They're a franchise without a concrete fanbase after an early-offseason move from San Diego, and a franchise without an NFL-caliber stadium as they wait to become a richer team's tenant at a venue still under construction.
They aren't as accomplished as the 2015 Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos, they aren't as chic as the talented young Oakland Raiders and they aren't as hot as the defending AFC West champion Kansas City Chiefs.
The Chargers are "that other team." The team you have to take a second to conjure when trying to list every NFL club. Zero Super Bowl wins, no championships since 1963, one playoff appearance this decade. They're football nomads with a poor track record and only nine wins in their last two seasons.
But every year, at least one team sneaks up on the NFL with a stunningly strong season. And when we look back on how it happened, it almost always makes sense. The ingredients were there, but recent results, rival hype, bad luck, injuries or all of the above obscured them in real time.
Just look at the 2016 Atlanta Falcons.
Wanna try to get ahead of the game this year? Look closely and you'll begin to see that the Chargers could very well be that under-the-radar contender, especially considering the improvements they made in the 2017 NFL draft.
Philip Rivers is now heavily armed and protected
We know the veteran quarterback has it in him. He's a six-time Pro Bowler with 314 touchdown passes under his belt, but he's often been plagued by a lack of support in San Diego.
That is no longer the case.
Not only can Rivers expect to get his top receiver back after 25-year-old former rookie sensation Keenan Allen missed the majority of the last two seasons due to injury—Allen told Ricky Henne of Chargers.com last month that he's close to 100 percent as he rehabs a torn ACL—but Chargers general manager Tom Telesco also gave Rivers a shiny new toy in the first round of the draft.
The Chargers used the No. 7 overall pick on Clemson product Mike Williams, who caught 98 passes and scored 11 touchdowns in 2016 and has the ideal combination of size (6'4", 218 pounds), speed (he ran a 4.51-second 40-yard dash at Clemson's pro day, according to NFL.com's Gil Brandt) and experience to contribute as an impact player from the get-go.
Allen and Williams will team up with speedy veteran Travis Benjamin and breakout 2016 1,000-yard receiver Tyrell Williams. Complementing that quartet will be potential Hall of Fame tight end Antonio Gates and Gates' protege, Hunter Henry, who led the team with eight receiving touchdowns as a rookie last season.
In other words, Rivers will have an abundance of weapons.
And maybe more importantly, he'll also be better protected after Telesco spent big bucks on free-agent offensive tackle Russell Okung before the general manager used both of his Day 2 draft picks on interior offensive linemen who appear ready to start immediately.
So they moved on from the unreliable King Dunlap and gave a four-year, $53 million contract to Okung. And they moved on from the equally unreliable D.J. Fluker at guard before using a second-round pick on versatile Western Kentucky product Forrest Lamp, who projects as an interior offensive lineman at the NFL level but has experience at tackle and center in addition to guard.
And for good measure, they spent a third-round pick on Dan Feeney, a four-year starter at Indiana who should immediately bolster the line in general and the running game in particular.
Running back Melvin Gordon fell just three rushing yards short of 1,000 despite missing nearly four full games in 2016. With so much more support in his third season, he should explode, and Rivers should benefit from better protection and more balance.
This was already a top-10 scoring offense in 2016. Now the line is an asset rather than a liability, and they've got two new key cogs in the receiving corps. Don't be surprised if the Bolts have one of the highest-scoring offenses in the league in 2017.
Joey Bosa is ready to become a star
San Diego's 29th-rated scoring defense was a major problem last year, but that unit did improve later in the season. It held its opponents to 20 or fewer points in three of its last six games and recorded a solid nine takeaways during that span.
A lot of that had to do with the fact No. 3 overall pick Joey Bosa emerged as a dominant pass-rusher and all-around defender over the course of his rookie season. Said campaign started late after a contract dispute, but Bosa still managed to put together 10.5 sacks in just 12 games, winning the league's Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
Bosa also seemed to bring out the best in veteran outside linebacker Melvin Ingram, who had eight sacks while earning a rating from Pro Football Focus as the fifth-best edge-defender in the NFL.
|PFF's best pass-rushing grades, Week 5-17, 2016|
|Pro Football Focus|
Ingram is back and presumably hungry on the franchise tag. Bosa is ready to take part in his first full offseason and training camp. Look for that duo to do serious damage in 2017.
