2021 Franchise Focus: Los Angeles Chargers

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2021 Franchise Focus: Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers transitioned to a brand-new stadium in Inglewood in 2020 after playing in a soccer stadium in 2017-19. They also transitioned to a baby-faced quarterback in Justin Herbert after 14 seasons with Philip Rivers running the show. The Chargers’ overall results were once again underwhelming under Anthony Lynn as they missed the playoffs for a second straight year, which earned him his pink slip at the end of the season.

The future is still looking bright for the Chargers with their Rookie of the Year winner at quarterback who reset rookie records for passing touchdowns (31) and completions (396). They also brought in one of the brightest young coaching minds to take over the team in Brandon Staley, who has been a fast riser in the profession after serving as a defensive coordinator at Division III John Carroll just five years ago. Excitement is finally starting to build for a franchise that’s been finding its way for the last decade, and we’ll see if 2021 is the year they’re ready to break through to challenge the Chiefs at the top of the AFC West.

Los Angeles Chargers Franchise Focus Companion Podcast

The Basics

Team FuturesOdds
Season Win Total (O/U)9.5 (+115/-135)
AFC West+450
Playoffs (Y/N)+110/-130
AFC Championship+1600
Super Bowl+3000

Season Prop Movement

  • Win Total: 9 (+103) in late March to 9.5 (+115)

  • Super Bowl: +2800 in early February to +3000

Premium 2021 Betting Preview from Tom Brolley found here.

Key Offseason Moves

AdditionsDraftDepartures
Chase Daniel (QB)Rashawn Slater (OT)Tyrod Taylor (QB, Hou)
Jared Cook (TE)Asante Samuel (CB)Hunter Henry (TE, NE)
Matt Feiler (OT)Josh Palmer (WR)Sam Tevi (OT, Ind)
Corey Linsley (C)Tre’ McKitty (TE)Trai Turner (OG, Pit)
Oday Aboushi (OG)Chris Rumph (DE)Forrest Lamp (OG, Buf)
Christian Covington (DT)Brenden Jaimes (OG)Dan Feeny (C, NYJ)
Kyler Fackrell (DE)Nick Niemann (LB)Mike Pouncey (C, retired)
Ben DeLuca (S)Larry Rountree (RB)Melvin Ingram (DE, Pit)
Jared Goldwire (DT)Denzel Perryman (LB, Car)
Forrest Merrill (DT)Nick Vigil (LB, Min)
Chris Rumph (DE)Casey Hayward (CB, LV)
Kyle Spalding (OT)Rayshawn Jenkins (S, Jax)
Mark Webb (CB)Isaac Rochell (DT, Ind)
Malik Jefferson (LB, Ind)

Scott Barrett’s Fantasy Strength of Schedule

Quarterback: 13th-easiest (-0.19)

Running Back: 8th-easiest (+0.70)

Wide Receivers: 11th-toughest (-0.43)

Tight Ends: 10th-toughest (-0.16)

Pace and Tendencies

Pace (seconds in between plays): 27.1 (13th)

Plays per game: 68.6 (1st)

When the game is within a score — Pass: 57.6% (18th) | Run: 42.4% (15th)

When the team is ahead — Pass: 52.6% (11th) | Run: 47.4% (22nd)

When the team is behind — Pass: 64.1% (21st) | Run: 35.9% (12th)

With former HC Anthony Lynn now in Detroit and OC Shane Steichen now in Philadelphia, the Chargers are ushering in a new staff in 2020. New HC Brandon Staley will handle the defense while new OC Joe Lombardi will call plays. While Vince Lombardi’s grandson has the right last name and spent a total of 12 seasons with Sean Payton as an assistant/QBs coach, his two-season track record as a play-caller is sketchy at best. Lombardi was the Lions OC in 2014 and was fired after Week 7 in 2015 after a 1-6 start to the season. So, in his lone full season in 2014, Lombardi’s Lions’ attack finished a mediocre 23rd in points per game and 15th in yards gained per drive despite the team finishing 11-5 on the year. Lombardi leaned heavily on the pass as Matthew Stafford finished fifth in the league in attempts (602) that year. In fact, the Lions were the second-most pass-heavy team when the game was within a score (63%), they were tied for 13th in pass rate when trailing (69%), and they ranked seventh in pass rate when leading (54%). If that season is any indication, we could see Lombardi let Herbert loose in 2021 and lead a voluminous Chargers attack. Then, we just have to hope the results follow and that Lombardi learned some things after his Lions departure.

Key Statistics

  • Justin Herbert finished the season with the second-most yards (4,336), the most TDs (31), the second-highest completion rate (66.6%), and the third-most fantasy points per game (22.2) by a rookie QB all-time.

  • Herbert had eight games of 300+ yards, which is most by a rookie all-time.

