A new season brings new expectations. A new coach brings a new direction. For the Chargers, who have failed to make the playoffs since 2013 and have had below .500 records the past two years, the urgency to improve is can’t be denied.
Improvement is always a constant goal in the NFL. For players, it's either perform or perish. Here are five players that I believe face a “make or break” season for the Chargers.
WR Travis Benjamin
Following the retirement of Malcolm Floyd after the 2015 season, the Chargers needed to add another vertical threat to their offense. Last year, Benjamin was one of the Chargers high profile free agents, agreeing to a four-year, $24 million contract.
Known for his speed and explosive play-making ability, the former Cleveland Brown was expected to be an impact player not just on offense, but on special teams as well. Unfortunately, Benjamin battled a knee injury throughout the season that limited him to nine punt returns and managing only 677 yards and 4 touchdowns.
With the emergence of Tyrell Williams and the return of star wide out Kenan Allen, the Chargers wide receiver corps seems deep on paper. However, for the past several seasons the “injury bug” has hovered over this roster with a vengeance, so health is always a looming issue. For Benjamin, not only is his health a priority, but his impact on the field needs to be just as significant.
Fans are waiting to see the kind of electricity that Benjamin made his name for back in Cleveland. Additionally, the Chargers will again be looking to utilize Benjamin's speed to bring a resurgence to their special teams. If 2017 ends up being a sequel to last season, Benjamin's tenure as a Chargers could be short lived.
CB Craig Mager
Many people scratched their heads when the Chargers selected Mager as a 3rd round pick back in 2015. Unfortunately, not much has changed as the former Texas State product heads into his third season as a pro.
Mager has all the physical intangibles that it takes to be an NFL player, but his skill-set has proven to be extremely RAW at the next level. In 2016, Mager was thrust into a starting role due to injuries to Jason Verrett and Brandon Flowers. Eventually, Mager would also find himself on injured reserve at the end of the year with a shoulder injury, closing his sophomore season with 31 total tackles, one interception, and 4 pass breakups.
In the NFL, the 3rd year of a player’s development is known to be the most crucial in determining one's growth and skillset. Defensive backs coach Ron Milus said in an interview last month, that Mager's defensive responsibilities will grow and they will be demanding more from the young DB this upcoming season.
The Chargers have made it a priority to revamp the defensive back unit by way of free agency and the draft over the past two seasons. With so much competition, expect Mager to be in the middle of a camp battle throughout training camp. Furthermore, if Mager wants his NFL future to be with the Chargers, he will have to make significant strides this upcoming season.
LB Jerry Attaochu
A few years ago, many believed that Attaochu was the future of a pass rushing duo alongside Melvin Ingram. It didn't take long for that notion to change (See: Joey Bosa).
Now heading into his fourth NFL season, Attaochu has been surpassed on the depth chart and limited to situational pass rushing duties. The reason? Injuries have forced the former 2nd round pick to miss 14 games since 2014, which has also limited his production recording just ten sacks over three years.
While staying healthy will be one of the biggest questions surrounding Attaochu this offseason, A reason for optimism may come with the arrival of new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. When Attaochu was drafted out of Georgia Tech, he played with his hand in the ground in GTU’s 4-3 defense. Hopefully a change back to his natural position should benefit his play in a make or break season.
S Dwight Lowery
In an attempt to fill the void left by All-Pro Eric Weddle, the Chargers signed journeyman safety Dwight Lowery as a free agent last offseason. Lowery, who has now played for five different teams since 2008, recorded the most snaps of any player in the secondary unit and earned his best grade in coverage in his last three seasons according to PFF.
While his increase in snaps and high ranks in coverage are positive notes, Lowery recorded his lowest tackle output (60) in three years. That is 10 more tackles than fellow safety Jahleel Addae (50) who only played eight games last season.
Now at 31 years of age, Lowery has the most experience of any player in the Chargers secondary. However, he realizes that at this stage, he is on the back half of his professional career. Last season, Dexter McCoil, a UDFA safety made the final 53 man roster. In the last three months, the Chargers have added free agent Tre Boston and drafted Rayshawn Jenkins in the 4th round of this year’s draft. It is clear by these moves that Lowery’s position as the starter will be challenged during training camp.
Lowery should find some familiarity in a new defensive scheme as he spent a brief time in Bradley’s secondary back in Jacksonville in 2013. But as recent personal moves have indicated, the Chargers want more production and depth at the safety position. GM Tom Telesco has been humble enough when admitting free agency miscues (See CB Derek Cox) and doesn’t mind eating cap space if it’s best for the team. Lowery has two years left remaining on his contract but needs to perform at a higher standard if he hopes to remain in Los Angeles for the full tenure of his deal.
OT Joe Barksdale
Perhaps no player on the Chargers roster has gone from hero to zero in a one season span, quicker than RT Joe Barksdale. In 2016, Barksdale signed a four-year, $22.2 million contract following a season where he earned positive marks for his pass blocking skills and was the only offensive lineman to stay healthy for the entire year.
Last season, the Chargers offensive line ranked 31st in the league and Barksdale had a season to forget. Along with former LT King Dunlap, the two tackles allowed 98 combined pressures. In week six against the Broncos, Barksdale was benched in favor of backup T Chris Hairston, due to Barksdale’s inability to contain All-Pro LB Von Miller. Additionally, Barksdale led all Chargers offensive lineman in penalties (10) in 2016.
The Chargers offensive line has graded out with below average ratings for the past 10 years. It’s no secret how much turnover has occurred with the starting five offensive linemen in the past several seasons. Injuries and inconsistent play have become a recurring theme for this unit for some time and perhaps no part of the Chargers roster is more crucial for this teams’ success.
This upcoming season the Chargers O-Line will again, look very different. Los Angeles released Dunlap, free agent bust Orlando Franklin, and did not resign former first round pick, D.J. Fluker. An emphasis was made to protect Philip Rivers during the offseason as the Chargers signed free agent LT Russell Okung and drafted three offensive linemen in the draft in OG Forrest Lamp, Dan Feeney and tackle Sam Tevi. With so much competition suddenly along the O-line, Barksdale could be on a short leash and face the chopping block if his poor play continues.
Do you guys agree? What other players are facing a “Make or Break” season this year?