Skip to main content

State of the 2021 Los Angeles Chargers: Can Brandon Staley lift talented roster into NFL playoffs?

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2021? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Chargers organization, Bolts fans around the world and those who are still waiting on a remake of this classic song:

Today is a great day to be a fan of the Los Angeles Chargers. I know, you might have heard this before and these words reach you with some skepticism. But the Chargers are truly in a great spot. A young innovative coach and staff. One of the best young quarterbacks in the game. And a defense that can even put a scare into Patrick Mahomes. The Bolts could make some noise this season.

How the Chargers got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2020 season.

The highs:

  • Finding the franchise QB. I know it had been a long drought going from Philip Rivers to Justin Herbert. I mean, it was all of ... *checks notes* ... one game. And I know it was weird the way Justin got his first start. But hey, now you have a franchise quarterback again! You went from Drew Brees to Rivers to Herbert. Do not take this for granted. Believe me, a fan of a Bears team that has struggled to find a quarterback since the position was invented. (Though suddenly, hope springs for Chicago!)
  • Blue streak. It's the annual rite of winter. Out of playoff contention, the Chargers go on a massive winning streak to pad their record and make things look not so bad. This time, the Bolts closed out the season with four straight wins to finish 7-9.

The lows:

  • Bittersweet beginnings. The Chargers opened the season with a win at Cincinnati, which was nice. And then Herbert balled out in his surprise Week 2 start, but the Chargers lost a heartbreaker to the Chiefs in overtime. They had taken a 20-17 lead with 2:27 remaining, but the reigning Super Bowl champs drove down the field to force overtime and eventually won the game.
  • Skidding. The Chargers suffered a four-game skid to limp into the bye week at 1-4. After a win over Jacksonville, the Bolts dropped three more games to basically remove themselves from playoff contention. But at least you didn't lose to the Jets, like the other L.A. team.

2021 VIPs

Head coach: Brandon Staley. The NFL went an entire year without hiring a Sean McVay assistant. Thankfully, the Chargers course corrected with Staley's appointment. It's like Disney churning out the same kids movie over and over, but hey, this time, they're sea monsters! I'm kidding. Luca was great. And honestly, I really do like the hiring of Staley, the Rams defensive coordinator from a season ago.

You know, McVay made a bold move last offseason to remove Wade Phillips and go with Staley as a first-time NFL DC. But it was perfect. The Rams led the NFL in scoring defense (18.5), total defense (281.9) and pass defense (190.7). Staley was also part of some good defensive coaching staffs in Denver and Chicago, learning under Vic Fangio. And he's coming to a Chargers squad that's already pretty damn good defensively. You're building a team that will have a defensive identity -- one that could be the best in the league. And then you combine that with a 23-year-old quarterback who sure looked like the real deal last year ... In fact, let's just get into that for a moment.

Quarterback: Justin Herbert. I was apprehensive about Herbert entering his rookie season, because I was worried about his performances in some big games at Oregon. And, well, I'm an idiot because Justin had one of the best debut campaigns ever for a quarterback. He set a rookie record with 31 touchdown passes. His 4,336 passing yards were the second-most by a rookie, right behind Andrew Luck. And remember: Herbert didn't play in the team's first game of the season.

And I know a lot of people -- *cough* Vikings fans *cough* -- were a little miffed that Herbert won the 2020 Offensive Rooke of the Year award. But let's be serious: While Justin Jefferson was undoubtedly amazing last year, a record-breaking quarterback is always going to get that hardware. And there is plenty of reason to believe Herbert can be even better this year.

Projected 2021 MVP: Joey Bosa, edge. One of the most exciting things to look forward to this season is Staley working with Bosa, who has been one of the best players in the game when healthy. Bosa led the Chargers with 7.5 sacks last year, but missed four games with a concussion and shin injury. He has missed at least four games in three of his five NFL seasons. But when he's on the field, he's dominant. Bosa had 12.5 sacks in 2017 and 11.5 sacks in '19, his two full seasons in the NFL. And Staley's defense was first in the league last year. This could be a year when we see Bosa emerge as the best in the game. Kind of like when Leonardo DiCaprio went from being the guy from Growing Pains and Poison Ivy to the guy in The Basketball Diaries and Titanic.

2021 breakout star: Tyron Johnson, receiver. I feel like we do this every year with Chargers receivers. Keenan Allen is truly one of the best in the game, and perhaps, one of the most overlooked superstars. But we're always looking for that Dick Grayson-like sidekick. While Mike Williams will be talked about a lot, I'm looking forward to seeing Johnson. A former practice squad receiver who quietly developed some chemistry with Herbert. He had 20 receptions for 398 yards and three touchdowns last year. And he was called out by Staley in this press conference. No, in a good way. Remember, TJ was the club leader in air yards per target! According to Next Gen Stats, Herbert threw 11 deep-pass touchdowns (20-plus air yards) last year, which was tied for third in the league. That's on a Russell Wilson/Patrick Mahomes/Aaron Rodgers level.

New face to know: Corey Linsley, center. Daps (are we still saying that?) to Linsley for getting out of Green Bay. He doesn't need to worry about getting caught up in the Aaron Rodgers drama; instead, he traded in for a younger franchise quarterback and is likely living the life in Newport Beach. Or at least that's where I would have chosen to go. Linsley is coming off an All-Pro season (his first) and will hopefully anchor a line that used the fifth-most combinations last year. It's crucial for this franchise to shore up that group. Herbert led the NFL with 1,113 passing yards and nine touchdowns under pressure in 2020. He was sacked 32 times in 2020, which was tied for the ninth-most in the league. And the Chargers had the third-worst Pro Football Focus pass-blocking grade (54.5) and worst run-blocking grade (46.5) in the NFL in 2020. Consequently, yes, this O-line ranked dead last in PFF's season-ending rundown.

