Los Angeles Chargers Are Set to Be NFL's Breakout Team of 2021

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystMay 14, 2021

Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert #10 throws a pass during the second quarter against the Las Vegas Raiders in an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Jeff Bottari)
Jeff Bottari/Associated Press

Seemingly every year, NFL analysts pick the Los Angeles Chargers to be the league's next breakout team. Former quarterback Philip Rivers became stuck in this unforgiving limbo throughout the entirety of his career with the organization.

But this year it's really going to happen. Definitely. Maybe.

The organization is set up to succeed after an offseason of change. The franchise hired one of the game's best young minds as head coach, properly built around reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert and should be drastically better on special teams.

Brandon Staley's hire as the team's overseer is the most critical component to any success the Chargers experience. Staley spent one season as the Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator before those around the league knew he was special.

The Cleveland Browns experienced something similar in 2020 when the franchise chose Kevin Stefanski as the latest in a long string of hires.

Stefanski provided something completely different than those who preceded him. His calm demeanor, preparedness and willingness to accept the overall organizational vision created a completely different dynamic within the Browns locker room. The team's talented young players were comfortable and placed into positions to succeed. They were always ready despite being placed in adverse conditions through no fault of their own. The newly found cohesion within the team's walls translated to the field as the Browns made the playoffs for the first time in 18 years and won a postseason contest. As a result, the Associated Press named Stefanski the 2020 NFL Coach of the Year.

A similar pathway is easy to project for Staley and his Chargers.

As important as Xs and Os are, an NFL coach's job encapsulates so much more. He must be able to handle all of the different personalities in a locker room. More importantly, he needs to reach those individuals and make sure they're all pulling in the same direction. Not every player responds well to the same stimulus.

Doug Murray/Associated Press

"I love to read," Staley told The Athletic's Jourdan Rodrigue. "Any time you read about successful companies, business, teachers—it doesn't matter—I'm really big in behavioral and economic psychology, education, all of that good stuff. When you study all of that, you just kind of come to the conclusion that when you reach people, you do it through language and care. They can feel you, and then they believe what you're saying.

"I felt like if I could create a teaching progression that makes sense to them and we're always building on something and then you create good relationships with your people, then you'll multiply that effect of the teaching."

Staley's former players speak very highly of the 38-year-old coach.

"I think he's a good leader, [and] by that I mean you can't treat everybody the same, so I think he knows how to talk to different people," Rams cornerback Ramsey said. "I know he knows how to treat different people differently."

Defensive lineman Michael Brockers added, "The guy comes in wanting to work. He comes with a lot of juice every morning. He actually makes you want to feel like you want to play."

Grown men playing a child's game will quickly sniff out those who aren't genuine. The ability to reach those men is the first step toward gaining the entire locker room's confidence.

From there, the technical aspect works its way to the forefront. Last season, the Rams finished first overall in scoring defense, total defense and passing defense. Staley took what was an already good unit under Wade Phillips' direction and made it even better. He did so by reprioritizing the schematic approach.

"When [Rams head coach Sean McVay] asked me, philosophically, as you're getting into an interview, 'OK, what's important to you on defense,' just from a schematic standpoint, my big belief system is 1-on-1s in the run game and 2-on-1s in the passing game," Staley told The Athletic's Robert Mays. "It all starts there."

Phillips, who is an all-time great defensive play-caller, tended to be more aggressive with his pressure packages. Staley took the same framework of the scheme and redirected toward supplementing backend help.

As Next Gen Stats noted in late November, the Rams ranked first in light-box rate. As a testament to Staley's success, the Rams don't plan to change much under new defensive coordinator Raheem Morris.

"You kind of formulate the things that you do around your players," Morris told ESPN's Lindsey Thiry. "Staley did a great job of doing things that his really good players could do. He did a great job of doing the things that the guys are capable of doing here. There'll be a lot of things that'll be similar."

Communicative skills, an understanding of building around available players and cutting-edge schematic approaches are traits usually found among successful head coaches. Delegation is another because a coach doesn't know what he doesn't know.

