LA Chargers second-year players: Nothing to lose and a lot to gain

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 27: Tim Patrick #81 of the Denver Broncos is tackled by Nasir Adderley #24 and Alohi Gilman #32 of the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium on December 27, 2020 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images)
INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 27: Tim Patrick #81 of the Denver Broncos is tackled by Nasir Adderley #24 and Alohi Gilman #32 of the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium on December 27, 2020 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images) /

You don’t have to be a fan of the LA Chargers to know the ultimate NFL bust was quarterback Ryan Leaf. From the get-go, there were problems with the 1998 first-round draft pick. There were no wait-to-see-what-he-does-in-year-two projections for the signal-caller from Washington State. It was not good.

As the years have gone by, the advent of analytics in the league has helped teams dramatically understand the potentiality and possible future of the player they are spending millions on getting them to the promised land.

Rookies who have had outstanding first seasons usually have gone on to decent careers if not ending by a significant injury.

But one of the many equations of success in professional football is how to keep a rookie star from flopping in his second year.

Former San Diego Charger General Manager A.J. Smith is the GOAT of GMs drafting second-year and, heck, even first-year busts. But draft picks are not the only thing he screwed up.

But nearly a decade later, after the debacle of Smith, it is current LA Chargers GM Tom Telesco and new head coach Brandon Staley’s job to make sure they get the ultimate return from their 2020 draft class.

Of course, the reigning offensive rookie of the year, quarterback Justin Herbert, had the best rookie season of any Charger in history, right along with LaDainian Tomlinson, and we know that career turned out.

The 2020 draft did turn out some players that helped immensely during the covid season. The success came from a number of those players, but coaching did not help matters much.

Now it’s up to Brandon Staley and his staff to make sure the second-year players are productive for the LA Chargers.

Besides Herbert, all eyes will be on Kenneth Murray, and for a good reason. The talent that Murray possesses is borderline freakish. Coming into LA, his Oklahoma resume and film showed a good reason why Telesco moved up in the first round to get him.

Quick with size, incredibly good to the boundary, and decent in coverage. Murray’s character was one of the top qualities that many coaches saw coming into the 2020 draft. The bad side was the ability to deliver a hit with some bad intentions.

But that was not his problem in his rookie year. He was not Pro Bowl-caliber when it possibly should have and what some ‘experts’ thought he would be. He did have the atypical rookie issues, though.

The linebacker’s angles were mediocre throughout the season. Usually, that is a sign of not adjusting to speed or misreading trajectories. Along with missing some tackles that allowed a drive to continue and possible confusion in set recognition, those are some things that Murray can improve in his second year.

With the new defense and new coordinator, 2021 could be the year he sniffs a Pro Bowl nod.

K.J. Hill out of Ohio State was the seventh-round pick that many folks thought could be a huge steal and make some serious waves in the AFC West, but it never transpired. Speed seemed to be an issue for Hill, which limited his reps.

The slot is where he served best, but when you have one of the top three receivers in the league in that position in Keenan Allen, his future does look bleak with the LA Chargers — especially with a rookie speedster, Josh Palmer, drafted in the third round in 2021.

Probably the second-year player that has a chance to redeem himself from a very disappointing rookie outing is Joshua Kelly. Showing great bursts and spurts in the open field at UCLA, we never saw much of that last fall.

With new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, Kelly could be put into positions to excel in the passing game. He did have 23 catches last year with the injury to Austin Ekeler, so he did have a chance to produce.

However, put the ball on the ground twice in crucial situations in 2020. Kelly might have trouble seeing the field consistently with a healthy Ekeler and 2021 draft pick Larry Rountree III out of Missouri.

A defensive back that got a lot of guff from the experts at the draft time was Alohi Gilman out of Notre Dame in the sixth round. He did have a good upside to him, but he could not break the depth chart like he had hoped, especially with the season-ending injury of All-Pro Darwin James.

Again, he had his shot at reps but only garnered seven total tackles in his rookie campaign. But he is currently tagged number two on the depth chart at strong safety. If any player out of the 2020 draft could improve his stock, it is Gilman.

And of course, there is the quarterback. Herbert now has just about every tool to have a better sophomore season with Staley’s moves to revamp a much-needed offensive line. There is not much to say for Herbert. Eliminate turnovers, see the field a little better than he did in a productive rookie season, but it will be challenging to see much of that issue on film from last year.

Next. 53-man roster predictions following the 2021 NFL Draft

After all, he posted the greatest rookie quarterback season ever in the history of the league.