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Chargers are due for a rebound in 2017, but it may not be enough

Philip Rivers has more weapons than he’s ever had, but things could fall apart quickly.

NFL: San Diego Chargers at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Philip Rivers’ career has entered the downslope of his bell curve, but he remains one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the league. After all, few other quarterbacks could have turned Tyrell Williams and Dontrelle Inman into a 1-2 punch that can gain nearly 1,900 receiving yards.

The Chargers have invested heavily in the twilight of their 35-year-old star passer’s career, surrounding him with the kind of talent designed to gash the hard-hitting defenses waiting in the AFC West. Their 2015 first-round pick Melvin Gordon finally showed the skill that made him an All-American at Wisconsin, and 2016 brought tight end Hunter Henry to serve as Antonio Gates’ heir apparent.

It’s the kind of lineup that will make a 5-11 team’s move to a new city more palatable for local fans. The Chargers, along with new head coach, Anthony Lynn, ditched the moldering halls of Qualcomm Stadium for Los Angeles, where they’ll spend the next three seasons in a 27,000-seat soccer facility while waiting for their new home to be built. Assembling one of the NFL’s deadliest offenses is a surefire way to ensure a butt in every seat.

The 2017 season stands to serve Rivers with what may be the greatest starting cast of his career. Let’s compare it to 2010, when his Chargers ranked first in the league in total yardage and second in scoring.

Chargers offense, 2017 vs. 2010

2017 Chargers Position 2010 Chargers
2017 Chargers Position 2010 Chargers
Philip Rivers QB Philip Rivers
Melvin Gordon RB Ryan Mathews
Branden Oliver RB Mike Tolbert
Keenan Allen WR Malcom Floyd
Mike Williams WR Legedu Naanee
Tyrell Williams WR Vincent Jackson
Hunter Henry TE Antonio Gates
Antonio Gates TE Randy McMichael

There are certainly arguments to be made for either side. There’s no doubt the 2017 version of this team stacks up to the one that lit the league on fire for nearly 28 points per game. If Keenan Allen can stay healthy — no small feat, considering he’s only played nine games the past two seasons — the Chargers will be absolutely loaded with playmakers. What’s more, even with a mostly anonymous offensive line, he may have more protection than he did in 2010.

Yes, even Philip Rivers’ blocking will be better in 2017

That 2010 team protected Rivers with Pro Bowlers Marcus McNeill, Kris Dielman, and Nick Hardwick, All-Pro Louis Vasquez, and Jeromey Clary. He was still sacked 38 times — 11th most in the league. His 6.5 percent sack rate ranked just 19th in the league.

The 2016 team started five linemen with a grand total of zero Pro Bowl nods among them, but Rivers was sacked on 5.8 percent of his dropbacks and 36 times total. This offseason brought in a handful of moves designed to decrease that number even more. D.J. Fluker was allowed to walk as a free agent after a disappointing tenure with the team. Russell Okung, a talented but inconsistent veteran, will likely take over left tackle duties from King Dunlap.

More importantly, Los Angeles invested some valuable draft capital to improve its line from the inside out. This was a poor draft year for blindside-protecting tackles but featured a strong group of mean interior linemen. The Chargers walked away with two of the best. They selected Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney, two players who could have been first-round picks, in the second and third rounds, respectively. Sixth-round pick Sam Tevi, a versatile blocker with Pac-12 experience on both sides of the ball, should also bring value as a swing player from the bench.

That leaves two big question marks for the Chargers on their road to offensive revival: Will their young contributors step up? And will the team avoid the injuries that devastated them in 2016?

The Chargers offense is loaded with injury concerns

Allen could be one of the NFL’s top wideouts — we just don’t know what he’s capable of at this point. He exploded onto the scene with a 1,000-yard campaign his rookie season then raised questions about his future with a disappointing sophomore year. He got back on track by kicking off 2015 with an All-Pro-caliber, eight-game stretch, but health concerns — a kidney injury and a torn ACL — have limited him to just one of the Chargers last 24 contests.

Gates, a potential Hall of Famer, is entering his age-37 season and hasn’t played a full 16 games since 2014. Gordon found a way to shuck off a disappointing rookie season by springing for 997 yards and 10 touchdowns in 13 games, but he missed the final three games after being carted off the field in Week 14 with hip and knee injuries.

Even the team’s newest star acquisition — No. 7 overall pick Mike Williams — has a troublesome past when it comes to getting hurt on the field. He missed the 2015 season at Clemson with a broken neck that threatened to end his football career. He’ll miss a chunk of the team’s preseason workouts due to back problems as well:

Lynn is hoping stronger conditioning will be the key to avoiding the injuries that plagued his team last fall.

