NFL News & Analysis

Los Angeles Chargers 2021 free agency and NFL Draft preview

Dec 17, 2020; Paradise, Nevada, USA; Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) in the huddle with teammates against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In the lead-up to the start of free agency on March 17 and opening day of the 2021 NFL Draft on April 29, we'll be taking a position-by-position look at all 32 NFL teams with a focus on the starting spots that have question marks heading into next season.

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For seemingly the fifth straight year, the Los Angeles Chargers will garner the “potential sleeper” label heading into the 2021 season. They appear to have found their young quarterback of the future in Justin Herbert, and there is reason to believe that new head coach Brandon Staley can lead a defense that is plenty talented to become one of the most productive units in the NFL.

Now, all that remains is to see what goes wrong this time for a team that has been snake-bitten with injuries and has shown an inability to close out tight games over recent years. 

Projected cap space (Over the Cap): $23,801,246 (9th in NFL)

Picks in 2021 NFL Draft: 13, 47, 78, 109, 143, 174, 181, 205

Projected 2021 offense 
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
QB Justin Herbert 14 / 32 $6.0 million
RB Austin Ekeler 18 / 70 $5.8 million
WR Keenan Allen 11 / 127 $15.7 million
WR Mike Williams 49 / 127 $15.7 million
WR ?
TE ?
LT ?
LG ?
C ?
RG ?
RT Bryan Bulaga 28 / 38 $11.1 million

You never want to see that many question marks along the offensive line, but unfortunately for the Chargers, they once again find themselves with needs at almost all five positions heading into 2021. Dan Feeney, Forrest Lamp and Sam Tevi are all free agents following underwhelming 2020 performances. Meanwhile, Trai Turner is a likely cap casualty candidate after grading out as the worst qualifying right guard in all of football last season. None of his $11.5 million salary next season is guaranteed. 

The two other positions with potential turnover are at tight end, where Hunter Henry is once again an unrestricted free agent after playing the 2020 season on the franchise tag, and at WR3. Jalen Guyton provided some big plays for the Chargers in that role a year ago, but Los Angeles could still look for an upgrade at the position in the coming months. 

What are the areas where Justin Herbert stands to improve and regress?

Herbert was one of the best quarterbacks in the league last season under pressure. No quarterback earned a higher PFF passing grade when pressure got home than the Chargers rookie (75.4), and no one earned a higher passer rating on those throws than Herbert, either. Given how often he was under pressure behind a shaky offensive line, that was a big driver in his success in Year 1.

As much as Chargers fans don’t want to hear it, that isn’t likely to continue in 2021. Play under pressure simply isn’t as reliable from year to year as performance from a clean pocket, where Herbert’s 76.2 passing grade ranked just 24th out of 32 qualifying quarterbacks. 

The good news for Los Angeles is that there is reason to expect Herbert to improve in the more stable areas heading into his second season. The Chargers' offensive line can only improve after finishing the 2020 season ranked dead last in PFF’s offensive line rankings, and Herbert will now get a full offseason under his belt as the starter, albeit with a new play caller.    

How do the Chargers start their offensive line overhaul?

As a general rule of thumb, NFL teams should attack needs in free agency and draft for value. The Chargers are in a spot where they’ll likely need to add pieces to their offensive line through both free agency and the draft to field even an average unit up front in 2021. 

Los Angeles could opt to bring back a player like Lamp or Tevi to keep some semblance of continuity — potentially four starting spots is a lot to fill from outside the organization, after all — but the goal should be improving every position from left tackle to right guard. Free agent options who won’t be quite at the top of the market, such as Alejandro Villanueva and Austin Reiter, are who the Chargers should be prioritizing with multiple holes to fill. The depth of the 2021 offensive line draft class will play to their benefit, as well. 

An offseason without adding at least three quality starting options along the offensive line should be considered a failure. 

Should Los Angeles prioritize bringing back Hunter Henry?

This one comes down to the money that Henry can get on the open market. At 26 years old with multiple seasons of quality play on his resume, it’s not difficult to see why he would be appealing to teams at a position where there are few real difference makers in the NFL right now. 

There’s also reason to be hesitant about offering Henry a long-term deal that nears the value of what George Kittle ($15 million per year) and Travis Kelce ($14.3 million per year) are making. That’s because both of those players offer more versatility as receiving threats than Henry does. 

Kittle and Kelce have each graded above the 70th percentile as receivers against single coverage and above the 90th percentile as receivers against zone coverage schemes or underneath routes — essentially plays where they find holes in the defense. Henry joins them in 90th-plus percentile on those plays, but he ranks in just the 29th percentile against single coverage. Much of his production is scheme-dependent.

With needs along the offensive line, the Chargers may be better suited to allocate their cap space to those positions and save at tight end.