In this case, Staley comes with a strong defensive background. At the same time, the Chargers franchise is now built around Herbert. His well-being and maturation receive the organization's highest priority, as they should with any good, young quarterback.

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

"I think we're going to tell him that we're going to build it around him," new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi told reporters. "As we start this process, let's look at what he was most comfortable with last year and in his time at Oregon, and what he has had the most success with."

Smartly, the Chargers signed long-time backup quarterback Chase Daniel to serve as Herbert's mentor. Lombardi spent 12 seasons as part of Sean Payton's New Orleans Saints coaching staff. While the new play-caller will start by building around Herbert's strengths, Lombardi will also implement what he knows best. Daniel, meanwhile, understands the ins and outs of the system Lombardi brings after spending five seasons in the Big Easy.

The immediate future is also important from a team-building perspective. The Chargers have four years where Herbert's contract won't be preventative in addressing the roster in its entirety. The added benefit of hitting on a quarterback selection takes the form of financial flexibility since rookie deals are so team-friendly until an extension is negotiated.

General manager Tom Telesco attacked one specific area this offseason to the delight of everyone scared for Herbert after last season's performance. According to Pro Football Focus, the Chargers offensive line ranked dead last among the league's front fives.

Sam Tevi, Dan Feeney, Forrest Lamp, Cole Toner, Mike Pouncey and Trai Turner are all gone. Telesco nearly started from scratch with Bryan Bulaga being the lone holdover among the team's original projected starting five.

The Chargers made All-Pro center Corey Linsley the highest-paid player at his position with a five-year, $62.5 million contract (which Frank Ragnow's contract extension with the Detroit Lions recently surpassed). Linsley will join former Green Bay Packers teammate Bulaga and provide a legitimate anchor along Los Angeles' offensive front.

Telesco didn't stop there. The Chargers also signed guards Matt Feiler and Oday Aboushi. The new duo brings 82 combined starts to the group.

The final piece of the puzzle fell into place when Northwestern left tackle Rashawn Slater became the Chargers' selection with this year's 13th overall pick. Slater came into the draft as the best technician in the offensive line class. He filled a major need, presented excellent value outside of the Top 10 and his scheme fit excited Teleco.

David Dermer/Associated Press

"A lot of our run game is going to be based on having to reach and run … which needs a lot of movement involved," the general manager told reporters. "Whether it's running out to a linebacker or trying to cut off a defensive end. He has all those traits that are going to fit very well. Also, when he was at Northwestern, he had a lot of straight drop-back pass pros, which you'll see a lot more at this level."

Los Angeles selected Nebraska offensive tackle Brenden Jaimes in the fifth round for good measure. Bleacher Report's scouting department graded James as the class' 48th-best prospect and the ninth-best offensive tackle prospect.

The rival Kansas City Chiefs have received significant praise for how they rebuilt their offensive line in one offseason. The Chargers did the same and deserve as much credit. A massive difference should be seen in how Los Angeles performs at the point of attack and protect last year's sixth overall pick.

The same can be said of the Chargers' special teams. Last year's special teams performance was embarrassingly bad. According to Football Outsiders' Aaron Schatz, the unit recorded the third-worst DVOA ever tracked. As long as the group simply doesn't make as many mental mistakes, it'll naturally improve.

Telesco signed kicker Tristan Vizcaino and brought back punter Lachlan Edwards for competition to incumbents Michael Badgley and Ty Long.

The Chargers' late-round selections of Iowa linebacker Nick Niemann, Missouri running back Larry Rountree III and Georgia safety Mark Webb should become significant special teams contributors.

"I don't believe in looking backwards," new special teams coordinator Derius Swinton told reporters. "You just go through a process every day, and then talk. You evaluate first, then you get with each other and they come in and you implement your system around them. The cupboard is not empty here."

A head coach who connects with his players and brings a staff with a better approach coupled with an improved supporting cast around its star players presents the right ingredients to finally get cooking.

The Chiefs may still be the AFC's standard-bearer, but the Chargers are poised to become a playoff team in the short term and so much more in the coming seasons.


Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.