And look for the secondary to provide a ton of support. Not only is top cornerback Casey Hayward coming off a seven-interception, Pro Bowl campaign, but 2014 first-round pick Jason Verrett should be back from a knee injury. Verrett had the top PFF coverage grade among qualified AFC corners in 2015, earning a Pro Bowl nod for his efforts.
If Verrett, Hayward, Bosa and Ingram can remain healthy in 2017, the Chargers will have one of the best pass-rushing duos and one of the best cornerback duos in football.
There are still holes on that side of the ball, and safety is arguably a weak spot. But Jahleel Addae was strong when healthy last year and is back on a new contract, and they used two middle-round picks on defensive backs with promising futures. Former Jim Thorpe Award winner Desmond King was somehow available in the fifth round, despite the fact King is a pro-ready four-year starter out of Iowa who had 14 interceptions during his college career.
King might have the ability to cover slot receivers early, and he might be good enough to do so better than now-released veteran Brandon Flowers did last season.
Again, it was a hell of a draft.
"I think it tells the fans, 'Hey, we think we've got a chance to compete for a championship right now,'" Rivers said of the new rookie class, per Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times. "I know the guys in the locker room believe that. I think these pieces we've added can help us get that."
The law of averages should be on their side
The Chargers were 5-11 last season, but they were actually much better than that record even before making clear improvements in the offseason.
Football Outsiders assigns teams "Pythagorean wins," which, as the site explains it, "represent a projection of the team's expected wins based solely on points scored and allowed." And using that criteria, the 2016 Chargers underachieved dramatically.
Based on that metric, they should have won nearly eight games (7.7, to be precise), which makes sense considering that they ranked a respectable 20th in the NFL in terms of DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average).
When it comes to adjusted games lost—a formula Football Outsiders utilizes in an attempt to quantify the impact injuries have on each team—the Chargers were the fourth-most injured team in the league last season on both offense and defense. And across the board, no team in the AFC was hit harder by injuries than San Diego.
They also lost several early-season games in extremely improbable fashion. As Michael Salfino of the Wall Street Journal detailed in October, in the first five weeks of the 2016 season the Chargers lost two games in which they had a 99.9 percent chance to win. And during the same stretch they lost two other games in which they had a win probability of 75 percent or higher.
"If you ran a computer simulation of these games from these points 30 million times, the Chargers would lose all four just once," financial analyst Seth Bienstock told Salfino.
That's right, it was a one-in-30 million shot.
It's safe to say that won't happen again, and injury rates vary greatly from year to year. The Chargers can't get any less lucky in either area and are likely to enjoy better fortunes in those respects.
There's also plenty of evidence that fumble recoveries are generally luck-based. Football Outsiders calls this "fumble luck," and teams with particularly lucky or unlucky seasons typically regress or progress to the mean in ensuing seasons.
Care to guess what kind of luck the Chargers had when trying to recover their own fumbles in 2016?
|Lowest percentage of recovered fumbles on offense, 2016|
|San Diego Chargers||36|
|Original data from Pro Football Reference|
The Bolts are likely to be significantly healthier and luckier in 2017, based purely on the fact it is statistically probable.
The recipe is there
Combine the injury and luck factors with major upgrades on offense and the expected evolution of that Bosa-led defense and you have the recipe for a breakout season, which would be huge for a Chargers team trying to curry favor and win over fans while playing in a 27,000-seat soccer stadium in suburban LA.
Their Los Angeles neighbor, the Rams, are—at least on paper—a worse team with a less accomplished quarterback. They won just four games last season and had the third-worst DVOA in the league. They didn't make any splashes in free agency and didn't have a first-round pick in the draft.
In sports, nothing sells like W's. A lot of fans on the football fence in LA will be inclined to start rooting for whichever new local team starts winning first. And while the Chargers might look and feel like the Rams' little brother off the field, they enter the 2017 campaign ahead of them on the field.
In fact, they might even be league's top sleeper.
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