The NFL preseason is a practice test. Nothing more, nothing less.
Hopefully, a team on the rise can put in quality play, show progress in depth and have some tough decisions to make when it comes time for roster cuts. If you want to win the NFL preseason, that’s the way to do so. Wins are significant, showing quality depth is so much more.
The Los Angeles Chargers crossed the 2018 preseason finish line with a record of 2-2. One close loss, one narrow win, one come from behind victory, one blowout. On average, that’s a solid performance for a team trending up the ladder.
Following Saturday’s roster cuts to get the team down from 90 to 53 total players, Los Angeles is looking to start the season off on a high note against rival Kansas City Chiefs. After a highly regarded offseason, many of the national reporters still can’t stop gushing over the Chargers team heading into the regular season.
Anthony Lynn’s squad is ready to start the season, perhaps more prepared than they have been in a long time. Although the losses of key contributors such as tight end Hunter Henry and cornerback Jason Verrett do sting, the Chargers are strong at nearly every position heading into week 1.
Which brings us to the main the question, how good can the Chargers be this season?
“Our expectation is the same,“ Lynn said via Chargers.com, “Our expectations haven’t changed one bit.”
Of course, any coach will give a statement like that. Part of that is to keep the media at bay, partially due to the fact he believes it. Mostly, however, it’s to keep players motivated week in and week out through the scorching heat of practice. It’s to keep the players fighting when they’re drained. It’s to keep his team on track when morale is low inside the locker room.
The Cleveland Browns have been saying this is their year since the franchise returned in 1999. The result? New year, new quarterback(s), same results.
Yes, it was only preseason. It was a dress rehearsal for the big shindig coming September 9th. But the key players who needed to step up certainly impressed when out there, no matter how little time they played.
While Melvin Gordon only played in two preseason games, he showed the ability to score in the red zone with a two-yard touchdown run against the Seattle Seahawks. Appearing balanced behind a refreshed offensive line, the former Wisconsin running back will try to continue his success from last year with a second straight 1000 yards season.
Philip Rivers is saddling up for perhaps the final ride of his career. There’s no telling if the 36-year-old will call it a career after the 2018 season. He’ll turn 37 the day before the Chargers host the Cincinnati Bengals. His body is no longer as limber as it once was. A shot to the arm from an impressive edge defender no longer is a stinger; it’s a lingering injury.
Through thick and thin though, Rivers has stood by his organization. Through losing seasons, consistent draft bust and even a relocation, Rivers has been the face of the team and the franchise quarterback that could have never been.
In a way, the Chargers should be thankful that Eli Manning didn’t want to head to San Diego. Who knows what the narrative would be now?
Since the arrival of current Chargers general manager Tom Telesco, three of his six first-round picks have hit, two are on the rise, one fizzled out. But it’s also what Telesco and company have done during the middle rounds that make the Chargers exciting for the upcoming season.
In his first season, Telesco wanted to add another receiver to replace Vincent Jackson. He chose a talented pass catcher with a list of injuries coming out of college, most recently a posterior cruciate ligament sprain. Last season, Keenan Allen collected his first season with 100 receptions and second year with 1000+ yards.
In 2015, Telesco added competition in the linebacker unit with his second round selection. Coming off a 100+ tackle season for the Hurricanes, Telesco wanted a tackling machine up the middle. While his career hasn’t been entirely memorable, Denzel Perryman has been a quality linebacker on the field for the Chargers defense over the past four seasons.
Kyle Emanuel is start as the team’s SAM linebacker, Tyrell Williams has been a quality depth receiver, Henry is the team’s top tight end, Drew Kaser is averaging a career 47.3 yards per punt and Derek Watt has been the key factor on special team’s and in the red zone. Even Jatavis Brown is still a starting linebacker for the Chargers heading into the regular season following a rough preseason.
The all have three things in common; they’re Telesco players, they’re mid-round selections, and they’re all contributors to the Chargers growth.
It’s too early to judge the last two draft classes from the Bolts heading into 2018, but from an outside view, it looks like a win. Dan Feeney and Forrest Lamp are both expected to start this season at guards so long as Lamp can remain healthy.
Cornerback Desmond King is already one of the team’s best secondary members following a 76 tackles, four sack rookie campaign. His role could expand more than just the team’s nickel cornerback moving forward.
