Chargers’ Chances

A friend recently forwarded me a link to Deadspin’s analysis (if the word ‘analysis’ doesn’t assign too much credit) of the Chargers’ outlook for the 2012 campaign.  I have to admit, I liked many of the Chargers’ offseason moves.  But the article nevertheless got me wondering if I wasn’t just sucked into ordinary fan hype. So I decided to dig a little deeper.

The Chargers’ significant additions (with rookies designed “R”) since the end of the 2011 campaign include: LBs Jarett Johnson, Melvin Ingram (R), and Jonas Mouton; DT Kendall Reyes (R); SSs Atari Bigby and Brandon Taylor (R); WRs Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal; and RBs Ronnie Brown and LeRon McClain.

Losses since last season include WR Vincent Jackson; RB Mike Tolbert; G Kris Dielman; and SSs Bob Sanders and Steve Gregory.  The impact of some transactions may prove tougher to assess than others. Still, it is, I am confident, worth looking into.

The OLBs may be the low-hanging fruit in this ad hoc analysis.  Two thoughts. One: Football is a young man’s game. Two: It is not always an inexperienced man’s game.  Players’ skills decline over a career, but that isn’t the only problem. Mike Lombardi, for one, has explained how young players tend to respond better to the rigors of a sixteen-game schedule than older ones, and so are more teachable throughout the season.  At the same time, players at certain positions (WRs, most famously) tend to take time to learn the nuances of the NFL game.  OLBs may suffer from all of these obstacles.  Top pass rushers typically put up modest numbers when they break into the league, see their numbers spike in their mid-20s, then tail off after 30.

What does this mean for the Chargers? Their two additions in the offseason are Melvin Ingram (age 23) and Jarett Johnson (31, at the start of the season).  The Chargers can and should expect modest contributions from both players.  The Chargers may benefit from the return to health of Shaun Phillips (31) and – gulp! – Larry English (26).  But it may not make for a return to the dominant pass rush of yesteryear. (Note: I do like what Antwan Barnes brings to the table.)

I have always found WR a tougher position to evaluate, primarily because the most accessible footage of their games typically only shows routes where the quarterback throws the ball the wideout’s way.  But I have a hunch that the drop-off from Jackson to the two newcomers is less than expected. Meachem has played 16 games each of the last three years, but never started more than 8.  He only caught between 40 and 50 passes in each of those years – but averaged no less than an eye-popping 14.5 yards per catch in any of those years. Replicating those statistics might be considered a good replacement for Jackson, who missed some games and failed to show up in others.  The Chargers also benefit from a compliment of Antonio Gates, Malcolm Floyd, and the aforementioned Royal.  So, Meachem may not be asked to do much more than replicate his performance from New Orleans. He may not stretch the field quite like Jackson, but he may do an awfully good impersonation at a fraction of the price.

The results of my amateur analysis are borne out by the work of the pros.  Football outsiders ranked Meachem ninth and twentieth in 2011 on the site’s two metrics for measuring wide receiver contributions, metrics on which Vincent Jackson measured nineteenth and fourteenth, respectively.   Football Outsiders admits that it cannot effectively separate wide receiver performance from quarterback performance, and it may be that Rivers has difficulty clicking with Meachem the same way he did with VJax. (Jackson used to make some awfully acrobatic adjustments to Rivers’ deep balls when they missed their mark, for instance.)  Nevertheless, it’s a commendable move, given the salary cap savings and Jackson’s troubled relationship with management.

Royal ranks much lower on the same metrics, with opportunity-adjusted rankings of 90th and 92nd amongst his peers.  This makes him a low-end third receiver.  He may yet make contributions on offense – he caught over 90 passes his rookie season – but his biggest impact may be in the return game.  Royal had long punt returns of 71 and 85 yards in different seasons, and long kick returns of 93 and 95 yards in different seasons, all while splitting time with other players at those spots.  The Chargers ranked in the bottom half of the league in weighted punt return statistics last year, for one.

I’m optimistic that the moves at SS will provide increased run support (desperately needed) and sounder tackling.  The loss of Tolbert hurts, but his replacements may be adequate or close to it. The team needs to make up not only for the loss of the Kris Dielman fans saw last year, but declining performance in the offensive line generally in the Norv Turner era. The last pick above the fifth round invested in an offensive lineman was Louis Vasquez in the third round in 2009.

I will save more general comments about the Chargers’ overall strategy for another post, but suffice it to say that I find it wanting. The team has arguably drafted only two elite-level contributors in the past six years (Weddle and Mathews).  AJ also seems blinded to the notion that a good offensive coordinator (which Norv Turner, inarguably, is) does not necessarily make a good head coach (which Norv is not). Community relations, for what it’s worth, are a virtual disaster.

Overall, I think this team is what its record last year says: .500 or thereabout, with enough talent and depth to make a playoff run should coaching and discipline improve.  The moves this offseason haven’t moved the needle much either way.  (Although another year of experience and improved health amongst its younger contingent may help.)

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