If you're a neutral football fan, there was one bummer with the Las Vegas Raiders' incredible Week 18 win that ended the Los Angeles Chargers' season: We didn't get to see Justin Herbert in the playoffs.
Herbert is already one of the NFL's must-watch players. His performance against the Raiders, completing multiple fourth-down passes to keep his team alive, was memorable even in a loss. Herbert has arrived. The arrow is pointing straight up. At this moment you'd have to say the Chargers selecting him, sixth overall in 2020, is a franchise-changing pick (sorry, Miami Dolphins fans).
But quarterbacks aren't judged by great plays in close-call regular-season losses. Fair or not, Herbert won't become a true superstar until he shines in the playoffs. The good news is, the Chargers have the team to get to the postseason.
The most valuable asset in sports is a blue-chip quarterback on his rookie deal. It offers the type of flexibility that opens up a championship window. History shows it gets a lot tougher to reach a Super Bowl once a quarterback has a nosebleed contract, and Herbert will get that deal soon. For now, his cap hit of about $7.25 million is just 3.36 percent of the Chargers' cap. That's less than offensive guard Matt Feiler.
The Chargers overpaid for some talent this offseason, most notably cornerback J.C. Jackson and defensive end Khalil Mack. But that's how a team should operate when it has excess cap space and a chance to chase a championship. Nobody has ever hung a banner for most unused cap space.
Los Angeles already had a good foundation before the Herbert revelation the past two seasons. Defensive end Joey Bosa and safety Derwin James are elite defensive players. Keenan Allen and Mike Williams form one of the top receiving duos in the NFL. Austin Ekeler is a fantastic running back who fits perfectly in the wide-open modern era of the NFL. The offensive line has been a work in progress for a while, but now it's an asset. Add players like Jackson, Mack and defensive tackles Sebastian Joseph-Day (three years, $24 million) and Austin Johnson (two years, $14 million) and it's a roster that should be among the best in the NFL.
However, this is the Chargers. Things rarely are as good as they look on paper.
The Chargers underachieving relative to their talent dates back a couple decades, at least. The teams of the 2000s were as talented as any in that era. The 2010s had some very good teams led by Philip Rivers, a borderline Hall of Fame candidate. The Chargers haven't won a division title since 2009, and have been past the divisional round just once since 1994, when they made their only Super Bowl. They have been to the playoffs just twice since 2009. Even last season, the Chargers would have been a playoff team if not for a confounding 41-29 loss at a bad Houston Texans team in Week 16. It feels like they've left a lot on the table this century.
Maybe Herbert can take the Chargers where Drew Brees and Rivers couldn't. The offense was fantastic last season and likely will be again. The defense should take huge strides in Brandon Staley's second season as head coach. Staley himself should be better after probably crossing the line of aggression vs. prudence too often last season.
The Chargers should be really good. We've heard that before, though.
Like the Philadelphia Eagles, the Chargers did exactly what a team should do when they have a quarterback on his rookie deal. The difference is the Chargers already know Herbert is a star, while the Eagles still wonder about Jalen Hurts.
Los Angeles made two huge moves to improve the defense. J.C. Jackson comes over from the New England Patriots on a five-year, $82.5 million deal, and then the Chargers made a trade with the Chicago Bears to acquire former NFL defensive player of the year Khalil Mack. It's a little concerning the Patriots didn't even franchise tag Jackson — Bill Belichick has a sixth sense for when to move on from a player — but Jackson has developed into a marvelous cornerback and there's no reason to think he won't play at a top-10 level again. Mack is 31 years old and cost the Chargers a 2022 second-round pick and a 2023 sixth-round pick, but he should still have some juice left.
The Chargers also paid receiver Mike Williams $60 million over three years, a big move for offensive continuity (and maybe one that wouldn't have been possible if Herbert was making $40 million a year already).
Defensive tackles Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson were added from the Los Angeles Rams and New York Giants, respectively. They'll help a run defense that desperately needed an upgrade.
Gerald Everett is an interesting addition at tight end. Uchenna Nwosu, a young and talented pass rusher, left for the Seattle Seahawks and that's a blow, but Mack should replace his production. Boston College OL Zion Johnson was the team's first-round pick, and he helps an offensive line that is suddenly a strength. Baylor S J.T. Woods, a third-round pick, was the team's other top-100 pick. Fourth-round pick Isaiah Spiller, a running back out of Texas A&M, should take some pressure off Austin Ekeler. Chargers GM Tom Telesco did everything he could.
The Cincinnati Bengals, Washington Commanders, Detroit Lions, New York Giants and Miami Dolphins passed on Justin Herbert in the draft. We'll give the Bengals a break because the guy they took is pretty good. The other four teams will be starting Carson Wentz, Jared Goff, Daniel Jones and Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback this season. Think there's some regret among those teams? Herbert is a prototype. He has breathtaking arm talent, remarkable accuracy, good athleticism, does well reading defenses and has had some clutch moments already. He's also just 24 years old. It's really, really premature to predict where his career is headed, but it seems clear we're seeing something special.
— Most pass yards in first 2 seasons
— Most pass TD in first 2 seasons
— Most pass yards in a Chargers season
— Most pass TD in a Chargers season
— 4th player ever with 5K-yard season before turning 25 (Mahomes, Marino, Stafford) pic.twitter.com/rq9mhCD2uL
— StatMuse (@statmuse) January 10, 2022
This isn't the first time, and probably not the last, I load up on Chargers futures at BetMGM. My favorite Chargers play is +230 to win the AFC West. It's one of my favorite bets for any team this season. I also like +1600 to win the Super Bowl and over 10.5 wins. Justin Herbert at +900 to win MVP isn't bad either. The upside of the Chargers is intoxicating. Again.