  • Herbert was fantastic under duress, ranking first in passer rating when pressured (99.4) among all QBs last season.

  • In the eight games that Herbert started, Austin Ekeler averaged 13 fantasy points per game on his receiving stats. For reference, Alvin Kamara averaged 12.6 FPG as a receiver in 15 games.

  • Ekeler’s target share was 20%, which would’ve ranked second-highest among RBs behind Kamara (22%).

  • Ekeler’s weekly finishes with Herbert under center: RB15 > RB3 > RB8 > RB23 > RB8 > R7 > RB16 > RB15.

  • Per SIS, Ekeler’s rushing success rate was 42% this past season (27th-of-63 RBs). Joshua Kelley’s success rate was 33% (third-worst).

  • Before he got hurt, Keenan Allen put up 95/938/8 in 12 starts with Justin Herbert in Week 2-14.

  • Allen saw 28% of Herbert’s targets in this span, which ranked fourth-highest among WRs.

  • Allen had an incredibly high-floor, finishing as a WR2 or better (top-24) in 8-of-12 games and he had double-digit fantasy points in 11-of-12.

  • Mike Williams’ average depth of target (15.8 yards) ranked fifth-highest among WRs.

  • Per SIS, 75% of Williams’ targets were catchable, which was a massive improvement from 2019 (67%).

Huber’s Scheme Notes

Offensive

Entering his ninth season as GM of the Chargers, Tom Telesco simply cleaned house. DL coach Giff Smith ended up as the only coaching holdover retained on staff. In light of that fact, we’ll, of course, need to consider their recent coaching trends, and mix it with a good amount of imagination to fill in the blanks on the offensive expectations for the upcoming season. Telesco made a significant investment into the defense, which we’ll cover in the defensive analysis, when he decided on Brandon Staley as his new HC. Staley’s choice to serve as his OC plucked Joe Lombardi from his posting as the QBs coach over the last five seasons for the Saints. Lombardi played TE at Air Force within Fisher DeBerry’s legendary Wishbone triple option attack. Considering no team in the NFL ran a true triple option play last season, don’t be concerned with the thought of Los Angeles implementing a radical offense.

At nearly every stop during his career — both as an offensive and defensive coach, Lombardi has left behind an impressive trail of success. After serving as an offensive assistant in New Orleans for two seasons (2007-08), he was promoted to QBs coach in 2009, and served in that role for five seasons under HC Sean Payton. In his very first season in that posting, he aided Drew Brees in a season during which he secured the Super Bowl XLIV title by a score of 31-17 over the Colts. During those five seasons, Brees averaged 314 passing yards and 39 TDs during the very peak seasons of his career. Lombardi took his talents to the Lions in 2014 to serve as the OC under HC Jim Caldwell. That season currently stands as the finest of Matthew Stafford’s career, purely from a winning perspective (11-5 record).

The Detroit offense gained over 5,400 total yards, both Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards, and Stafford captured one of only three playoff appearances during his career. Unfortunately, the 2015 season did not follow suit. With the defense allowing an average of 28.6 PPG, Lombardi was fired after a 1-6 start. Looking over the numbers for Stafford, it’s probable that the removal of Lombardi served as a scapegoat for the lack of W’s in the win column. In those seven games, Stafford threw 12 TDs (fifth-best), and completed 65% of his attempts (13th). The fact that Stafford threw nine INTs (second-most) did not help matters for either Detroit or Lombardi.

Lombardi did not stay on the market for long, as Payton quickly added him back to his staff within his customary role as QBs coach. Fast forward to the present, Lombardi is set to have plenty of help in leading the Chargers’ offense. Hired as the new QBs coach, Shane Day may not have the impressive resume of Lombardi, but he is well on his way. After a stint as an offensive quality control coach with the 49ers, Day worked with Jay Cutler under HC Lovie Smith as Chicago’s QBs coach (2010-11). Following roles on staff with Washington and Miami, Day took over coaching the QBs with San Francisco (2019-20). During his first season on the job, he played a part in the 49ers earning an appearance in Super Bowl LIV, and Jimmy Garoppolo being named the NFL Comeback Player of the Year.

Lombardi and Day are the fortunate souls having the opportunity in continuing the development of Justin Herbert. And, despite his record-breaking rookie season, Herbert is not quite a finished product. As evidenced by their 7-9 record last season, Herbert played his worst ball during six of those defeats. Oddly enough, the scheme that gave Herbert the most trouble is the one that is considered the most vulnerable to the pass: Cover 4. The opponents that caught on to that fact were the Bills, Chiefs, Panthers, and Broncos (twice). The common component of his struggles against the Patriots and Dolphins are very likely a heavy combined dose of Cover 0 and Cover 1. When Herbert wasn’t forced to prepare his O-line pre-snap for the threat of an all-out blitz (Cover 0), he excelled facing Cover 1 teams. And extreme deficiencies along the O-line stands as the most likely culprit.

