Each of the past three years, an AFC team with a young, athletic quarterback has made the leap from intriguing sleeper pick to Super Bowl contender behind a talented signal caller. Three seasons ago, it was Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City. In 2019, Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens. Last season, Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills emerged as a powerhouse. This season, this trend will continue with Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers.
Herbert entered the league as a rookie last season with analysts questioning his accuracy and ability to read defenses.He silenced his doubters, however, and shone the whole season, throwing for 4,336 yards and 31 touchdowns to just 10 interceptions, winning Offensive Rookie of the Year. While the Chargers finished the season 7-9 with Herbert as a starter, Anthony Lynn is no longer the head coach, the offensive line is vastly improved and the team is much healthier to start the 2021 season. Besides, it is always hard to win with a rookie under center. This season, expectations are higher, and they should be.
The biggest issue the Chargers offense had last season was protecting Herbert. He was sacked 32 times, but the Chargers now have a completely overhauled offensive line. The Chargers signed All-Pro center Corey Linsley to a five-year, $62.5 million deal, used the 13th pick in the draft on Northwestern standout tackle Rashawn Slater, and also picked up starting-caliber veterans Oday Aboushi and Matt Feiler to complete a new-look offensive line with the returning Bryan Bulaga.
Not only can the Chargers hope to show improvements in their lines, Los Angeles will improve just from being healthy. Star running back Austin Ekeler, Pro Bowl edge rusher Joey Bosa and Bulaga all missed six games in 2020 due to injury, while All-Pro safety Derwin James missed the entire season. They are all healthy to start this year. While the offense will be the engine of this team, it is the defense that will push them from good to great.
On the defensive side of the ball, it all starts with new head coach Brandon Staley. Staley led the Los Angeles Rams to the No. 1 defense in both points and yards allowed last season as the Rams’ defensive coordinator. Some question his coaching ability because of his short time as a coordinator and the strong talent on the Rams defense, but he is an adept defensive schemer. His early down looks confounded offenses, giving his secondary more time while making it harder on the opposing offense. What many Staley detractors forget is he will not be running this scheme with scrubs — the Chargers have talent on defense too.
Bosa and James are the headliners. Bosa, an elite pass rusher who averages 0.8 sacks per game in his career, is effective against the run as well, racking up 15 tackles for loss in 10 starts last season. James has only played five games since his rookie year in 2018, but he could be called the most talented safety in football. He can play in the box, defend the run and rush the passer, but also drop back in coverage.
Yet the talent does not end there. Safety Nasir Adderley is a solid complement to James. More importantly, the Chargers have a stacked cornerback room. Chris Harris Jr. is a powerful starting corner, especially when paired with emerging talent Michael Davis and second-round pick Asante Samuel Jr. Having a top-tier secondary is integral to being a good team in the NFL today, and the Chargers have that.
While acquisitions, health and better coaching have improved the team a lot this offseason, it is always difficult for a second-year quarterback and rookie head coach to succeed separately, much less on the same team. Pair that with a brutal stretch to start the season, and some might not see the Chargers having much success this season. But I see an MVP-caliber season out of Herbert. I see a top-five offense. I see a very good, if not elite, defense. With the talent they have, the Chargers finishing the season worse than 10-7 with a wild card spot would be nearly impossible. I would love the Chargers to have a Josh Allen and a Bills-esque season this year. Maybe this time, they will even knock off Kansas City.
Tim Brennan is a sophomore in the McDonough School of Business. Any Given Sunday appears online and in print every other week.