Entering the most important season in franchise history, the San Diego Chargers opened training camp with a number of questions, both on and off the field, as they prepare to open the 2016 season at Kansas City on Sept. 11.
For the second consecutive year Chargers’ players will start their season with uncertainty — will the franchise remain in San Diego or is a partnership with the Rams and a return move to Los Angeles in their future?
For the purposes of this story, we will put the stadium issue aside and focus on the team itself as head coach Mike McCoy enters his fourth season sporting a 23-27 record.
Will the offensive line stay healthy enough to establish an effective run game and keep quarterback Philip Rivers upright throughout the season? Can running back Melvin Gordon bounce back after a disastrous rookie season? Did General Manager Tom Telesco acquire enough talent to successfully offset the key veterans that are no longer with the team? Will the return of offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt spark the offense as it did in 2013 when Rivers led the team to a playoff run under his tutelage? What kind of impact will the return of a healthy Keenan Allen have on the team?
Although we will not know the answer to these questions, and many others, until the season plays out, there is one basic question we can attempt to answer — are the 2016 Chargers a better team entering this season than the unit that finished last season 4-12?
The only way to approach this is to look at the key roster additions versus the key roster subtractions, and speculate whether this team is stronger or weaker heading into the season.
Additions: DT Brandon Mebane, WR/KR Travis Benjamin, CB Casey Hayward, S Dwight Lowery, C Matt Slauson, TE’s Jeff Cumberland and Sean McGrath, WR James Jones. Rookies: DE Joey Bosa, TE Hunter Henry, C Max Tuerk, LB Joshua Perry, LB Jatavis Brown, FB Derek Watt and OG Donavon Clark.
Subtractions: S Eric Weddle, WR Malcom Floyd, DE Kendall Reyes, TE Ladarius Green, P Mike Scifres, CB Patrick Robinson, C Trevor Robinson, LB’s Donald Butler and Kavell Connor, RB Donald Brown, TE’s David Johnson and John Phillips.
As with any football team at every level, to be successful it all starts up front with the offensive and defensive lines so that is where we begin.
Aside from the quarterback position, it could be argued that center is the second-most important position on the team. He is not only the leader up front calling the line schemes, but he touches the ball on every offensive play, and without the correct quarterback/center relationship, the team will continually struggle to be successful.
One only has to look at the last two seasons as evidence — the Chargers were not prepared for the sudden retirement of then starting center Nick Hardwick prior to the 2014 season. The staff realized the Chris Watt, Trevor Robinson and others at center experiment wasn’t getting it done and when Matt Slausson was cut by the Bears, Telesco wasted no time signing him to a contract.
What Slausson brings to the team is exactly what was missing once Hardwick left — a tough, smart, feisty veteran who will defend both his quarterback and teammates when the play on the field gets down and dirty. A solid veteran with respected locker room presence, you can bet there will be no more cheap shots on Rivers without retaliation.
Key Stats: Per Pro Football Focus (PFF), the Chargers offensive line recorded a pass-blocking efficiency of 67.6 (the worst mark in the league) and RT Joe Barksdale was the only O-lineman to play 1,100 or more snaps, but also the only one to earn an above-average grade. The Chargers O-Line experienced 24 line changes throughout the season last year.
It’s been six long seasons since the great Jamal Williams left the Chargers to sign with Denver in 2010. In Brandon Mebane the team finally landed the prototypical defensive tackle built to stabilize the front seven of a 3-4 defense. While comparisons to Williams would be unfair to Mebane — Williams dominated the position for a decade — what he does bring to the team is the same intangibles on and off the field as Slausson, the man he will battle daily in practice.
Entering his 10th NFL season, the 6-foot-1-inch, 311-pound Mebane spent his first nine seasons with the Seahawks after being drafted out of Cal Berkley in the third round of the 2007 NFL Draft. In addition to starting 134 out of 142 games, Mebane brings the experience of starting nine out of 11 playoff games — another major intangible he brings to a young defensive unit.
Key Stats: The Chargers rush defense finished last season ranked 27th, allowing a 4.8 yard average and 125.3 yards per game. They were 20th in overall defense and 27th in sacks with 32. Mebane’s career totals (including playoffs) are 386 tackles, 15.5 sacks and a pair of forced fumbles. He was named All-Pro by Sports Illustrated in 2013.
While the decision not to re-sign All-Pro safety Eric Weddle raised many eyebrows, Telesco didn’t bat an eye when he signed the well-traveled veteran Dwight Lowery to replace him. Despite the fact that Weddle was a veteran defensive leader and arguably the best free safety in franchise history, Telesco liked Lowery’s ball-hawking skills and his veteran presence in a young secondary.
However, as with Mebane to Williams, expecting Lowery to fill Weddle’s shoes is unfair — Weddle is a five-time All-Pro and a three-time Pro Bowl participant.