In response to the O-line issues, Telesco flipped the script. Four-of-five of the O-linemen playing the most snaps last season are no longer on the roster. And the reasons are compelling in support of moving on from each. LACs O-line played so poorly that it’s truly amazing Herbert generated his impressive numbers. Replacing Dan Feeny, Telesco extended Corey Linsley the largest contract in the game’s history for a center. After a mini-breakout season for the Lions, Oday Aboushi was added to fill the RG vacancy, and do-it-all Matt Feiler signed on to play LG. Rashawn Slater was selected with the 13th pick in the draft, with sights set on his forming into the elite LT for Herbert that he sorely missed last season. The big question mark will be the health of RT Bryan Bulaga. Unfortunately, if Bulaga fails to prove his health to the Chargers after two career ACL injuries and a chronic hip condition, their lack of depth at O-line would be pushed to the forefront.

With both Lombardi and run game coordinator/OL coach Frank Smith both most recently employed by New Orleans, we can look to the Saints for our run game expectations. Last season, the Saints schemed an exotic collection of Gap concepts, mainly relying on Backside Guard Pulls and Man blocking. And it’s the Man blocking that will be a boon to Austin Ekeler. Over the last three seasons, Ekeler has scored four of his seven total rushing TDs, and when he averaged 7.1 YPC (33% increase) this past season. Unfortunately, we really have no idea of Ekeler’s patience working behind a pulling guard since it wasn’t utilized by his previous staff. The good news for Joshua Kelley is that, despite the complete offensive coaching turnover, Telesco is still calling the shots on the back end. Kelley will have every opportunity to secure a secondary role behind Ekeler this season. As for Justin Jackson, his chances of sticking with the team are likely extremely slim. Telesco also added Larry Rountree late in the ‘21 draft, likely signaling the end of Jackson’s run in Los Angeles.

Reuniting with Lombardi, Jared Cook may be 34-years-old, but he’ll fill the enviable receiving role vacated by Hunter Henry. The analytics community had been pulling for Donald Parham to claim the role but, in addition to adding Cook, Telesco also drafted Tre’ McKitty. The Chargers are clearly not going to hand that significant role to anyone who hasn’t earned every right to start for the explosive offense. Moving on to the WR room, we all know what Keenan Allen is going to give us. He has teetered on the fence as an elite WR1 for several seasons. Still, Allen is simply not receiving enough attention this offseason. Lombardi has been quoted as stating Mike Williams will fill the role occupied by Michael Thomas in his New Orleans offenses. No matter how you translate that statement, the Saints have never had a receiver opposite Thomas coming anywhere remotely close to the talent level of Allen. As difficult as it is to evade offseason chatter, always bet on talent first.

Understanding that Allen’s ‘21 upside simply cannot be understated, a full season for Williams working with Herbert, and protected by what should be a vastly improved O-line should have everyone excited. Something certainly seemed off with the results for Williams last season when he should have thrived following the switch from Philip Rivers to Herbert. Now that Herbert should have additional time to work, connecting with Williams on his deep patterns will likely become a frequent occurrence. I’m of the mind that Lombardi will continue to utilize components of the Air Raid used by Saints’ longtime OC Pete Carmichael Jr. We may not see as many four-wide sets, but we can take it to the bank that we’ll see a top-10 rate of detached three-wide.

Who will emerge in that third WR spot? We can count on plenty of routes devoted to both Jalen Guyton and ‘21 third-rounder Josh Palmer. But, based on ‘20 performance, that starting role is clearly going to go to Tyron Johnson. Taking to the skies to become Herbert’s most dangerous vertical threat last season, Johnson fits together with Allen and Williams akin to discovering that missing puzzle piece that finally pulls everything together. The two schemes that Allen and Williams have found the most infrequent success just so happens to be the coverages Tyron has taken preliminary steps toward becoming one of the most dangerous threats in the entire league. With the numbers from the last three seasons considered, Johnson ranks second-best with 0.70 FPs/route vs. Cover 2 and leads all WRs with 1.32 FPs/route vs. Cover 6. He may yet to qualify, but his talents are simply a perfect fit for those of Herbert.

As the writing suggests, the sky's the limit for this offense. Health permitting, a forward step from Herbert could be the catalyst for this franchise to one day threaten the Chiefs in the AFC West. Will it be the ‘21 season? While anything is possible, that is likely a bit too optimistic prior to collecting the needed depth for a significant run at an AFC crown. However, the current state of this offense exceeds everyone on the planet's expectations so quickly following the departure of Rivers.