Potential targets at open spots

Wide receiver: DeSean Jackson, Jaylen Waddle, Simi Fehoko  

The Chargers have two strong starters in Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, but they’re still missing elite speed. Jalen Guyton filled that role last season, but he earned a mere 51.1 receiving grade and dropped six of his 37 catchable targets on the year. 

Few wide receivers have been better in that role than DeSean Jackson over the past decade. He has played just over 200 offensive snaps in the past two seasons due to injury, but Jackson can still take the top off a defense at 34 years old when healthy. He would be a low-risk flier that could provide value to Los Angeles on a one-year deal. 

Offensive line is the commonly mocked position to the Chargers in Round 1, but it’s hard not to love the idea of adding Waddle to their offense alongside Allen and Williams. Waddle has speed to burn, but he also has the quickness that is a key differentiator from players who only bring straight-line speed to the table. Waddle sits one spot above teammate and Heisman winner DeVonta Smith on PFF’s Big Board

A potential later-round target is Stanford’s Fehoko as a developmental project. The 6-foot-4, 227-pound junior has a freakish combination of size and speed, but he’s extremely raw with little outside the vertical route tree and just four career starts to his name at the college level. 

Tight end: Hunter Henry, Hunter Long

All things considered, Henry coming back on a reasonable deal is the best-case scenario for the Chargers. If they need to replace Henry, a fellow Hunter could make some sense in a weak tight end draft class behind Kyle Pitts.

Long doesn’t have the kind of athletic traits that lead you to believe he’ll ever join the elite tier of receiving threats at the position, but he does a lot of things well. He can block and win as a receiver in the areas where you typically expect a tight end to do so. He earned an 83.3 PFF grade with 57 receptions on 89 targets for Boston College in 2020. 

Tackle: Rashawn Slater, Orlando Brown Jr., Alejandro Villanueva

As far as first-round targets go for the Chargers, few make more sense than Northwestern’s Slater. Some project him as a guard at the next level, but there’s reason to believe Slater can get the job done at tackle. His tape against Chase Young in 2019 was some of the best of any tackle who faced off against the 2020 Defensive Rookie of the Year that season. Even if things don’t work out outside, it’s hard to see Slater disappointing at guard, which makes him an ideal target for the Los Angeles Chargers — a team with needs across the offensive line.

Brown and Villanueva are veteran options for the left tackle position if the Chargers would rather go that route. Brown’s name has popped up in trade rumors after the Baltimore Ravens tackle expressed his desire to play (and be paid) at left tackle as opposed to right tackle, where he is set to feature with Ronnie Stanley returning from injury.

Villanueva has started each of the past six seasons at left tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but their cap issues should keep the team from bringing him back in 2021. Both would be sizable upgrades over the play Los Angeles got from Sam Tevi last season. 

Interior offensive line: Larry Warford, Austin Reiter, Creed Humphrey

Warford opted out of the 2020 season following his release from the New Orleans Saints. His connection to new Chargers offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, coupled with the fact that Warford was still a very effective guard as of 2019, makes him an interesting candidate to replace Turner at right guard on a cheaper deal. He ranked fifth among all right guards in PFF grade in 2019 (75.8).

Reiter is a potential option at center if he doesn’t return to Kansas City. He would offer some security in pass protection without commanding a contract in the same range as a player like Corey Linsley. Reiter has earned PFF pass-blocking grades of 79.2 and 77.7 in the past two years as the Chiefs' starting center. 

Lastly, Humphrey has started at center in each of the past three seasons for Oklahoma, but he could play any position along the interior. There are some questions about how he’ll hold up in pass protection given his tape against NFL-caliber interior rushers at the college level, but he boasts desirable traits for a team like the Chargers. He could be an option for Los Angeles on Day 2.   

Projected 2021 Defense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
EDGE Joey Bosa 3 / 109 $20.8 million
DI Justin Jones 38 / 126 $2.4 million
DI Linval Joseph 48 / 126 $11.9 million
DI/EDGE Jerry Tillery 107 / 109 $3.1 million
EDGE Uchenna Nwosu 23 / 109 $1.8 million
LB Kenneth Murray 42 / 83 $2.9 million
LB Drue Tranquill N/A $1.0 million
CB Casey Hayward Jr. 69 / 121 $11.8 million
CB ?
CB Chris Harris Jr. 59 / 121 $11.3 million
S Derwin James N/A $3.9 million
S Nasir Adderley 83 / 94 $1.3 million

I opted for a base 3-4 defense here, but new head coach Brandon Staley showed in his time with the Rams that he would give offenses different defensive fronts throughout games. The prevalence of nickel and dime defenses further muddies the clear distinctions that were once present between 3-4 and 4-3 defenses, making the labeling not all that relevant. 