Drafted in the ninth round by the New York Jets in 2008, Lowery has played for four teams in eight years — New York (2008-10), Jacksonville (2011-13), Atlanta (2014) and Indianapolis (2015). The 5-foot-11-inch, 212-pound free safety has started 73 of 106 games in the NFL, including six games and one start in the postseason, and he has 399 career tackles (postseason included).
Key Stats: Despite having started far fewer games in the NFL than Weddle (73 to 142), Lowery and Weddle share some striking similarities in the turnover department. Entering his ninth season, Lowery’s career totals (postseason included) include 16 interceptions (three returned for touchdowns), five sacks, eight forced fumbles, seven fumble recoveries and 60 passes defended. As he begins his 10th season, Weddle’s career totals (postseason included) include 19 interceptions (three returned for touchdowns), 6.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and 71 passes defended.
Travis Benjamin & James Jones
While the Chargers will likely miss Malcom Floyd’s ability to stretch the field and his height advantage in the red zone, the addition of the speedy, duel-threat Travis Benjamin adds a dimension to the offense the team hasn’t seen since the great Darren Sproles.
On the first day of free agency the Chargers quickly signed the diminutive 5-foot-10-inch, 175-pound Benjamin to a four-year deal. A former fourth-round pick of the Cleveland Browns, Benjamin is coming off a career-best season in which he posted 1,302 all-purpose yards, including single-season bests in receptions (68), receiving yards (966) and touchdowns catches (five).
Entering his fifth season, Benjamin’s career totals include 109 catches for 1,683 yards (15.4 average) and 10 touchdowns; 68 punt returns for 857 yards (12.6 average) with three touchdowns; 14 rushes for 134 yards (9.6 average), and 18 kickoff returns for 468 yards (26.0 average).
Key Stats: In his short career, Benjamin is a three-time AFC Special Teams Player of the Week. His three punt return touchdowns is tied for second-most in Browns history and his 12.6-yard punt return average over the 2012-15 seasons was the highest in the NFL. Benjamin also holds the team records for punt return yards in a game (179) and the longest punt return (93 yards).
In another addition to the receiving corps, the Chargers signed veteran receiver James Jones to replace Stevie Johnson who suffered a season-ending knee injury the first week of training camp.
Inked to a one-year deal, the 6-foot-1-inch, 200-pound Jones is entering his 10th season having played eight in Green Bay (2007-13 and 2015) and one with Oakland (2014). Drafted in the third round out of San Jose State in 1987, Jones’ regular-season career totals include 433 receptions, 5,861 yards and 51 touchdowns. For his career, Jones has started 72 of the 136 regular-season games he has appeared in.
Key Stats: Jones led the NFL with a career-high 14 touchdown catches for the Packers in 2012. In 2014 and 2015, Jones caught a career-best 73 passes for the Raiders and totaled a career-high 890 yards for the Packers, respectively. He has appeared in a total of 13 postseason games, including six starts, where he caught 35 passes for 491 yards and for touchdowns. He won a Super Bowl ring with the Packers following the 2010 season.
Looking to upgrade the secondary, Telesco signed former Packers cornerback Casey Hayward to a three-year contract. Like Benjamin, Hayward was also signed the first day of free agency and the 26-year-old is expected to challenge Brandon Flowers for the starting cornerback spot opposite Jason Verrett.
Ranked 14th-overall on PFF’s top 75 free agent list for 2016, the versatile Hayward was part of a Packers secondary that finished last season ranked sixth in pass defense — the Chargers secondary finished the season ranked 14th (t) with just 11 interceptions.
Key Stats: Entering his fifth NFL Season, Hayward has started 20 out of the 51 games he has appeared in. The 5-foot-11-inch, 192-pound Hayward had a breakout rookie season in 2012 where he led all rookies with six interceptions and 21 passes defended. Playing both cornerback and nickel for the Packers, he has totaled 168 tackles, 35 passes defended, nine interceptions and one touchdown in his short career.
Weighing the additions versus the subtractions on a team that finished last season 4-12, one would say it is a no-brainer that this is a better football team — on paper at least. Aside from safety and season-ending injuries to both Cumberland and Clark, the team appears stronger than the unit that finished at the bottom of the AFC West last season.
The Endzone: When determining the success of the free agent additions and subtractions one must take into account the “in-house” free agents that re-sign with their respective team. For the Chargers, Telesco focused mainly on the offensive side of the ball by bringing back TE Antonio Gates and O-Lineman Joe Barksdale, Chris Hairston and Kenny Wiggins.
Re-singing Gates and Barksdale was expected and keeping both Hairston and Wiggins in the fold cannot be underestimated — the versatility they both showed last season was impressive. Hairston started 11 out of the 16 games he played in and saw time everywhere along the line except center. Wiggins, an undrafted free agent, played in 15 games last season, including the first eight starts of his NFL career. He started five games at left guard, four at right guard, and also played a few games at right tackle when injuries along the line forced him to move outside. It’s highly unlikely the injury-bug will bite the O-Line like it has the past two years, but if it does it appears they have the depth to withstand the onslaught.