This article is part of our Team Previews series.
A dismal special teams unit thwarted what could have been the Chargers' first playoff berth since 2013. With those issues seemingly resolved, QB Philip Rivers and company appear poised to challenge for the AFC West crown after the team's divisional foes underwent significant makeovers this offseason.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
MORE BALANCE IN THE CARDS
That 2017 first-rounder Mike Williams could open camp as the Chargers' No. 4. wideout is a testament to the team's strength at the position. Said slotting stems largely from Williams' injury woes as a rookie. He was limited to just 234 snaps across 10 games, but when healthy the 6-4, 220-pounder can be a red-zone weapon. Despite the wealth of viable pass-catching options, coach Anthony Lynn has continually stressed that this year's Chargers plan to place more of an emphasis on balance, meaning the team's ballcarriers could get more involved. If the former running backs coach gets his wish, an offense that was close to a 60/40 pass/run split last season could see around 100 targets fall by the wayside. By virtue of being Philip Rivers' most proficient threat, Keenan Allen, who bounced back nicely last year after missing most of the 2016 season with a torn ACL, shouldn't be affected drastically by such a shift. It could, however, impact the fantasy ceilings of both Mike and Tyrell Williams, as well as Travis Benjamin. Thanks to Rivers' prowess, the potential for a breakout year from any of the aforementioned trio is entirely possible even with the anticipated change in philosophy, though it likely will take an injury or an obvious separation on the depth chart for that to occur.
RIVERS CONTINUES TORRID PACE
Heading into his 15th NFL season, Philip Rivers is still going strong. Buoyed by the return from injury of his favorite target, Keenan Allen, the veteran signal-caller racked up 4,515 passing yards in 2017, which was good for second in the league. It marked Rivers' fifth straight campaign with at least 540 attempts and 4,200 yards through the air. Moreover, after tossing a league-high 21 interceptions in 2016, Rivers logged just 10 picks last season. The resilient 36-year-old has not missed a start since claiming the franchise's starting quarterback job in 2005, and it's notable that the Chargers elected not to tab his potential successor in April's draft. Young tight end Hunter Henry appeared ready to ascend to stardom after two seasons of sharing the spotlight with Antonio Gates, but his 2018 season was derailed by an ACL tear. It's now possible that the currently-unsigned Gates will be brought back by the team. While coach Anthony Lynn has suggested that he would like to see the Chargers diversify their playcalling with an eye toward incorporating the run with more frequency, Rivers should remain productive thanks to the solid nucleus of pass catchers the team welcomes back this year. With Kellen Clemens no longer in the mix, Rivers will be backed up by Geno Smith and Cardale Jones, neither of whom threaten his perch atop the depth chart.
BOSA KNOWS BEST
Despite having played just 28 games as a pro, Bosa is quickly emerging as one of the best pass rushers in the league. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2016 draft broke the NFL record last season for the most sacks through 20 contests, recording a half sack more than Aldon Smith's previous mark of 18.5. What's more, only three players – Chandler Jones (28), Ryan Kerrigan (24) and Von Miller (23.5) – have totaled more than the 23 sacks Bosa has piled up over the past two years. Out of his slot at left defensive end, Bosa showcases a consistent ability to impact opposing quarterbacks every single down. However, with advanced production comes increased expectations. Despite Bosa's stout individual performance against the run, in which he recorded the third-most tackles (70) by any defensive lineman in 2017, the Chargers run defense as a whole was an unqualified disaster, allowing 131.1 rushing yards per game. Only Washington (134.1) gave up more. With run stuffer Corey Liuget suspended for the first four contests of the 2018 regular season after violating the league's policy on PEDs, and little depth added during the offseason, Los Angeles will need to lean on Bosa even more in order to prevent opponents from taking advantage of a relatively young linebacking corps.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: Melvin Gordon
It took three seasons, but the 2015 first-rounder finally ran for more than 1,000 yards last year, finishing the campaign with the seventh-most rushing yards in the NFL. While the Chargers likely will scale back Gordon's workload some, the 25-year-old remains an integral cog in an offense that ranked fourth in yards per game in 2017.
RISING: Austin Ekeler
Ekeler was a useful weapon for the Chargers in 2017, totaling 539 yards and five TDs across 74 touches. If he cements a role as a consistent pass catcher out of the backfield, a measure of PPR utility could follow.
FALLING: Mike Williams
The No. 7 overall pick last year was hampered by a litany of injuries during his rookie campaign. With a wealth of competition ahead of him on the depth chart, Williams may well be a glorified red-zone target in 2018.
SLEEPER: Justin Jackson
Jackson enters his first professional season as a change-of-pace option, but Northwestern's all-time leading rusher could prove to be the next man up should starter Melvin Gordon succumb to an injury.
KEY JOB BATTLE – STARTING KICKER
If not for the team's dismal kicking unit, it's quite possible the 2017 Chargers would have been playoff bound for the first time in four years. Four different kickers started at separate intervals throughout the season – of which not a single one remains on an NFL roster heading into training camp. As a result, the Chargers will begin training camp with former second-round pick Roberto Aguayo and Caleb Sturgis in an effort to shore up the position. The veteran Sturgis figures to have the inside track on the job if only because Aguayo has struggled to replicate his historic collegiate success during his time at Florida State, but the Chargers have proven they'll roll with whoever they deem to be the better talent – similar to how Younghoe Koo won the battle last season over Josh Lambo.
Caleb Sturgis – K (from Eagles)
Should help solidify a kicking game that was abysmal in 2017.
Mike Pouncey – C (from Dolphins)
Still one of the best centers around despite recent health issues.
Derwin James – S (Rd. 1, No. 17 – Florida State)
A versatile defender who rounds out a formidable secondary.
Antonio Gates – TE (FA)
Could actually resurface following Henry's injury.
Tre Boston – S (to Cardinals)
After career year, latches on with former coordinator in Arizona.
Branden Oliver – RB (FA)
Averaged 3.0 yards per carry during three-year stint with club.
THE INJURY FRONT
Mike Williams, WR – Williams never had a chance to get acclimated to the Chargers offense, as the 2017 first-round pick missed the entire preseason and the first five weeks of his rookie campaign thanks to a herniated disc in his back. The injury stunted any chance Williams had at usurping Tyrell Williams on the depth chart, as the 23-year-old participated in just 234 offensive snaps in the final 11 games of the year. While Mike Williams did miss a handful of practices due to a hamstring strain during OTAs, the Clemson product is expected to be healthy come training camp, where he'll look to supplant Tyrell Williams and fend off Travis Benjamin behind No. 1 wideout Keenan Allen.
Jason Verrett, CB – It's been an unfortunate series of events recently for Verrett, who finished the 2016 campaign on IR after tearing his ACL only to aggravate the injury Week 1 and subsequently miss the rest of the 2017 season. While knee troubles are behind him, the 2014 first-round pick suffered a torn Achilles during a conditioning test prior to training camp, forcing an early end to yet another campaign. Verrett will yield his starting spot to Trevor Williams, who will work opposite Casey Hayward with Desmond King in the slot.
Denzel Perryman, LB – 2017 might as well have been a lost year for Perryman as a preseason ankle injury forced the middle linebacker to miss the first nine games of the campaign while hamstring ailments essentially cost him the final three contests. The end result saw Perryman miss at least four games for the second consecutive season, contributing to 15 missed games of a possible 48 to begin his career. While the 24-year-old has been healthy this offseason, Perryman's injury history suggests he might be a risky IDP choice for owners hoping to acquire a plug-and-play option at linebacker.