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Review, Preview, and View: The Chargers have two legitimate #1 receivers

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NFL: AFC Divisional Playoff-Los Angeles Chargers at New England Patriots Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

In this series, the Bolts from the Blue staff will be taking a closer look at each position group on the Chargers. The Review: What they did in 2019. The View: Where they stand as of today, as far as contracts and viability for 2020. And The Preview: What the Chargers could do to upgrade or change the group, if anything.

Today, I’ll start by breaking down the receivers.

Coming into 2019, the LA Chargers had a pretty obvious number one and number two receiver. Going into the 2020 offseason, it is no longer obvious who the Chargers’ number one and number two receivers are. Sometimes people say “1a” and “1b” as a funny way of saying “1” and “2.” To quote Anchorman, “If you’re not first, you’re last.”

(In this quote, Anchorman was describing TV news ratings. He walked up to his co-anchor, which was Jon Heder in an ice skating outfit, and said, “If you’re not first, you’re last.” He then had to go home to his step brother, who put all of his stuff on the lawn and said, “Everything Must Go.”)

Welcome to how I write about football, BftB. Good luck.

No, I don’t think the Chargers have a 1 and a 2. I also don’t think they have a 1a and a 1b. In my mind, LA clearly had two 1s in 2019. They were different kinds of 1s, but Keenan Allen and Mike Williams put themselves in the running as the best starting two teammates at receiver in the NFL.

It’s the 3-4 spots behind them that become a concern for head coach Anthony Lynn and general manager Tom Telesco should want to address. Though if the last few years are any indication, they may not spend that much time or resources in doing so.

This is a complete picture of LA’s two number one receivers, as well as a half-dozen of ... number fives.

The Review

I don’t think that a team can ever feel “comfortable” in a league with so many injuries, but if there’s a position that the Chargers can at least feel swell about, their top two receivers have plenty to make them skip and whistle.

After missing one and a half seasons from 2015-2016, Keenan Allen was named to his third straight Pro Bowl in 2019 after catching 104 passes for 1,199 yards and six touchdowns. If not for a Saints offense wholly designed to feed arguably its best player, Allen would easily be in the running for most receptions during that time. Instead, his 303 catches ranks tied for third behind Michael Thomas (378) and DeAndre Hopkins (315), alongside Christian McCaffrey, whose receptions last season came delivered softly by a stork named Kyle Allen.

Allen also ranks fourth in receiving yards in that time, behind only Julio Jones, Thomas, and Hopkins. He’s also done much of that as primarily a one-man band at receiver, having been targeted more than twice as many times as any other wideout on the team in both 2017 and 2018. The Ringer’s Robert Mays recently asked Allen about what makes him so good.

McGeoghan has coached receivers for three different NFL teams, and he says that among all those players, Keenan Allen’s ability to identity and process that information stands out. Allen is a master at using a defense’s structure to his advantage. He knows that a single-high safety means he can manipulate factors like his split to put even more stress on a cornerback. “If it’s [a] single-high [safety], I already know the corner has outside leverage because he has help inside,” Allen says. “[If I have an inside route], I’m going to widen as much as I can—as much as the corner lets me. And he’s going to keep widening with me, because he’s supposed to be guarding outside. So that’s just creating more and more space from the inside help.”

The pressure on Allen to do everything changed in 2019 and his usage wasn’t reduced only because of Austin Ekeler and Hunter Henry (though they helped) but the quiet emergence of Mike Williams after two years of development.

I say “quiet” not because Williams isn’t known — his history as the seventh overall pick certainly raises his Q and he joined the millennium club (Williennum?) in 2019 with 1,001 yards — but because maybe much of the country didn’t realize just how much Williams broke out. (It also doesn’t help to have a generic name. You weren’t even the first NFL receiver drafted in the top 10 to be named Mike Williams!)

And I don’t mean that he’s a good number two, or second number one. I mean that Allen is the star but Williams may have been the more valuable receiver last season.

Despite catching barely more than 50% of his targets (49 of 90, 54.4%), Williams easily eclipsed Allen in yards per catch (NFL-best 20.4) and yards per target (11.1, which is more than three yards more than Allen and ranked third behind A.J. Brown and Stefon Diggs. NFL players since 2018 who have a higher Y/T than Williams: Brown, Tyler Lockett, and DeSean Jackson.

And only Lockett has played more than one season in that time, so really it’s just Lockett.

It’s an intriguing dual threat, the 10 yards per catch elite possession guy and the 20 yards per catch big play threat, but since the tail end of September, Williams has really been more of “the guy” for the Chargers offense.

