Naturally, all discussion of the Chargers (present and future) begins with Philip Rivers. The ageless quarterback turned it loose again Sunday, throwing for 371 yards in San Diego’s come-from-behind, overtime win over NFC South-leading Atlanta.
But whatever happens from here for the Chargers, whether they make a playoff run or fire their head coach or pack up shop and move to Las Vegas, they can take solace in this: There is reason to be excited about the future, because of what they have done in the draft.
Just last season, San Diego appeared stuck in neutral—a roster shy on veterans to build around other than Rivers, with young talent unable to generate any momentum. After a 4–12 finish, it was fair to wonder whether the organization needed a rebuild, from GM down to the 53rd player on the roster.
Some of that concern persisted as recently as 10 days ago, before the Chargers pulled off a Thursday night upset of the Broncos that may have saved coach Mike McCoy’s job. They did it again against the Falcons, and suddenly the whole situation has taken on a new feel.
Why? Well, just look at San Diego’s surprising Week 7 win. Rivers was excellent, as usual, but his effort was backed by standout play from relatively recent additions.
There was 2015 second-round linebacker Denzel Perryman picking off a Matt Ryan pass late in the fourth quarter, one game after rookie linebacker Jatavis Brown starred against Denver. There was rookie tight end Hunter Henry, on a quiet day for him personally (one catch for 19 yards), still helping to draw attention away from San Diego’s other weapons. Cornerback Craig Mager, linebacker Kyle Emanuel, punter Drew Kaser, fullback Derek Watt—all important players added in either the ’15 or ’16 draft. Even leading receiver Tyrell Williams was a class of ’15 prospect, signed by San Diego as an undrafted free agent.
Then there are the two centerpieces of San Diego’s previous two draft classes: running back Melvin Gordon, a top-15 pick in 2015, and defensive lineman Joey Bosa, the No. 3 selection and first defender off the board in ’16.
Remember when each of those picks was pegged as disastrous? It wasn’t that long ago.
Bosa held out this off-season, the standoff becoming so contentious that there were rumblings (unfounded as they were) that the front office might grow frustrated enough to trade him before he played a game in Chargers colors. Gordon never had that off-field drama, but he was a rookie bust on the field. He rushed for just 641 yards last season and failed to score a touchdown, despite being hailed as the missing piece for San Diego’s offense when he was picked.
Fast forward to Sunday, and Bosa and Gordon are back where the Chargers hoped they’d be, as focal points on their respective sides of the ball. Bosa, playing in just his third NFL game, delivered his second two-sack performance; Gordon scored three touchdowns, giving him a league-leading 10 for the year.
The Chargers again have an, exciting base they can develop to flank Rivers. Imagine how sunny the outlook might be had injuries not robbed San Diego of corner Jason Verrett (2014 first-rounder), linebacker Manti Te’o (2013 second-rounder) and receiver Keenan Allen (2013 third-rounder).
When those three rejoin the ranks next season, they’ll find a roster in better shape than when they left it because of the development San Diego is seeing within its youth.
None of that means the Chargers are out of the woods this season. Because of the games they let slip away in September and October, they face a long uphill climb into the playoff race. Whether or not they get all the way back, they should be intrigued if not thrilled by their progress.
This time last year, the franchise was adrift without an obvious course. Even a short month ago, they were unable to close out games, and Bosa still had not made his debut. It hasn’t taken long for the pieces—at least those that are still healthy—to start falling into place.