Heading toward training camp, football fiends thirst for breakout potential. Who or what is the next big thing in football? In Around The NFL's "Making the Leap" series, Gregg Rosenthal spotlights emerging units to keep an eye on in 2017.
"We can change those mixed feelings if we win," the third-year running back said in a discussion we had this week.
In the nascent battle for the hearts and wallets of Southern California's football populace, the Chargers have the ultimate trump cards: A loaded deck of young offensive talent.
Gordon is one of football's best young backs. Tight end Hunter Henry played so well in his rookie season that he's sending Antonio Gates to the bench. Wide receivers Keenan Allen and Tyrell Williams have already put up 1,000-yard seasons, yet the team selected another rangy wideout, Mike Williams, No. 7 overall in April's draft. Everyone listed above is 25 years old or younger.
The loyal fans in San Diego deserved a better fate. They should get the chance to enjoy a roster loaded with more difference makers than at any time since LaDainian Tomlinson was Electric Gliding. This group is built to win over a new generation of Chargers fans and possibly win back some of the old ones.
Let's count the reasons why:
Philip Rivers has every right to feel old. The Chargers quarterback wakes up in a house with eight children, then heads to work where he throws the ball to a gaggle of pass catchers more than a decade younger than him. (Gordon, for one, is closer in age to Rivers' eldest daughter than the 35-year-old quarterback.) The depth and variety of Rivers' weapons, however, should help him stay young. An overdue dose of injury luck could help, too.
There is a bright side to all this carnage. Losing third-down back Danny Woodhead to a torn ACL early last season allowed Gordon to show off his surprisingly polished receiving skills. When Antonio Gates missed time, Hunter Henry rarely left the field. No. 1 wide receiver Keenan Allen's torn ACL provided more snaps for Tyrell Williams, who took full advantage. The young Chargers were forced to grow up fast, which should make them more mature this season. Speaking of which ...
Tyrell Williams is much better than you think
An undrafted free agent in 2015, Tyrell Williams has everything a team wants from a No. 2 receiver. He is comfortable lining up outside or in the slot. He showed incredible timing with Rivers and continually left defenders flat-footed with his ability to run after the catch.
Hunter Henry can be a top-five tight end
Henry tied for the tight end lead in touchdowns (eight) as a rookie, which sets the bar rather high. New Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said that Henry can be one of the top players at his position, which sounds absolutely fair. He has the route-running chops to cross up linebackers, the strength to grab contested catches against top cornerbacks like Chris Harris Jr. and the athleticism to make defenders miss in the open field. There aren't many players to go around with all those skills, especially ones who can hold their own as a blocker like Henry. A rookie season like that is why Gates, an all-time great, sounds so eager to perform a complementary role behind Henry. A rookie season like that has Chargers fans and teammates dreaming big.
"We know we got a young team. We know we got talent," Gordon said. "I tell Hunter all the time, 'There used to be LT and Gates. Now it can be me and you. We can be that tandem.' "
A balanced offense
The Chargers hired Lynn for his leadership ability, but coaching the league's top-ranked running game in Buffalo last season didn't hurt. In Gordon, Lynn has a perfect pupil to take to the next level. Lynn said that Gordon was already more elusive and physical than he realized, which makes me feel better about my own incredibly optimistic evaluation of Gordon earlier this offseason. Gordon sounded confused that anyone should be surprised about his power back credentials.
"That's my game. I went to Wisconsin, baby!" he said to me. "You can't be afraid to make contact. I'd rather outrun you for sure because you can get to the end zone faster. Running over someone takes a little time.
"But if I feel like I can't get past you, I'll run through you."
"He has about 1,000 pictures up. So I think 997 won't hurt him," Gordon said with a laugh.
The Chargers haven't had a top-10 running game in a decade, largely because of the offensive line. Some of Gordon's efficiency metrics are lagging because he's been forced to create so much on his own. The Chargers put a premium on improving up front by signing left tackle Russell Okung and selecting two likely interior-line starters early in the draft. According to Pro Football Focus, Rivers hasn't had a single season of above-average pass protection in a decade. He still has some of the prettiest touch passes and best pocket presence of any quarterback. And his recent late-season fades can be attributed to the endless pounding he endures. A balanced offense should keep him fresher and allow offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt to get more creative.
Ken Whisenhunt's bounty of options
Lynn's decision to retain Whisenhunt is a huge reason why I'm so bullish on the Chargers. Instead of introducing a brand new scheme, Lynn will add some of his running game principles to Whisenhunt's already-successful partnership with Rivers. The situation is reminiscent of when Steelers coach Mike Tomlin retained defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau upon arrival in Pittsburgh. A first-time head coach checking his ego at the door for the good of the team makes for a great first impression.
It would have been a shame to see this passing game take a step back, because they were so tough to handle last season, especially before the injuries went from unlucky to on the scale of the bubonic plague. The Chargers can spread teams out with four or five receivers or they can play with three tight ends. They can line up speedsters like Tyrell Williams or 27-year-old deep threat Travis Benjamin inside of Henry or Gordon, creating confusion for defenses.
The combinations that Whisenhunt can mix and match are virtually endless. Allen has the profile of a No. 1 receiver if healthy, but Rivers hardly needs to force the ball to him. The pass-catching group is so deep that wideout Dontrelle Inman, who gained over 800 yards last year, currently looks like the team's eighth option in the passing game.
Escaping the in-between
This is an awkward transition season for an organization that is literally in between San Diego and Los Angeles. With a team facility in Orange County and a permanent stadium solution with the Rams years away, gaining a foothold won't be simple. But Gordon had the right idea about the path to relevance.
"If we start winning," Gordon said, "Those San Diego fans will be like, 'I'm upset, but at the end of the day, I'm still a Charger. And we're winning, so I'm gonna represent my Bolts.' "
The fans who'll show up to the 30,000-seat StubHub Center on Sundays are only a small part of the equation. The Chargers will be auditioning for millions weekly on television and this young core of skill-position talent will be too fun to ignore.