Dating back to Week 4, Williams had 41 catches on 75 targets for 844 yards and two touchdowns in 12 games compared to 75 catches on 107 targets for 795 yards and three touchdowns in 13 games for Allen. So on 32 fewer targets, Williams had 49 more yards. One website and stat you’ll see me reference a lot is FootballOutsiders and DVOA, as well as DYAR.

DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) had Williams ranked 11th overall among receivers, slotted between Amari Cooper and Washington rookie Terry McLaurin. Ahead of Mike Evans, Kenny Golladay, Adam Thielen, and Julio among many others who are not Mike Williams. That includes Allen, who ranked 30th, one spot below Cooper Kupp and one above Hopkins.

I know this makes it seem like DVOA could be a bad stat — and it’s not as good for individuals as it is for units or teams — but all it is really highlighting is that in this one snapshot of one season, Williams may have made more key plays in high leverage situations than Allen did. Given that he did out-gain him for much of the year and that he did average more than twice as many yards per catch, it’s not that unfathomable. Williams also averaged 16.6 yards BEFORE the catch, which was way more than any other player.

Rivers could air it out to Williams for 2.2 more air yards per catch than second-place Breshad Perriman could get per catch from Jameis Winston, and three more yards per catch than third-place Golladay from Matthew Stafford. His 4 drops and 4.4% of drops per target was also a very good figure for any player, even if not “elite.”

Meanwhile Allen averaged less than half of the yards before catch (7.9) with a similar amount of yards after catch per catch (3.8 for Williams, 3.6 for Allen). A throw to Williams yielded a significantly higher reward, while a throw to Allen was perhaps more readily available and consistent and sometimes an offense doesn’t want to make the big strike. And because Allen is a three-time Pro Bowler.

By DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) they’re much closer: Williams is 15th and Allen is 17th. In the middle of that Chargers sammy: DeAndre Hopkins.

And this is pretty much the extent of what you can talk about when it comes to LA’s receivers in 2019. Andre Patton caught six of 17 targets for 56 yards, Travis Benjamin had 6 of 16 for 30. Dontrelle Inman was easily the most valuable third option but played in only four games, catching 8 of 13 for 132; no receiver other than two guys this article is really about caught a touchdown last season.

That’s why the current picture of the Chargers receivers looks phenomenal at the top and barren everywhere else.

The View

Allen is signed only through next season at a $12.6 million cap hit in 2020. Williams is also signed through 2020, but has a fifth-year option for 2021 that will be picked up barring moronicness. Both have obvious contract “situations” but we won’t need to go down the worst case scenario paths just yet, so instead we’ll focus on the rest.

Travis Benjamin’s 2020 year is a voidable year and he’ll be a free agent. Dontrelle Inman made the most of his eight grabs but was released on November 25. There are other receivers on the roster, but few that should make you significantly confident that the next Williams or Allen will emerge — or even the next Inman — and that’s in large part due to Telesco’s apprehensive approach with drafting receivers.

The Chargers have taken only two in the last five years — Williams and 2018 sixth round pick Dylan Cantrell, an exclusive rights free agent in 2020.

LA opened the year with Inman, Benjamin, and Geremy Davis on the roster behind the two stars. By the middle of the year, undrafted free agents Andre Patton and Jason Moore had replaced the two veterans and that’s the five they ended the season with. By simple deductive reasoning, these are the three they preferred, with Cantrell having spent the season on injured reserve, but none of them are exactly “prospects.”

Davis is a 27-year-old special teamer with five catches over five seasons. Patton is 25, having last spent a football season as a contributor on offense with Rutgers in 2016. Moore was an All-(small)World receiver at Findlay, a school I just heard of. He’ll be 25 in June.

On the practice squad at the end of the year were Jalen Guyton and Anthony Johnson. Guyton, 23 in June, won three high school state championships with Kyler Murray. Johnson is about to be 25.

The Chargers may indeed hold onto one or two of their old projects here for next season, but should they? And what are the replacement options moving forward?

The Preview

In a fantasy football world you may not imagine yourself saying this, but in the real football world the LA Chargers must improve their receiving unit. Maybe not the top two guys, but the unit itself sure could use an injection of something. Of speed. Of youth. Of depth. Of players who could step up if called upon and as we saw with many teams this year, you will often call upon your backup receivers.

And you don’t want to be in the position of the Philadelphia Eagles when you do.