Defensive

Did new HC Brandon Staley have the benefit of two of the finest defensive specimens in NFL history while working as DC of the Rams? Without a doubt, yes. Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey continue to set the standard at their respective positions, providing otherworldly play despite every single offense scheming ways to eliminate their talents from the results. But should we write off the success of the LAR defense, Staley as the singular benefit of their presence? Ramsey wasn’t traded to the Rams until October of 2019 but, in those games that he played, his new team finished with a 6-4 record. Overall, Los Angeles compiled a 9-7 record. And submitted a far cry from the extraordinary defensive results from the ‘20 season under Staley.

Does that all mean we can expect the Chargers’ defense to follow a similar path of excellence? Donald and Joey Bosa play entirely different positions, with the focus of their attacks aiming to accomplish the exact same result, but using entirely different techniques. Donald may simply be the top non-QB performer in all of football. And that’s not a title that should be tossed around lightly. Bosa, on the other hand, like every other defender on the planet, fails to match up to Donald. But Bosa does provide Staley with one of the finest edge defenders in the game. And the only other edge in the game that may surpass Bosa’s play is T.J. Watt. When it comes to rostering anyone comparable to Ramsey, allowing Casey Hayward Jr. to bolt to the Raiders took away the closest thing the Chargers had to a corner possessing that elite potential. Even at Hayward’s best, he wasn’t coming anywhere close to Ramsey’s skill. So, expectations should be focused on LAC showing gradual signs of improvement under an all-new staff likely making a variety of adjustments.

It’s really not much of a surprise that the Chargers struggled to find consistency in coverage. Star strong safety Derwin James didn’t play a single snap due to a torn meniscus, while Hayward and Chris Harris Jr. also missed time. That said, their Cover 3 and Cover 3-Seam heavy shells made life very difficult for opposing WRs. The issues came in defending receiving RBs and athletic, move TEs. Much of that can be explained away by the absence of James. Although, if James returns healthy, it’s very likely he’ll find the defense has shifted to a considerably different schematic rotation under new DC Renaldo Hill. It shouldn’t be too difficult of a transition for a healthy James, especially with an expected third-year improvement from FS Nasir Adderly.

As far as the specific coverage rotation we can expect from Hill, it’s very likely we’ll see a similar approach to the one he coached to the Broncos the last two seasons under DC Ed Donatell. Denver really made life difficult on the coverage reading front for opposing QBs last season. They rotated top-five rates of Cover 6, Cover 3-Seam, and Cover 0, ranking as the fourth-most exotic scheme rotation in my coverage algorithm. It’s a unique rotation that is unlike any other, most closely resembling the schemes of the Bears — which is not at all surprising since Donatell previously worked as the DBs coach in Chicago (2015-18). If that is, in fact, similar to the rotation that we can expect, the Chargers will already offer the skill at safety to pull off the Cover 6. Since the previous staff relied on the 3-Seam, that component will proceed naturally.

What about the CBs, will they handicap the defense? While he didn’t exactly blow up last season, Michael Davis did prove to the front office that he was able to maintain his efficiency while taking on a 38% increase in coverage snaps. Let’s also not forget that Chris Harris Jr. will be reuniting with his former DBs coach from his Broncos days (Hill). With that knowledge, we already know Harris is likely considered the CB1 in the secondary, continuing to mainly work out of the slot. GM Tom Telesco also drafted Asante Samuel Jr. out of Florida State in the second round. Samuel will get some camp competition from Tevaughn Campbell, but will be the favorite to start opposite Davis at LCB.

With the defense shifting away from its Cover 3-heavy approach, it’s no surprise they allowed Denzel Perryman to leave via free agency. Be that as it may, it was quite shocking when they didn’t address ILB in either free agency or the draft. With ‘20 first-round MIKE Kenneth Murray still working on his consistency, pairing him with the equally inconsistent Kyzir White at WILL will most definitely guarantee their issues defending receiving backs and TEs will not be corrected anytime soon. Far from a weakness that could destroy playoff hopes, but it’s important to remember that the Chargers play in a division with the Chiefs (Travis Kelce), Raiders (Darren Waller), and Broncos (Noah Fant).

The unique changes likely in store for the Chargers’ defense have proven to give recognition fits to offenses in recent seasons. For that reason, targeting LAC with our QB and WR assets will require extensive research. But we should have smooth sailing using our RBs and TEs based on the current state of the LB unit. On a final note, watch out for a dominant return from James that could force us to adjust that approach.

