2016 State of the AFC West: San Diego Chargers

In our preview of Denver's AFC West rivals, Will Keys explores whether or not the 2016 San Diego Chargers will bounce back from a disastrous 4-12 campaign.

The 2015 San Diego Chargers exemplified Murphy's Law--everything that could have gone wrong, did go wrong. They lost nine games by one score or less, placed 21 players on injured reserve, and failed to win a single divisional game. The only saving grace from last season is that they remained the San Diego Chargers.  

But despite all of their misfortune last season, the 2016 San Diego Chargers, at least on paper, look nothing like the 4-12 team that could barely draw a home crowd at Qualcomm Stadium. A look at their roster shows that they have most of the elements of a winning team.  

The offense is highlighted, as always, by borderline Hall-of-Famer Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who will almost certainly wear a gold jacket in the future. Rivers was used extensively last year to make up for a lackluster ground game, throwing a career-high 661 passes. Gates opted to play another year after a suspension-shortened season, and should provide stability and a reliable target for Rivers in head coach Mike McCoy's offense.  

http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1681565-5-reasons-you-should-go-p... San Diego also boasts a few talented young players on offense to go with the vets. Before he was placed on IR, third-year wide receiver Keenan Allen caught an astounding 67 passes over eight games. Had his season not been cut short when he lacerated his kidney, Allen could have challenged for Marvin Harrison's NFL record of 143 receptions in 2002.  

Perhaps the reason Rivers threw to Allen so often was because of the ineffectiveness of the running game, particularly Melvin Gordon. After being selected 15th overall in the 2015 NFL Draft, Gordon ran for just 641 yards in 14 games and failed to score a single touchdown after scoring 33 touchdowns at Wisconsin in 2014. The most concerning statistic is Gordon's 3.5 yards-per-carry, a number that will have to improve as the offensive line regains its health.  

Defensively, cornerback Jason Verrett and linebacker Melvin Ingram are growing into top-tier players at their respective positions, while linebacker Denzel Perryman solidified the middle of the defense with 73 tackles and a pair of sacks in his rookie season.  

Free Agent Additions

The Chargers are returning a bevy of players from injured reserve in 2016, but they also made a number of shrewd signings in free agency to bolster their roster. By plucking wide receiver Travis Benjamin from the Cleveland Browns, San Diego will give Rivers a legitimate vertical threat for the first time since the departure of Vincent Jackson. Benjamin's speed and game-breaking ability complements Allen, a steady possession receiver.  

Former Seattle Seahawks nose tackle Brandon Mebane also joined the Chargers to anchor the interior of their base 3-4 defense. Mebane's ability to eat space up front should free up Corey Liuget and Ingram to wreak havoc on the edge.

On the back end, the Chargers added two veterans in safety Dwight Lowery and cornerback Casey Hayward. Lowery will have the unenviable task of filling the void left by long-time Charger Eric Weddle, whose combination of physicality and cover skills made him one of the best defensive players in San Diego history. Hayward will man the corner opposite Verrett, giving the Chargers an upgrade at the position over Brandon Flowers and providing somewhat of an answer to the great receiver duos in the AFC West.

Rookie Additions

When just about everyone expected them to zig and take a left tackle with the third pick of the draft, the Chargers zagged hard and took defensive end Joey Bosa out from the Ohio State Buckeyes. Bosa will probably never lead the league in sacks, but he's a terrific run defender and can use his hands as well as anyone on the edge.  

The Chargers used their second-round pick on tight end Hunter Henry from Arkansas, undoubtedly to serve as the heir apparent to Gates. Henry doesn't have great size and thus is limited as a blocker, but he's as sure a receiver as you can find at tight end, dropping just two passes over his last two years in college.  

In the third round, the Chargers selected USC Trojans center Max Tuerk. The Tuerk selection was an especially wise one for San Diego as his versatility gives the offensive line a good backup plan at almost every position, something they could have used when their line was decimated by injury in 2015.  

After the third round, the Chargers drafted five more players; linebackers Joshua Perry and Jatavis Brown, punter Drew Kaser, fullback Derek Watt, and guard Donavon Clark.  

Better or Worse?

After a 4-12 season, it's hardly a stretch to say that San Diego will have a better record in 2016, but just how much better will they be? The Chargers aren't necessarily weak at any position, but they're not overwhelmingly dominant at any position either.  A glance at their roster will reveal a stock of good players across the board, but no one that can be considered top-five at their respective position.

As a team, the Chargers perform well against middle-of-the-pack opponents, but don't scare the NFL elites. When they've been at their best and have been able to challenge great teams, the Chargers have run the ball well to keep some of the pressure off of Rivers.  However, it's hard to imagine Melvin Gordon breaking out post-surgery and post-ineffectiveness as a rookie and giving them that much-needed second dimension on offense.  

The Verdict: 9-7

San Diego's pretty-good-but-not-great roster will net them five more wins than last year, but a tough divisional slate and a lack of a running attack will make winning in November and December an uphill battle.  

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Will Keys is an Analyst for Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @WillKeys6.

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