Why the Los Angeles Chargers are the NFL's Most Underrated Team

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystMay 22, 2018

Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers throws a pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the Oakland Raiders, Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, in Carson, Calif. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

Now that OTAs are firing up around the country, it's officially summertime in the NFL

For the players, it's time to begin preparing for the 2018 campaign. For fans and pundits, it's time to start wondering which teams will dominate the months-long story that's about to unfold—for better or worse.

Every year in the NFL, some teams fall far short of expectations, like the 2017 New York Giants. Others blast past fans' wildest hopes, like the 2017 Los Angeles Rams.

In 2018, the Los Angeles Chargers are poised to do what the Rams did a year ago: come from nowhere to stun fans and win their division.

Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

The Chargers almost made the playoffs in 2017, which would have been a momentous achievement after their miserable first month. Quarterback Philip Rivers admitted to ESPN.com's Eric Williams that avoiding another disastrous start is a priority in 2018.

"We talked about not scoring enough points those first few gameswe were just not scoring enough points," Rivers said. "And so, I think it's gotten to the point now, and you hope it's this way, it's more now about the approach and the little fine details of how to convert another third down, not kick a field goal in a key situation [and] continue to take care of the ball."

Rivers remains the key for the Bolts offensively. In 2017, he completed over 62 percent of his passes for 4,515 yards and 28 touchdowns with a passer rating of 96.0. After throwing 21 interceptions in 2016, Rivers cut that number down to 10 in 2017.

Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

Heading into 2018, Rivers has no shortage of weaponry at his disposal. Fourth-year tailback Melvin Gordon is one of the NFL's best under-the-radar players at his position. Gordon set a career high with 1,105 rushing yards in 2017, and he's topped 1,400 yards from scrimmage in each of the last two seasons.

Wide receiver Keenan Allen played in all 16 games last year for the first time in his career and exploded, topping 100 receptions and piling up 1,393 receiving yards. Fourth-year pro Tyrell Williams was a 1,000-yard receiver as recently as 2016. And while Mike Williams' rookie season was all but wiped out by injury, there's a reason the Chargers selected the former Clemson star seventh overall in 2017.

Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

If there's a weak spot offensively, it's at tight end. The Chargers parted ways with Antonio Gates in the offseason, in large part because the team had an apparent replacement in place in third-year pro Hunter Henry.

But as Williams reported, Henry became the latest Chargers player to fall prey to the team's rotten luck where injuries are concerned, suffering a season-ending ACL tear in OTAs.

That injury could pave the way for a reunion with Gates, but even with the hole at tight end the Chargers' skill-position talent is as good as any team in the AFC West.

The offensive line excelled at pass protection last year, ranking third in the NFL, per Football Outsiders. While the line struggled in run blocking (26th), that was without free-agent acquisition Mike Pouncey and a healthy Forrest Lamp on the inside. 

The Los Angeles defense is nothing to sneeze at, either. It's keyed by end Joey Bosa, who followed up his Defensive Rookie of the Year award in 2016 with an even better second season—an eye-popping 70 tackles and 12.5 sacks. In just two seasons, Bosa has made a case to be mentioned alongside players like Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt and Oakland Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack as one of the NFL's most dominant defenders.

Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

Batterymate Melvin Ingram accrued 10.5 sacks of his own in 2017. The pair combined to power a pass rush that got to opposing quarterbacks 43 times, tied for the fifth-most in the NFL.

L.A. is equally stout on the back end. Led by steady veterans like safety Jahleel Addae and cornerback Casey Heyward, the Chargers allowed only 197.2 yards per game through the air last year, making them one of three teams to surrender fewer than 200 passing yards per contest.

The two teams that allowed fewer—the Jacksonville Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings—made their respective conference championship games.

That secondary will be all the better this year with the arrival of rookie Derwin James, a wildly athletic and versatile player who can line up all over the defensive backfield. And while the Bolts ranked last in the AFC against the run last year, they were besieged by injuries at linebacker.

Chris Carlson/Associated Press

Even if you believe Denver is the cream of the crop defensively in the AFC West, it's a closer call than it used to be. If nothing else, the Chargers have the edge on Kansas City and Oakland in that regard.

Mind you, L.A. went 9-3 after that early-season faceplant in 2017, missing the playoffs due to Week 17 tiebreakers despite being ravaged by injuries on both sides of the ball. Three of those early losses were by three or fewer points.

Despite that, the Chargers are getting little early run as a team to be reckoned with in the AFC. Even head coach Anthony Lynn downplayed L.A.'s chances after Broncos general manager John Elway said the Chargers might be the team to beat in the division in 2018.

"That sounds like a mousetrap to me," Lynn said on NFL Network's NFL Up to the Minute. "That's all I can say about that drill. We know Kansas City won this division. They had a good draft, they brought in some key free agents. To me, that's still the team to beat in this division. Until we beat Kansas City, we can't even talk about playoffs and things like that."

Chris Carlson/Associated Press

Don't buy the coachspeak. The Chargers are the real deal.

Los Angeles isn't the only team being slept on at this early juncture. The Houston Texans fell apart last year without Deshaun Watson on the field, but if they get Watson and half of J.J. Watt back, they'll have something to say about an AFC South that's all but being handed to the Jaguars.

In the NFC East, the same Giants team that went 3-13 last year is now underrated. The Giants still have a two-time Super Bowl MVP under center in Eli Manning, and roughly 37 New York receivers aren't going to get hurt on a single Sunday afternoon again. Add No. 2 overall pick Saquon Barkley to an offense that includes Odell Beckham Jr., and you have the makings of a quick rebound.

But Houston's offensive line is a huge question mark, and even in a best-case scenario, the Giants are the second-best team in the NFC East behind the Super Bowl champion Eagles.

That leaves the Chargers as the best team in the NFL no one's talking about. They have it all: a veteran quarterback, skill-position talent, strong play along both the offensive and defensive lines and a lockdown secondary. And perhaps best yet, a winnable division.

After another dispiriting playoff loss, the Chiefs turned over the reins at quarterback to second-year pro Patrick Mahomes. The Broncos have a new quarterback as well in Case Keenum. And early returns on the beginning of Jon Gruden 2.0 in Oakland have been...confusing.

Rivers and the Chargers haven't made it to the playoffs since 2013. And much like that abomination of a stadium they played in last year, the Chargres' bandwagon still has plenty of seats available.

But as summer moves to fall and then to winter, those seats are going to fill up. People will realize the Chargers are a talented and balanced team with a proven commodity at football's most important position playing in a division that's there for the taking.

The Rams aren't the only good team in town.

For those sleeping on the Chargers now, you'll soon wonder why you didn't foresee Rivers and the Chargers playing in the divisional round as AFC West champs.

   

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