“We wanted to build a base for our players,” he told the MMQB’s Albert Breer. “In the fourth quarter, we want to be stronger, we want stamina; we don’t want to be fatigued. And I know a lot of soft-tissue injuries come from fatigue, not explosive movements.”

One player who has avoided injuries is Rivers, who will turn 36 this season. The iron-bred quarterback has played through a wide array of injuries to make 176 straight starts in his career. The club’s commitment to adding blocking help is a strategy devised to push that number to 192 this fall.

Past injuries played a major role for a team mired in a string of razor-close defeats last fall. The Chargers went 5-11 in 2016 despite having the point differential of an eight-win team. Six of their 11 losses came after fourth-quarter leads. Nine losses came by eight points or fewer. It’s not hard to think full seasons from Allen, Gates, and Gordon would have kept them in the playoff hunt into December.

Despite that, the biggest concern remains the Chargers defense

Last year’s team gave up more points (429) than all but three teams in the league, but the rest of the numbers suggest this was an outlier. The Chargers gave up only 5.4 yards per play, a figure that ranked 12th among defenses. Other key stats like opponent third down percentage (17th), yards per rush (7th), and yards per completion (18th) show this defense was significantly better than the scoreboard indicated in 2016. In fact, a high variance in opponent’s defensive touchdowns — foes scored 30 points directly from turnovers last fall — was a culprit in the team’s scoring disparity.

Los Angeles plays in a division known for defense, thanks to the presence of superstar players like Von Miller, Khalil Mack, and Eric Berry. The Chargers, on the other hand, have just one defender who made it to the Pro Bowl last season: NFL interception leader Casey Hayward.

Hayward was an under-the-radar signing out of Green Bay last fall. Now the team has to hope similarly conspicuous moves can have the same effect.

The Chargers made few headlines when it came to adding defenders this offseason. They used the franchise tag to retain Melvin Ingram, an undersized but relentless pass rusher with 18.5 sacks over his last two seasons. After that, their biggest move was either retaining the services of Damion Square, a serviceable lineman who made his first career sack last season, or inking safety Jahleel Addae to a contract extension. They didn’t select a defensive player until the fourth round of this year’s draft.

Instead, they’re betting on Ingram, new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, and a handful of young veterans to blossom in the franchise’s first season in LA. The Chargers struck gold by landing Joey Bosa with the third overall pick of last year’s draft. His blend of power and speed on the edge enhances his ability to get to the quarterback while opening lanes for his teammates to exploit:

A full season of him up front could be enough to make a dent in the team’s win total. Ingram and Heyward, if healthy, are an All-Pro-caliber support staff. Bradley, for all his failures as a head coach, has a track record as an effective defensive game planner.

From there, the defense hinges on the development of young linebackers Denzel Perryman and Jatavis Brown. The pair, who led the team in tackles last fall, will have three years of NFL experience between them headed into the upcoming season. A big jump in production from them would go a long way to validate the team’s quiet year in its lead-up to a Los Angeles premiere.

The Chargers should have better luck, but the schedule is still daunting

Much of Los Angeles’s terrible 2016 can be chalked up to bad luck. The defense was mostly average, but a handful of big plays and touchdowns from turnovers led to a skewed scoring performance. There were injuries to key playmakers like Allen and Gordon that prevented the team from winning the shootouts that ensued. All signs point to a regression back to the mean in 2017, which suggests an 8-8 campaign rather than a 5-11 one.

That’s what executives are hoping for after a quiet offseason. Aside from re-signing Ingram, the Chargers took few steps to revamp their defense. Instead, they hunkered down for the final phase of Rivers’ career and gave him more tools to work with — an unassailable red-zone threat in Williams and two of the draft’s top blockers.

Unfortunately for Los Angeles, those new arrivals will be broken in against some of the NFL’s top defenses. No team in the league held opponents to fewer yards per play than Denver. Kansas City held opponents to a 79.5 passer rating, making quarterbacks look like an analog to Blake Bortles in the process. Oakland boasts the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and bolstered Mack with high-ceiling defensive backs Gareon Conley and Obi Melifonwu in the draft.

The Chiefs are defending division champions. The Raiders were a Derek Carr injury away from making some real noise in the 2016 playoffs. The Broncos are fewer than two years from a Super Bowl title. Moving up the ladder won’t be easy.

The rest of the team’s schedule provides some respite — finishing last in their division means the Chargers get to face opponents like the Jaguars, Browns, and Jets — but it’s not all rainbows. Los Angeles also has to face scary defenses like those of the Patriots and Giants.

That’s going to put a major strain on the Chargers explosive offense, even if everyone stays healthy. Los Angeles is betting big that last year’s poor performance was more fluke than a structural problem, and the numbers bear that out. However, with one of the league’s toughest schedules looming, the Chargers may not have anything to show for their improvement in 2017.