This article is part of our Team Previews series.
Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers went 12-4 last season, while the Rams made it to the Super Bowl. It's possible that Los Angeles could once again boast a pair of championship candidates in 2019. An explosive offense and opportunistic defense place the Chargers as one of the frontrunners in a top-heavy AFC.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
NEXT WILLIAMS UP
Tyrell Williams, who ended up being a great undrafted free agent find by the Chargers back in 2015, cashed in big-time this past offseason, signing a four-year, $44 million deal with division-rival Oakland. The 6-4 wideout routinely played a complementary role in the Chargers offense behind the likes of Keenan Allen, Melvin Gordon and even Austin Ekeler, particularly over the past two seasons. The void created by his departure is, however, offset by the emergence of fellow big-bodied wideout Mike Williams. The No. 7 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft is currently earmarked as the team's No. 2 receiver behind the target-gobbling Allen following a sophomore season in which he recorded 10 touchdowns despite receiving just 66 looks. It's not exactly fair to assume that all the targets Tyrell Williams leaves behind automatically will gravitate toward the younger Williams, particularly with Travis Benjamin now signed through the 2020 season. But the Chargers offense has proved to be creative in past years, mixing in short checkdowns with field-stretching plays that should benefit Mike Williams on a per-play basis. As a result, the Clemson product has quickly surfaced in fantasy circles as an obvious name among players who could take a substantial leap forward in 2019.
CONTRACT EXTENSION LOOMING FOR GORDON?
Melvin Gordon is coming off his third straight campaign with over 1,300 yards from scrimmage (each including 400 receiving yards and 40-plus catches). Perhaps more importantly, he's tallied 38 touchdowns over the past three seasons after not registering one as a rookie. Entering the final year of his deal, Gordon would seem poised for a massive pay day, but such an outcome is not necessarily a slam dunk. While players at other high-profile positions have secured monster contracts league-wide, running backs haven't always cashed in. Le'Veon Bell spurned a $14.5 million franchise tag from Pittsburgh to skip last season, only to sign with the Jets on a four-year, $52.5 million pact, a figure reportedly well below his initial asking price. As the Chargers prepare to start training camp, Gordon and the team are far apart on an extension, with the running back threatening a holdout. Beyond his contract demands, durability remains a concern for the 2015 first-rounder. Gordon underwent microfracture surgery on his left knee in 2016 and missed three games last season with an MCL injury. With change-of-pace back Austin Ekeler and a bunch of nondescript names behind Gordon on the depth chart, there's a clear path to volume with which to pad his resume in 2019. However, that's assuming he reports to the Chargers at all.
NEW LOOK BACKFIELD
The Chargers had big plans for Hunter Henry heading into the 2018 season, but unfortunately the emerging young tight end suffered a torn right ACL during an early OTA. While the 24-year-old would improbably return for the team's divisional-round loss to the Patriots eight months later, he played just 14 snaps in that contest, effectively rendering his third season a wash. Based on his full availability during the team's recent offseason strength and conditioning program, it appears as though Henry should be ready to pick up where he left off in 2017. It helps that Antonio Gates, who rejoined the Chargers toward the beginning of the regular season last year and posted a respectable 28-333-2 line in Henry's absence, isn't a sure bet to return for his 17th campaign. Meanwhile, Virgil Green remains in the fold, but he offers little pass-catching upside. Considering the Chargers offense has graduated more toward misdirection plays and high-percentage passes in recent seasons, Henry's potential target rivals in that realm should come in the form of wide receiver Keenan Allen and running back Austin Ekeler. When healthy, Henry is a matchup headache for defenders, and his return to the mix brings added firepower to a well-rounded attack helmed by savvy veteran QB Philip Rivers.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: Philip Rivers
In his 15th NFL campaign, Rivers put together one of his best efforts, tossing 32 TD passes while registering his second-highest completion percentage (68.3). Though he's in the final year of his current contract, the 37-year-old signal-caller has been remarkably durable throughout his career and at this stage shows no signs of slowing down.
