Secret Superstars 2014: Chargers
The Chargers' 2013 season played to the strengths of their 2014 Secret Superstar.
Secret Superstars 2014: Chargers
San Diego’s unlikely resurgence in the AFC West last season was a great instance of coaching elevating the talent with the right scheme. When Norv Turner was running the Chargers’ offense with an in-prime Phil Rivers, Antonio Gates, Vincent Jackson, and LaDainian Tomlinson, the vertical passing attack was devastating.
By 2011-12, though, Jackson was on his way out in San Diego, Gates was a shell of his former self, LDT was nearly out of the league, and Rivers’ knack for taking risks led to a career-high number of turnovers. So, in swooped Mike McCoy, who designed the offensive “attack” led by Tim Tebow in Denver in 2011, before adjusting to a Peyton Manning-led offense the following season.
McCoy worked his magic on Rivers, with a little help from rookie Keenan Allen a free agent signing Danny Woodhead. While Gates has battled a slew of injuries since 2010, he’s logged at least 797 snaps in each of the last three seasons. However, his effectiveness is starting to wane as he fights of the ravages of Father Time.
With that in mind, combined with the lack of outside weapons at San Diego’s disposal, Ladarius Green started seeing more snaps in the second half of the season as the Chargers used more ‘12’ personnel. Despite playing about 600 fewer snaps, Green’s +7.5 cumulative grade dwarfed Gates’ -5.3. With a seemingly untapped upside, San Diego’s tight end of the future offers dynamic playmaking ability and the willingness to become a dominant run blocker.
The New Breed
In former GM A.J. Smith’s final draft for the Chargers, he selected Ladarius Green in the fourth round, with 110th overall pick. Although he was on his way out in 2012, Smith had originally signed undrafted free agent Antonio Gates out of Kent State in 2003. If Tony Gonzalez was the original basketball player turned star tight end, then Antonio Gates was the updated model. At 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds with 4.5 speed, many of Green’s measurables are at Gates’ level, and he’s even a bit taller.
Unlike Gates, though, Green played college football, averaging almost 15 yards per catch and tallying 22 touchdowns in 41 career games at Louisiana-Lafayette. The Chargers knew they still had a project on their hands, but with Gates pushing 32 at the time of the 2012 draft, they could let their raw, young tight end learn from the aging star.
Green logged just 39 snaps during his rookie season, playing behind Gates, Randy McMichael, and Dante Rosario. San Diego’s offense had more than its fair share of issues, most notably the offensive line looking like a sieve and employing a revolving door of lineman. Eight players played at least 250 snaps on the line for the Chargers, which adversely effected Rivers.
With his arm strength looking like it had hit a wall, and his coach and GM being lame ducks, Rivers followed up a so-so 2011 with an even worse 2012. So, despite possessing the tools to prosper as a new-age NFL tight end, Green’s growth was unquestionably stunted in his rookie season due to his poor situation.
2013: Change in Philosophy
In the 2013 offseason, San Diego hired Tom Telesco as General Manager and Mike McCoy as head coach. Telesco became one of the youngest GMs in the league after being an executive with the Colts during the entirety of Peyton Manning’s reign in Indianapolis. McCoy had designed offenses in Denver since 2009, including back-to-back division titles with Tim Tebow and Peyton, who are polar opposites as quarterbacks.
After losing Danario Alexander in the preseason and Malcom Floyd early in the regular season this past season, the Chargers were down to Vincent Brown, Keenan Allen, and Eddie Royal at receiver, but that didn’t stop McCoy from using 11 personnel early on.
After losing Louis Vazquez to Denver in free agency, the offensive line woes persisted. However, by adding Danny Woodhead in free agency, they were mitigated, and the short and intermediate passing game with Allen, Woodhead, Gates, and even Royal excelled.
So, due to the high usage of ‘11’ personnel, Ladarius Green saw over 30% the snaps in a single game just once through the first 10 weeks of the season. However, it was around Weeks 10 and 11 when Mike McCoy flipped a switch on offense.
Perhaps it was due to Eddie Royal’s toe injury toward the end of season, or possibly McCoy recognizing who his best offensive players were. More likely, he saw what it would take to beat the Broncos: a run heavy, ball-control offense, which would keep Peyton off the field while simultaneously getting rest for the defense that would try and keep up with the up-tempo Denver attack.
Ryan Mathews and Green both saw increased snaps, and over the final eight games of the season, including both of San Diego’s playoff games, the young TE saw at least 40% of the offensive snaps in each game.
While his snaps finally ticked upwards toward the end of the season, Green was more of a blocker than receiver. Of his 450 snaps in 2013, about 60% came as a blocker. With San Diego running the ball heavily over the final weeks, it shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Green’s run-blocking grade (-0.5) is only about average, but it’s his ability to lineup in-line, in the slot, or even out wide, allowing him to seal off an edge or take on a smaller linebacker or defensive back which was valuable. His willingness to get dirty in the trenches should get him on the field early in 2014.
Despite running just 181 routes and seeing 34 total targets, Green’s +6.1 grade in the passing game is just a taste of how he can stretch the field and command the ball in the red zone. He was 49th among all tight ends in snaps last season, but there were just nine other TEs who finished with a higher grade in the passing game.
The most telling stat for Green in the receiving game is where he caught the majority of his passes. An impressive 22 of his 34 targets, 13 of his 22 catches, and all four of his touchdowns came from plays that were 10+ yards downfield from the line of scrimmage. And he made those plays both inside the numbers and out, another indication of his versatility and ability to cause mismatches all over the field.
Barring another rash of injuries, Antonio Gates should remain the ‘starter’ in San Diego. But, after not adding another proven pass-catcher opposite Keenan Allen, the Chargers are likely to make Green 50-60% snap player, possibly more if they employ their ‘12’ personnel as much as it looks like they will.
While Green may not truly break into the upper echelon of tight ends until Gates hangs up his cleats, his versatility in the running game and ability to get vertical in the passing game should make him a sizable piece of the San Diego offense.
Follow Nathaniel on Twitter.