The Eagles lost pretty much any viable receiver by December. The Bucs lost Mike Evans in early December and found surprising production from Perriman. The Vikings were without Adam Thielen for six games and found out that Laquon Treadwell still can’t — Tread well that is. The Niners had to trade for Emmanuel Sanders once they found out that Dante Pettis was not the breakout star so many expected him to be. The Seahawks were only a two-weapon team around Russell Wilson once tight end Will Dissly went on IR for the second year in a row. The Packers, once fantastically rich at receiver, were then like ... “Allan Lazard???

These situations can flip quick and what was once considered a strength can immediately become a concern with one injury. Given that Allen and Williams sucked up 239 of 293 targets that went to receivers, it’s not hard to imagine that a single injury could put the Chargers in a position to not only try to replace that player, but likely to change the whole gameplan because nobody else on the roster can even phantom replicate the abilities of Allen and Williams.

In the one game that either missed (Williams was out in Week 4 vs Miami), Rivers did spread it around, sending seven passes to Inman, a season-high of two to Davis, and tied for a season-high of four to Patton.

Things were fine in a 30-10 win but hard to really evaluate much because early-season Dolphins.

In a perfect world Telesco doesn’t just reload with more undrafted free agents and leftovers from other teams making cuts, but goes out and finds a legitimate threat to start for LA one day. Even if Allen and Williams are extended and play together for four more years, and even if Henry is re-signed too, and even if Ekeler continues to command 100+ targets, a third receiver with high upside and the ability to contribute in 2020 should not be left completely to chance.

Free Agents

Any under-28 receiver who is currently starting for another team may not make a ton of sense for LA. This is not a Madden mode where you sign Amari Cooper.

Given that they have their two stars, paying Emmanuel Sanders (for example) would only fall in line with logic if Sanders is looking for his best option to win a Super Bowl and therefore willing to take a small figure. It’s hard to imagine that Sanders will see the 5-11 Chargers as his best option to win a Super Bowl however.

Then when you look at someone like Robby Anderson, who will be 27 and was surprisingly productive while playing for the New York Jets, is this the point in his career when he wants to be the third, fourth, or fifth option on an offense? Demarcus Robinson took center stage in the divisional round for his drops, but had remarkably similar numbers at the 2016 combine to Michael Thomas, which tells you all you need to know about judging a person by combine numbers alone. Still, Robinson’s flaws are also what make him a viable option perhaps as a free agent target, and in a game in which KC was without Tyreek Hill, he had six catches for 172 yards.

The real vet options may make more sense. All of these receivers made $5 million or less last season (and will be free agents again):

Randall Cobb, Danny Amendola, Ted Ginn, Perriman, Seth Roberts, Phillip Dorsett, Demaryius Thomas, and Benjamin. (Side note: Devin Funchess really did make $10 million for Indy in 2019, playing in 3% of their snaps. Don’t be Devin Funchess.)

Obviously Benjamin is the guy who is already here and has been since 2016, surprisingly playing out all four years on the $24 million contract he signed at the time. (Not surprising because it’s Benjamin necessarily, just that few players seem to play out their contracts.) He seems an easy option to work a deal out with following his voidable extension last year. That also probably makes him the least exciting option given that he has been hurt or unproductive in the last two campaigns.

I can’t imagine that any free agent signing made by the Chargers will be exciting given that they aren’t going to look for a top-two option, but maybe any name that is new could be more exciting than Benjamin. Were it Sanders or Robinson, visions of “at least that’s a uniform I haven’t seen him wear before” can dance in your head.

The Draft

The draft seems the more viable option however, should Telesco finally invest a midround pick into one.

Now, I for one am not a 2020 class draft expert, especially not in January of that/this year. But what I do know right now is that the 2020 receiver class is considered to be one of the best of all time and while LA taking a receiver like Jerry Jeudy or CeeDee Lamb (top-10, top-15 prospects) is improbable, it could still bode well for Telesco’s chance to grab a receiver with incredible value on day two or three.

WalterFootball currently has nine receivers who they see as having first round ceilings, and that’s not an outlandish number given that most mocks I’ve seen have projected at least five or six to go in the first. There have only been seven first round receivers total over the last three years, but this influx could be as impactful as the ones we saw in 2014 (five first rounders, including Mike Evans, Odell Beckham, Sammy Watkins, and Brandin Cooks) and 2015 (six first rounders, including Amari Cooper, Breshad Perriman, and DeVante Parker).

