The Chargers‘ 9-23 record is the most misleading in the league over the past two years. Former coach Mike McCoy was done in by an incredible string of injuries, aberrant bad luck in close games and a stacked AFC West.
The Bolts have gone just 7-18 in games decided by eight or fewer points since the start of the 2015 season. Their 11 games lost with a fourth-quarter lead are more than any other team during that span.
There’s a fine line between success and failure in the NFL. San Diego may not have been a good team under McCoy, but the team was competitive even against the league’s superpowers. After drafting a franchise-altering talent in Joey Bosa, general manager Tom Telesco is now sitting on a roster strong enough to contend for the playoffs as soon as 2017.
Let’s examine that roster, poised to make a new home in the 30,000-seat StubHub Center on the Carson-area campus of Cal State Dominguez Hills:
Philip Rivers stumbled down the stretch without No. 1 receiver Keenan Allen, receiving back Danny Woodhead and breakout runner Melvin Gordon. At age 35, though, he remains a legitimate franchise quarterback, directing a top-10 offense in spite of the injuries and Antonio Gates‘ steady decline.
Bouncing back from a disappointing rookie campaign, Gordon proved to be a Pro Bowl-caliber tailback with power, breakaway speed and underrated receiving ability.
Gordon will be joined by a healthy Allen, who was dismantling the Chiefs secondary for three quarters of the season opener before going down with an ACL injury. In Allen’s absence, Tyrell Williams developed into a playmaking wideout with the speed to win deep and the possession skills to move the chains. Beyond Allen and Williams, the Chargers have quality depth in run-after-catch threats Travis Benjamin and Dontrelle Inman.
To offset Gates’ twilight phase, Telesco drafted the promising Hunter Henry to excel as Rivers’ new red-zone weapon at tight end.
The offensive line returns intact, which should allow that bevy of skill-position talent to shine in the cozy confines of the StubHub Center.
Pass rusher Melvin Ingram ranks No. 7 on Gregg Rosenthal’s list of the top-25 impending free agents. If necessary, the Chargers can apply the franchise tag to keep Ingram in Los Angeles now that he’s developed into one of the league’s best all-around outside linebackers.
As well as Ingram played in 2016, though, Bosa is the headliner on defense. The draft’s No. 3 overall pick is already the dominant force on the field in many games, pulling off a convincing J.J. Watt impression. The most impressive rookie pass rusher of the past decade, finishing second only to the Rams‘ Aaron Donald in QB hits per game.
Bosa and Ingram shouldn’t overshadow a well-rounded linebacker corps featuring the hard-hitting Denzel Perryman, fifth-round steal Jatavis Brown, tackling machine Korey Toomer and jack-of-all-trades Kyle Emanuel.
Once nose tackle Brandon Mebane returns from torn biceps, this defense should be stout against the run.
The ingredients are already in place for a strong pass defense. Casey Hayward might have been the premier signing of last offseason, emerging as a shutdown corner once Jason Verrett suffered an early-season ACL injury. Once Verrett returns to join Hayward and veteran Brandon Flowers, this secondary is loaded with potential.
Awaiting a competent offense for the past decade, Rams fans are desperately clinging to hope that the next coaching staff can salvage Jared Goff, turn Todd Gurley loose and build a capable front line.
The Chargers, in contrast, have constructed a team ready-made to surpass expectations under a new head coach. The offense is loaded with skill-position talent. The defense has the potential to graduate from frisky to fearsome. Provided the injured players return healthy in 2017, there’s no obvious weakness on the roster. That’s a claim several 2016 contenders won’t match when training camp opens next season.
Get your shots in now. Los Angeles’ newest team won’t be a laughingstock by the time the 2017 season rolls around.