The 2016 Chargers season hasn't exactly gone to plan so far, has it?
I'm not sure quite how I was expecting this season to go, but I know that this isn't it. I definitely wouldn't have expected that, despite so many injuries and such awful coaching, the Chargers still look like one of the best teams in the NFL - with just three wins to show for it. If you're going to claim that you saw this coming, you're one hell of a brazen liar. Why are you reading this, anyway? Don't you have a presidential election to try and win? (That's aimed at both main candidates FYI before I get attacked in the comments).
A big reason for such an unpredictable start has been the emergence of multiple players 'breaking out', while at the same time having many more players not performing as expected. These are the people this list is for. This is not a list of the best and worst players so far this season - rather, it's a list of those people who've had their 'stock' change the most.
Hopefully, you catch on. But remember, it's not a catch unless you make a footballing move, do a pirouette, perform five squats, high five every referee in sight and break into an interpretive dance. Make sure it's not too fancy, though - you don't want to get flagged! I have literally no idea where I'm going with this. Kind of like Travis Benjamin every time he gets the ball and can't go out of bounds.
Oh. Right. The article.
1: Tom Telesco
I know Tom Telesco has his fair share of detractors, but even his staunchest critics can't deny what an incredible job the Chargers GM has done this offseason. Brandon Mebane, Matt Slauson, Casey Hayward and Travis Benjamin were all signed this offseason by Telesco, and I'd argue that every single one of them has met or exceeded expectations (yes, even Benjamin). And, as much as I don't like Dwight Lowery, I think it's also fair to say that he's come in and contributed something on a relatively cheap contract.
The offseason isn't just about Free Agency, though. There's this thing called a draft, where teams can pick anyone not called Eli Manning to come and play for them for the next four years. How did the Chargers do in their draft? Well, they potentially found four long-term, high-quality starters (Bosa, Henry, Brown, Kaser), possibly a fifth in Max Tuerk, a decent starting FB and two more players we’ll have to wait and see on. Only the Cowboys can even come close to matching that level of production from their 2016 draft class.
It turns out that when Tom Telesco isn't spending his time calling John Gennaro to complain about an article that he hasn't read, he's actually pretty good at his job. This offseason wasn't just Telesco’s best one yet, but I'd argue that it could turn out to be one of the best by any GM in the NFL over the last decade. Telesco hit a home run on nearly every single move.
Job security doesn't really exist in the NFL unless you're Bill Belichick - in which case, you don't need money because you feed off the lifeforce of others. Just look at Dave Gettleman, the Carolina Panthers GM. In February, I don't think it would have been possible to leave him out of a list of the Top 3 GMs in the NFL. After some questionable decision making with regards to the Panthers secondary, you can already hear some fans calling for his head less than halfway into the Panthers season.
Remember Tom Telesco's 'secret extension' that he received last year? That meant nothing with regards to his job security. A piece of paper with a signature on it in the NFL is less reliable than that friend of yours who turns up half an hour late to everything. (As an aside - I'm that friend. I'm a terrible person).
If Telesco had performed badly this offseason, he'd be leaving out the door with Mike McCoy, leaving someone else with a top 5 draft pick to use. But he didn't. Instead, Telesco has quietly put together one of the best rosters in the entire NFL. It might not have all come to fruition this season, but - hopefully - it will soon. This is Telesco's job for the foreseeable future. If the Chargers can find a competent Head Coach - or, you know, don't cancel the interview you have lined up with a competent HC to give the job to someone who is the head coaching equivalent of a packet of saltines - I think that they have a real chance at bringing a ring back to San Diego.
Thank you, Tom Telesco.
2: Tyrell Williams
As sports fans, we're all biased to one degree or another. Nathan Graber-Lipperman did a great post on that very topic earlier this week, and it's true. We all have an emotional bond to 'our team,' and our will for them to win often means that we may let optimism override stupid semantics like realism and the truth from time to time.
