It was only after the Los Angeles Chargers were eliminated from playoff contention in 2020 that they began to play their best football. A 3-9 team after a 45-0 blowout at the hands of the New England Patriots in Week 13, rookie quarterback Justin Herbert led his team to four straight wins to finish the season 7-9.
The outlook could be even brighter for the Chargers in 2021. Herbert was voted Offensive Rookie of the Year after a 2020 campaign where he broke the record for most touchdowns thrown (31) and completions (396) by a first-year quarterback in NFL history. Selected sixth overall in the 2020 NFL Draft, Herbert is off to a faster start than even Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa, the quarterbacks selected above him.
With a coaching change in former Rams defensive coordinator, Brandon Staley comes a chance for Herbert to break out as a franchise quarterback in 2021. For a team that finished under .500 in one of the league’s toughest divisions, 2020 could have been so much better were it not for the coaching mistakes made by Anthony Lynn in his fourth season as head coach. Most egregious was a 27-17 loss to Buffalo in Week 12 where Lynn chose to run the ball in the red zone with no timeouts, causing the clock to run out and effectively ending their playoff hopes in the process.
Despite being promoted to head coach after only a singular year as a defensive coordinator, Staley brings with him a reputation for getting the best out of big-name players as an assistant coach. Working with Khalil Mack on the Bears in 2018 and Von Miller of the Broncos in 2019, Staley’s time with Aaron Donald and the Rams in 2020 saw them ranked the number one defense in the league.
Sitting second in sacks and first in points, yards, and touchdowns allowed, Staley’s stifling Rams units suffocated opposing offenses. That defensive nous will be much-needed on a 22nd-ranked Chargers unit that generated only 27 sacks in 2020, and Staley will mold his scheme around one of the NFL’s premier shop-wreckers in edge rusher Joey Bosa.
Strong Draft Adds Game-Changers
Staley’s first draft in the Chargers’ new era bodes well for a potential playoff challenge in 2021. In the eyes of many analysts, the Chargers under Staley and general manager Tom Telesco had one of the best drafts in the league, highlighted by star tackle Rashawn Slater being available at 13th overall.
Slater, in addition to offseason acquisitions Corey Linsley and Matt Feiler, aims to be part of a much-improved offensive line as Staley looks to keep Herbert upright next season. Wide receiver Josh Palmer with the 77th overall pick joins a wideout corps headlined by Keenan Allen and Mike Williams to form a formidable group for Herbert in his sophomore year.
Elsewhere, Asante Samuel Jr., son of former New England Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel, was expected to be off the board long before he was available for the Chargers at 47. Samuel Jr. immediately upgrades what was the weakest part of the Chargers’ defense – the secondary – and is the kind of rapid player Staley can deploy in the slot if needed. Fourth-round pick Duke linebacker Chris Rumph II has positional versatility and will factor into Staley’s rotation in the front seven.
Chargers Picking Fights with Bigger Dogs
The first task for Staley will be setting the tone for the Chargers in one of the NFL’s toughest divisions. NFL betting sites see them as a +600 outsider in the AFC West, where the division’s favorite Kansas City Chiefs (-280) is projected to be a major threat for all ten years of Patrick Mahomes’ bumper contract. The Denver Broncos (+450) is seen by many sportsbooks as being a quarterback away from contention, with a decision to be made between Drew Lock or Teddy Bridgewater in camp amid swirling Aaron Rodgers rumors.
The Las Vegas Raiders (+1600), meanwhile, continue to be the black-uniformed sheep of the division – and the NFL – with a number of head-scratching personnel and draft day moves. That included tearing down a top ten offensive line, releasing Rodney Hudson while trading away Gabe Jackson and Trent Brown.
With two games each against the Chiefs and Broncos in 2021, the Chargers have a stout schedule that will see them face the likes of the Browns, Ravens, Patriots, and Steelers. But in their second half of the season, they face only two teams – Kansas City and Pittsburgh – who finished above .500 a year ago. That run-in could be key to the Chargers’ success under Staley this year, especially if Herbert can replicate the explosive performances that saw LA tear off four straight wins to end 2020. But with Staley at the helm, it could be the much-improved defense that carries the Chargers to only their second playoff berth since 2014.