Super Chargers

Don't sleep on San Diego this season in the AFC

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Predicting the NFL can be an illogical exercise. Analysts do their best to solve an equation with few or sometimes no constants; perhaps there is one factor that is definite, but there is almost assuredly one that is random, unpredictable or totally untrue.

The San Diego Chargers entered 2014 as a logical growth candidate, a team with the potential to jump from nine wins to double-digits. While the win total remained static, the team’s overall performance retreated in quality due to a mix of actions and reactions, both predictable and not. San Diego hit the glass ceiling last year because of a combination of injuries at key positions, a loss of tempo after offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt’s departure and a lack of development from several young players on both sides of the ball.

The lessons we take from right and wrong evaluations can and should be informative. In hindsight, a second-year regression for wideout Keenan Allen was logical. Rookies often struggle transitioning from their maiden-year success due to any number of factors, including, but not limited to, teams gaining a better understanding of their skills during the offseason to the sudden influx of free time as a self-reliant professional. Injuries to running back Ryan Mathews and linebacker Melvin Ingram were also foreseeable, as both have struggled to remain healthy since turning pro.

Going forward, we can then apply these lessons to an evaluation of the current version of the Chargers, a team once again with the potential to take a notable leap forward in the AFC’s power structure.

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Philip Rivers is awesome.

The bolo-tie-wearing, prolifically procreating gunslinger is a master of the quarterback arts. Initially chided for his off-kilter release and funky mechanics, Rivers has developed into one of the most accurate passers in the game. His shot-put-like release propels the ball out of his hand at lightning speed, while his anticipation skills and ability to scan the field both before and after the snap allow Rivers to fit the ball into virtually non-existent throwing windows. Left for dead a few years ago, Rivers’ stock skyrocketed under the tutelage of coach Mike McCoy and Whisenhunt. Over the past two seasons, only Drew Brees has completed a higher percentage of his passes than Rivers. Rivers’ 7.10 adjusted net yards per attempt is also good enough for fifth in that time frame.

Rivers’ most impressive skill may be his ability to maneuver within a muddy pocket. Like a stray cat stuck in the middle of a midtown traffic jam, Rivers maintains his base while sliding delicately in any number of directions to account for pressure. Last season, Rivers was authoring perhaps his best year yet through the first eight weeks but eventually the weight of dismal guard play and five (you read that correctly) starting centers won out. This season, Rivers will play behind a much stronger offensive line, with free-agent guard Orlando Franklin and the move of D.J. Fluker inside the most notable improvements. If they remain healthy, the five-man unit is good enough to hold up in pass protection, but their real strength will be in the run game.

After they made up a crucial element of the Chargers’ offense in 2013, Mathews and Danny Woodhead were injured last year, dealing a crushing blow to McCoy’s offense, as their rushing DVOA sank from 12th in 2013 to 25th. Mathews was allowed to walk in free agency, replaced by dynamic Wisconsin back Melvin Gordon. While the rookie has yet to impress in preseason action – appearing hesitant at the line of scrimmage, like a squirrel hearing footsteps – the return to health of Woodhead might prove more important.

When healthy in 2013, Woodhead racked up 1,034 total yards on 182 touches, including 76 receptions. Moreover, Woodhead’s presence can force defenses to reveal their coverages pre-snap. For an offense built upon short drops and shallow routes, the ability to discern a safety’s intent or the location of an impending blitzer can be the difference between a sack and a first down. Rivers is better than most at making those reads and eviscerating the opposition.

Without their mismatch-creator in the backfield, San Diego’s shotgun-heavy, no-huddle attack lost its steam. After finishing first or second in the NFL in nearly every pace statistic in 2013, the Chargers sank to middle of the pack by the end of last season. Thus far in August, the Chargers’ tempo appears to have quickened, a boon to Rivers, Woodhead and a third-year wideout who slid off the fast track in 2013.

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Keenan Allen took the NFL world by storm in his rookie year.

