The Professor’s 2021 NFL Preview: AFC West – Los Angeles Chargers


Los Angeles Chargers

Team Projection

TeamPoints ForPoints AgainstGames FavoredPythagorean Expected Wins

The results didn’t show up in the win-loss column until late in the season, but it was evident from his debut in Week 2 that the Los Angeles Chargers had found their franchise quarterback in Justin Herbert. Herbert has one of the most impressive physical skillsets in the league, an aggressive mindset as a passer, and the athleticism to significantly impact the run game. In short, he’s got everything needed to be a superstar. He’ll be working with a new coaching staff in 2021, as former Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley takes over as head coach, and Joe Lombardi steps in as the offensive coordinator. While there has to be some concern about how Herbert and Lombardi mesh, Herbert’s ability to elevate receivers such as Tyron Johnson, Jaylen Guyton, and tight end Donald Parham was due to his raw ability, rather than scheme, and should continue in Lombardi’s system.

In addition to those complementary pieces, Herbert has one of the league’s premier short to intermediate targets in receiver Keenan Allen, and will hope for a healthier season from running back Austin Ekeler, who was one of the league’s most dynamic backs in 2019. Throw in the addition of veteran tight end Jared Cook in free agency, and Herbert won’t have a shortage of weapons.

The bigger gains for this offense should come as a result of the upgrades on the offensive line. Herbert succeeded in spite of this group last season, but the additions of center Corey Linsley and the versatile Matt Feiler in free agency, along with the selection of another versatile line prospect in Rashawn Slater with their first-round pick, could transform that narrative. General manager Tom Telesco will have his fingers crossed that veteran tackle Bryan Bulaga has a healthier season, which would likely allow Feiler to fill a guard spot while Slater mans the left tackle spot, but if Bulaga struggles to stay on the field again, Feiler has the ability to kick back out to right tackle. The Chargers may still have a hole at one guard spot, but the unit’s overall performance should be dramatically improved.

On defense, Staley will take over a unit that has turned the page from the group that looked so good on paper but failed to consistently get on the field together. Edge Melvin Ingram and corner Casey Hayward were not brought back, which leaves Staley with edge Joey Bosa as his one clear foundation piece. Safety Derwin James fits the same designation if healthy, but that’s become difficult to bet on, which is a shame because he was as much fun to watch as anyone in the league during his rookie season. At this point, it seems more likely that edge Jerry Tillery, who took a big step forward in his second season, emerges as the second star on the defense, though there’s no doubt that James was among the game’s premier defenders in his lone healthy season.

There could be issues behind those rushers. Corner Asante Samuel Jr. was drafted in the second round, and theoretically slots in alongside veterans Chris Harris and Michael Davis in the nickel package, though Harris has struggled with injuries in recent years. Safety Rayshawn Jenkins, who has been their steadiest presence at the position the past two seasons, departed in free agency, and if James isn’t healthy, the Chargers have one of the league’s thinnest depth charts at this position. Perhaps a change in coaching reboots Nasir Adderley’s career, but after a brutal second season that bottomed out when he played an absurdly large role in allowing a Denver Broncos comeback win to take place, counting on Adderly probably qualifies as overly optimistic.

Still, rosters aren’t built in a day, and there’s the potential that the young linebacker trio of Kenneth Murray, Kyzir White, and Drue Tranquill develops under Staley’s tutelage and gives the Chargers some level of strength up the middle. The back end will still be an attractive target, particularly for Patrick Mahomes and the division rival Kansas City Chiefs, but between Herbert’s prowess, Bosa and Tillery’s pass rush, and Staley’s defensive system, this team could certainly make some noise in the AFC Playoffs.

QB Passing Projections

Justin Herbert417449.3671.60.677.895298.434.711.323.08

QB Rushing Projections

Justin Herbert417724.07293.25.814.343.523.08

Skill Projections, Rushing

Austin EkelerRB1317223.64.21940.44.344.432.114.74
Larry Rountree IIIRB19417121.34.38531.21.824.113.13.74
Justin JacksonRB1971764.74.38283.
Joshua KelleyRB3401721.63.2670.

Skill Projections, Receiving

Keenan AllenWR101769.1122.511.141364.510.026.428.915.16
Austin EkelerRB131781.274.39.45702.03.913.611.214.74
Mike WilliamsWR711760.362.914.85934.66.615.519.19.69
Jared CookTE751768.566.311.93790.67.814.422.69.36
Jalen GuytonWR1841754.630.714.84455.
Justin JacksonRB1971785.319.58.21159.
Josh PalmerWR2011757.627.712.73352.
Tyron JohnsonWR2211779.821.414.85318.
Donald Parham Jr.TE3011749.913.69.16125.
Tre’ McKittyTE3071749.910.49.1695.

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Steven Clinton, better known as "The Professor", is a former D-1 Quality Control Assistant (Northwestern, Toledo) who holds a B.A. in Economics and M.S. in Predictive Analytics from Northwestern University. He maintains an end-to-end NFL game projection model and is a film junkie who breaks down the tape of every NFL game.