By Cole Hoopingarner (with Contributions from Joe Zollo and Chris Tyler)
Missed any of our other Previews? Find them here!
The Los Angeles Chargers provided gobs of success to fantasy owners last year. They had four players/units finish in the top 10 at their positions: Philip Rivers at QB10, Melvin Gordon at RB6, Keenan Allen at WR4, and the Defense/Special Teams at DEF5. Tight end Hunter Henry finished as the 12th ranked player at his position, too.
|(Projected Starting Lineup)|
|QB2||Geno Smith (w/ NYG)||11.68||QB51|
|RB3||(R) Justin Jackson||N/A||N/A|
|RB4||Russell Hansbrough (w/ TB)||N/A||N/A|
|TE1||Hunter Henry (Injured)||126.90||TE12|
|TE2||Virgil Green (w/ DEN)||37.50||TE51|
|K||Caleb Sturgis (w/ PHI)||10.00||K40|
From 2014 to 2017, Philip Rivers has finished as fantasy’s 12th, 11th, 9th, and 10th best quarterback. Pretty consistent, right? Last year, Rivers posted the third highest yardage total (4,495) and third lowest interception total (10) of his career en route to a QB10 finish. The Chargers are quietly one of the AFC’s best teams, and Rivers’ 2018 season looks promising. Los Angeles added center Mike Pouncey and will get right guard Forrest Lamp back from an ACL injury, giving Rivers one of his best offensive lines in years. He’s got loads of talent around him, including superstars Melvin Gordon and Keenan Allen, veteran wideouts Tyrell Williams and Travis Benjamin, and bursting-with-potential wide receiver Mike Williams.
All that said — I’ve got Rivers ranked 15th among quarterbacks this year. Before I tell you why, let me be clear that I think 15th is Rivers’ floor and I wouldn’t be shocked at all if he finished higher. But remember, my rankings aren’t based entirely on how many points each player will have at the end of the season. If you’ve read what I’ve written so far this offseason, you know I seek to minimize risk in fantasy football, and that plays a huge role in how I rank each player. It’s the method I’ve found to be most efficient and has rewarded me with greater success than taking chances on sleepers and falling in love with specific players.
So let’s get to why I don’t trust Rivers as my starting QB. First, he’s had a tendency in recent seasons to post 2-3 weeks of just horrible stats. For example, in 2017 he averaged 19.96 points per game, which seems great on the surface. But he had three weeks where his point total was lower than 15 and two where he scored fewer than 10, including a 3.48 dung bomb in Week 3. And in 2016 he had three weeks where he scored fewer than 15 points. I’m sorry, but I can’t pay a high price for a quarterback who poses a risk to put up fewer than 15 points in almost 20% of his games.
Secondly, in 2017 only 9 points separated the 10th ranked Rivers from 14th ranked Blake Bortles. I think we’re going to see better QB performances across the board in 2018, and I expect Rivers to have more turnovers and consequently fewer points.
Finally, do not underestimate the significance of the Chargers losing Hunter Henry. In 2017, tight ends received a 21% target share in LA, the 12th most in the league. Since 2014, the Chargers have never finished lower than 12th in tight end target percentage. With Henry’s injury, the Chargers are left with Virgil Green and a slew of unknowns at the position. Unless Antonio Gates re-signs, the Chargers will likely have the worst tight end corps in the league, which will impact Rivers’ stats. I’ve got Rivers locked in for 4,200 yards, 26 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. He’s a rock solid QB2.
Melvin Gordon is sure-fire number one running back in fantasy. Since 2016, no running back has more total touchdowns (24) than Gordon. Granted, David Johnson missed all of 2017 and Ezekiel Elliott missed 6 games last year. But even if those two had played full seasons in 2017, Gordon would still be at least third and possibly second behind Johnson in total touchdowns. Gordon’s career average of 3.8 yards per carry is concerning, but it’s negated by the sheer number of carries he receives, touchdowns scored, and his increased role in the Chargers’ passing game. Last year Gordon carried the ball 284 times, good for third in the league. Los Angeles has no problem feeding Gordon the rock as he’s proven he can be a workhorse back, a rarity in today’s NFL.
Gordon will likely not rush the ball 284 times again this season, but that’s because he probably will be more involved in the passing game – which will translate to more fantasy points. His 83 targets were a career high last season and ranked 7th among running backs. He tied for the 48th most receptions in the league with 58. It’s mind boggling to think about him getting 83 targets in addition to 284 carries. The Chargers will need Gordon to be more involved in the passing game with Hunter Henry’s season-ending injury. And Gordon’s apparently working with LaDanian Tomlinson to improve his receiving production. Nothing pads the stats better than being trained by one of the greatest to ever play the game, right?
You can safely draft Gordon as your number one running back and not think twice about it. He’s good for 1,500 total yards (1,000 rushing and 500 receiving), 60 catches, and 14 total touchdowns (10 rushing, 4 receiving).
