Everyone seems to be high on the L.A. Chargers as we approach the 2017 NFL season. Is the hype justified?
With the football offseason slow and nothing for the media to eat up, most outlets have taken to projections and predictions for the upcoming season. An interesting pattern has emerged for the Los Angeles Chargers: they might actually be good this upcoming season.
A number of analysts including BleacherReport’s Simms & Lefkoe podcast, the Pro Football Focus podcast, and several of the NFL.com cast have expressed high expectations for the Chargers in the 2017-18 NFL season.
To be fair, this enthusiasm is not unwarranted. Joey Bosa, the 2017 Defensive Rookie of the Year, emerged as a dangerous pass-rushing threat last year — a duo consisting of him and Melvin Ingram (re-signed this offseason) is an intriguing combo. Former Green Bay Packer Casey Hayward showed up as a legitimate shutdown corner last season, recording 20 passes defended with seven interceptions.
On the offensive side of the ball, running back Melvin Gordon put together a fantastic rebound season following a disappointing rookie campaign, punching in 12 total touchdowns for the Chargers. With Keenan Allen looking to return from injury again, former Clemson receiver Mike Williams coming in as the seventh overall pick, sophomore tight end Hunter Henry and more weapons to boot, Philip Rivers seems poised for a bounce-back year.
In this light, it certainly seems as though the Chargers in a good place. I haven’t even mentioned that a 1,000-yard receiver in Tyrell Williams and an 800-yard wideout in Dontrelle Inman will also be with the team again this season. So it’s easy to see where all of this enthusiasm surrounding the Chargers comes from. In fact, given the information above, it even seems logically plausible. However, I’m a cautious person, so we’ll take a closer look just to make sure.
The defensive front of the L.A. Chargers should project to be solid if not excellent. Though their starting tackles, Brandon Mebane and Corey Liuget, are aging (and not in a good way), the aforementioned duo of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram combined for over 100 tackles and nearly 20 sacks last season.
According to PFF, Ingram finished the season with an 88.1 grade, which ranked sixth among edge defenders last year. Still only 28 years old and steadily improving each year since 2013, Ingram should put together a performance even better and certainly no worse than last season’s.
Reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Joey Bosa, meanwhile, recorded 10.5 sacks and ranked 13th on PFF’s Top 50 player list.
As you can see from this tweet from Nathan Jahnke, Bosa put together a fantastic rookie season even in comparison to the likes of Von Miller, Aldon Smith, and Khalil Mack. With another offseason under his belt and the experience of last season, Bosa is poised to break out into a superstar for the Chargers.
The secondary in L.A. should also be very solid next season if they’re able to avoid the injury bug. As mentioned above, Casey Hayward was a top 10-15 cornerback last season, and his numbers let you know. On the other side, Jason Verrett will be returning from injury — he was PFF’s second-best cover cornerback in 2015. These two players make for an exciting cornerback pairing.
Another potentially great pairing exists for L.A. further back in the secondary. Safeties Jahleel Addae and Dwight Lowery will man the back of the secondary next season. Addae ranked as PFF’s second-best safety in the AFC West, falling behind only Kansas City’s Eric Berry (which no one blames him for). Though Addae may never be a star, he has been a more than solid safety the last few seasons, even putting up 41 tackles in just eight games last year. Lowery will never be the best player on the field, but he has been a steady presence in whatever secondary he’s in. With 60 tackles, nine passes defended, an interception, and a forced fumble from him, there’s not too much to complain about Lowery.
Now, the linebacking corps not including Melvin Ingram is nothing to write home about for the Chargers. However, with a solid line in front and holding secondary in back, the linebackers for L.A. do not have to do more than simply hold their own. In fact, this holds true for the entirety of the defense, because the offense should be doing most of the heavy lifting given its insane amount of firepower.
The key pieces for this unit were already outlined in the introduction: a borderline Hall of Fame quarterback in Philip Rivers, two 1,000-yard receivers, an 800-yard slot receiver, the seventh overall pick wideout, arguably the best rookie tight end last season, and Melvin Gordon. This offense is absolutely loaded, but it’s up to Philip Rivers to distribute the ball properly.
Unfortunately, the thing that stood out most for Rivers last season was his league-leading 21 interceptions. With a whopping 3.6% interception rate, Rivers was not making too many good decisions last year. In fact, Rivers just wasn’t that great of a quarterback last season.
Despite ranking sixth in deep throw attempts last season, Rivers only completed 29.1% of them, good for just 23rd in the league. This explains why his air yards drop to 10th in the NFL last season. In fact, a large chunk of yardage for Rivers came off of his receivers or tight ends making great plays. The perfect example of can be found in the Chargers’ game against the Jacksonville Jaguars last season. Though Rivers threw for four touchdowns that game, PFF graded his game 46.1 out of 100. This was largely due to Rivers’ production coming from easy, short throws that his receivers created into something more.
Rivers’ overall poor decision-making not only shows in his interceptions, but also his completion percentage. With just 60.4% of his pass completed, he ranked 26th in the league. That was his lowest completion percentage since 2007. This is a big deal because Rivers’ interceptions were a large part of why the Chargers lost so many games last season.
What I did above is a regression with point differential as the output and Philip Rivers interceptions as the input. Although point differential is not a perfect measure of team performance, it gives us a weighted version of team outcome. As you can see, there was a 62.4% coefficient of correlation between the two variables, which is very high for any real world data. A relatively high 39% variation indicates that Rivers’ interceptions we responsible for over a third of the variability in point differential. Further the -4.56 coefficient for interceptions shows high negative correlation, and the .01 p-value gives us statistical significance.
In short, we can show statistically that Rivers’ interceptions were absolutely critical to the Chargers’ game outcomes last season. Given this, if this does not change for Rivers in the upcoming season, the Chargers could have another underwhelming season. But, taking this one step further, we can ask why a borderline Hall of Fame QB was throwing so many interceptions and losing his team games. Age is an easy cop-out, but it seems as though his performance was more about decision-making than losing arm strength or athleticism. This brings us to the offensive line.
Last season, Rivers played behind one of his worst offensive lines with the Chargers. While, the o-line for the franchise has never really been great with Rivers at the helm, last year the unit allowed 36 sacks with a 6.6% adjusted sack rate (ASR). That’s a bottom-10 rate. What’s interesting, yet obvious when you think about it, is that Rivers threw only 13 interceptions in 2015 when his ASR was 11th in the league. Go back one more year and you get another league-leading 18 picks with a 6.1% ASR.
Clearly there’s a pattern and logical flow showing in the numbers here: higher sack rate leads to poorer decisions and more turnovers from Philip Rivers, which leads to worse outcomes for the Chargers. This seems obvious when put this way, but now we have the numbers to back it up. L.A. seems to have also caught onto this pattern, and has added three new offensive linemen to the team. While I’d be quite surprised to see extreme improvement from this unit after these moves, even a little bit will go a long way in turning a few of those Ls into Ws next season.
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