide receiver prospects that includes Kevin White, A.J. Jenkins, Breshad Perriman, Phillip Dorsett, Laquon Treadwell, John Ross, and Josh Doctson. The hit rate of wide receivers drafted in the early rounds who don’t produce as rookies is virtually nonexistent in the modern NFL era.
My guess is we’ll see Virgil Green log most of the Chargers’ tight end snaps with free agent Antonio Gates potentially re-signed for a situational red-zone/third-down role. Green had an intriguing athleticism-production profile coming out of Nevada in 2011, but countless coaching staffs have typecast him as a blocker only. In Denver last year, Green blocked on 73.1% of his snaps. I would love to see the Chargers trade a late-round pick for an athletic, catch-first tight end bound for underutilization like Cleveland’s Seth DeValve or Dallas’ Rico Gathers.
Running Game Outlook
Melvin Gordon enters his fourth NFL season having never reached 4.0 yards per carry with rankings of 32nd/44 (2015), 26th/42 (2016), and 41st/47 (2017) in Football Outsiders’ rushing Success Rate. Despite his real-life inefficiency, Gordon has turned in back-to-back top-eight fantasy running back seasons on 295 and 340 touches. Gordon’s targets (37 > 57 > 83) and catches (33 > 41 > 58) have risen each year he’s been in the league, and he’s finished top three in carries inside the five-yard line (14, 17) in consecutive seasons. With Mike Pouncey on board at center and 2017 top-40 pick Forrest Lamp (ACL) due back at right guard, the Chargers have a chance to field the best line of Gordon’s career. Warren Sharp projected the Bolts to face this year’s third-softest schedule, setting up Gordon for positive scripts and more heavy volume after 199-pound seventh-round pick Justin Jackson was Los Angeles’ lone offseason backfield addition. Locked into bellcow work in a trustworthy offense, Gordon is my No. 6 fantasy back behind Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott, and Alvin Kamara.
Austin Ekeler impressively made the Chargers’ 2017 roster as an undrafted rookie out of D-2 Western State, emerging as Gordon’s change-of-pace complement to average 7.1 touches per game in Weeks 4-13. Ekeler cut significantly into Gordon’s workload in November, only to lose two fourth-quarter fumbles in critical losses to the Jaguars and Chiefs. Ekeler broke his hand on the second fumble, ending his season in Week 15. Ekeler looks like a scatback (5’8/195), but his plus speed (4.43), short-area quicks, versatility, and rookie production make Ekeler the favorite to back up Gordon again. His main challenger will be No. 251 overall pick Justin Jackson, a Northwestern alum who joined Ron Dayne as the only running backs in Big Ten history to rush for over 1,000 yards in all four years. Jackson added 122 career catches. The Ekeler-Jackson battle will be worth watching closely this preseason.
2018 Vegas Win Total
The Chargers’ Win Total opened at 9.0 with -140 odds on the over, a seemingly aggressive number for a team that hasn’t topped nine wins in nine years. Persistent underachievers with league-worst injury luck, the Bolts do boast a top-five roster in the AFC and should experience positive win-loss regression after last year’s team went an unfortunate 3-5 in one-score games. Only three teams undershot their Pythagorean Win Expectation by a wider margin. Much of Los Angeles’ underachievement is attributable to poor decision making, however, from Hunter Henry’s criminal underutilization to stubbornly slamming Melvin Gordon into first-down brick walls on 161 of his carries, picking kickers so bad it cost them games, and not even employing an analytics department. Nevertheless, I’m betting on the Bolts’ loaded roster to compensate for their organizational malpractices and taking the over on 9.0 wins.