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Los Angeles Chargers: What we learned from preseason action

CARSON, CA - AUGUST 13: Quarterback Philip Rivers
CARSON, CA - AUGUST 13: Quarterback Philip Rivers
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The 2017 NFL season is upon us. Here are a few things we learned from the preseason:

Offensive starters look dominant

The starters played lights out. On offense, Philip Rivers started two games (three total drives) and went 11-of-12 passing for 141 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. The Chargers scored a touchdown on each drive that Rivers played quarterback. The offensive line really stepped up, giving Rivers a ton of time in the pocket. Left tackle Russell Okung was the team’s only big signing in free agency, and it’s looking like a good one so far. The OL play will determine this team’s success. If it keeps up, the Chargers won’t be forced to throw short every single time, and plays like this can happen more often.

No. 1 receiver Keenan Allen looks 100 percent healthy. Allen, who tore his ACL in the first half of Week 1 last year, picked up where he left off. He stood out in the team’s third preseason game against the Rams, catching 5-of-5 targets for 45 yards. Travis Benjamin looked even more impressive, showing off his speed and catching two bombs (a 74-yard TD in the preseason opener and a 45-yard TD against the Rams). He appears to be healthy, confident and poised to remove the “free-agent bust” label in his second year with the Bolts.

Tight end Hunter Henry looks ready to take over for an aging but still effective Antonio Gates. Jeff Cumberland, who turned heads in training camp, hasn’t played in a preseason game due to injury, while undrafted free agent Sean Culkin had nine receptions (tied for second-most on team) and 77 yards (third-most on team) through four games. Not a big stat line, but the 6-foot-6, 245-pounder could be an asset in the red zone (both passing and running situations) if he makes the roster. We didn’t even mention Tyrell Williams, Mike Williams and Dontrelle Inman. Overall, this group of pass-catchers is VERY dangerous.

As far as the running game went, there wasn’t much room to run (my only criticism of the starting offensive linemen), but Melvin Gordon and Branden Oliver both looked sharp and decisive when running the ball. Gordon, who scored the Chargers’ only rushing touchdown this preseason, made some incredible jukes (you can’t see him, Richard Sherman). I believe he’s in for a huge year.

Watch out for the best pass-rushing duo in football

On defense, edge rushers Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa made their case for the best pass-rushing tandem in the NFL. With Bosa’s power and hand usage and Ingram’s speed and spin move, the two are going to wreak havoc in the backfield. Just ask Jared Goff.

Corey Liuget has also been getting some penetration as the defensive tackle in Gus Bradley’s new 4-3 scheme. The Chargers need a big year out of the former first-round pick. Defensive linemen Tenny Palepoi, Damion Square and Darius Philon proved to be solid backups, but defensive end Chris McCain is a player who really shined in the preseason. McCain, a former undrafted free agent in 2014, finished with 11 total tackles, including 1.5 sacks and one tackle for loss. He flashed the ability to get to the quarterback with ease (it seemed like every time I looked up he was hitting the QB). I love his speed and bend, especially for a man of his size (6-5). It’s a big find for general manager Tom Telesco, especially with Jerry Attaochu dealing with yet another injury.

Like Allen, cornerback Jason Verrett, who suffered a partially torn ACL last year, looked good in his first start against the Rams, ending his night with an interception. Casey Hayward looked solid in limited playing time, too. Hayward, who’s been dealing with a hamstring injury, is on track to play Week 1.

Speaking of star players, the Chargers have an up-and-coming one at linebacker, and his name is Jatavis Brown. Brown was always around the ball.

Overall, aside from allowing Saints running back Alvin Kamara to run for a 50-yard touchdown, the starters rarely gave up big plays. Also, when roughly two-thirds of the starters were on the field, they only allowed three points to the Seahawks, 10 to the Saints and nine (arguably six) to the Rams. The only knock on the defense was when it came to defending the run, as they got gashed a few times. As a team, the Chargers gave up 90 rushing yards per game, 23rd-worst in the league).

Has special teams finally turned it around?

Special teams looks much improved, especially punter Drew Kaser, who led the preseason with a 51.6 punting average. That’s big for a guy who muffed what seemed like half of his punts last year. Don’t let the 138 return yards (fourth-most among punters) fool you, as 92 of those yards came on one return. Aside from that major mishap in the preseason finale against the San Francisco 49ers, I thought the coverage was excellent through four games, with safety Dexter McCoil, who’s really stood out the entire preseason on both defense and special teams, linebacker James Onwualu and running back Austin Ekeler among those that stood out. Field position is key.

Kicker Josh Lambo connected on both of his kicks, which included a 53-yarder as time expired in the second half of the team’s preseason opener. Kaser and Lambo likely held off their respective competitors in Younghoe Koo and Toby Baker. More importantly, the signing of former Vikings wide receivers coach George Stewart to be the Chargers’ new special teams coach has been one of the more underrated moves of the offseason.

