As the Minnesota Vikings officially open U.S. Bank Stadium, they’re preparing to put their best foot forward with their starters likely playing the first half of Sunday’s game with the San Diego Chargers. The Vikings are entering the game with a ton of promise and being viewed as an outside contender to represent their conference in the Super Bowl.
For the Chargers, it’s a completely different story. For the better part of the last decade, San Diego has been in the playoff discussion. They only made it once (in 2013), but they were always alive in December – finishing 2011-14 with win totals of eight, seven, nine and nine.
But, in 2015, the Chargers hit bottom. They won just four games, their worst season since 2004, and significant changes were made. General Manager Tom Telesco and head coach Mike McCoy kept their jobs, but they gutted much of the coaching staff, including firing offensive coordinator Frank Reich and bringing back former OC Ken Whisenhunt – who was credited with reviving the career of QB Philip Rivers. The Chargers, who are in the midst of potential relocation, are looking for some magic, but the cards are currently stacked against them in terms of returning to playoff form.
Rivers may not be a Hall of Fame quarterback, but he is a master of reading defenses and exploiting weaknesses. If given time in the pocket, he can make big plays and averaged 300 yards a game last season. He’s immobile, so pressure can get to him, which is why the Chargers need to improve a running game that struggled badly last season.
The Chargers have a long history of a strong running game and they intended to continue that tradition by adding Melvin Gordon in the first round of the 2015 draft. In 14 games, Gordon only had one game with more than 60 yards and his next NFL touchdown will be his first NFL touchdown. He was a complete bust as a rookie and his 3.5-yard rushing average was the lowest of any player with more than 500 rushing yards. The most productive back was veteran Danny Woodhead, who rushed 98 times, caught 80 passes and scored nine touchdowns. With backups Brandon Oliver and Dreamius Smith providing some depth, it is hoped that Whisenhunt can find a way to rejuvenate the running game because the Chargers have enough receiver talent to get the job done through the air and the run game complements it.
Perhaps the biggest problem San Diego had last year was the loss of wide receiver Keenan Allen. When the Chargers played the Vikings last year at TCF Bank Stadium, of Rivers’ 34 passes, 18 of them were targeted at Allen, who had 12 receptions for 133 yards and two touchdowns. When he went down in the eighth game of the season, he was on pace to be targeted 180 times, catching 134 passes for 1,450 yards and scoring eight touchdowns. While he’s back, he’s far from the only threat in the Chargers passing game.
The team brought in free agent Travis Benjamin to go along with Dontrelle Inman and Stevie Johnson. But, Johnson was lost for the year in training camp, so there is a battle for depth, including 6-foot-4 red zone threat Tyrell Williams and former Packer James Jones.
The strength of the pass game in San Diego has always run through the tight end and 14-year veteran Antonio Gates continues to defy time. His numbers have dipped in recent years, but he remains a favorite target of Rivers. But, looking to the future, the Chargers adding Hunter Henry in the second round of the draft to go with Gates and blocking TE Sean McGrath. Gates’ last stop will be Canton, but, for now, he’s a locker room leading who is mentoring his replacement.
For a team with the worst run game in the AFC last year, the Chargers didn’t make any outside changes on the line. The only free agent they signed was street free agent Matt Slauson, who was cut by the Bears and May, and their only draft pick was backup center Max Tuerk in the third round. The reason the team was willing to stick with King Dunlap and Joe Barksdale at tackle, Orlando Franklin and D.J. Fluker at guard and center Chris Watt was that the starting O-line in 2015 played just 74 snaps together. It is hoped that, with the group together again, the biggest question will be who wins the backup spots, not the starting spots.
As bad as things have been in San Diego with the catastrophe of a 2015 season and the very real threat of the team leaving town, what may have been the final first-round draft pick for San Diego – No. 3 overall – hasn’t signed.
Defensive end Joey Bosa has been the longest first-round holdout since the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement and things have gotten ugly this week as the two sides have gone public with their dispute. The plan was to provide a dominant upgrade up front with the signing of former Seahawk Brandon Mebane and the drafting of Bosa to go along with former first-round pick Corey Liuget. Bosa’s absence has pushed 2015 sixth-round pick Darius Philon into the starting lineup, weakening what was hoped to be a position of strength. Things have been made worse by the announcement this week that second-string nose tackle Damion Square will be suspended the first four games of the season. If Bosa and the team can come to terms and he catches up in a hurry, there is some hope, but depth is painfully thin against the Vikings.
The San Diego linebackers have been a consistent investment for the franchise, as all four current starters were recent draft picks – outside LBs Melvin Ingram (first round, 2012), Jeremiah Attaochu (second, 2014) and Kyle Emanuel (fifth, 2015) and inside ’backers Manti Te’o (second, 2013) and Denzel Perryman (second, 2105). There were far too many instances in which this group got dominated last year and, for a 3-4 defense to be effective, they need a strong push from the front three – which was missing last year. Because of the investment in the frontline players, depth is being filled by unproven commodities, mostly late-round draft picks and undrafted free agents.
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Perhaps the biggest change in San Diego is in the secondary, where franchise face and perennial Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle was allowed to leave via free agency. It likely won’t come as any solace that the expected replacement is journeyman Dwight Lowery, signed away from Indianapolis in free agency. He is expected to join fellow safety Jahleel Addae and cornerbacks Brandon Flowers and 2014 first-rounder Jason Verrett at safety. They do have decent depth at both corner and safety, including former Packer Casey Heyward as the nickel back, but losing Weddle will leave a huge void on the back end of the defense.
The Chargers have a lot of differences from last season, but the mood in San Diego has to be considered dire. It looks as though it will be the Chargers’ final year in San Diego and they have a team that looks to be closer to the 4-12 record they had in 2015 than the team that was a playoff contender the previous four seasons.
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