Projected Fantasy Contributors

Justin Herbert (Proj: QB12 | ADP: 66 | Pos ADP: QB6)

After a stellar rookie season, Herbert enters 2021 as a locked-in top-8 QB by ADP. It’s obviously merited. After Tyrod Taylor unceremoniously lost his job in Week 2, Herbert became one of the most valuable waiver wire pickups of the season. Herbert finished as a QB1 (top-12) in nine of his 15 starts, ending the year with just as many QB1 weeks as Russell Wilson. The bulk numbers are even more impressive. In 15 starts, Herbert ended with the second-most yards (4,336), the most TDs (31), the second-highest completion rate (66.6%), and the third-most fantasy points per game (22.2) by a rookie QB all-time. However, there is some pause for concern. First and foremost, you’ve got to draft Herbert in the sixth or seventh round of drafts right now — usually ahead of Russell Wilson and Jalen Hurts. While the hype around Herbert is deserved, he is priced near his ceiling because he has limited rushing upside. In the nine games that Austin Ekeler started with Herbert last year, Herbert was much more content to dump the ball off to his back and not scramble. With Ekeler on the field, Herbert averaged just 3.1 rushing attempts per game. For reference, Ryan Tannehill has carried the ball exactly 3.1 times per game over the last two years. Now-Eagles OC Shane Steichen did a phenomenal job mentoring and coaching Herbert last year, but the Chargers are onto a new play-caller in Joe Lombardi in 2021. Lombardi has only called plays in one full season in his NFL coaching career with the Lions in 2014 where his offense finished a mediocre 23rd in points scored per game. Between his price, scrambling concerns, and regime change, we are much lower on Herbert than the market.

Austin Ekeler (Proj: RB15 | ADP: 8 | Pos ADP: RB7)

The first round of drafts is incredibly RB-heavy and Ekeler has steadily crept into that conversation all summer long. Even though he missed most of the middle of the season with a bad hamstring tear, there isn’t any injury discount here. Ekeler is Alvin Kamara-lite and he thrived off of a high volume receiving role last year. In fact, in the eight games that Herbert started, Ekeler averaged a position-high 13 fantasy points per game on his receiving stats. For reference, Kamara averaged 12.6 FPG as a receiver in 15 games. Also, Ekeler’s target share was 20%, which would’ve ranked second-highest among RBs behind Kamara (22%). And that role and production led to an extremely high floor in fantasy. These were Ekeler’s weekly finishes with Herbert under center (PPR scoring): RB15 > RB3 > RB8 > RB23 > RB8 > RB27 > RB16 > RB15. Not too bad! Those finishes shake out to low-end RB1, high-end RB2 numbers — which is exactly where he’s getting drafted. Plus, the addition of OC Joe Lombardi might help Ekeler soar to new heights as a receiver. Back in May, The Athletic’s Daniel Popper mentioned that Ekeler is a “perfect fit” in Lombardi’s offense and that the new OC will “have a field day with him, lining him up out wide, in the slot and in the backfield.” It’s worth noting that Joique Bell and Reggie Bush led the Lions backfield in 2014 when Lombardi was OC and combined for the most targets (153) and third-most receptions among RBs (113). However, while Ekeler is a fine PPR back, the biggest concern is his lack of touchdown upside. Last year, Ekeler was not the goal-line back. Over the last six weeks of the season (Weeks 12-17), Ekeler handled just two carries inside of the 5-yard line while Justin Herbert and Kalen Ballage both had 5 goal-line carries. Will the new coaching staff let him score touchdowns? Because that is the last thing we need from Ekeler for him to really hit a big ceiling season. For that reason, we are lower on Ekeler than consensus and have him below backs like Joe Mixon who has his goal-line role locked down.

Larry Rountree III (Proj: RB65 | ADP: 272 | Pos ADP: RB108)

Rountree, Justin Jackson, and Joshua Kelley are all fighting for two roster spots. Granted, he was a sixth-round pick, but there is definitely something to the Chargers new staff hand-picking the rookie Rountree. New OC Joe Lombardi may view Rountree as the change-up and goal-line back complement to Austin Ekeler, especially since he has no allegiance to Jackson or Kelley. Last year at Missouri, Rountree was a workhorse back and handled a 2021 class-high 77% of the RB carries.

Justin Jackson (Proj: RB71 | ADP: 271 | Pos ADP: RB107)

Jackson is a potential cut candidate competing with Rountree and Joshua Kelley for the Chargers No. 2 RB duties. Kelley really struggled in his rookie season, earning a lowly 33% success rate on his carries. That ranked 60th out of 63 qualifying RBs. Jackson’s success rate (37%) wasn’t much better, but his yards per carry (4.7) was significantly better than Kelley’s (3.2). Still, with a new staff in LA, Jackson will have to prove himself in camp.