The reason I say this is because I was pretty convinced that Tyrell Williams was going to be another player fans could get overly optimistic about. When you have size and speed, you're always going to get a lot of hype (see McCoil, Dexter), and hype doesn't often translate to tangible results. It almost never happens as quickly as it has with Tyrell Williams.
Williams' production in the whole of 2015 was two catches for 90 yards. If we take away the play against blown coverage, he had one catch for 10 yards in the entire season. Sure, we could be optimistic that the raw undrafted free agent would be able to build on his skills heading into Year 2, but that was supposed to look more like possibly breaking into the starting rotation by the end of the year, rather than be a top 20 WR in the entire NFL stats-wise.
Seemingly overnight, Williams has changed from a prospect to a legitimate starting WR in the NFL. He's no longer just someone who's fast and tall. He's a genuine player. He's getting better at running routes, his hands are - for the most part - reliable, and he's starting to learn how to be more aggressive when faced one on one with a defender. Remember how quickly Tyrell Williams improved? He's still only 24. He's got a lot of improving left to do.
If Tyrell Williams was cut before Week 1, he'd probably have cleared waivers and ended up on a practice squad somewhere. If he were to be cut today, he wouldn't last twenty seconds before being claimed by the team with the highest waiver priority (the Browns, but 31/31 teams would be putting in a claim). Right now, Williams is a good #2 WR in the NFL. He could potentially grow into a #1 sooner rather than later.
Not bad for someone with one proper catch before the season started.
3: Korey Toomer/Melvin Ingram
I'm only grouping these two together because I wrote about both after Sunday's game, and I don't want to repeat myself here. If you want to, you can just read the extracts for Toomer and Ingram there - they were written because of the Broncos game, but both are about the season in general and is pretty much what I'd have written here if that post didn't exist.
One thing I forgot to mention about Toomer - with Jatavis Brown going out injured, he became the signal caller for the defense. That's an absolutely crazy transition for someone who wasn't even on the roster a month ago.
4: Tenny Palepoi
After making the Chargers in 2014 as a UDFA, Palepoi missed the entire 2015 season with a fractured foot. Coming into the Chargers 2016 camp, Palepoi was very much on the roster bubble. Often, when a backup player is forced to miss an entire year, they're the 'forgotten man' when they return and get waived for someone younger. Palepoi was able to hold onto his roster spot, however, and eight games into the season it's pretty clear that the Chargers made the right call.
Palepoi might not be listed as a starter, but he essentially is one, having played over 50% of the snaps in each game since Week 5. That's by design. He deserves more playing time, if anything - because Tenny Palepoi is playing really well.
He's not showing up on the stats sheet (so far Palepoi has just six tackles to his name this year), but that doesn't mean he's not having a great season. A good DL will happily do the dirty work, and that's what Palepoi's been doing so far. He might not be making the stops in the run game every play, but he's difficult to move out of his spot and thus seals off a potential running lane, slowing down the ballcarrier and allowing someone else to make the stop for loss or short gain.
Palepoi's main value this year has been rushing the passer, however. He doesn't have a sack yet, but it's surely only a matter of time. If you see someone not called Joey Bosa applying pressure and hurrying a QB, there's a good chance that it's Palepoi. I know that pressures and hurries aren't fantastic stats, so I'm going purely off the eye test - and my eyes tell me that Palepoi has forced a lot of throwaways or errant throws by getting up in the QBs face.
He's not the most talented player on the Chargers, but, again, that's not what this list is about. If Palepoi hadn't made the Week 1 roster, no-one would have blinked twice. In the space of two months, he's carved out a big role for himself on the defense and is an important part of what John Pagano likes to do upfront. That sounds like a winner in my books.
1: Keenan Allen, Zamir Carlis, Donavon Clark, Jeff Cumberland, Nick Dzubnar, Brock Hekking, Javontee Herndon, Stevie Johnson, Tyler Johnstone, Sean Lissemore, Branden Oliver, Caraun Reid, Manti Te'o, Jason Verrett, Danny Woodhead, Carlos Wray, Chris Watt, Dexter McCluster, Tyler Marcordes, Terrell Chestnut, Rasheed Bailey, Shaq Petteway, Dreamius Smith, Rico Richardson, Jamaal Jones, Matt Daniels
26 names. That's 26 players the Chargers have placed on IR at some point this season (alright, 25 plus Chris Watt on PUP). That's nearly half of a roster.
