Chargers should be better in 2021
August 5, 2021
Out with the old and in the with the new. The Los Angeles Chargers are a new team. With a new head coach, new offensive, defensive, and special team coordinators, and new offensive and defensive schemes to learn. Everything has changed. Even some of the players have changed. But what has not changed is the level of talent on this team, which remains good.
After a week of practice, it is easy to see how good this team can be. The return of safety Derwin James on defense is going to make a significant difference this season for the Chargers. James was All-Pro in his rookie season in 2018, but injuries have slowed him down the past two seasons. He has only played in five games the past two seasons.
The Chargers went 12-4 in 2018 with James in the line up and won a total of twelve games the past two seasons without James on the field. James is a playmaker who can be moved around like a chess piece on defense. In practice, James has looked like his old self, even providing tight coverage on four-time pro bowl wide receiver Keenan Allen. The new defense head coach Brandon Staley has brought in is challenging to both the defensive players and the offensive players.
As defensive end Justin Jones explained, the new defense with the multiple looks keeps the offense guessing. "It keeps them on their toes, which means offensive linemen are on their toes. They're not going to know who's blitzing, who's coming and who's not coming. We're showing two different people on the line, we're pulling guys away, we're bringing guys all the time. We're never a stand-still defense and that's going to make us really hard to beat."
The change to a base 3-4 defense has required two-time All-Pro defensive end Joey Bosa, now lining up at outside linebacker, to learn to play standing up instead of with his hand on the ground at defensive end. Bosa will be dropping back into coverage, at least occasionally. "There's a lot going on, he said." 'There's a lot of moving pieces. And I think it's great. I mean, it's a dynamic defense. A good defense shouldn't be easy to learn in two days."
Rookie cornerback Asante Samuel, a 2nd round pick, looks like he will contribute immediately. He has shown the speed and quickness to stay with any receiver. Rookie outside linebacker Chris Rumph, a 4th round pick out of Duke, should contribute immediately on special teams and as a situational pass rusher. He is a bit of a project at linebacker, but it is easy to see the athletic ability. Bosa talked about Rumph, "He's really impressive. He is a natural pass rusher. He is long. We have to put a little meat on his bones. He has all the tools to be a great player."
Rookie linebacker Nick Niemann, a 6th round draft pick from Iowa, has also been very impressive. Niemann ran a 4.45 in the forty at his pro day and at 6-foot-3 244 pounds, he looks good in coverage. On a side note, Niemann went to the same high school as Coach Staley's wife, Amy. They both attended Sycamore high school in Sycamore, Illinois, where Amy Staley is in the high school Hall of Fame for her accomplishments as a volleyball player. As Coach Staley jokingly said, you will be the "second-best Charger to come out of Sycamore High School."
Offensively, this is a talented group that just needs the offensive line to be solid and consistent. The Chargers are deep at wide receiver, deep at tight end and four deep at running back. At running back, the Chargers have four backs that can all catch the ball out of the backfield. Rookie running back Larry Roundtree, a sixth-round pick from Missouri, has looked impressive as a receiver in the first week of practice.
Charger running backs caught 129 passes last season, which was 31% of the receptions by all receivers. Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, who coached with the New Orleans Saints for the past five seasons, will continue that trend. During that time the Saints threw to all five eligible receivers in their offense.
The Chargers will return Allen and Mike Williams as the starting wide receivers. Tyron Johnson returns as a deep threat for the team. He had twenty receptions and three touchdowns in 2020, averaging 19.9 yards per reception and has looked good in the first few days of practice. Josh Palmer, selected in the third round of the NFL 2021 draft out of Tennessee, has also looked good in practice.
Free agent tight end Jared Cook, who made the pro bowl in 2018 and 2019 and has caught twenty-two touchdown passes over the past three seasons, will start at tight end. He will replace tight end Hunter Henry, who left in free agency for the Patriots. He also has the speed to get deep, which was never a strength for Henry. Rookie tight end Tre McKitty from Georgia, a 3rd round pick, is a quality blocker with the potential to be a three down tight end.
The offensive line appears to have improved after struggling the past few seasons. The acquisition of three free agent starters, including All-Pro center Corey Linsley from the Green Bay Packers, has helped. The selection of offensive tackle Rashawn Slater in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft will certainly help as well. Slater has looked good in practice. As Linsley said after Tuesday's practice, it will take time for the offensive line to jell, especially against the Chargers defense.
"You have to be on your stuff. He brings a ton of looks," Linsley said." "They look like the same looks, but they're not the same looks. [Head Coach Brandon Staley] brings a ton of blitzes and twists, so you have to keep your head up. The biggest thing is playing with great fundamentals. His defense makes you think, No. 1. I know for the offensive line, the quarterback, it makes all of us think."
The quarterback position is in good shape as long as quarterback Justin Herbert is in good shape. The NFL Rookie of the Year in 2020, Herbert should flourish in the Lombardi offense if he can get some support from the running game. Herbert has looked sharp in practice. Behind Herbert is 12-year veteran Chase Daniel, acquired as a free agent from Detroit, and third year quarterback Easton Stick.
The Chargers signed quarterback K.J. Costello, who played and graduated from Stanford. Costello was a second team All-Pac-12 selection as a sophomore, throwing for 3,540 yards and 29 touchdowns. Costello participated in the Chargers rookie minicamp but was not extended an offer at the time. He played his high school football at Santa Margarita Catholic high school in Rancho Santa Margarita.
The Chargers open the preseason schedule against the Los Angeles Rams on Saturday, August 14, as the road team at SoFi Stadium. It will be an interesting opportunity to see the younger players in a game setting and a matchup of Rams head coach Sean McVay and his friend, Coach Staley. It will also give most Charger fans their first look at the new look Chargers.