Keenan Allen (Proj: WR10 | ADP: 30 | Pos ADP: WR10)

Keenan has quietly been a top-10 fantasy option in three of the last four seasons, including last season when he slipped outside of the top-50 picks because of concerns over his quarterback change. Allen lost the only quarterback he’d ever known with Philip Rivers bolting for Indianapolis, but he didn’t experience a dip in production with rookie Justin Herbert immediately stepping into the lineup and playing like a seasoned pro. Keenan posted 100/992/8 receiving (9.9 YPR) on 147 targets to finish as the WR6 with 17.7 FPG in 14 games. He missed the final two games of last season with a hamstring injury, which were his first missed games since 2016. Allen has posted 97+ catches in four straight seasons with an average of 100.8 catches per season in that span. His 403 catches since 2017 rank behind only DeAndre Hopkins (430) and Michael Thomas (418) and his 591 targets rank behind only Hopkins (647). On a negative note, his YPR dipped below 10 yards for the first time in his career as his aDOT sat at an ugly 7.2 yards last season. We’ll see if he gets healthier targets this season under new OC Joe Lombardi and with Herbert another year along in his development. He’s unlikely to erupt for a top-three performance at the position because he doesn’t produce enough big plays, but he’s a safe third-round pick as a low-end WR1 since he’s going to give his owners steady fantasy production with his healthy share of targets.

Mike Williams (Proj: WR46 | ADP: 108 | Pos ADP: WR46)

Williams is looking to become the next talented first-round pick to break out in the fifth and final year of his rookie contract like DeVante Parker (2019) and Corey Davis (2020) before him. The 2017 No. 7 pick posted 48/756/5 receiving (15.8 YPR) on 85 targets for a disappointing 10.2 FPG in 15 games last season. His aDOT has sat at 14.5 yards or more and his YPR has sat at 15.4 yards or more in each of the last three seasons, but Williams has yet to average more than 6.0 targets per game in his first four seasons. He also averaged a meager 8.9 YPT playing with standout rookie Justin Herbert. Williams has been a player who has found ways to disappoint when he’s been in seemingly great positions to succeed in the last couple of seasons. It’s setting up well for him this season with Hunter Henry leaving town, but Keenan Allen and Austin Ekeler are still here vacuuming up targets while Jalen Guyton and Tyron Johnson impressed when they got chances to play last season. ​​New OC Joe Lombardi is betting on Williams putting up better numbers this season. Williams will be playing the X receiver in Lombardi’s New Orleans’ style offense, and Lombardi said the position naturally gets production because of the nature of the offense. Williams’ ADP has been on the rise this summer but he’s still worth a look in the WR4 range in case this is the season he’s finally able to put it all together in an offense that could be better suited for him with an ascending second-year quarterback.

Jalen Guyton (Proj: WR104 | ADP: 481 | Pos ADP: WR164)

A pair of second-year UDFA pros in Guyton and Tyron Johnson each saw increased opportunities to play with Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, and both receivers took advantage of their chances to operate as downfield threats for the big-armed Justin Herbert. Guyton finished with 28/511/3 receiving on 55 targets and he averaged 18.3 YPR while playing 78% of the snaps in 16 games. Johnson posted 20/398/3 receiving on 26 targets and he averaged 19.9 YPR while playing 23% of the snaps in 12 games. Guyton will have the leg up to be the #3 WR for Herbert, but Johnson and third-round pick Josh Palmer will challenge him for playing time. New OC Joe Lombardi could elect to rotate all three WRs on the perimeter across from Williams so it’s tough to get too excited about Guyton heading into his third season. Guyton, with his 4.35-speed, should stick in his field-stretching role in 2021 but he’s off the radar in all but the deepest formats heading into the season.

Joshua Palmer (Proj: WR115 | ADP: 432 | Pos ADP: WR144)

The Chargers drafted Palmer in the third round to potentially be the team’s top perimeter WR starting in 2022. Mike Williams is entering the final year of his rookie contract and a strong rookie season from Palmer could make Williams expendable this off-season, who has mostly underwhelmed for the franchise in his first four seasons. Palmer comes to the NFL with his own underwhelming resume at Tennessee having failed to reach 500+ receiving yards or 35+ receptions in any of his four seasons with the Volunteers. He has excellent size (6’2”, 210 pounds) and speed (4.51 40-time) to excel on the perimeter, and he’ll look to beat out Jalen Guyton and Tyron Johnson to be the #3 WR behind Keenan Allen and Williams. Palmer makes for an interesting late-round pick in rookie dynasty drafts since he’ll be attached to Justin Herbert for the next four years, but he’s off the radar in 2021 season-long leagues.