There's a story behind each name. The elite talents who just can't stay healthy. The players who've fought back from an injury, only to suffer another, more devastating one. The players whose careers in the league might be coming to a close. The young players who may never make it onto an active NFL roster. There's not enough time to delve deeper into each story, which only makes it sadder.
Zamir Carlis, Brock Hekking, Tyler Johnstone, Carlos Wray, Tyler Marcordes, Terrell Chestnut, Rasheed Bailey, Shaq Petteway, Rico Richardson and Jamaal Jones have all never appeared on an NFL roster. Their first years in the NFL have all ended on IR. For many of them, it might be their only year.
It's an absolutely crushing reality. These are all men who've spent their entire lives working towards one goal - to play in the NFL. Just as they get the chance to fight for that goal, it gets snatched away from them by an injury. Sure, they'll recover. Carlis, Hekking, Johnstone and Wray are - for now - still on the Chargers roster, so they might get a chance to win a roster spot again next year. They're the lucky ones.
Marcordes, Chestnut, Bailey, Petteway, Richardson and Jones have all already been waived with an injury settlement. They're all free agents. But there's a reason the NFL stands for 'Not For Long.' They'll get healthy in time for next season, but the chances of just one of them even making it into a training camp anywhere are slim. They've been forgotten about. Teams move on. Why sign a UDFA who's coming off an injury and is a year older when there's going to be a completely new crop of talent after the 2017 draft?
The rest of this list will be players who've underperformed, but they haven't even come close to losing as much as the aforementioned men. They've fought so hard, only to lose their dream - and career - because of one freak injury.
Football is a cruel game.
2: Jerry Attaochu
This was never going to be anyone else. I like to call this 'The Curious Case of the disappearing Jerry Attaochu.' Last season, Attaochu was superb. He had 55 tackles and six sacks and looked every bit like the player the Chargers drafted him to be. He wasn't just a pass rusher, either - he was tied for second place of all LBs for TFLs, constantly being a force in the running game and taking down a ballcarrier for a loss. Attaochu and Ingram on the outside looked like one of the better OLB pairings in the league.
In 2016? Nothing. There's still no explanation for it. Something was clearly wrong when Attaochu was demoted to the third team in training camp and preseason, but I have no idea why that happened. It's carried over into the regular season, however, as Kyle Emanuel has taken Attaochu's starting job, and Attaochu has been playing roughly the same amount of snaps as Tourek Williams.
Tourek Williams can't even compare to Jerry Attaochu regarding talent level. It's like comparing a boy and a man. And, as much as I like Kyle Emanuel, he's nowhere near as good a player as Attaochu is. Not even close. So why is Attaochu in the doghouse?
It goes without saying that teams want to get their best players on the field - so what's happened to Jerry? Has he taken a huge step back since last year? I find that hard to believe (although he hasn't taken enough snaps to be able to tell), and even if he had, he'd still be better than Tourek Williams. Is his work ethic lacking? It's possible, but that would surely have shown up earlier than in his third NFL season.
Regardless of the reason, Attaochu has fallen from an OLB capable of getting double digit sacks to a backup, who's position on the roster could be in danger next season if things don't change. There's no way around it - Attaochu is by far the biggest loser of any healthy player in the 2016 season so far.
3: Joe Barksdale/Orlando Franklin/D.J. Fluker
The Chargers have 2/5ths of a good OL this year. King Dunlap - for now - is holding up at LT, and Matt Slauson is playing pretty well at C. Unfortunately, LG, RG, and RT are - to be blunt - a complete trainwreck.
We'll start with Joe Barksdale. Barksdale signed a four-year, $22m deal this offseason after impressing last year. The Chargers have been rewarded for that with Barksdale giving up eight sacks, the most of any OL in the entire NFL.