Behind Gordon is Austin Ekeler, who was one of the NFL’s biggest surprises last year. He looks primed to step in as the next Danny Woodhead for the Chargers: a dynamic, shifty, hard-to-catch receiver out of the backfield. In limited action, his 2.9 yards per carry wasn’t too impressive, but shined brightly in the passing game. He caught 27 passes on 35 targets for 279 yards and three touchdowns. I know it sounds like I’m beating a dead horse, but Hunter Henry’s injury is going to impact Ekeler like every other Charger. And in Ekeler’s case, it’ll be for the better. He may not be good enough to be an every week player on your fantasy team, but a spot on your roster as an occasional FLEX play is absolutely his floor, not his ceiling.
The best word I can use to describe Keenan Allen is FINALLY. Josh and I have sung Allen’s praises for years despite his horrible injury luck in 2015 and 2016. Allen snuck under the radar in 2017 precisely because of his past injuries. Fantasy owners who invested a high pick in Allen last year were rewarded with 102 catches, 1,393 yards, and six touchdowns, good enough for a WR4 finish. He ranked fifth in targets, sixth in target share, and third in red zone target share among receivers. He’s in the prime of his career, is the star receiver on one of the NFL’s most potent offenses, and has the size to increase his end and red zone targets. Broken record alert: with Hunter Henry down and out, Allen’s ceiling gets higher. I foresee at least 100 catches for 1300 yards and eight touchdowns in 2018. He’ll be a top 5 WR this year again. Bank on it.
Behind Allen is a very interesting hodgepodge of receivers. Let’s start with second-year man Mike Williams. The Chargers drafted Williams out of Clemson in the 2017 NFL draft with high hopes that he could be the #2 in a potent 1-2 receiving punch opposite Allen. Things didn’t start well, though, as Williams injured his back and missed the first five games. Once he started playing, he didn’t really show much chemistry with Rivers, catching just 11 passes for 95 yards in eight games. But I think there’s hope for Williams to shine this year. Of the three receivers worth mentioning behind Allen, Mike Williams may have the least experience but he has the greatest potential and raw talent. In college he succeeded at all three levels of the field and with a full healthy offseason behind him, there’s only one way to go: up. He’s got all the makings of a player who won’t start for you in Week 1 but could be a FLEX fixture by Week 5. He’s worth a late round pick.
Then there’s Travis Benjamin. While he finished fourth on the team in targets with 65, he didn’t turn opportunity into production, finishing with just 34 catches, 567 yards and 4 touchdowns en route to a WR54 finish. The only thing going for him is that he’s the Chargers’ best option to stretch the field and there are some weeks where he will burn defenders for a long touchdown. But he’s too inconsistent to be anything more than a bye week fill-in at the FLEX.
After a solid 2016, Tyrell Williams regressed last year. He got four more targets than Benjamin (69) and translated that into 43 catches for 728 yards and four touchdowns. He finished as fantasy’s 48th best wide receiver. Williams has a bigger frame than Benjamin but doesn’t have Benjamin’s speed. What they do have in common is a place behind Mike Williams on the list of Chargers with most potential. Like Benjamin, he should stay off your roster until bye weeks start to hit, and even then, he probably isn’t worth the spot.
At the time of this article, the Los Angeles Chargers’ starting tight end is Virgil Green. Green is 30 years old and the most yards he’s ever posted in a single season is 237. He doesn’t belong on your roster, and neither do the Chargers’ other tight ends Braedon Bowman, Ben Johnson, Austin Roberts, Cole Hunt, and Sean Culkin. This may be the worst tight end corps in the league. Avoid all of them on draft day.
As for Hunter Henry, despite his injury he should be drafted in Dynasty leagues. He’ll be a top 10 tight end in fantasy for many years to come.
Rookie to Watch
RB Justin Jackson is a sleeping giant. He was a seventh round pick and I’m expecting that not a lot of people know who this Big Ten All-American is. Jackson was a workhorse four-year starter at Northwestern, racking up 5,440 rising yards and 41 touchdowns. With the Chargers backfield consisting of Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler, Jackson will be the 3rd running back in rotation and with his athletic ability, he’ll fit perfect in the Chargers offense and become a household name in no time. – Chris Tyler
The 7th overall pick in 2017, WR from Clemson, Mike Williams comes off a disappointing, unhealthy rookie season. Playing in only 10 games his rookie season he raked in just 11 receptions for only 95 yards. Williams had been battling a back issue from his first offseason programs into the first five weeks of the season and never seemed to be at 100% but look for him this season. His 6’4, 220 pound frame is unlike most receivers in the NFL and he has the vertical ability to be a scary red zone threat. Williams has a solid WR4 look with the upside to be rivaling Keenan Allen for targets in the Chargers offense. – Joe Zollo
2018 Loose Ends
It’ll be fascinating to see if the Chargers can have four players/units finish in the top 10 at their positions this year like they did last year. I also am anxious to see if they acquire another tight end. If they don’t, who will make up for Hunter Henry’s targets? And can Rivers put up last year’s numbers without a tight end?
|Los Angeles Chargers|
|8||** BYE WEEK **|
|15||12/13 (Thurs)||@ KC|