The third-round pick out of Cal proved an adept fit for McCoy’s offense, quickly developing a rapport with Rivers. Allen’s instinctual understanding of the position, strong hands and impressive (for his age and experience level) grasp on route running proved difficult for cornerbacks to handle. Allen proved capable of turning short passes into big gains, averaging six yards after the catch and leading the Chargers with 16 receptions of 20-plus yards.

Allen’s sophomore campaign did not go as planned. Amid rumblings of a lagging work ethic, Allen’s yards after the catch average dropped two full yards, and he managed only six receptions of 20-plus yards. After dropping six pounds to return to his Draft Combine weight of 206, Allen appears on track for a return to form in 2014 alongside new addition Stevie Johnson and vertical threat Malcom Floyd.

Replacing the departed Eddie Royal, Johnson is a perfect fit for Rivers and this offense. Over the past two seasons with Rivers, Royal averaged 54 receptions, 704 yards and eight touchdowns. A crisp route-runner, Johnson is more talented and productive than Royal, and his ability to line up both inside and outside gives the Chargers a dangerous threat to pair with Allen and the long-striding Floyd.

The trio can expect to be targeted early and often this year, as tight end Antonio Gates serves a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy. Artificially enhanced or not, Gates proved ageless again last season, finishing second in the team in targets, receptions and yards while leading the team in touchdowns. Much of Gates’ work came over the middle of the field, where he caught 48 of his 69 passes.

Gates’ absence is concerning, as is the potential that his work last season was aided by an artificial substance. But this was the first failed test for the future Hall of Famer, whose numbers have remained extremely consistent over the past five seasons.  Also worth noting, a four-game break at the beginning of the season should help Gates remain fresh down the stretch and into the playoffs should the Chargers reach their potential.

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As potentially efficient and lethal as the Chargers’ offense could be, San Diego’s defense remains the wobbly leg that could ruin the entire table.

For two years, the Chargers’ defense has lagged behind the other side of the ball, finishing 28th in adjusted defensive DVOA in 2013 and 21st in 2014. The lack of success can be traced to a multitude of factors, not the least of which is an inability to draft and develop difference-makers in the front seven. Since Shawne Merriman’s meteoric rise and fall, the Chargers have yet to produce a Pro Bowl player on the defensive line or at linebacker.

Despite a hefty offseason payday, defensive tackle Corey Liuget has yet to prove himself as anything better than average through four NFL seasons, while end Kendall Reyes has been a disaster through two years.  At linebacker, the Chargers have drafted four players in the first two rounds since 2012, with none proving to be a difference-maker thus far. Rush backer Melvin Ingram and inside backer Manti Te’o have yet to remain healthy or effective, while Donald Butler thoroughly disappointed in the first year of new deal in 2014. Both Ingram and Butler arrived at camp lighter this year, a trait noticeable in the improved speed of the linebackers overall in preseason. With veteran Dwight Freeney gone, both Ingram and second-year rusher Jerry Attaochu will be crucial to boosting a pass-rush that totaled just 26 sacks last season.

A buoyed pass-rush could go a long way to improving last year’s 25th-ranked pass defense, according to Football Outsiders. The Chargers already have the makings of a stellar secondary built around second-year corner Jason Verrett, veteran Brandon Flowers and all-world safety Eric Weddle. Verrett, in particular, is on his way to becoming a breakout star following an exciting eight-game stint as a rookie.

In a flawed conference, the Chargers don’t need a top-10 defense to contend. Among the AFC’s top four to five teams, there isn’t a single team on the level of the Green Bay Packers or Seattle Seahawks – even the defending champion New England Patriots have questions in their secondary and at wide receiver. If San Diego can muster a top-seven offense – they were fourth, according to FO in 2013 – and a middle-of-the-pack defense, there’s every reason to believe the Chargers will chase double-digit wins, a playoff berth and maybe even a division title if the Denver Broncos come back to earth.

If things go to plan, that is.