2017 draft class off to rough start

The Chargers received praise for their 2017 draft class in the offseason, but majority of their selections have yet to make an impact. First-round WR Mike Williams has been out since offseason workouts due to a lower back injury; he’s still on the physically unable to perform list. Second-round OL Forrest Lamp suffered a torn ACL in training camp and will miss the season. Third-round OL Dan Feeney had his ups and downs but ultimately failed to beat out Kenny Wiggins for the starting right guard job (Wiggins earned it, though, so nothing against Feeney). Fourth-round S Rayshawn Jenkins made a few plays here and there but has been relatively quiet. Sixth-round OT Sam Tevi couldn’t hold his own.

The lone exception is DB Desmond King, who looked like the playmaker many thought he’d be despite falling to the fifth round. He’s been all over the field, intercepting the ball, forcing a fumble, making big tackles and getting to the quarterback. King Desmond is looking like another fifth-round gem. Seventh-round DE Isaac Rochell is a hustler and good run defender, which gives him a shot at making the team.

Who won the starting FS battle?

Last year’s starter, Dwight Lowery, didn’t play well and got burned badly by 49ers backup QB C.J. Beathard on a 62-yard touchdown run on Thursday. Tre Boston, who was signed late in the offseason, didn’t really separate himself. In my opinion, Lowery is on the wrong side of 30 and a liability, which makes this decision a little easier. Hey, at least strong safety Jahleel Addae looked pretty good.

If the starters get hurt…

Goodbye, 2017 season!

Seriously, while there are a few solid backups at certain positions (the receivers, tight ends, defensive linemen, etc.), depth proved to be a big issue. The Chargers couldn’t get anything going on offense or stop anybody on defense.

Main concerns are at offensive tackle, linebacker, running back and cornerback. If the Chargers lose starting tackles Okung or Joseph Barksdale, panic will flood the streets of L.A. Same could be said about the cornerbacks. King was phenomenal, Trevor Williams had his ups and downs, Michael Davis needs time to learn the position and Trovon Reed, who the team had high hopes for, missed preseason action due to a hip injury. As for the linebacker position, Nick Dzubnar is not the answer.

Also, it’s sad to see Telesco’s former third-round picks, CB Craig Mager and OL Max Tuerk, not pan out. The jury is still out on Tuerk, who will serve a four-game suspension to start the season, but Mager is likely on his way out.

I understand you can’t be perfect at every position, but it’s evident that the team needs a few upgrades. I mean, Trevone Boykin, the same Boykin who dominated the Chargers’ backups in the team’s preseason opener, played miserably against his next three opponents. That says it all.

Turnovers (the good and bad)

Los Angeles scored a defensive touchdown in three of its four preseason games, including a 76-yard fumble return by Ingram and a 99-yard interception return by McCoil. They scored a total of five defensive touchdowns in 16 games last season. Incredible. Unfortunately, the Chargers finished with a -6 turnover differential in the preseason. The Chargers need to protect the football or those defensive turnovers won’t mean much.

Backup QB still an issue

Kellen Clemens, Cardale Jones and Mike Bercovici combined for one touchdown against seven interceptions. The backup offensive linemen didn’t help their cause, as all three quarterbacks combined for 14 sacks, too. Jones, who the Chargers traded a conditional seventh-round pick for, flashed some potential, but he still has a long ways to go.

And the next undrafted free agent to make the roster is?

The Chargers have been successful in finding undrafted free agent gems over the years, most recently receiver Tyrell Williams. I’m putting my money on Ekeler making the 53-man roster. Ekeler wasn’t afforded many chances in the beginning, but when the opportunity was given to him in the final two preseason games, he took it and ran–literally. The former Western State (Colorado) Mountaineer led the Chargers in rushing against the Rams and 49ers, finishing with a 5.3 and 6.3 yards-per-carry average, respectively. He made more of an impact Thursday, totaling 108 yards from scrimmage, including 50 rushing yards and 58 receiving yards. The 5-foot-9, 195-pounder is slippery and agile, and he looks the part as a change-of-pace back who makes for a nice safety blanket in the passing game. He also has the ability to return kicks (two kick returns for 49 yards). Not only that, but Andre Williams, Kenjon Barner and Kenneth Farrow did what they needed to do to not make the team.

Linebackers Nigel Harris and James Onwualu flashed, too, and because the Chargers lack depth at the linebacker position, their chances of making the roster are decent. Already mentioned above, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Culkin make the cut either.

*Note: 2017 undrafted free agents only, not former undrafted free agents from other teams

Health has actually been on the Chargers’ side, for once

Lamp being out for the year stings, but aside from him, the Chargers didn’t suffer any other major, long-term injuries. Denzel Perryman is out a few months after undergoing surgery on his injured ankle, but he’ll be back this season. M. Williams is progressing and expected back in October. Cumberland, Hayward and Barksdale missed a few practices, but they should be good to go. Overall, the Chargers escaped the preseason without serious damage, so let’s hope that “luck” carries over into the regular season.

What’s next?

The Chargers will trim their roster from 90 to 53. They will have until 4 p.m. ET on Saturday to do so. Following cuts, look for Telesco to snatch up some outside talent via waivers.

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