2020 was a bizarre year for the Chargers for more reasons than one. With the sixth pick in the Draft, the Bolts chose quarterback Justin Herbert. A choice that raised eyebrows at the time. Far too high, according to many analysts. Week 2 of the season saw the inexperienced Herbert suddenly start against the Chiefs after a doctor accidentally perforated Tyrod Taylor ‘s lung just before the game. Chargers fans held their breath, but Herbert immediately silenced all the critics. He stunned the world with his spectacular passing and unexpected athleticism and secured the starting spot for the remainder of the season. A star was born.
Despite Justin Herbert’s discovery and the surge of enthusiasm he fired through the organization, the Chargers finished third in the AFC West and outside the playoffs with a disappointing 7-9 record. The focus was mainly on coaching and so Anthony Lynn was allowed to pack his bags after four seasons in LA. His replacement was not long in coming. On January 17, the Chargers announced Brandon Staley as their new head coach. Staley had garnered praise the year before as a defensive coordinator for fellow townsman LA Rams and saw a promotion within the same building.
With the coaching in order, the Chargers set their sights on strengthening their biggest Achilles heel: the O-line. Staley and co quickly realized – and rightly so – that protecting their nugget Herbert was the absolute priority. That’s why Corey Linsley came over from the Packers for a record $62.5 million. Linsley thus became the highest paid center in the National Football League (NFL). The Chargers also found a new right guard in Pittsburgh, where they convinced Matt Feiler to sign a three-year contract. The Chargers also entered the market for the left guard position. Oday Aboushi signed a one-season contract.
The Chargers also had to let players go. Tight end Hunter Henry retired to the New England Patriots and was replaced by veteran Jared Cook. Linebackers Melvin Ingram (Pittsburgh Steelers) and Denzel Perryman (Carolina Panthers) and cornerback Casey Hayward (Las Vegas Raiders) also sought out other places.
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With the signing of Linsley and Feiler, the Chargers’ O-line hunger was not satisfied. In the draft, they got a chance in 13th place as left tackle Rashawn Slater from Northwestern was still available. The Bolts had no hesitation in finding their left tackle of the present and the future. The blind side of Herbert protected hereby. The Chargers were also lucky in the second round. Cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. from Florida State dropped back to 47th spot and was another no-brainer for LA. Junior is the son of Asante Samuel who himself made the Pro Bowl four times as a cornerback. His son will get plenty of opportunities with Brandon Staley to do that trick himself.
Moving on to the draft, the Chargers took out two skill players in the third round, with Tennessee wide receiver Josh Palmer and Georgia tight end Tre’ McKitty. In the fourth round, their eye fell on the talented linebacker Chris Rumph II from Duke. Rumph will compete with Uchenna Nwosu for the edge position across from Joey Bosa.
The Chargers offense has one clear face: quarterback Justin Herbert. Where Herbie goes, the Chargers will go. He started like a rocket in 2020 and immediately collected a string of records: most passing touchdowns as rookie QB (31), most total touchdowns as rookie QB (36), most 300-yard games as rookie QB (8) and most completions by a rookie QB (396). The chances are very slim that Herbert is a one-hit wonder. If Herbert can confirm as a sophomore, the Chargers will be a sight to behold offensively. Not only has the O-line been significantly strengthened through free agency and the draft, there are also enough weapons available to make the Chargers story a roaring success.
At wide receiver, Keenan Allen, who last season got nearly 1,000 receiving yards despite missing 2 games. He was selected for the Pro Bowl for the fourth season in a row. Allen is one of the best receivers in the NFL when he’s fit. Besides him there is also Mike Williams who is known as a real deep threat. He also averaged 15.8 yards per reception last year. The third man is the young Jalen Guyton. Guyton more or less came out of nowhere last year, catching 511 yards.
Not only the wide receivers catch balls, the running backs in Los Angeles should be able to do that too. Austin Ekeler is the perfect dual threat running back, but had to deal with injuries last year. Number 2 Justin Jackson can also run and catch, but he suffered an injury like Ekeler. The Chargers have lost quality on the tight end. Jared Cook is older than the departed Hunter Henry, but he remains fit and can still produce. Over the past two seasons, Cook caught 16 touchdowns in New Orleans.
At first glance, the defense seems weakened compared to last season. In 2020, the Chargers still had a top-10 defense, but Denzel Perryman, Casey Hayward and Melvin Ingram are no longer with the team. Brandon Staley can of course still count on Joey Bosa and Linval Joseph in the front seven. Bosa made the First-Team All-Pro for the second season in a row and is a certainty for the Bolts. For the rest, it remains to be seen whether this front seven will win many hearts.
The secondary, on the other hand, may well improve in 2021. There is the return of Derwin James, the sensational but all too often injured safety. Last year he tore his meniscus just before the start of the season and missed all games. The Chargers are counting on him to regain his 2018 level despite the injuries. If that is the case, then the secondary is immediately a lot better than last season. Also rookie Asante Samuel Jr. delivers a quality shot at cornerback.
The Chargers have focused on the right priorities during the off-season. The coaching staff has been replaced and the O-line has been completely overhauled. The team invested in protecting and developing super talent Justin Herbert and that should already pay off in 2021. If Herbert confirms and his weapons and O-line remain largely fit, the Chargers will perform a lot better than last year. Then they become the second best team in the AFC West and we can even list them as an outsider for the Super Bowl. It takes place in its own SoFi Stadium. A Hollywood fairy tale seems in the making.