After an offseason that has flown under the national radar so far, the question on the minds of all Chargers fans is – how much have they improved, and how good can the Chargers be in 2014?
I’ve reached an age in life where I’m no longer willing to predict the Super Bowl for my team after a decent offseason, nor the first pick in the draft after a mediocre one. I tend to temper my expectations with cold analytics, dispassionate comparisons to the competition, and a harsh eye towards areas where my team excelled in the previous year and they should be expected to regress towards the mean in the upcoming season. As an example, I had little hope for success for the Chargers in any of Norv Turner’s final 3 seasons at the helm. I’ve taken the same approach to the divisional opponents of the Bolts – for instance, I thought the Chiefs were overrated last year, and during the latter years of the Shanahan regime I thought the Broncos suffered from overreliance on aging safeties and Shanahan’s ego regarding running backs. That said, I think that after the draft and free agency, Bolts fans have several reasons for optimism. The question is, how will this translate into wins, and how good will the Chargers be in 2014?
Let’s look first at what most of us recognize as the biggest weakness of the Chargers over the past several years, the secondary. This offseason, Tom Telesco has taken the thinnest unit on the team and added quality depth. Brandon Flowers fits John Pagano’s off-man scheme well, and has a track record of success. It’s not hard to imagine him returning to his ball-hawking, Pro Bowl form after an off year in a system that didn’t fit his skill set. He’s also strongly motivated by a one year, prove-it contract that he hopes will lead to a long term deal on the market after this season. Motivation won’t be hard to find as he gets to face his old team twice a year. Even if he turns in an unspectacular, workmanlike performance this year, that will be an upgrade for a secondary that finished near the bottom of the league. Additionally, the Chargers added quality depth via the draft and free agency. Jason Verrett is another good fit for the scheme, and will provide playmaking ability whether he becomes the #2 CB or the slot CB. Whether Shareece Wright starts or becomes part of the rotation, he still provides quality depth while not being relied upon being out on the #1 CB island. I like the signing of Brandon Ghee for depth, and Steve Williams will have another opportunity to win playing time after returning from injury. The safeties should be better in 2014, barring injury. Eric Weddle is clearly one of the best in the league, and Marcus Gilchrist has another year of experience under his belt. Darrell Stuckey and Jahleel Addae need to show improvement and consistency, but overall the safety position seems like it will benefit from healthy competition among improving young players.
Here’s the bottom line: If the secondary can improve to merely average, that’s a marked improvement and will benefit this team greatly. The Chargers lost 3 games in 2013 that were a direct result of defensive breakdowns late in the game – Houston, Tennessee and Washington. Reversing two of those three losses would have put them ahead of Kansas City in the division.
The perennial search for a consistent pass rush is another factor that, if solved, will relieve the pressure on a beleaguered secondary. This unit, however, remains more of a question mark. Bolts fans are crossing their fingers that Dwight Freeney can return from injury and return to form at age 34. He’s said all the right things, and has the character and track record to back up his desire to win in San Diego. It’s a wait and see situation to determine if he has anything left in the tank. Regarding the rest of the outside linebackers, there is a lot of depth, but it remains to be seen if that will be quality depth. Jarrett Johnson and Melvin Ingram are returning from injury. Johnson is more of a run stuffer than a pass rusher. I’m more optimistic than most on the potential of Ingram, but he definitely has a lot to prove coming into camp this summer. Cordarro Law was an intriguing signing – keep an eye on whether his skill set translates to the NFL. Overall, this is a group that needs to improve but may not have the horses to do so.
The defense will be looking to build on a huge turnaround after December 1 last year – 17.4 ppg allowed over the last 7 games, including two high powered opponents on the road in the playoffs.This turnaround was centered on significantly better secondary play, as the stats bear out:
stats courtesy of ESPN
Notice that the Chargers had 5 interceptions in December alone, compared to 6 total interceptions from September through November. This was followed up by 4 more interceptions against Andy Dalton and Peyton Manning in two playoff games. Two other things jump out – a big dropoff in sacks, but a big increase in tackles for loss. This indicates a relative lack of production from the outside linebackers, but improved effort everywhere else. The offseason moves made by the Chargers have doubled down on this focus on the secondary, so look for this trend to continue in 2014.
If Pagano can build on that late season momentum and develop the quality depth added to the secondary, there’s no reason to believe that last year’s 9-7 couldn’t be transformed to 11-5. Looking at the 2014 schedule, the Chargers don’t face a truly scary opposing offense until Denver in Week 8. The defense will have an early opportunity to gel, which will help if the offense takes time to start humming. However, the schedule, overall, is more difficult.
So how good can the Chargers be in 2014? Based on the tougher 2014 schedule, it’s reasonable to assume that 8 or 9 wins is the floor for this team. If the gods of football smile upon the Bolts, the ceiling can be much higher.