Fantasy football impact: Will the Chargers manage to climb in a strong division?

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

San Diego made the playoffs last year, but did so as a clear step below their divisionmates in the AFC West. Can they make up the gap despite a relatively quiet offseason? We break down the fantasy implications.

Quite often in the NFL -- heck, in everything -- things can go either way. Look through a division's standings, and it's usually easy to find a spot where Team A could have finished behind Team B if only a few things had gone differently.

For example, 2013. In the NFC South, the Falcons and Buccaneers had the same record, as did the Jets and Dolphins in their division, as did the Steelers and Ravens in theirs. Some five different combinations of teams were within a win of one another. Look deeper with point differential, and several different groups of teams were one good or bad game apart from flip-flopping in the standings.

And then there was last season's AFC West, the division that divided into classes exceptionally clearly last season. Every team was two games or more away from every other team. Every team's point differential was at least 75 points apart from the other teams in the division. A lucky bounce could have vaulted, say, the 49ers over the Seahawks. There were any number of iterations of the Packers-Bears-Lions triumvirate that could have worked out with a different coin flip (six, actually, but you get my point). But in the AFC West, it was Broncos-1, Chiefs-2, Chargers-3, Raiders-4, and you can't really make any claim to the contrary.

(Okay, if I'm being fair, the AFC South misses my standards by only a handful of points of differential; that said, when Jacksonville at minus-202 finishes ahead of Houston at minus-152 in the standings, I feel like I can at least discuss flip-flopping those two in retrospect.)

Here, evidence of the division's clear tiers:

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The Chargers were a third-place team and a playoff team in 2013. But they were so far from their superiors in the regular season (two wins and 77 points of differential worse than the Chiefs; four wins and 159 points behind the Broncos) that it would be more charitable to call them divisional also-rans despite their eventual journey to the conference semifinals.

Of course, they were divisional also-rans in football's only division with three teams making the playoffs; the Broncos were an all-time team and the Chiefs were pretty bleeping good themselves. Calling the Chargers an AFC West also-ran is no more insulting than calling the Arizona Cardinals also-rans in the NFC West despite finishing with a 10-6 record. both good teams, both good seasons, neither anywhere near as good as its compatriots.

That carries over into fantasy, as well. It's neat to observe that the Chargers had four different players finish in the top 10 at their position in fantasy scoring last year (Philip Rivers sixth among quarterbacks; Nick Novak sixth among kickers; Antonio Gates ninth among tight ends; Ryan Mathews 10th among running backs) until you note that the Broncos had five among their position's top five. The Chargers were a good team last year and miles away from the league's awfulness, but there was a significant gap between them and the true elite.

That would seem to indicate, then, that the Chargers might have spent their 2014 offseason loading up and trying to make The Leap, so to speak. That would be an incorrect thought. The Chargers signed running back Donald Brown, their biggest-name addition of the offseason. But the second biggest name the Chargers went for was, I don't know, quarterback Kellen Clemens, over from the Rams? San Diego had itself a very quiet offseason.

Instead, the Chargers will hope to get repeat healthy seasons out of perennial injury question marks like Ryan Mathews and Eddie Royal. They will hope Malcom Floyd can play 16 games or close to it (he's only played 16 once, only played more than 13 twice, in a 10-year career). They will hope Antonio Gates can wring one more productive season out of his age, and that Ladarius Green proves to be a competent running mate. And they will hope the rejuvenated Philip Rivers and the second-year Keenan Allen can be as productive as they were in 2013.

It's not a lot to ask if the Chargers are comfortable with their tier, their spot firmly in third (or second, if we're being charitable) in the division. It is a lot to ask if they have designs on leaping to first.

So can we expect all those players to be up to the challenge?

Quarterback

Philip Rivers hasn't missed a game due to injury since forever and is a five-time Pro Bowler as well as a five-time playoff quarterback. On the flip side, he went from stud quarterback through 2010 to average in 2011 to pretty bad, actually, in 2012, before bouncing back in 2013.

Rivers was the league's Comeback Player of the Year last year. His passing yards increased by more than 800 yards over 2012 and threw six more touchdowns to go with four fewer interceptions. His passer rating went from 88.6 in 2012 to 105.5 in 2013. Perhaps most dramatically, his fumbles dropped from 13 to one. Rivers finished sixth among quarterbacks in fantasy scoring last year after finishing 21st in 2012.

The question about Rivers, then, is how much of last year is him, and how much of 2012 is him. The likely answer -- as the likely answer almost always is -- is that the real him is somewhere in between; he's unlikely to be the sixth-ranked quarterback again, but a slide to 21st would be just as surprising.

