32 NFL Teams in 32 Days: Chargers Need to Take the Next Step Around Justin Herbert

Los Angeles shelled out big bucks to bring in Jim Harbaugh and are now expecting drastic improvements from the pieces around their star quarterback.
The Chargers showed they were serious about winning, hiring Harbaugh to elevate the play of Herbert and the offense, as well as the defense.
The Chargers showed they were serious about winning, hiring Harbaugh to elevate the play of Herbert and the offense, as well as the defense. / Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to 32 teams in 32 days. To get us through the offseason, we’ll be taking a closer look at every team in the NFL, in order of projected 2024 win totals. Up next: the Chargers.

Many had doubts about the Los Angeles Chargers being the team to lure Jim Harbaugh out of Michigan and back to professional football after a nine-year hiatus. 

They had the advantages of offering star quarterback Justin Herbert and the prime location of Southern California, but money might have been the biggest obstacle for the Chargers closing a deal to hire Harbaugh. 

As it turned out, money was no object and the Chargers hired Harbaugh less than a year after they locked up Herbert with a massive five-year, $262.5 million contract extension. The Chargers have shown they’re serious about winning, something they hope to do plenty of with their new coach-QB duo. 

Herbert might have felt like a one-man team at times during the many losses the Chargers accumulated in his first four seasons. During that span, he had two head coaches (Anthony Lynn and Brandon Staley) and three offensive coordinators (Shane Steichen, Joe Lombardi and Kellen Moore). Herbert has to learn a fourth playbook with Harbaugh and former Baltimore Ravens OC Greg Roman, but maybe their philosophies of building through the offensive line and ground game could lead to more success in the foreseeable future. 

The Chargers have also struggled defensively, but Harbaugh made a splash hiring of his own after plucking Jesse Minter from his Michigan coaching staff to become the Chargers’ defensive coordinator. Minter and his popular defensive scheme could immediately turn Los Angeles’s defense into a formidable unit because of the trio of Joey Bosa, Khalil Mack and Derwin James Jr.

Biggest gamble this offseason: Releasing Keenan Allen, Mike Williams

The Chargers were forced to decide who to keep between edge rushers Bosa and Mack and wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams because they were well over the salary cap before the start of the new league year. The team found a way to make it work with Bosa and Mack after both reportedly agreed to take pay cuts, which led to them saying goodbye to Herbert’s top two weapons in Allen and Williams. 

Herbert is left with one of the most inexperienced receiving groups in the league, with Joshua Palmer, a 2021 third-round pick, possibly being the Chargers’ best wide receiver unless ’23 first-round pick Quentin Johnston recovers from a rocky rookie season. The team drafted wide receiver Ladd McConkey in the second round and signed veteran DJ Chark Jr. On paper, the Chargers are missing star power at wide receiver, but Herbert was signed to a lucrative extension to elevate his teammates. 

Toughest stretch of the season: Weeks 11 to 15

The Chargers have a favorable schedule for most of the first half of the season, with many games against teams that missed the postseason last year. But the competition level won’t let up for five consecutive weeks later on, starting with a Week 11 home matchup against Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals. That matchup is followed by hosting Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens before back-to-back road games against Kirk Cousins and the Atlanta Falcons and Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. The brutal stretch concludes at home vs. Baker Mayfield and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  

Breakout player to watch: Edge Tuli Tuipulotu 

Los Angeles Chargers edge Tuli Tuipulotu
Tuipulotu had 4.5 sacks, 53 tackles and two forced fumbles as a rookie. / David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Tuipulotu, a 2023 second-round pick, quickly saw his snaps increase on a weekly basis, despite playing behind Bosa and Mack as a rookie. He made many impact plays as a pass rusher and had no issues setting the edge against the run. The second-year standout will still have to fight for snaps with a healthy Bosa and Mack, who generated 17 sacks last season. But Minter’s defensive scheme is designed to get many edge rushers involved. Look for Tuipulotu to capitalize on his opportunities after recording 4.5 sacks, 53 total tackles and two forced fumbles as a rookie.  

Best-case scenario: Chargers drastically improve around Herbert 

The Chargers went all in for Harbaugh partly because of his reputation for building strong offensive lines and rushing attacks. Those are two areas the team has failed to build since Herbert arrived in 2020. Herbert dropping back countless times with no balance to the offense hasn’t led to many wins, especially because the defense has been a problem the past few seasons. If the Chargers quickly produce a formidable rushing attack and provide Herbert with stout protection, that could be enough for them to make the postseason one year after only winning five games. Harbaugh tends to deliver winning results in Year 1 of his coaching stints, another reason why the Chargers went all in for the former Michigan and San Francisco 49ers coach.

Worst-case scenario: Herbert forced to play hero ball with bad defense

There’s been plenty of focus on Harbaugh needing to improve Herbert’s surroundings on offense, but there are many holes on the defensive side after three subpar seasons under Staley. Perhaps many are overlooking the defense because Harbaugh brought Minter with him, the former Michigan defensive coordinator who runs a similar scheme to what the Baltimore Ravens have done the past few seasons. Los Angeles has Mack, Bosa and James for the quick fix, but if the unit continues to struggle, that could lead to more of the same with Herbert needing to play hero ball. If Herbert is once again looking to bail out his teammates in crunch time, it could be a long first season for Harbaugh and the Chargers.   

Head coach-quarterback tandem ranking

No. 6: Harbaugh (7) and Herbert (6)

Harbaugh was the big-name hire of the offseason, and he walks into a situation with a top-tier quarterback. While the rest of the roster is under construction, the Chargers have a chance to be a playoff team with this new power couple and a fourth-place schedule. It’s a new era in Los Angeles, and a much-needed one. —Matt Verderame

Fantasy pick: RB Kimani Vidal

Los Angeles Chargers running back Kimani Vidal
Vidal is an under-the-radar option and a definite sleeper fantasy pick. / Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Chargers are most certainly going to run the football this season, and Vidal has a chance to be an under-the-radar option for Harbaugh. The Chargers did sign Gus Edwards and J.K. Dobbins, but both come with question marks. Edwards is 29 and isn’t a versatile back, while Dobbins has had knee and Achilles injuries in each of the past three years. This makes Kimani a definite sleeper. —Michael Fabiano

Best bet: Herbert over 3,600.5 passing yards (-110) at DraftKings

Though Herbert is without star power at receiver on paper, I’ll bet that Harbaugh and Roman’s game plan will open up the passing game for his quarterback, who in turn could help the young surrounding talent grow. In his four years in the NFL, Herbert has averaged 278 passing yards per game. If he played all 17 games at that rate, he’d be more than 1,000 yards over this prop. Even dialing it back 20%, he would exceed this prop. Let’s grab the over. —Jennifer Piacenti

Game odds refresh periodically and are subject to change.

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Gilberto Manzano

GILBERTO MANZANO

Gilberto Manzano is a staff writer covering the NFL for Sports Illustrated. After starting off as a breaking news writer at NFL.com in 2014, he worked as the Raiders beat reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and covered the Chargers and Rams for the Orange County Register and Los Angeles Daily News. During his time as a combat sports reporter, he was awarded best sports spot story of 2018 by the Nevada Press Association for his coverage of the Conor McGregor-Khabib Nurmagomedov post-fight brawl. Manzano, a first-generation Mexican-American with parents from Nayarit, Mexico, is the cohost of Compas on the Beat, a sports and culture show featuring Mexican-American journalists. He has been a member of the Pro Football Writers of America since 2017.