Jared Cook (Proj: TE26 | ADP: 196 | Pos ADP: TE24)

Cook joined his fifth team in the last seven seasons as he replaced Hunter Henry as Los Angeles’ top TE. Cook had a perfect environment to be more active in his second season in New Orleans with Michael Thomas out of the lineup for nine games last season. It didn’t pan out for Cook, though, who saw more than five targets just once in 15 games last season. Cook had his worst season in the last four years with 37/504/7 receiving on 60 targets to finish as the TE20 with 8.6 FPG. He scored 6+ TDs for the third straight season after failing to hit that mark in each of his first nine seasons, and he owned a ridiculous 12.8% TD rate the last two seasons (16 TDs on 125 targets). Cook will get a shot of life going from the noodle-armed Drew Brees to Justin Herbert, who has a much stronger arm to take advantage of Cooks’ downfield ability. Cook averaged 13.2 YPR or better in each of his last three seasons so he’s still moving well and stretching the seams despite his advanced football age. Cook has also worked with OC Joe Lombardi in New Orleans the last two seasons, which should help him hold off prospect Donald Parham early in the season. Cook averaged just 4.3 targets per game playing next to Thomas the last two seasons. He should see a slight uptick in targets but it’s unlikely to be too dramatic of an increase since he’ll be playing next to another ball-hog in Keenan Allen. Cook has low-end TE2 potential and he’s better suited for best ball formats since he’s reliant on touchdowns and big plays for production.

Donald Parham (Proj: TE47 | ADP: — | Pos ADP: —)

Parham starred in the XFL last winter before he latched on with the Chargers for the 2020 season. The 24-year-old prospect is massive (6’8”, 255 pounds) and dripping with athleticism with 4.67-speed and a 38.5-inch vertical. The Chargers must be at least a little bit intrigued by Parham since they let Hunter Henry walk in free agency this off-season. However, they weren’t interested in outright handing him the job since they signed veteran Jared Cook to a one-year deal and they drafted developmental prospect Tre’ McKitty in the third round. Parham posted a silly three touchdowns on just 20 targets last season as he finished with 10/159/3 receiving (15.9 YPR) in his limited opportunities in 13 games. He impressed with 5/84/1 receiving on seven targets in the final two games with Henry on the sidelines. We’ll see if Parham is ready to take on a bigger role this season but, at the very least, he should see increased snaps in red-zone packages, which isn’t the best news for the rest of the fantasy-relevant Chargers. Parham is a player to follow in August in case he makes a run for the starting job ahead of Cook, and he should be considered in the later rounds of deeper, TE-premium leagues.

Tre’ McKitty (Proj: TE56 | ADP: — | Pos ADP: —)

The Chargers drafted McKitty in the third round this spring for what he could become in the future, but he’s unlikely to have a massive role as first-year pro behind Jared Cook and Donald Parham. McKitty was strictly used as a big and athletic blocker at both Florida State (2017-19) and Georgia (2020), but he has some receiving traits to potentially be developed. He managed just 56/628/3 receiving in 42 college games so he’s certainly going to be a work in progress in the passing game early in his career. The Chargers won’t ask too much from McKitty this season but they want him to be the long-term solution at the position after the franchise let Hunter Henry walk in free agency this off-season. He’s strictly a late-round rookie dynasty prospect entering the 2021 season.

Final Points

We, like everyone else, undersold Justin Herbert last summer, and that was a mistake in my mind as early as the first half of Herbert’s first game, since he was outstanding from his first snap on. However, I’ve seen many young QBs take a small step back after opening their careers like gangbusters, and part of that is the fact that teams are able to study their pro tape, which is especially the case when the same size is large, as it is with Herbert with 15 starts. Herbert is also learning a new offense with an OC in Joe Lombardi, whose track record isn’t all that great. Herbert can overcome any and all obstacles because he’s so physically gifted, smart, and poised, plus they have done a nice job upgrading the OL. so that’s not a problem. The problem is the cost. Herbert in the sixth or seventh round this summer is just too rich for me, considering the plethora of viable alternatives who are considerably cheaper. Justin Fields, for example, is going off the board 80-90 picks later, and I can see Fields out-producing Herbert in his starts if Herbert’s lack of running in the second half of the season continues (only 68 rushing yards in his final eight games).

Austin Ekeler (Proj: RB15 | ADP: 8 | Pos ADP: RB7)

Look, I know he’s a baller and he’s special, and many of our staff love him a lot more than me, but like Herbet, I have an issue with Ecker’s hefty price tag as the RB7 off the board and in the top-10 overall. His production when he played last year was great! But he missed six games, so he wasn’t that great of a pick. Fantasy owners seem to be focusing on his outstanding 2019 season in which he played all 16 games and he caught 92 balls with 8 TDs receiving which is incredible. But he’s also a guy who has only 9 TDs on the ground on 401 carries, and he totaled only 8 receiving TDs on his other 120 catches from 2020, 2018, and 2017. New OC Joe Lombardi might help Ekeler, as he got the Lions RBs the ball in the passing game when he was the OC for Detroit back in 2014. Of course, Lombardi was also fired from that post and his reputation overall isn’t great. I hate to hate on a talent like Ekeler, but I do no think he’s a #1 pick, and I’d only feel good about taking him at around 20 overall. Most likely, he’ll be off the board by then in PPR leagues.

