The Chargers went into 2012 knowing that it was a make-or-break year for virtually everyone. Failure to reach the playoffs would result in a major overhaul of the team, starting at the top. As the season played out, their opponents exploited their obvious weaknesses, leading to a disappointing 7-9 finish.
With 2012 signifying the end of the Norv Turner era, the new version of the Chargers seek to establish a solid foundation and win immediately. The team now features a young core rich with potential, although relatively inexperienced. San Diego hopes to have found some of the new pillars of their franchise in this year’s draft class, and will look for some fresh faces to step into key roles and produce. Let’s examine some of the reasons to be confident and reasons to be concerned about the 2013 Chargers.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1. Addition by Subtraction
Along with the GM and coaching change, the Chargers unloaded many underperforming veterans during their Extreme Makeover: Franchise Edition. On defense, they got rid of their five lowest-graded players from last season in Shaun Phillips, Vaughn Martin, Antoine Cason, Quentin Jammer, and Atari Bigby. Each ranked among the worst-performing players at their positions in 2012.
On offense, undrafted free agent tackle Mike Harris found himself thrust into a starting role, and was simply overmatched. His -43.4 grade is the lowest we have ever given to an offensive lineman, and it happened despite appearing in only 12 games. Harris may not see the field much this season, however his play through two preseason games is much improved.
2. Promising Inside Linebackers
In rookie Manti Te’o and third-year pro Donald Butler, the Chargers have an inside linebacker duo that could be a highlight of the defense. The Chargers nabbed Te’o in the second round to replace veteran Takeo Spikes. While Te’o can’t match Spikes in neck size, he does bring with him an exceptional ability to diagnose plays. His coverage ability at the pro level will be an area to monitor. Butler has been solid each of the last two seasons, and has impressed the new regime enough for them to initiate contract extension talks. San Diego expects a big year from him. Providing depth are Bront Bird and D.J. Smith. Both have potential to make a positive impact this season and in the future.
3. Offensive Scheme Fit
With Mike McCoy now running the show, the Chargers will feature a new offensive scheme. Known for his ability to take advantage of his offense’s strengths and mask their weaknesses (he won with Tim Tebow at QB, after all), McCoy plans to feature a lot of quick passes in order to protect Rivers from pressure and wear down the defense with an up-tempo style. McCoy will look to create mismatches by using a variety of formations and personnel packages. In the preseason, San Diego has shown empty backfield formations out of 12 personnel (one RB, two TE, two WR). This keeps the base personnel on the field for the defense, while stretching linebackers outside where they can be exposed in coverage against players like Antonio Gates and Danny Woodhead.
The player who looks to benefit the most from the new scheme is Philip Rivers. Last season, Rivers had a QB rating of 109.6 when throwing the ball in 2.5 seconds or less, and a rating of 68.8 when taking 2.6 seconds or longer to throw. Much of this was due to the immense amount of pressure the offensive line yielded. If McCoy’s scheme can lower Rivers’ average time to throw, and use routes that stretch the field horizontally, it will lead to a much more efficient offense that can sustain longer drives.
4. Liuget is Legit
After a poor rookie season in 2011, DE Corey Liuget made huge strides in 2012, grading out at +11.5 overall. Solid against both the run and the pass, Liuget is poised to become a force on the Chargers’ defensive line for years to come. He showed flashes of dominance against the Chiefs in Week 4 and the Ravens in Week 12, en route to a very solid sophomore campaign. At the opposite defensive end, Kendall Reyes showed strong pass rush ability in his rookie season and was PFF’s Secret Superstar for the Chargers. If both continue to progress, they could make for one of the better 3-4 defensive end tandems in the league for a long time.
5. Eric and Derek
Although the Chargers have numerous question marks in the defensive backfield (more on that later), there are two secondary members that can be true impact players. By now, if you follow PFF or the Chargers, you know that Eric Weddle is one of the best all-around safeties in the league. Snubbed by both the Pro Bowl and the Players’ Top 100 (but check out where he was on PFF’s Top 101) Weddle graded as the top safety in the league last year. He has excellent range in coverage, defends the run very well, and does everything you could ask for in a safety. A model of discipline, he has committed only one penalty over the past four seasons combined. We can only hope that he’ll start getting the recognition he richly deserves.
The player that Charger fans may not know as much about is cornerback Derek Cox, formerly of the Jacksonville Jaguars. His signing went somewhat under the radar, but Cox has the ability to be a high-quality cornerback provided that he can stay healthy. Although he didn’t get a ton of press given that he played on a poor team, Cox has displayed very good coverage skills over the past three seasons. Quarterbacks last year had only a 69.0 QB rating when throwing his way, while Cox intercepted four passes and was beaten only once for a touchdown. However, one area that he’ll need to improve is his Tackling Efficiency, where he ranked near the bottom among cornerbacks in 2012. The Chargers desperately need him to stay healthy and help solidify a secondary position that has been abused regularly of late.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1. Can Rivers Reverse the Trend?