Someone will have Rivers as their starting quarterback in deeper leagues; someone will fall into him as a backup or injury replacement in the shallower ones. No one will be excited. Rivers doesn't have the perceived upside of Colin Kaepernick or Nick Foles, or the history of Tony Romo or Tom Brady, or the cachet of Russell Wilson. He's just ... a quarterback. A good one. Better than the Jay Cutler-Ben Roethlisberger-Carson Palmer tier, but probably not much better.

I'd take Rivers in the early teens among quarterbacks, around 100 overall. In a 10- or 12-team league, I wouldn't be drafting Rivers unless I had someone risky like Robert Griffin III as my starter. Griffin is a higher-ranked, higher-upside quarterback, but if I take him then his injury worries would have me making sure I take a strong backup. Otherwise, Rivers is a quarterback I wouldn't mind to have if my team was super strong elsewhere, but as a rule I'd prefer a better top guy.

Running back

In 2011, I completed a trade in one of my leagues -- a keeper league -- in which I got to receive my choice of Ryan Mathews or Marshawn Lynch. I took Mathews, envisioning him as the next big thing in running backs.

That didn't turn out so well for me.

Anyway, after years of teasing the Chargers and fantasy owners with talent that just couldn't stay healthy, Mathews played all 16 games for the first time in his career in 2013, rushing for a career-high 1,255 yards and scoring seven touchdowns (six rushing, one receiving). He wasn't exactly "free and clear," though, as Mathews appeared on the injury report seven times last year (and two more times in the team's two playoff games). That meant that he had only eight yards on three carries in Week 5 and 34 yards on seven carries in Week 9. Mathews had five or fewer fantasy points four different times last year.

On the other hand, he scored nine or more fantasy points in each of the team's last eight games, 11 or more in seven of them. Despite foot, ankle, and other injuries, he produced.

The Chargers also had free-agent signee Danny Woodhead at running back last year, and Woodhead had the most yards and most touchdowns of his career. He's a PPR specialist, as Woodhead had 106 carries for 429 yards against 76 receptions for 605 receiving yards last year. In fact, as Alex Welch noted Tuesday, Woodhead actually ranked first among running backs in the NFL in fantasy points per touch in PPR leagues

Finally, there's Donald Brown, signed away from the Colts in the offseason. Like Woodhead, like Mathews, Brown had his best season in 2013. He ran for 537 yards and six touchdowns, adding 214 receiving yards and two more scores. He wasn't supposed to do that, as Brown was something like the Colts' fourth option at running back after the varied failures of Vick Ballard, Ahmad Bradshaw, and Trent Richardson. Still, Brown finally realized at least some of that potential he was seen as having when he was a 2009 first-round draft pick.

It's not hard to see why the Chargers wanted Brown; Mathews is miles away from reliable from a health standpoint, and Woodhead, at 5'8" and not remotely an every-down back, can't be the fallback if (when?) something happens, so the team has Brown as Mathews Insurance.

In fantasy, Mathews is of course the running back you want out of San Diego. If you could tell me with some degree of certainty that he'll play and be healthy in 16 games, I'm taking Mathews in the top 12 or 13 at his position, and maybe as high as top-20 overall. But considering the increased injury risk built in to Mathews as compared to the average NFL player, he has to slide down a handful of spots. I slot Mathews in the lower teens among running backs, and in the late 30s overall.

Brown is a nice running back handcuff since he's shown he can be relevant when given the chance and he's backing up a notoriously unreliable starter. On the other hand, you can't draft him expecting him to be useful unless and until Mathews does get hurt. Because of that, Brown comes in in the mid-40s among running backs for me in the range of other handcuffs like Andre Brown of the Texans, LeGarrette Blount of the Steelers and Jonathan Stewart of the Panthers. They're a whole caste of running backs and they'll all go around the same time with their success almost entirely dependent upon the people in front of them.

And then there's Woodhead, who exists in a world almost entirely disparate from his teammates at the same position. Woodhead plays running back like Darren Sproles or Shane Vereen or Jacquizz Rodgers. They catch passes, they run it when they have to, and their successes or failures have little to nothing to do with the success or failures of the other running backs on their teams.

Woodhead can be a bye week fill-in in standard leagues because he'll get touches, but in a standard league he's not much above that. In a PPR league, on the other hand, Woodhead is something of a gold mine since he had four or more receptions 11 different times last year, and seven or more five times. The only running back who had more receptions than Woodhead's 76 in 2013 was the Saints' Pierre Thomas, who had 77.

Woodhead is ranked in the early 30s among running backs in standard leagues. That makes him a bye week fill-in, a "here goes nothing" play. In PPR, he's much higher, in the mid-20s or so.

Wide receiver

I drafted Keenan Allen near the end of my draft last year. And then, a couple days before the season began, I dropped him for a guy I saw as a more potentially viable sleeper possibility in San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Quinton Patton.