RISING: Austin Ekeler
Starting running back Melvin Gordon has had his share of durability issues over the years, which gives Ekeler handcuff value on top of his utility as a dangerous pass catcher out of the Bolts' backfield.
FALLING: Virgil Green
Despite the absence of Hunter Henry, Green managed just 19 catches and 210 receiving yards last season. At this point in his career, the 30-year-old earns most of his keep with his prowess as a blocker.
SLEEPER: Dylan Cantrell
With Tyrell Williams no longer in the mix, Cantrell could potentially overtake Travis Benjamin and land the team's WR3 role. The 2018 sixth-rounder was a camp standout last year but still found himself on the practice squad.
KEY JOB BATTLE – NO. 3 WIDEOUT
Operating largely out of the slot, Keenan Allen unequivocally is the primary threat in the Chargers' passing attack, while Mike Williams is set to do most of his damage from the outside. However there's a gaping hole for the No. 3 WR on the depth chart after the departure of Tyrell Williams. Dylan Cantrell has the prototypical body (6-3, 226) to split out wide opposite Mike Williams and projects as the early frontrunner for the role, but it's possible the Chargers could utilize a "committee" approach, with Travis Benjamin operating as the field stretcher, while Artavis Scott and Geremy Davis could spell Allen in the slot or push him outside on occasion. While it's unlikely three receivers will see 700 or more offensive snaps like last season, if any one of the aforementioned quartet earns a distinct playing time advantage, there's room in the team's high-powered attack for three fantasy relevant wide receivers, similar to stretches in 2018 where Tyrell Williams, Mike Williams and Allen were all useful commodities.
TYROD TAYLOR – QB (from Browns)
An experienced backup for Philip Rivers, who is unsigned beyond 2019.
THOMAS DAVIS – LB (from Panthers)
Adds a veteran presence to an emerging linebacker corps.
NASIR ADDERLEY – S (Rd. 2, No. 60 – Delaware)
The ballhawk at free safety will pair well with Derwin James.
EASTON STICK – QB (Rd. 5, No. 166 – North Dakota State)
The rookie's arrival could squeeze out Cardale Jones.
TYRELL WILLIAMS – WR (to Raiders)
More of a big-play threat than a consistent option over four seasons.
JAHLEEL ADDAE – S (to Texans)
Departure paves the way for Adrian Phillips to see added opportunities.
ANTONIO GATES – TE (FA)
Still a free agent, but a return hasn't been ruled out.
THE INJURY FRONT
Joey Bosa, DE – Bosa missed nine games to begin the 2018 season with a bone bruise in his left foot but still finished near the top of the team's sack leaders thanks to a strong second half. He reportedly is still suffering from discomfort this offseason, so it's possible the Chargers will tread lightly with their star defensive lineman. While maintenance-related spots on the injury report will be expected, Bosa's pass-rushing abilities will make him one of the most coveted IDP lineman around so long as he's able to take the field, something that bears monitoring given the ever-changing nature of the 23-year-old's status.
Denzel Perryman, LB – It's a bit surprising the Chargers opted to re-sign Perryman to a two-year deal this offseason considering the fourth-year defender has never played a full 16-game season, most recently missing seven games in 2018 with a LCL injury. Still, he's been productive when he plays, averaging 5.4 tackles per game, and developed into a vocal leader on a burgeoning defense. Alongside Jatavis Brown and newly-signed veteran Thomas Davis, Perryman will have plenty of opportunities to rack up tackles so long as he stays on the field.
Jerry Tillery, DT – The Chargers' 2019 first-rounder had surgery in March to address a torn shoulder labrum. Every indicator seems to suggest that the Notre Dame product will be healthy for training camp despite missing all of OTAs, which means Tillery likely will operate as the team's primary interior pass-rushing defensive lineman this season. That shapes up as a lucrative role alongside Bosa and Melvin Ingram. The latter could eventually lose playing time if the rookie comes on strong to begin the season, especially considering the 22-year-old was a pure defensive end in college. The Chargers have been noticeably absent up the middle when rushing the quarterback in past seasons, an area that Tillery should excel in.