The Chargers clearly need to work in a bigger back to complement the electric running of Austin Ekeler, and while it’s wide open heading into camp, I’d look at Rountree as the best candidate, since Justin Jackson can’t stay healthy and Joshua Kelley stunk as a rookie last year. Kelley was hand-picked by former HC Anthony Lynn; whereas Rountree was hand-picked by the new regime and staff, which is important to note. Rountree a downhill thumper type, and he was a workhorse back last year in college, handling a 2021 class-high 77% of the RB carries. With abn ADP of 270+ as of July, he’s a good bet to go down as a nice value, if not a steal. But check back with us at the end of August because the situation behind Ekeler is going to be fluid, at least for a little while, this summer.

One of my bigger mistakes last year was underselling Keenan Allen, just like I undersold Justin Herbert, but at least I saw the error in my ways quickly - very quickly. Honestly, I regretted my Allen position in Herbert’s first game, and I really, really regretted it a week later, when Allen caught an insane 13 of 19 targets against the Panthers. The duo looked like they had been together for five years that day. As mentioned above, Allen has quietly been a top-10 fantasy option in three of the last four seasons, including last season when he lost his HOF QB in Philip Rivers. He does still have lingering durability concerns with two games missed last year, and he’s not getting any younger at 29 years old, but he’s also posted 97+ catches in four straight seasons and has missed only those two games since 2016. It is a new and unproven OC in Joe Lombardi and I’m bracing for a small step back for Herbert this year, but the steady Allen is still at the top of his game, so I’m very okay with him as a WR1 in the third round.

In the final year of his rookie deal, it’s put up or shut up time for former #1 pick Mike Williams. He’s shown major baller abilities as a downfield, red zone, and contested-catch guy, but he’s still a little too one-dimensional, and his volume is usually low, as he’s yet to average more than 6 targets a game for a season in his career. He didn’t click particularly well with Herbert, who seemed to work well with some unheralded wideouts on the squad like Jalen Guyton and Tyron Johnson. Herbert should be better with Williams as they work primarily together, as opposed to last summer when Herbert was the #2, and he’s not that pricey with an ADP of WR46 and 108 overall. He is expected to get more targets, as Lombardi likes his style of play. His ADP is right around where we have him, but ideally, he slips a round or two and stands out more as a pick. Otherwise, I’m not expecting to buy totally into the off-season hype and target him at his ADP.

When it comes to the depth chart at WR behind starters Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, it’s really too early and too close to take a strong position on anyone. Jalen Guyton was quite good in 2020, averaging 18.3 YPR while playing 78% of the snaps in 16 games. So he’s the favorite to have a chance to produce for fantasy. But we also have Tyron Johnson, who was also impressive, plus I really like third-round pick Josh Palmer as a prospect. This looks like it could be a rotation, so these guys are all WW options only.

Drafted in the third round to potentially start in 1-2 years, Palmer is a guy who could have been drafted to replace 2022 free agent Mike Williams next year, so he’s someone to keep an eye on, especially if Williams has more injury problems. Palmer’s numbers weren’t great at Tennessee, but he suffered from poor QB play, and he does have plenty of talent that he flashed at the Senior Bowl. Palmer is a good late-round pick in rookie dynasty drafts, but he’s only a potential WW add for 2021.

A TE nomad, Jared Cook is joining his fifth team in the last seven seasons, but the thing is he’s been pretty damn good in each spot, including New Orleans, where he scored 16 TDs his last two seasons. Cook rarely got great volume on the Saints, though, and he saw more than five targets just once in 15 games last season. He’s unlikely to get a lot of volume with the Chargers, who have a ton of sizable receivers (including athletic TE Donald Parham), but Cook does get an upgrade in terms of downfield passing going from Drew Brees to Justin Herbert, and Cook on film can still run well. Cook made a ton of sense for the Chargers, who lost Hunter Henry, especially since he’s worked with new OC Joe Lombardi in New Orleans the last two seasons. His ADP of 175+ means he’s a good bet to return well on his investment, especially in best ball.

He was actually in the XFL last year, and he was a complete unknown heading into 2020 on the Chargers. But then he quickly became known, when he scored 3 TDs on only 20 targets. He’s definitely a good prospect at 6’8”, 255 pounds with 4.67-speed, and LA did let young star Hunter Henry walk in free agency. But until we see the wheels fall off Jared Cook, the smart money is on the veteran to lead their TE group, which also includes rookie Tre’ McKitty, a third round pick.

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