I enjoyed watching the Chargers 19-3 win over the Cardinals on Friday. I didn't enjoy it enough to make it worth staying up until 5:30 AM, but seeing the Chargers backups hold their own against a strong, well-coached team was good to see.
Unfortunately, this is the NFL; and, more to the point, the Chargers. Nothing is ever that simple. Some players helped their cause, while others had their stock crash like it was the Great Depression, and I'm here to break down who lies in each camp.
1: Jeremiah Attaochu
We still don't know what exactly caused Attaochu to lose favour with the coaching staff - and we probably won't ever know - but it's pretty clear that turning up to camp out of shape wasn't it. Attaochu looked sharp against the Cardinals, finishing second on the team in solo tackles (with 4), as well as recording a sack. It's important to note that unlike last week, this wasn't against the Cardinals third stringers. Attaochu was mostly running with the 2s - and he impressed. He hasn't won his starting spot back from Kyle Emanuel just yet, but his usage in this game shows that he's back in the coaches good books. Here's his sack:
Admittedly, it's a terrible attempt at a chip by the Cardinals TE, but Attaochu displays a good burst off the line and easily beats Cardinals LT Rob Crisp (nice name) to the outside before wrapping up Drew Stanton in absolute textbook fashion. His performance against the Vikings will be something to monitor closely, as Week 3 of the preseason is when the starting units usually play close to a half of football. If Attaochu wants to get his starting job back, he'll need to make plays against the weak Vikings T's when the opportunity comes.
2: Mike Bercovici
I'll be honest - I was disappointed when the Chargers signed Mike Bercovici as a UDFA. I'd heard the reviews, and I'd hoped that we'd be bringing in someone who actually had even a glimmer of hope to make it onto the roster. After the first two preseason games, however, it's become apparent that Bercovici is the best QB on the roster that isn't named Philip Michael Rivers. And it's not close.
Bercovici had one horrible throw that should have been intercepted and another pass tipped (which wasn't entirely his fault), but was near faultless aside from those two plays. He was brave, composed in the face of pressure, and accurate. He routinely placed passes where only the receiver could get them - and unlike Kellen Clemens, some of those passes actually travelled more than 10 yards in the air. Two plays, in particular, stand out from Bercovici's game.
That's just a fantastic throw. In the NFL, you don't get to throw many passes with perfect technique, and Bercovici showed that he can still get the ball downfield even with a defender draped on his throwing arm and not being able to fully step into his throw.
This is a real veteran move from Bercovici. He sees the pressure and steps into the pocket to buy himself time. He knows it's 3rd and 8 though, and so he doesn't take one of the shallow routes or run himself. He keeps his eyes locked firmly downfield, and eventually finds Dom Williams for the first down. Superb.
The problem for the Chargers, however, is that Bercovici might have actually played too well. He deserves the backup gig, but it seems pretty likely that Kellen Clemens will be kept around to do that job, making Bercovici a prime candidate for the Practice Squad. The problem is, to add someone to the PS you have to first waive them - and in a league so desperate for good Quarterback play, I think there's a good chance that a QB needy team would claim him to be on their 53 man roster. I'm pretty confident that Bercovici will be on a team's active roster come Week 1 of the Regular Season. I'm less confident that it's the Chargers.
3: Dom Williams
The primary benefactor of Bercovici's big game was WR Dom Williams, a UDFA from Washington State. He had 4 catches (tied for the team lead) for 55 yards (the team lead) on 6 targets (tied for the team lead). These weren't just 'gimmes' where he got open against third stringers, either - more than once he didn't gain a lot of separation, but was still able to make a tough contested catch. For a UDFA trying to make a team, that's a vital skill to have. Coaches love a receiver who isn't scared of contact and shows strong hands in traffic, and Williams displayed both on Friday.
With Isaiah Burse not having a great game (just one catch for 9 yards on four targets, and a punt return that he very nearly muffed), Dom Williams made a strong case as to why he deserves a spot on this team. He might not have done enough to win one of the hotly contested WR spots, but I see no reason that he wouldn't go onto the PS (unless another team claimed him, of course).
4: Sean McGrath
There's no two ways about it - injuries hurt. Unfortunately, the NFL is a cut-throat business, and someone getting hurt just means that someone else gets to take their place. Jeff Cumberland is out for the year, which means that Sean McGrath has probably locked up a roster spot. If the Chargers carried 4 TEs he probably had one anyway because there's not a whole lot behind him, but considering the Chargers are now carrying a true FB on the roster for the first time since Le'Ron McClain in 2013, I wouldn't be surprised to see them only take 3 TEs into the regular season - which would have made McGrath expendable.
McGrath isn't a terrible replacement for Cumberland - he blocks as well as him, although he definitely doesn't have the speed of Cumberland (which would have given the Chargers offence another wrinkle) - but Cumberland's injury means that the 28-year-old is now set to see time in a meaningful NFL game for the first time since 2013. 28 isn't young in the Not For Long league, and if he hadn't made the 53 in San Diego, his NFL career would have likely been at its end. It's not a nice reality, but Jeff Cumberland shortening his NFL career has allowed Sean McGrath to extend his.