As the NFL continues to become more and more quarterback driven, Philip Rivers’ downward trend presents some major red flags. With his ability to throw the deep ball deteriorating, Rivers needs to pick his spots better and avoid taking too many chances. Of his 59 deep passes from 2012, Rivers was intercepted six times. Only three starting quarterbacks threw a higher interception percentage on deep balls: Mark Sanchez, Brandon Weeden, and Matt Schaub (each by marginal amounts). Of course, not all of the blame can be placed on Rivers, as he faced pressure from the pass rush on 38.2% of his drop-backs last year, third-most in the league among full-time starters. Compare that with Peyton Manning being pressured on just 19.9% of drop-backs (lowest in the league) and you can see the offensive blueprint that Mike McCoy looks to bring with him from Denver. For a deeper look at the effect pressure has on quarterbacks, I highly recommend Steve Palazzolo’s Examining Pressure series.
2. Uncertainty in the Secondary
Aside from Weddle and Cox, the Chargers will look to unproven young defensive backs to fill starting roles this season. Marcus Gilchrist is the front runner at strong safety, and he’ll also play either slot corner or safety when the Chargers deploy five defensive backs. Gilchrist struggled mightily in coverage playing as the nickel corner last year, so he will need to pick up his play. Shareece Wright will start at cornerback opposite Cox. Wright impressed last year in very limited duty, but is largely untested on the outside, and has not yet started a game at the NFL level. Teams will certainly be targeting him until he proves himself. It appears that the battle for the final spot in the nickel is now between S Jahleel Addae and CB Johnny Patrick. Addae has impressed many within the organization throughout camp, and has earned a +2.1 overall grade across 75 preseason snaps, but has not played a regular season game at safety in the NFL. Patrick played 218 snaps for the Saints last season, but quarterbacks completed 24 of 35 passes for 339 yards with five TDs and zero interceptions when throwing into his coverage. Not very promising. No matter how you slice it, we’re going to see a lot of inexperienced players in much bigger roles than they have ever had. Will they be up to the challenge?
3. Offensive Line Chemistry
While the Chargers have blown up their woeful 2012 offensive line, fielding new starters at four different positions in a season will raise questions about how well they can function as a cohesive unit. Center Nick Hardwick, now entering his 10th NFL season is the lone holdover. Jeromey Clary will remain in the starting lineup, but he transitions from tackle to right guard. Rookie first-round pick D.J. Fluker needs to adjust quickly to the speed of the pro game, as he will go toe-to-toe with many of the league’s top pass rushers this season. On the left side, newcomers King Dunlap and Max Starks continue to battle it out for the starting tackle job. Dunlap performed admirably in pass protection for the Eagles last season as he tied for 15th in the league in Pass Blocking Efficiency at 95.9. Starks is coming off a down year, ranking 45th in that regard with a 93.4 PBE. Either player will be an upgrade over last season’s left tackle situation. Former Buffalo Bill Chad Rinehart joins the starting lineup at left guard. With upgrades at both tackles, the Chargers are projecting improvement on the line, but how much improvement remains to be seen. How will they hold up in 3rd-and-long when the defense is bringing heat?
4. The Hurt Locker Room
All those injuries… The Chargers have been hit extremely hard this preseason. Promising second-year linebacker Melvin Ingram was the first torn ACL victim, and a huge loss. Danario Alexander’s torn ACL robbed the Chargers of an explosive vertical threat. Additional injuries to Malcolm Floyd and Eddie Royal, along with the downward spiral of Robert Meachem’s health, have transformed the wide receiver unit from deep to paper-thin. This leaves large roles for rookie Keenan Allen and breakout candidate Vincent Brown. In last week’s game against the Bears, the Chargers also lost rookie cornerback Steve Williams for the year with a torn pectoral.
5. Depth on the Defensive Front
Across the defensive line, the Chargers feature a respectable starting unit, but are there any reserves who give reasons for optimism? Many teams rotate defensive linemen frequently, but San Diego is extremely thin up front and does not have anybody who has previously excelled in a substantial role. However, two unheralded players have turned in encouraging preseason performances. DT Kwame Geathers has blown up opposing centers, grading +4.0 in just 26 snaps against the run. Former Boston College DE Damik Scafe has also graded in the green in both preseason games. However, this is a small sample size, and mostly against backups.
At outside linebacker, solid veterans Dwight Freeney and Jarret Johnson are just not every-down players at this point in their careers, so others will be counted on as well. Larry English has given no indication that he will be an impact player, and rookie sixth-rounder Tourek Williams is a work in progress. If any starter along the defensive front were to miss time, it could be a crushing blow.
What to Expect?
From a franchise standpoint, the Chargers have acquired some quality pieces that should become fixtures on the team for years to come. However, they are very thin on experience at many positions heading into 2013. With so much riding on the performances of inexperienced players, a playoff run looks unlikely. There could be some growing pains as the Chargers need to find out what they have in their young players. However, if Mike McCoy can help revitalize the passing game, and some of the new starters can prove themselves very quickly, it’s not completely out of the question in a relatively weak division. San Diego’s defense must prove that they can defend the pass and get pressure on opposing quarterbacks in order to have any shot at the playoffs this season.
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