Almost a year ago to the date, I argued that despite coming off of a 7-9 season, the Oakland Raiders should be favorites to win the AFC West. They would end up losing the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Chiefs after Derek Carr broke his ankle and the Raiders lost in Week 17, but the prediction still rang true in many ways.
This season, it’s another team out west that’s caught my eye. The Los Angeles Chargers – a team that moved their franchise over the offseason after going 5-11 a year ago – should be the favorites to win the AFC West on paper. This isn’t hyperbole or a hot take by any means, the Chargers have the roster to get it done. They just need a few key things to change from a season ago.
The first reason to think the Chargers will bounce back in a big way in 2017 is the fact they weren’t nearly as bad as their record in 2016. Their overall points scored minus points allowed came out to only minus-13 for the season. Using a simplistic Pythagorean win total prediction, they were nearly three wins under what you’d expect with their point totals.
That then brings us to their performance in one-score games. History has shown the correlation year-over-year in these games has a very weak correlation to franchises, coaches, or quarterbacks. Often times what it comes down to is no more than luck. And in 2016, no one was unluckier than the Chargers. They went a whopping 1-8 in games decided by seven points or fewer last year. If you assume average luck a season ago in those close games, it paints the picture of a team closer to 8-8 or 9-7.
Players returning from injury
Few teams, if any, got the opportunity to add a No. 1 receiver and a No. 1 cornerback to their roster over the course of the offseason. If healthy, the Chargers are one of them. Keenan Allen and Jason Verrett have both flashed elite-level performance when on the field. The “on the field” part has been difficult, though. In Allen’s four seasons, he’s averaged only 627 snaps per year, with only 575 of those coming over the last two years. Verrett’s three-year career has somehow been even more injury prone. He’s averaged only 408 snaps per year with a high-water mark of only 735 back in 2015.
When both have been healthy though, they grade out extremely well. Verrett’s 89.4 grade in 2015 was the second-highest of any cornerback that season while Allen’s 88.5 grade was the sixth-best of any receiver back in 2013.
Drafting and developing
One of the biggest reasons to feel confident the Chargers will vastly outperform their 2016 record is that they’ve assembled one of the best young cores in the NFL via the draft. When PFF ranked the franchises that acquired the most value over the past five drafts, the Chargers came in fifth. If you took the quarterback position – which they had no need to address – out of the equation, they get bumped up to second. That’s quite an impressive young talent base they’ve assembled. Besides Verrett, these other players still on their rookie contracts figure to play a significant role this season:
• WR Tyrell Williams
• WR Mike Williams
• TE Hunter Henry
• RB Melvin Gordon
• G Dan Feeney
• C Spencer Pulley
• DE Joey Bosa
• LB Jatavis Brown
• LB Denzel Perryman
• CB Desmond King
That’s a considerable amount of playing time from players that logically should still be improving over the course of this season.
The offensive line
None of the above will mean anything if the offensive line yet again can’t be fixed. Over each the past three seasons, they’ve finished no higher than 29th as a team in pass-blocking efficiency. That’s unsustainable. No quarterback – or offense – can function at a high level playing behind that. It has to improve and improve drastically in order for them to have a chance to win the West.
They addressed it heavily this offseason, signing left tackle Russell Okung in free agency and drafting guard Dan Feeney in the third round (they also drafted guard Forrest Lamp in the second round, but he’s already been placed on injured reserve). But the real key for them has been staying healthy. Last season, nine different offensive linemen saw playing time along their front due to injuries. The year before that it was 12. They won’t improve with backups on the field, and the biggest key for the Chargers once again will be health.
Mike Renner is a writer for Pro Football Focus and a contributor to The Washington Post’s NFL coverage.