As the organization prepares to open training camp as the Los Angeles Chargers for the first time since its inaugural season of 1960, there are many questions surrounding the team on both sides of the ball. The focus in this issue will be on the offense, where General Manager Tom Telesco made the biggest impact to the roster during the offseason via the draft and free agency.
While Telesco and the front office have received high grades for their personnel decisions, there are mainly three position concerns surrounding the offense — wide receiver, offensive line and running back.
Although reports have Keenan Allen fully recovered from the season-ending knee injury he suffered in the opening game last season, drafting Clemson receiver Mike Williams with the seventh pick in the first round must be looked at as insurance if Allen isn’t 100 percent. There is no question Allen has the talent, skills and mindset to be considered one of the best receivers in the NFL.
However, there is an old adage that states, “The best ability is availability,” and the fact that Allen has played in only nine games in the past two years has to be a concern.
As for Williams, reports the back injury he suffered during the first day of OTAs (Organized Team Activities) could be season-ending only exacerbates the injury bug that has plagued this team the past four years. A first-team, ALL-ACC pick in 2016 and a key member of last year’s National Champion team, Williams is denying reports the back injury will force him to miss his rookie season.
The good news for the team and quarterback Philip Rivers is there are other weapons in Rivers’ arsenal for him to throw to. In addition to Travis Benjamin, Tyrell Williams and Dontrelle Inman, Rivers still has future Hall-of-Famer Antonio Gates and Hunter Henry (2016 NFL All-Rookie Team) solidifying the tight end position.
With Rivers being the key to success, it’s a no-brainer as to why Telesco had to upgrade the line. Signing LT Russell Okung to a big-money contract was a bit of a surprise because of his injury issues throughout his career. Many scouts believe Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney, drafted in the second and third round, respectfully, could challenge for the starting guard positions as rookies.
It might not be sexy, but the position battles along the O-Line during training camp will be one to keep an eye on. In addition to Lamp and Freeney, rookie T Sam Tevi and second-year players Max Tuerk and Donavon Clark (neither of whom played as a rookie) will push returning veterans Matt Slauson (C-G), Spencer Pulley (C), Kenny Wiggins (G-T), Chris Hairston (T) and Joe Barksdale (RT) for playing time.
For the first time in a number of years it appears the line has a nice mixture of youth and veterans to not only battle for a starting position along the line, but also help keep Rivers from taking the same pounding he’s had to endure the past few years.
Most experts believe the foundation of a successful football team begins with the offensive line. For all the fans who complain when their team “wastes” high draft picks on O-Linemen, NFL writer Greg Rosenthal put it all in perspective. Rosenthal recently previewed the offense and reported, “In addition to the Chargers not having a top-10 running game over the past decade, Rivers (according to Pro Football Focus) has also not had a single season of above-average pass protection in a decade as well.” Therein lies a key factor contributing to the franchise’s woes the past 10 years.
Aside from missing the final three games last season due to a hip strain and knee sprain, Melvin Gordon couldn’t have a better sophomore season. Falling just three-yards short of 1,000 yards, Gordon scored a total of 12 touchdowns (10 rushing, 2 receiving) in 13 games after failing to score a single touchdown his rookie campaign. Like Allen, injuries have prevented Gordon from playing an entire season during his first two years in the NFL — a knee injury forced him to miss the final two games in 2015.
The big question is which running back is going to fill the shoes of Danny Woodhead, who signed a free agent contract with the Ravens. While Gordon proved he has the talent to be a three-down back following Woodhead’s season-ending injury in week two last season, it is believed new head coach Anthony Lynn, a former NFL running back himself, likes the idea of running a tandem backfield to keep Gordon fresh and healthy throughout the season.
Veterans Branden Oliver, Kenjon Barner, Kenneth Farrow and Andre Williams will compete to replace the versatility Woodhead provided Rivers — a familiar go-to coming out of the backfield on third downs. Despite limited playing time, fullback Derek Watt proved his worth as both a blocker and on special teams as a rookie last season.
If he can stay healthy, look for Gordon to surpass the 1,400 scrimmage yards he accumulated last season, which earned him his first Pro Bowl appearance.
The Endzone: Elliot Harrison of NFL Network says he wants Keenan Allen to come back big in 2017. Said Harrison, “I’m pulling for this guy, he’s been snake bitten his (entire) career and my bold prediction for him is he comes back from injury to lead the NFL in catches — over Antonio Brown, over Julio Jones — a couple of years ago he got hurt in week eight and he already had 67 catches. I think Keenan Allen can easily surpass over 100 catches and if he stays healthy he catches at least 125 balls.”
SB Nation’s Levi Damien recently listed Chargers’ Russell Okung and Joe Barksdale as the third best offensive tackle tandems in the AFC West.
“Okung comes over after one shaky season in Denver,” Damien wrote. “The oft injured tackle finished his first 16-game season of his career. Over those 16 games, he had 10 penalties — seven of which were for holding — and gave up four sacks. Even with his troubles in Denver, Okung stands to be an upgrade for a unit that gave up 238 pressures last season, which according to PFF stats is the most given up by a team in the past three years.
“Part of that insane pressures total falls on the man on the other side — former Raiders draft pick Joe Barksdale, who gave up a league-leading 10.5 of the team’s 36 sacks surrendered.”