With Melvin Ingram set to enter free agency following nine years with the team, the Chargers could look to add some depth up front. Tillery transitioned to the edge in 2020 but had little more success out there than he did inside as a rookie. Nwosu, meanwhile, has yet to crack into the rotation in a starting capacity. The 2021 campaign could be his opportunity to do so with Ingram’s potential departure. 

At linebacker, Denzel Perryman will also be a free agent this offseason. Tranquill’s return from injury and Kyzir White’s presence alongside Murray mean the position isn’t a glaring need despite that potential loss. 

Michael Davis joins the potential free agent losses for the Chargers after playing over 600 defensive snaps for the team in each of the past three seasons. He has been a solid starting option opposite Hayward for most of those three years, allowing passer ratings of 89.3, 77.5 and 77.7 on throws into his coverage. Los Angeles could look to add some youth to the cornerback position, as both Hayward and Harris will be 32 years old by next season. 

Lastly, Adderley could very well fill in at free safety if the Chargers don’t bring back Rayshawn Jenkins, but I expect Los Angeles will attempt to keep Jenkins.

Are there pieces in place for Brandon Staley to replicate his success with the Rams?

PFF’s Diante Lee recently took an in-depth look at how new head coach Brandon Staley will fit the Chargers’ personnel into his scheme. It’s safe to say that the defense will see a departure from Gus Bradley’s Cover 3-heavy look that has been in place for the past four seasons, but that’s about where the predictions stop when it comes to Staley’s defense. 

Staley’s defense in Los Angeles was built around disguised coverages and limiting explosive plays in the passing game with two-high safety looks. Not only were the Rams effective in limiting those explosive pass plays — allowing a league-low 10% of pass plays against them to go for 15 or more yards — but they also played the run well. Their 3.5 yards allowed per run play ranked second in the league — behind only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That was the case because of how well the Rams were able to fit the run out of those two-high looks. 

Staley may not have an Aaron Donald or Jalen Ramsey on the Chargers' roster, but he does have elite talents, such as Joey Bosa and Derwin James, along with veterans with a history of high-level play, such as Hayward and Harris. There is plenty for him to work with, which has to be a big contributing factor in why he took the job.

How much does a healthy Derwin James mean to this defense?

In a league of rare athletes, James is a different breed. He stepped on the field as a rookie in 2018 and delivered PFF grades above 80.0 as a run defender, a pass rusher and a coverage defender across 200-plus defensive snaps lined up at the line of scrimmage, at box safety, at slot corner and at deeper “free safety” alignments. James can do it all, and he can do it all at a high level.

Unfortunately, injuries have kept him from truly building on that performance in each of the past two seasons. One can only hope that James stays healthy in 2021.

As for how much he means to the Chargers' defense and team, James was worth 0.56 wins above replacement as a rookie in 2018, per PFF WAR (fourth among all safeties). There’s a good chance we haven’t seen the best from James yet, either. He’s far from an insignificant piece to add back into the fold.

Can Jerry Tillery produce in a full-time edge defender role?

Tillery ended his rookie season in 2019 with a 35.5 PFF grade as primarily an interior defensive lineman. As the 2020 season progressed, Tillery’s role on the defense changed. He ended his second season with nearly 400 snaps lined up as an edge defender outside the tackles. Unfortunately, that role change didn’t lead to a whole lot more success. Tillery’s overall grade increased to just 43.9 this past season. 

The former first-round pick could have an opportunity to keep his starting job opposite Bosa with Ingram potentially leaving in free agency, but it is a definite “prove-it” year for him. The Chargers won’t be able to continue giving him opportunities if he disappoints in a larger role again in 2021, particularly with Uchenna Nwosu having success in a limited role each of the past three years. Nwosu has earned PFF grades of 70.9, 64.7 and 73.2 on just over 300 defensive snaps in each of his first three NFL seasons. 

Tillery’s college production late in his Notre Dame career gives reason to believe he can flip a switch in the NFL, but he’s running out of time to do so. 

Potential targets at open spots

Cornerback: Michael Davis, Troy Hill, Asante Samuel Jr.

The two free agent options here are relatively self-explanatory. The Chargers could bring back Davis following three years of solid play as one of the team’s starting outside cornerbacks. Hill, meanwhile, has the connection to Staley from last season with the Los Angeles Rams. His 1,107 defensive snaps on the year were easily a career-high, and he earned a coverage grade above 70.0 across 350 snaps both in the slot and out wide. He would give the Chargers some versatility in that regard. 

Samuel would be a potential target in the 2021 NFL Draft who brings great instincts and feel to the position despite being a bit undersized compared to your typical outside cornerback. If drafted, there’s a chance he could bring immediate playmaking ability to the secondary in a starting role after recording four interceptions and 23 pass breakups on 137 targets in his collegiate career.   

Know tomorrow, today. Western Southern Financial Group.
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