The 2021 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: MEDIUM. You have a first-year coach, so you can't have these wild expectations for the Chargers. But at the same time, you have this pretty incredible roster, so maybe you can expect to win some games.

Three key dates:

  • Week 3 at Kansas City Chiefs. The Chargers open with two winnable games at Washington and at home against the Cowboys. But they then go on the road to K.C., where they have had some success. And follow that with a home game against the Raiders.
  • Week 11 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers. I'm interested to see how the Steelers play this season. I feel like both of these teams are in a spot where they aren't the best in the division, but will be competing for a playoff spot.
  • Week 17 vs. Denver Broncos. Man, the last three games of the season should be against division rivals. OK, the schedulers almost got there with the Bolts. Week 16's at Houston (boo), but then the Chargers return home to host Denver before heading to Vegas to face the Raiders in the regular-season finale. It's not hard to imagine the AFC West producing multiple playoff teams, so these divisional bouts will be massive. Gotta take care of business at home.

Will the Chargers be able to ...

Get the rookie version of Derwin James? My guy Dan Hanzus has James listed as his MVP for the Chargers this season, and I really like that pick. The Chargers stole him in the 2018 NFL Draft and he was pretty damn good in Year 1. I mean, if you consider FIRST-TEAM ALL-PRO pretty damn good. I don't know, you might have a different definition. Unfortunately, injuries have disrupted his career, as he's played in just five games over the last two years. The good news: He was on the field -- and mic'd up! -- at the team's minicamp. And playing for Staley should give him the opportunity to put the last two years behind him and get back to that All-Pro level.

Be even better on offense? It's a weird thing to be talking about, I know. The 2020 Chargers were top 10 in total yards per game, passing yards per game and third-down percentage. But they did not have a player with 1,000 scrimmage yards. Austin Ekeler racked up 933, despite missing six games with a hamstring injury. Keenan Allen had 100 receptions, but finished with 992 receiving yards to go with eight touchdowns. Going for 100 receptions but less than 1,000 receiving yards seems pretty tough to do. Still, Allen ranks in the top six in the NFL in receptions and receiving yards since 2017. If the O-line does a better job this year, the Bolts could (should) have multiple players with 1,000-plus scrimmage yards.

Proceed with Jared Cook? This is one of the things that would go along with the previous point. Hunter Henry signed with the New England Patriots during the offseason. The Chargers replaced him with Cook. And even though he's 34, I really do like this signing. Cook's plenty familiar with new Chargers offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, as they spent the past two seasons together in New Orleans. Cook's been productive over the last number of years. Lock him in for about 400 yards and five-ish touchdowns. And with some of the players I've already mentioned -- like Ekeler, Keenan and my guy Ty Johnson -- he doesn't need to be a superstar. He can just be a small part of an ensemble cast. Like Ted on Scrubs. He wasn't the main character. But he was an underrated gem who stole most of the scenes he was in. Cook just needs to pick his spots, and I would venture to say the Chargers won't miss Henry at all.

One storyline ...

… people are overlooking: How good Staley's defense was against the deep ball. The Chargers allowed a 111.2 passer rating on deep passes last season, which ranked 25th in the NFL. The Rams allowed a 29.2 passer rating on deep passes last year, which was first in the league. But then again, when Nick Foles is missing a wide open Darnell Mooney -- sorry not the time for that. I apologize. But man, if the Chargers can shore this up ... And they drafted Asante Samuel Jr. in the second round. This guy was a steal. Last year, PFF had him forcing 30 incompletions, tied for the second-most among cornerbacks in FBS since 2018. He also allowed a passer rating of 46.2 last season, which led the ACC.

… people are ALSO overlooking: Chase Daniel is the backup. Holy lord, I love Chase Daniel. He's made a career off being a backup quarterback. He's the Allen Covert of the NFL. And you probably don't know that name. But once you Google him, you're going to be like, "Oh yeah, that guy." And you're going to want to give me a fist bump the next time you see me.

… people are overthinking: Touchdown regression for Justin Herbert. The previous three quarterbacks to tie or break the rookie passing touchdown record did not increase their TD production the following season. Peyton Manning, Russell Wilson and Baker Mayfield all had fewer touchdowns. Only Dan Marino managed to pile up more. My thing is, don't look at Herbert's passing touchdowns -- I still took him in my dynasty draft -- because if the defense plays better, maybe Justin doesn't have to throw the ball 90 times a game. And the Chargers are playing with a lead. So don't judge Herbert's second year on TD passes alone.

For the 2021 season to be a success, the Chargers MUST:

  • Not lose games in horrific fashion. I mean, check out Twitter any time the Chargers lose. Because people -- who once said it as a joke -- now have legitimate empathy for the Bolts finding creative ways to lose. At least until the playoffs are out of reach and they go on a meaningless winning streak to close out the season.

In closing

Chargers seasons can be a lot like DC movies. They get all sorts of hype and buildup. You purchase your ticket. And you end up walking away disappointed. Well, maybe that was true years ago. DC has been on a roll lately, and I would even say it's outdoing Marvel in some spots. Likewise, I really do believe the Bolts are ready for big things again. It would be dangerous to write them off as the "same old Chargers" because that's just not the case.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter.

Related Content