Receivers who were not in the first round in 2014 include Jarvis Landry, Davante Adams, Allen Robinson, Jordan Matthews, Paul Richardson, and Marqise Lee falling to round two, plus John Brown in round three.

Receivers who were not in the first round in 2015 include Devin Funchess in round two, Tyler Lockett and Chris Conley in round three, Jamison Crowder in round four, and Stefon Diggs in round five.

LA is set to pick sixth, 37th, and 71st and Telesco may be the least exciting GM in the NFL when it comes to draft trades. The Chargers retained all of their original picks in 2019 with no additions, and retained all but their seventh rounder in 2018, as used in the Cardale Jones deal. Trading seems so unlikely that at least we can stick on these picks.

37 would obviously be eye-popping, though some heads will be buzzing if a Justin Jefferson, Henry Ruggs, or Laviska Shenault fall below their expected grades. (Again, it’s January. Some of these names might look ridiculous in four months, others may appear in their place.)

71 may be where the “Ok, come on, maybe” utterances are had for a receiver.

Last year, DK Metcalf presented a physical profile of a top-10 pick but had the college production and tape (they say) of a guy who should not even go in the first two days. Eventually he slid down to pick 64 and the Seahawks decided they had to take advantage of the opportunity to draft him in that slot. Metcalf had 900 yards and broke the rookie record for receiving yards in a playoff game with 160. In a heavily loaded second round, Metcalf was the ninth receiver off the board.

So just because the Chargers might be picking the eight or ninth or 12th-best receiver in the draft, this 2020 class appears to be one where that 12th-ranked receiver could have a DK Metcalf-like draft profile; things you love, things you’re worried about. Given that LA has two starting receivers already, they will not need to put pressure on a rookie to perform right away unless the unforeseen happens.

And if the unforeseen happens, at least the Chargers have an option who isn’t just a veteran with a low ceiling or a special teamer with little upside.

Maybe that rookie looks like JJ Arcega-Whiteside (an Eagles receiver who went ahead of Metcalf and had a very poor showing in 2019) but is it a risk worth taking for a team with not one, but two fantastic receivers without much running room left on their current deals?

It has to be something worth looking into.

The 2020 Picture

In his three years as head coach, Anthony Lynn has kept six receivers twice (2017, 2018) and five receivers once (2019). They’ve kept Allen, Williams, Benjamin, and Davis in each of those years. Benjamin and Davis are of course possibilities to keep again.

As of today, we can lock in Allen and Williams barring a shocking trade announcement or a contract holdout. I guess given their respective situations, holdouts can’t be ruled out. But we will say that Allen and Williams are on the final 53.

That leaves 3-4 more spots.

If it’s not Davis, who plays in roughly 55-60% of the special teams snaps, then it will be a player like Davis. If Lynn has had an affinity for keeping Davis so far, what’s to stop him now? If Cantrell is healthy in August and September though, it could be him.

That leaves 2-3 more spots.

There’s also the issue of Andre Patton and Jason Moore. The Chargers don’t need two starters anyway, so you want players around who may do more than just flash greatness as if they’ll be Pro Bowlers one day. Maybe they hustle, maybe they’re great teammates, maybe they bust ass for special teams snaps. It’s not as though Patton did much with his 17 targets in 2019, but it was 12 more targets than Moore got. He was active more often and played in more special teams snaps, though there were times late in the year when Moore was out there on special teams more often. Neither option is an exciting one, but you kind of knew that was coming. Let’s say Patton.

That leaves 1-2 spots.

Travis Benjamin is the obvious one. He’s here and he’s capable of actually being an NFL receiver if called upon, not just a motivator and special teamer. But why not shoot for something better? There are three ways to go in this slot besides Benjamin, which is your fourth option:

A different veteran free agent.

A mid-to-late draft pick or UDFA.

A day two pick.

Who among us would not rather discuss the possibility of it being a day two pick?

Therefore, let’s consider the final five to be this:

Allen-Williams-pick 71-Patton-Davis

Or this:

Allen-Williams-Benjamin-Patton-Davis

Or this:

Allen-Williams-Benjamin-pick 71-Cantrell

Or this:

Allen-Williams-Sanders-a fifth rounder-Cantrell

Or this:

Allen-Williams-Benjamin-fifth rounder-Cantrell-Davis

Which is the best option is everyone is healthy? Which is the best option if you lose Allen or Williams for any significant amount of time? Which is the one you just want? Who is the one player you’re just ready for them to move on from?

There are quite a few question in this position group, but at least when someone asks you “Who is the Chargers best receiver?” you can give them two answers.