From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "Keenan Allen has been a consistent fantasy performer for several years, but it doesn't make sense that his Yahoo ADP is 32 slots ahead of teammate Mike Williams. The Chargers expanded Williams's route tree last year, and he outscored Allen in both standard and PPR formats. Williams is also two years younger than Allen. There are plenty of fantasy-viable pieces in this offense, but when it comes to receiver, I'll try to play the waiting game for Williams, or maybe look at Josh Palmer in the later rounds."
The Chargers were fifth in points scored and fourth in yards on offense last season, but 29th in points allowed and 23rd in yards allowed on defense. Their efficiency stats were similarly imbalanced. It's a little disappointing because Brandon Staley was hired after a great season as the Rams' defensive coordinator, and he should have had an impact on the Chargers' defense too. Staley didn't have all the pieces to run his defense.
“I think that this year, we did the best that we could,” Staley said after the season, according to the Los Angeles Daily News. “We tried to fit how we played to who we had."
It would be hard to buy that excuse this season. Staley identified the interior of the defensive line as the top offseason priority, and the team signed two high-priced defensive tackles. The Chargers were bad against the run last season and while there are still questions at linebacker, they should be much better in that area. J.C. Jackson is an elite cornerback. Khalil Mack is aging but a great talent. The offense gets the attention, but the Chargers' season will be determined by how much the defense improves.
Will Brandon Staley stay aggressive?
Too much was made of Staley's timeout in overtime against the Las Vegas Raiders. A tie would have sent both teams to the playoffs. The Raiders ran for 10 yards on third down after the timeout and kicked a field goal as time expired. But it was the 10 yards, not the timeout, that led to the field goal.
“I’m not sure why that [got] magnified," Staley said of the timeout, according to the Los Angeles Times.
However, Staley's aggressiveness got a lot of attention and sometimes was questionable. In that same game, he went for it on fourth-and-1 at his own 18. The Chargers didn't make it. It handed the Raiders a field goal. Coaches are smartly going for it on fourth down more often, but Staley took it to an extreme at times. He has had time to evaluate his approach, but has said he's not changing. In June he was asked again about the fourth-down from his own 18, and it offered some insight into how he'll approach a similar situation going forward.
“I wanted to create a mindset in our team, and it really started with ... what I felt like it needed … a fearlessness,” Staley said, according to the LA Times. “I think the cumulative effect of that is going to help in time."
The Chargers are a marquee NFL team. They'll appear on prime time five times this season. They were picked for the first Thursday night game ever streamed by Amazon, Week 2 against the Kansas City Chiefs. Justin Herbert is the biggest reason but not the only one. The Chargers are loaded, perhaps on both sides of the ball after some big moves to fix the defense. It's hard to imagine the offense won't be good again, and it's possible Herbert goes up another level and wins an MVP. The Chargers are going to thrive if the defense goes from a liability to strength. It could, with Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack each posting double-digit sack seasons, the investments at defensive tackle transforming the run defense, J.C. Jackson, Asante Samuel Jr., Michael Davis and Bryce Callahan forming a strong cornerback unit, and Derwin James having another All-Pro season. They also won't be adjusting to Brandon Staley's complex scheme anymore. The Chargers should be a playoff team if the defense is simply average. If they're better than average, they could win the Super Bowl.
Maybe the offense isn't as rock solid as it looks. Keenan Allen is 30 and showing some signs of decline, Mike Williams has battled injuries and inconsistency, Gerald Everett flopped with the Seahawks last season and Austin Ekeler is due for some regression after a 20-touchdown season. The floor is still high, but if the offense slumps a bit and the defense isn't much better than last season, it could be another disappointing season for the Chargers. They didn't make the playoffs last season and the AFC is deeper and tougher than a year ago. It's hard to believe this roster wouldn't make the playoffs, but it is the Chargers we're talking about.
It's hard to pick a team that didn't make the playoffs a season ago to win the Super Bowl. But I can talk myself into that happening if everything breaks right. I'll stop short of picking the Chargers to win a championship, but I'll be picking them to win the AFC West. Another team in the division is above Los Angeles in the rankings because the Chargers need to earn some stripes before they move higher. Putting them at No. 8 is already pretty aggressive for a team that has gone more than 10 years since its last division title and playoff win past the wild-card round. It's difficult to restrain the enthusiasm for a team that has as many blue-chip players as the Chargers, with an MVP candidate at quarterback to lead them. Now, they actually have to do it on the field.
32. Houston Texans
31. Atlanta Falcons
30. New York Giants
29. Jacksonville Jaguars
28. Chicago Bears
27. New York Jets
26. Seattle Seahawks
25. Detroit Lions
24. Carolina Panthers
23. Washington Commanders
22. Pittsburgh Steelers
21. Minnesota Vikings
20. Miami Dolphins
19. New Orleans Saints
18. Las Vegas Raiders
17. Arizona Cardinals
16. Tennessee Titans
15. Cleveland Browns
14. Indianapolis Colts
13. Philadelphia Eagles
12. San Francisco 49ers
11. Denver Broncos
10. Cincinnati Bengals
9. New England Patriots