While the Chargers 2022 offseason will clearly be defined by moves like the Khalil Mack trade or the J.C. Jackson signing, one of the moves that went under the radar was acquiring Commanders free agent DeAndre Carter. The Chargers let veteran returner Andre Roberts walk after a generally successful 2021 season to acquire a younger option in Carter.
At first glance, it felt like a one-for-one swap: Carter would simply take up the KR/PR job that Roberts filled last year. Outside of that, Roberts and K.J. Hill fit into offensive roles very sparingly. In the 2021 season, the Chargers effectively carried four wide receivers + one special teams returner under Brandon Staley and former ST coordinator Derius Swinton.
Carter was hand-picked by new ST coordinator Ryan Ficken to effectively be the Chargers returner on both kickoffs and punt returns. The Chargers haven't really brought in much competition for him in either role.
So far in training camp, the primary punt returners have been Carter, Michael Bandy, and Bryce Callahan. Bandy was primarily used as a reserve/emergency option on special teams last year while Callahan clearly won't be a frequent special teams contributor in the regular season as one of the Chargers' starting cornerbacks.
While the Chargers haven't given us much insight into who their kick returners are yet in camp, it's clear that Carter tops the depth chart there as well. Larry Rountree and the aforementioned Bandy could factor in as options behind him, but neither has his athleticism or return ability.
DeAndre Carter's usage in Chargers Training Camp
The main reason that Carter stands out from previous Chargers' special teams returners is his usage in camp to this point. Carter has already taken several end-around/rushing attempts that have shown off his speed. Aside from wide receiver Jalen Guyton, the Chargers don't have another player on offense who has similar speed comparable to Carter. He's a perfect foil for the route runners on the team in Keenan Alen and Josh Palmer as well as the big-bodied contact receiver in Mike Williams.
However the most important thing to note has been Carter's usage in the red zone so far:
Roberts didn't get involved in red zone plays at all for the Chargers last season while even a receiver like Guyton has somewhat less utility in the red zone based on what his skillset is. Carter was ranked as a Top 10 PFF red zone wide receiver in 2022 on a per play basis. He caught three touchdowns in 2021 and averaged 14.7 yards per reception near the paydirt.
Simply put, it seems like the Chargers' coaching staff wants players with the ability to create mismatches in the red zone and Carter fits that description. In the same way that Williams and Donald Parham make sense near the goal line because of their sheer size and strength, the short yardage speed that Carter brings is a very valuable asset.
DeAndre Carter's 2021 offensive production
It's worth noting that Carter's 2021 production with Washington is very comparable statistically to what the Chargers got out of both Jalen Guyton and Josh Palmer last season. Carter had 24 receptions for 296 yards and added 10 rushing attempts for 89 yards on the ground. On 34 offensive touches, Carter had nearly 400 yards of production.
Combining Hill and Roberts' offensive production as Chargers from last season comes out to three receptions for 30 yards and 19 rushing yards. Simply put, Carter's offensive game is in a whole different stratosphere compared to recent WR5/ST options that Los Angeles has had recently.
Carter also put up a +28.1% target premium last year in spite of a dismal quarterback situation in Washington with Taylor Heinicke and a myriad of other poor options that came in. With the Chargers, it goes without saying that Carter is getting a massive upgrade at quarterback if he gets to contribute to the offensive side of the ball enough.
When considering Carter's special teams value, speed, 2021 production, and potential usage in the 2022 offense, the Chargers should use him as a consistent fixture from game to game. Of course, he's probably not going to leap Josh Palmer or Jalen Guyton on the depth chart unless Los Angeles suffers some injuries early on. But Carter is clearly the best ST/OW player that the Chargers have had in quite some time.
In a loaded AFC West where teams are looking for as many offensive contributors and advantages as possible, Staley and Lombardi should keep Carter tucked in their back pockets as the teams' secret weapon.