This year’s draft class has made an early impression as well. Uchenna Nwosu and Kyzir White both had strong preseasons, combining for 20 total tackles and one sack this preseason. Both rookies are fighting for first-team reps against Emanuel and Brown at outside linebacker with a legitimate chance to win the jobs.
As for the team’s first-round picks, their status is still up in the air. Both wide receiver Mike Williams and safety Derwin James were highly regarded at their position during the time of the draft, with some even considering them the top wide receiver and safety in their respective classes. One of the biggest wins for Los Angeles is their selection spots. Both years, the Chargers stayed put without having to move up to snag the pair.
Williams rookie year was plagued by injuries from the get-go. A herniated disc kept the former Clemson standout sidelined for all of the preseason and the start of the year. Williams would suit up for ten games and finish his rookie campaign with just 11 receptions for 95 yards.
Williams seems to be ready for this sophomore season under the powder blue uniform. Looking rejuvenated heading into Sunday’s showdown, Williams collected four receptions for 56 yards and touchdown. Are those numbers elite? Not by any means. They are sufficient though for a starter looking to bounce back and show progress.
“I just feel like I’m in the groove,“ Williams said via Chargers.com, “I felt the offseason was great for me, so I’m just taking full advantage for every opportunity I get every time I step out on the field.”
James, on the other hand, could be the biggest steal of the first round by season’s end. A versatile, yet hard-hitting safety out of Florida State, many projected the former Seminole wouldn’t get past the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the seventh overall pick. The Bucs traded their spot for the Buffalo Bills to draft their hopeful franchise quarterback in Josh Allen, passed on James again and let the Bolts stand their ground at 17 to make him a Charger.
The early results have been promising to say the least.
James has been a heat-seeking missile for the team’s defense in multiple positions. Taking reps at both free safety and strong safety, along with seeing several reps even at the team’s weak-side linebacker position, James finished the preseason strong with nine tackles, two pass deflections, and an interception.
James began camp running with the team’s second-team defense. He won’t be doing that anymore this season. Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley announced last month that he would be starting moving forward.
“I’d put (James’ I.Q.) pretty high now,” Bradley said via Chargers.com. “We’re asking him to do quite a few things.”
“That means they really all have to play both positions. As a rookie, that’s pretty challenging, and he’s picking it up. Like I said, in the classroom, he’s pretty sharp. He just needs to go out on the field and do it consistently.”
Let’s say it like it is: the Chargers are a young team now. In fact, according to Jimmy Kempski of Philly Voice, the Chargers are the 14th youngest team in the NFL with an average age of 25.8 years old.
Yes, Los Angeles will heavily rely on Rivers to continue being one of the league’s most underrated players under center. Sure, they’ll have the safety net of tight end Antonio Gates in the red zone following his resigning with the team last Saturday. Veteran talent will be vital to keeping these young players intact.
But this is now a youth movement out in Los Angeles. If Telesco’s last two drafts are home runs all around, the Chargers could slowly leave the conversation of being playoff contenders and enter the realm of being Super Bowl contenders.
The Chargers on paper might be the most complete team in the AFC West heading into Thursday night when the season officially will begin.
The Denver Broncos have a top caliber defense but are looking to find some offensive identity with a quarterback. Case Keenum is a solid bridge starter, but he won’t be the future up in Mile High Stadium.
The Chiefs are relying predominately on second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes to carry the offense alongside Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, and last year’s league leader Kareem Hunt. While their offensive line is stable, their defense is plagued with holes, mainly in the secondary. Expect for them to be winning games in high scoring fashion or losing by a substantial amount.
As for the Oakland Raiders, the entire AFC West should be thanking GM Reggie McKenzie for signing away his rights to grab head coach John Gruden. While Gruden is a talented analyst and has won a Super Bowl, the last time he called plays on the sideline took place back in 2008. It seems he’s still coaching that way following the recent trade of “troublemaker” Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears.
If the offensive line can continue to compete, open running lanes for Gordon and allow Rivers enough time to find a receiver downfield, the defense should be able to contain offense’s from consistently finding the end zone.
There’s a reason the Chargers have been one of the more talked about teams in the eye’s of the national media; they’ve earned it. Alongside the Chicago Bears, Houston Texans, and San Francisco 49ers, there might not be a more exciting team to watch this year than the boys down at StubHub Stadium.
There’s plenty of questions that will be answered early on this season surrounding the youthful talent that will make up a majority of the Chargers starting lineup. If they all hit, sit back and relax Charger nation.
This could be the season fans will be talking about for years to come.