I tell that story in part because it's funny and hideously depressing, but also to illustrate that this time a year ago we had no idea what the Chargers had in Allen. And the Chargers didn't, either, as Allen had only three receptions and three fantasy points through the team's first three games.

Over the final 13 games, though, Allen did all sorts of fancy things and finished the year with 1,046 yards, eight touchdowns, and 141 fantasy points, good for 17th at the position even after those nonproductive first three games. That productivity means Allen will enter 2014 as the Chargers' obvious No. 1 option at receiver.

Behind Allen are much more variable receiving options. Malcom Floyd is probably the next-most talented receiver on the roster, but he only played 16 games in a year once (in 2009) and he's never eclipsed 856 yards in a season. After a neck injury ended his 2013 season after only two games and six receptions, it's hard to see Floyd's chances of high productivity in 2014 as very good.

Then there's Vincent Brown, who has 801 yards and three touchdowns in two NFL seasons sandwiched around a 2012 season that he missed in its entirety due to an ankle injury. Brown has been seen as a possible up-and-comer -- a sleeper in the San Diego receiving corps -- for three years now and has been disappointing each time. There will likely be some who want to talk about him as a sleeper in 2014 again, but the big-time upside doesn't appear to be as possible as it once did.

Eddie Royal is the team's other primary receiver, and he had the best season of his career last year by putting up 631 yards and eight touchdowns. Those numbers, though, mask Royal's 2013 reality. Five of his touchdowns (and 114 of his yards) came in Weeks 1 and 2 last year; he had 517 yards and five touchdowns from Week 3 to Week 17. Looking at end-of-season numbers can be misleading.

The team has a couple of other options, as well. The Chargers drafted Tevin Reese out of Baylor in the seventh round. Seyi Ajirotutu pops up on occasion. If there's anything we've learned about the San Diego Chargers, it's that the team's undercard of receivers is definitely fungible.

Allen, though, is the prize. I rank him as a high-end WR2, around 11th or 12th at the position and around 30 overall. There's not much reason to think his 2013 was a fluke, and he could easily surpass those numbers of a full 2014. Behind him, there isn't anyone remotely trustworthy in fantasy. If you don't believe in Allen or think that he'll get hurt or just want a Charger, more power to you, but my advice is to pick one of the three -- Floyd, Brown, Royal -- and use one of your last picks on that guy. I don't think anyone can say with any level of confidence which will do the best of the three in 2014.

Tight end

Antonio Gates, the spiritual predecessor of Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski, scored his fewest touchdowns since his rookie year in 2013. He found the end zone only four times and despite his 872 receiving yards he finished only ninth among tight ends in fantasy scoring in 2013, well behind his heights of the mid-aughts.

Late in the season, with Gates not thriving, the Chargers started looking toward their No. 2 tight end Ladarius Green a bit more often. This led to Green putting up 206 yards, two tocuhdowns, and 32 fantasy points over the course of three games in Weeks 11-13. He followed that stretch with three straight catchless games, so while Green is a nice No. 2, he was still clearly only a secondary option.

It ought to be more of the same in 2014 for these two, though the gap will definitely shrink. Gates -- who turned 34 on Wednesday -- certainly has more of his career behind him than in front, but he's still a 6'4" weapon who can be a playable tight end in fantasy as long as he's healthy. He's something like the 11th or 12th at the position, even with his gradual deterioration. You probably don't want Gates as your starting tight end, but you can definitely live with it.

As for Green, he's close to the same level as Gates. If Gates is 12th, Green is 14th. Or so. At this point in their careers, Green probably actually has the higher upside of the two, but he also -- as shown by his end-of-season no-show in 2013 -- has a much lower floor. You can live with Gates as your starting tight end; you probably don't want Green doing the same.

Miss out on any of the team pieces so far? Catch up here:
AFC EAST NFC EAST
Buffalo Bills Dallas Cowboys
Miami Dolphins New York Giants
New England Patriots Philadelphia Eagles
New York Jets Washington Redskins
AFC NORTH NFC NORTH
Baltimore Ravens Chicago Bears
Cincinnati Bengals Detroit Lions
Cleveland Browns Green Bay Packers
Pittsburgh Steelers Minnesota Vikings
AFC SOUTH NFC SOUTH
Houston Texans Atlanta Falcons
Indianapolis Colts Carolina Panthers
Jacksonville Jaguars New Orleans Saints
Tennessee Titans Tampa Bay Buccaneers
AFC WEST NFC WEST
Denver Broncos Arizona Cardinals
Kansas City Chiefs San Francisco 49ers
Oakland Raiders Seattle Seahawks
San Diego Chargers ('Sup)
St. Louis Rams

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