The Los Angeles Chargers didn't focus on starry acquisitions in free agency or make a big trade up in the 2021 NFL draft, but their focus on fortifying the line protecting Justin Herbert and rounding out their team will likely give them playoff aspirations in 2021.
The quarterback soared to Offensive Rookie of the Year honors last season, throwing for 4,336 yards and 31 touchdowns against 10 interceptions while adding another 234 yards and five scores on the ground.
While some questioned Herbert's readiness, the Oregon product stepped in immediately after Tyrod Taylor's medical mishap to take the starting job in Week 2 and never looked back.
The Chargers finished the regular season with four straight wins, but their 7-9 record was not enough for Anthony Lynn to keep his job. They hired Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley to push the team forward in finishing games and added former New Orleans Saints quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi as their offensive coordinator.
Switching systems year-over-year may be a concern in Herbert's development, but the Chargers look primed for a postseason push. Here's a look at what to expect in 2021.
Chargers 2021 Schedule
The Chargers' schedule strength is average on paper, ranking 17th in terms of their opposing teams' 2020 regular-season record.
Looking more subjectively, they could wind up with one of the NFL's easiest slates. The AFC West's common opponents are the NFC East and AFC North, which rank as the league's worst and best divisions, respectively.
The Ravens, Chiefs and Washington are the only playoff teams the Chargers play on the road this season. Their non-common intraconference matchups are a 50-50 split of a true test (New England) and a team that's in complete disarray (Houston).
Provided the Chargers take care of business in games in which they're favored, there's little reason to believe they won't be a wild-card team in 2021.
We are (understandably) writing off the chances of anyone toppling the Chiefs in the AFC West, barring a catastrophic injury to Patrick Mahomes.
The Broncos aren't a threat until they figure out their quarterback situation, and the Raiders are not demonstrably better than what they were a year ago. If the Chargers can get to 4-2 in their division, they'll be in a strong position to make the playoffs given the relative shakiness of the rest of their schedule.
Simply performing better in close games would be enough to get the Chargers into playoff contention. Seven of their nine losses last season came by one score, and they were 5-7 overall in those contests.
Lynn's clock management was perhaps his most glaring flaw as a head coach, and if Staley is even league average in that department, the Chargers will be better.