LOS ANGELES CHARGERS (10-8)
EXPECTATIONS: The Chargers are looking to make consecutive postseason appearances for the first time since 2009. They have Justin Herbert, the league’s highest-paid quarterback in annual salary, and an offense with plenty of talent at the skill positions. The biggest questions surround the defense, ranked 23rd and 20th in Brandon Staley’s two seasons as coach. A solid defensive core is in place with linebackers Khalil Mack, Joey Bosa and safety Derwin James. Still, it is a unit prone to giving up big plays. While the players insist they have moved on from last year’s 31-30 loss to Jacksonville in the wild-card game, where they blew a 27-point, first-half lead, there remain questions about whether this team can excel in close games consistently along with being able to play a complete game against some of the top teams in the league.
NEW FACES: Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, LB Eric Kendricks, WR Quentin Johnston.
KEY LOSSES: LB Drue Tranquill, CB Bryce Callahan, OG Matt Feiler, LB Kyle Van Noy.
STRENGTHS: Passing game. Justin Herbert is more comfortable and has taken on the role of team leader after signing his five-year, $262.5 million extension. Herbert has plenty of weapons with wide receivers Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Johnston, along with tight ends Gerald Everett and Donald Parham. A welcome sight for Chargers fans will be Herbert throwing it downfield more. The Chargers employed a conservative short game the past two seasons under Joe Lombardi.
WEAKNESSES: Stopping the run. Staley was the coordinator when the Los Angeles Rams were the league's top-ranked defense in 2020. So far, he hasn’t been able to do the same with the Chargers. The Bolts were ranked 28th in defending the run last season and had a franchise-record 11 opposing running backs go for at least 100 yards. Staley and new defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley, the secondary coach for the past two seasons, have focused on improved tackling and defending outside runs. The signing of Eric Kendricks has shored up the middle linebacker spot with a player who can quickly read and stop run plays and is solid in coverage.
CAMP DEVELOPMENT: Fourth-round pick Derius Davis had an 81-yard punt return TD in the first preseason game against the Rams and is expected to be the primary returner on kickoffs and punts. Cameron Dicker and Dustin Hopkins have been battling it out at kicker, but Dicker might have the edge as Hopkins has been battling injuries during most of camp.
FANTASY PLAYER TO WATCH: RB Austin Ekeler. Besides dispensing fantasy football advice on a weekly podcast on Yahoo Sports, Ekeler has been racking up points for those who have him on their teams. He leads the league with 38 scrimmage touchdowns in the past two seasons. He was seventh in the NFL last year with 311 touches and became the fifth running back in league history with at least 100 catches in a season.
FANDUEL SPORTSBOOK SAYS: Win Super Bowl: 21-1. Over/under wins: 9 1/2.
AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl
The Associated Press