5: Hunter Henry
This one is pretty simple. Hunter Henry wasn't a winner in this game because he moved up the depth chart or earned himself more playing time because neither of those are true. He's still going to be the #2 TE behind Gates, and the Chargers aren't going to put him in games more because of anything he did against the Cardinals. Instead, Hunter Henry is a winner because of one play.
The TV broadcast didn't do a great job of showing it but look closely at the bottom of the picture. Ladies and gentleman, that's the 'Gates lean.'
In case you're not familiar with the Gates lean, it's how Antonio Gates has gone from UDFA to first ballot HOFer. Gates isn't the most athletic guy, so he doesn't beat people with speed. Instead, he gets open using this move. He leans his body into the defensive player to make it seem like he's running his route that way, before planting his feet, changing direction and (usually) boxing out a defender to make the catch. Hunter Henry ran his own version of it on this play. It's not perfect (he doesn't use his body quite as much as Gates does), but it's there. If Henry can get this move down, I don't think I'm getting ahead of myself when I say he's clearly going to be the best TE to ever play the game.
1: Donovan Clark/Jeff Cumberland
I feel terrible for both these guys, in different ways. Donovan Clark was a 7th round pick who came into camp with a tenuous shot at making the team. He came into practice every day and busted his tail off, only to have his NFL dream snatched away from him when it was just within reach. He's going to have to come into camp next year and start his work all over again, competing against guys younger and fresher than he is. I'm worried that he could be the 'forgotten man', much like Torrence Allen looks like being at WR.
Jeff Cumberland is at the other end of the scale - a veteran who's been in the league for six seasons, Cumberland was trying to shake off the perception from Jets fans that he just wasn't very good. He was off to the right start, impressing in camp and preseason, and there was definitely a unique role for him to play on the team. His injury ends all that work and means he'll be watching the Chargers from the sidelines this year. His contract expires at the end of the season, and it's possible that he leaves the Chargers having not played a down in a meaningful game for them. The problem is, what then? He'll be 30 before next season. Is there a market for a 30-year-old coming off a season ending injury who's never quite put it all together in the NFL? I'm not so sure.
2: Zach Mettenberger
3: Dreamius Smith
The Chargers HB rotation in the first two preseason games makes sense. Melvin Gordon, Danny Woodhead, and Branden Oliver are locks, so they all play about a half combined. In the second half, it's the turn of the two guys on the bubble, with Kenneth Farrow getting the reps against the Titans and Dreamius Smith against the Cardinals. Unfortunately for Dreamius, it's pretty clearly advantage Farrow in that competition. Farrow impressed against the Titans, showing an ability to run, catch, and block, ending the day with 16 carries for 60 yards to go with two catches for 25 yards.
Dreamius Smith against the Cardinals? 8 carries for 13 yards. Not great. Right now, he's clearly behind Farrow in the competition to be HB #4, and time might have run out for Dreamius. First cuts come after the next preseason game, and I'd expect at least one RB to be on that list. The problem is, the starters take the brunt of the work in this one, and I'd expect MG3, Woodhead, and Oliver to play the entire first half, and possibly some of the second, too. That doesn't leave a lot of time for Dreamius to impress (especially if he's splitting carries with Farrow, which I suspect he will be). He had his shot against the Cardinals and didn't deliver - as a result, his window of opportunity to make this team is so small even Tevin Reese might not be able to fit through it.
Oh, and that's if the Chargers even decide to keep 4 HBs. If they only go with 3, then all of this is moot, anyway. Good luck, Dreamius. You're going to need it.
4: Ryan Carrethers
I get it. You guys love Ryan Carrethers. I like him too. The problem is, the coaches vehemently disagree with us. The first time I saw Carrethers enter the game against the Cardinals was with 5:25 left in the 3rd Quarter, and he was lined up with the 3s, playing next to Chuka Ndulue. He didn't get a single snap with the first or second team. Considering that Damion Square had one or two plays with the 1s as well as all of the second team snaps, Carrethers may face an uphill battle to even make the roster.
The thing is, I understand why the coaches might prefer Square. He 'wins' more than Carrethers. If you're looking for someone to burst through the LOS and make a tackle, Square is probably your better option. The problem with Square is that he loses, too. Square might make the tackle behind the line, but for every one of those, there's also a play where he's getting bullied by an OL, driving him out the way for a huge running lane.
I like Square, and I think there's definitely talent to work with there (although I think he'd be better served playing as a DE) - but nowhere near as much talent as Carrethers has. Carrethers often doesn't finish plays - he'll beat a lineman but not get to the QB in time or fail to make the tackle - but he doesn't 'lose' anywhere near as much as Square, either. Even when Carrethers isn't making plays, he's making plays. In the run game, he might not be able to make the tackle, but he can eat up two blockers and hold his ground, shutting off a running lane and limiting the runner’s options. To me, it's a no-brainer which of those two I want in my 3-4 NT. Maybe I don't have a brain (it's entirely possible) because the coaches clearly disagree.
The Chargers often only carry 2 NTs, and Carrethers is pretty clearly the third option there right now. Personally, I'd count Square as a DE (a spot where the Chargers are thin at) and have Carrethers be the backup NT. He's too talented to not get on the field and way too talented to cut. Unless you're the Chargers, obviously.