Barksdale showed last season that he's a good player, but - for whatever reason - that's not manifesting itself this year. In a division with some of the best pass rushers in football, that's a problem the Chargers can't afford to have. Barksdale was struggling so much against Von Miller last Sunday, the Chargers actually benched him for Chris Hairston, who's proven to be somewhat of a liability in pass protection already. That's not a good thing. Barksdale earned his contract based on his play last season. If he doesn't step up his play quickly, he won't be seeing out that contract.
Which, coincidently, is almost definitely going to be the case with Orlando Franklin. It will cost the Chargers $4.8m against the cap to release Franklin next year - but considering it would cost them $7.6m to keep him around, Franklin is in big trouble. His play has not been worth that $2.8m. It probably hasn't even been worth half of that.
Orlando Franklin was brought in as a big money FA from Denver, and he'd been a huge success playing at either LG or RT on their OL. He's had one good game in the entire time he's been in San Diego. That's being generous. He struggled with injuries in his first year, so a lot of people gave him a pass based on that. Unfortunately, he's shown this season that his play last year was the norm, rather than an aberration.
For someone entering their seventh year in the NFL, Franklin's technique is nowhere near good enough, and that's essentially the problem. He's a huge man who can move DL like they're ants, but he doesn't win his matchups anywhere near enough due to technique. That can come in the form of lunging and missing, not getting his hands in the correct position or just not getting a solid enough initial punch on the defender. Whatever the reason, it's severely hurting the Chargers. They may decide that Franklin is worth keeping around one more year, but it wouldn't surprise me were he to be released before the 2017 season.
The other Chargers guard, D.J Fluker, is definitely heading to Free Agency after this season ends unless he agrees to take a major pay cut. According to Spotrac, Fluker's option next year means the team will pay him $8.8m if he stays on the roster. It will cost them $0 to release him. That's one of the easiest choices Tom Telesco will ever have to make.
Fluker is an insanely likable person, but it just hasn't worked out in San Diego. Taken at #11 in the 2013 NFL draft, Fluker struggled at RT in his rookie season before being moved to Guard. Fans were optimistic that he could become a Pro-Bowl talent there, but it just hasn't materialized. Fluker still struggles to recognize basic stunts and twists, and all too often allows a defender to have a free run at Philip Rivers. That's a mistake that's inexcusable.
There is still hope for D.J. Fluker because he's started to really come into his own when asked to pull as a guard lately. He's not going to be worth $8.8m, but if he agrees to take a pay cut, I could see the Chargers wanting to keep Fluker around in the hope that he can still learn to recognize defenses better and pick up the more mental side of the game.
Barksdale, Fluker, and Franklin have all disappointed, but this Chargers season isn't lost yet. If they want to make a late run for the playoffs, they're going to need much better play upfront. That's the responsibility of these three. Unfortunately, I just don't see it happening.
4: Antonio Gates
I love Gates, but it's impossible to deny that he's lost a step or twenty this season. At age 36, it's only natural that Gates is slowing down, but he goes on this list because his regression means he might lose out on the TD record he's been chasing.
Tony Gonzalez holds the record for career TDs by a TE with 111. Right now, Gates is on 107. He needs five more to break the record. I don't think he has it left in him. Gates is under contract for next season, but the likelihood is that he hangs up his cleats after this season, which gives him eight games to get 5 TDs.
If this were Antonio Gates in his prime - hell, even Antonio Gates last year - that would be no problem. But it's not. Gates is virtually useless outside of three-yard zig routes. Any further than that and he's slow, he's often not on the same page with Philip Rivers, and he's actually having surprising trouble catching the ball.
The good news for Gates is, he can still play terribly and get the record. You know Philip Rivers wants Gates to get it, and Rivers has an unfortunate tendency to force balls to players at bad times. I could see Rivers going too far to try and help Gates out, and helping Gates get the record to the detriment of the team's red zone success. It won't be a dignified way to go out, but it might be the only shot Gates has of becoming the statistically greatest TE in history.