The San Diego Chargers won just four games a year ago, finishing with the lowest combined grade of any team, after consecutive nine-win seasons. They look improved after a strong offseason, but there’s no guarantee it will translate to the field, especially in the trenches, where the team was abysmal on both sides of the ball in 2015.
Here’s how both lines and San Diego’s other position groups stack up against the rest NFL heading into training camp.
Can Rivers reverse recent trend of decline?
Quarterbacks: 12th in PFF’s preseason rankings
Quarterback is still San Diego’s highest-ranked unit, but that might not be the case for much longer. While the 34-year old Philip Rivers produced a positive passing grade in 2015, it was the lowest of his career and the second straight year he’s seen a decline. It’s worth noting that his top receiver (Keenan Allen) managed just 552 snaps and he was playing behind the NFL’s lowest-graded offensive line, although Rivers actually graded better under pressure than when passing from a clean pocket, which is concerning. Having Ken Whisenhunt back at offensive coordinator should help, given Rivers’ best passing grade of the last five years came under Whisenhunt in 2013.
Behind Rivers, the depth chart is suspect, with Kellen Clemens and Zach Mettenberger as the two options currently on the roster.
[More: Be sure to check out PFF’s ranking of all 32 NFL QB situations, offensive lines, running back units, receiving corps, secondaries, and defensive front-sevens. Catch up on all the team previews here.]
The running backs need more help from the offensive line
Running backs: 27th
This is a difficult unit to evaluate, given last season the Chargers’ rushers gained an average of just 1.39 yards before contact, the third-lowest mark in the league, while only one other offense collectively graded worse in run-blocking. That made for a difficult rookie season for the team’s projected starter, Melvin Gordon, who made solid contributions in the passing game but fumbled a position-high six times in only 184 carries, resulting in a rushing grade that was far below average.
Behind him, Danny Woodhead was the team’s highest-graded pass-catcher, but sees less usage in the run game and won’t gain much more than the offensive line gives him; he broke just two tackles on 98 carries last season, while his average of 1.4 yards gained after contact per rush tied for 66th of 68 qualifying rushers. With Donald Brown’s free agency departure, Branden Oliver could see an increased role as the team’s third back after two seasons of positive grades in limited snaps.
Allen, Gates and now Benjamin form strong group
Receiving corps: 13th
San Diego extended its top pass-catcher, Keenan Allen, this offseason, while adding Travis Benjamin in free agency to replace the retired Malcom Floyd. That acquisition should help the team’s deep-passing game, where Rivers ranked 29th in adjusted completion rate last season. At tight end, Antonio Gates continues to produce above-average play, even at age 36. The Chargers could also see early contributions from second-rounder Henry Hunter, who had the highest receiving grade of any FBS tight end last college season.
(PFF Fantasy Insight: Brandon Marianne Lee says Gates' real glory days might be behind him, and he won't impress anyone in your fantasy draft, but he still has serious value. She also sees Travis Benjamin as a potential breakout candidate. It is Allen, though, who is our highest-ranked Chargers pass-catcher entering the season, currently sitting as the No. 10 wide receiver in our staff consensus rankings.)
Not much direction for this unit to go but ‘up’
Offensive line: 29th
The Chargers’ offensive line was a mess in both the passing and running games last season; the unit finished with a league-low pass-blocking efficiency rating (298 total pressures in 716 passing plays) and of the 11 players that saw at least 30 snaps, each graded negatively in run-blocking. There are reasons for optimism, however, with one of them being the signing of former Bear Matt Slauson in free agency. Slauson brings a +84.0 career grade over seven seasons and is massive upgrade over Trevor Robinson, PFF’s lowest-graded center in 2015. The team also retained right tackle Joe Barksdale, who was the only lineman to finish with a positive overall grade, while on the other side King Dunlap has consistently produced above-average play when healthy.
Can Bosa make a big impact as a rookie?
After moving on from two of its chronic underperformers – Kendall Reyes and Donald Butler – San Diego’s front-seven looks improved over its 2015 version, although questions remain on both levels. On the defensive line, Corey Liuget is coming off of a career-high run-defense grade, but also a season-ending foot injury. Brandon Mebane should be an upgrade coming from Seattle, but he’s been just average over the last two seasons, far from his peak form in 2013. On the edge, Melvin Ingram managed a career-high snap count and finished as the league’s 16th-graded edge defender overall, ranking even higher as a pass-rusher. He should get more help in 2016 with first-rounder Joey Bosa, the highest-graded edge defender in college football over the last two seasons, along with Jerry Attaochu, who finished his sophomore season with above-average marks in all facets.
Inside, Denzel Perryman looks to improve on an impressive rookie season in run defense, although he’s paired with Manti Te’o, who’s coming off of the worst season of his career – only three of 94 qualifying linebackers graded worse overall in 2015.
A middling unit would be boosted by health
Similar to Ingram, corner Jason Verrett has graded extremely well when he’s been on the field, but has had trouble staying healthy over his first two seasons. Accounting for the differences in snap counts, his coverage grade tied with Tyrann Mathieu for the top mark at the position, and if he can stay on the field, Verrett could be even better in 2016. At the other outside corner spot, Brandon Flowers had a rough year, but at his best is one of the NFL’s better starting corners. And in the slot, there are few options better than Casey Hayward, added by the team in free agency.
San Diego’s safeties don’t look quite as strong, going from Eric Weddle to Dwight Lowery, although Lowery has still graded close to average at his worst, while Jahleel Addae is coming off of two straight negatively graded seasons in both run defense and coverage.