The Chargers look ready to challenge for their first AFC West title since 2009, but how many more chances will this core get?
The Chargers have finished the regular season with a 9–7 record three times in the last five years and made the playoffs just once, with a loss in the divisional round in 2013. Over the last half-decade, San Diego has been perfectly acceptable but never dominant enough to seriously challenge for divisional supremacy despite the presence of Philip Rivers, one of the best quarterbacks in the game. General manager Tom Telesco and coach Mike McCoy have done a nice job bringing the team back from the brink of irrelevancy due to the hubris of former GM A.J. Smith, but there's been a definite awareness that the clock is ticking for this group.
To speed that process along, Telesco and McCoy made one fairly easy decision on draft day, trading up a couple spots to grab Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon in the first round. Gordon gained 2,587 yards on the ground last season, the second-most in FBS history behind the 2,628 yards Barry Sanders put up in 1988. Gordon was the second-best back in this draft class behind Georgia's Todd Gurley in most minds, but for the Chargers, he could make all the difference.
“He brings that big play capability,” Telesco said the day Gordon was picked. “We talk about on offense that we want to get faster, more explosive and he will bring all of that to us. He’s a big time playmaker. Like I said, he’s a threat every time he touches the ball, but he’s also great in pass protection and he can catch the ball out of the backfield. Usually when you talk about a red zone threat, it’s a receiver or a tight end, but he’s a red zone threat as a running back. He’s got a nose for the end zone, a great burst for the end zone, a short area burst. We like people who score touchdowns. He’s going to fit in just fine.”
“We’re really excited to get him,” McCoy added. “He’s an impact player we had very high on our board; a guy that we really wanted to get and improve our football team. Explosive player—had a very productive college career. Being close with his head coach, Gary Andersen; having a good conversation with him about what type of player Melvin is, the fit he would be, not only as a player, but as a person in our locker room. Just a great fit for our team.”
If the rest of the team holds together, this could be the year that the Chargers take the AFC West for the first time since 2009. The Chargers also added former Broncos tackle/guard Orlando Franklin in free agency to bolster an offensive line that underperformed in '14, and added a couple of potential impact receivers in Stevie Johnson and Jacoby Jones. There weren't too many big-time acquisitions outside of the Gordon pick, but that might have been all the Chargers needed.
Best acquisition: Orlando Franklin, G/T
The Broncos moved Franklin from right tackle to left guard in 2014, and he responded with a season in which he allowed just one sack, two quarterback hits and eight hurries in 1,195 snaps. He'll play left guard for the Chargers as well, which should be a fairly major upgrade. Last year, Chad Rinehart gave up four sacks, six hits and 31 hurries at left guard for the Chargers. The 6'7", 320-pound Franklin is looking forward to adding his imposing physicality to a line that already has plenty of that in tackles King Dunlap and D.J. Fluker.
“There’s no ceiling to this offensive line, to be honest with you,” Franklin said last week. “We have a lot of great guys in that room, and a lot of young guys. I feel like I came here and I’m like one of the old heads now.
“When I was in Denver I was the youngest guy on the starting five. So it’s definitely exciting to be around these guys. And they’re athletic. All of these guys have tremendous athleticism, and we’ve just got to continue to work together each and every day, getting down the calls and being able to think like one another, and we’re going to be alright.”
Biggest loss: Eddie Royal, WR
Royal has never put together a 1,000-yard season—not exactly what one would expect for a second-round draft pick in 2008. But he's been a valuable slot and outside receiver through his time with the Broncos and Chargers, and he was Rivers's best deep and slot receiver last season, with five receptions in which the ball traveled 20 yards or more and 53 slot receptions. The Bears signed him to a three-year, $15 million contract with $10 million guaranteed, and he'll be a great slot addition to a Chicago offense that already has Alshon Jeffrey and Kevin White.
As for the Chargers, Stevie Johnson is the most likely slot target, with Malcom Floyd as the main man on deep vertical routes. It will be tough to replace Royal's knowledge of the offense and chemistry with Rivers in the short term.
Underrated draft pick: Craig Mager, CB, Texas State (round 3, pick No. 83)
Mager was a high-school running back and receiver who moved to cornerback during his redshirt year of 2010. He started the next 48 games for the Bobcats, and earned a spot on the East-West Shrine Game roster in 2015. The 5'11", 201-pound Mager ran a 4.44 40 at the scouting combine, and impressed the Chargers' front office with tape that showed the ability to play press coverage and back off into zones. Mager may have been a bit under the radar to some, but he was on San Diego's radar for quite a while.
“He's got really good size for a cornerback,” Telesco said of Mager. “He's got excellent speed—really quick. He had great production at Texas State, and they played some bigger, power Division I schools. He's feisty, he can tackle, we think he can cover, and he's got a lot of upside to play the corner position. The one thing about Craig, coming from a ... it's not a small school, but it's smaller than some of the power conference schools, he's got all the measurables, and that all lines up. He's passed all the tests on the way through, and we're really excited to get him.”
Looming question for training camp: How will the offensive line look?
While Orlando Franklin was a great get in free agency, and King Dunlap had a fine season at left tackle, the other three spots on this line are a little more in flux. Right tackle D.J. Fluker isn't in danger of losing his job, but with seven sacks, nine quarterback hits and 39 hurries allowed last season, he was one of the least-efficient pass blockers in the league. Fluker is a dynamite run blocker, but he needs to shore up his technique. McCoy and line coach Joe D'Alessandris may move Fluker inside to guard more often in 2015. The Chargers also signed former Rams tackle Joe Barksdale and ex-Bills tackle Chris Hairston to add depth, something that was sorely lacking in '14. Center Nick Hardwick and guard Jeromey Clary retired after the season, and rookie Chris Watt was thrown into the fire after Hardwick suffered a neck injury last September. The hope is that Watt will improve in '15 as a result of that on-the-job training. Barksdale might play some right tackle if Fluker moves inside.
It's a lot of switching around for any offensive line, and lines require continuity to be at their best. That said, the Chargers ranked 31st in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards metrics—only the Buccaneers were worse—so a shake-up was necessary.