Heading into the 2020 season, many people felt that the Los Angeles Chargers got the short end of the QB stick when they selected Oregon’s Justin Herbert 6th overall. Then, Tyrod Taylor suffered a freak punctured lung during a routine injury check-up. This gave Herbert his moment to shine. At that point, we all decided to pour one out for those scouts’ careers.
Herbert was straight up en fuego last year. He broke several rookie QB records en route to Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. If only the Chargers’ defense had shown up to play last season. Then, we could be talking about a great Justin Herbert playoff performance. (This would be foreshadowing the 2021 season if I could somehow predict the future.) With their defense in mind, the Chargers front office brought in Rams Defensive Coordinator Brandon Staley to be their new head coach. Staley went out and brought in former Saints QB coach Joe Lombardi to be the team’s Offensive Coordinator.
Oh, you’re a fan of the Saints’ offense from the last few years? It would be hardly shocking to see elements of it in Los Angeles this season. That has to make fans of Herbert (and Austin Ekeler and Keenan Allen and Mike Williams) ecstatic at the possibilities that lie ahead.
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The accolades for Justin Patrick Herbert were plentiful last season. As mentioned above, he was the 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year. He also set the rookie passing touchdown record with 31; became the youngest player in NFL history to throw for 30+ touchdowns in a season; set the record for most total touchdowns by a rookie in a season with 36 (31 passing, 5 rushing); and he set the rookie record for most completions in a season with 396. Honestly, what can’t this kid do? And he grew his hair back out (after watching his production dip post-haircut)? Herbert to the fucking moon in 2021! Or maybe not…
The Saints’ offense has been productive over the years with shorter passes and quicker throws. Herbert’s accuracy on throws behind the line of scrimmage and 0-9 yards downfield were both 20th among QBs (89.3% and 77.8%, respectively, per PFF). His passer rating when getting rid of the ball under 2.5 seconds ranked 24th. By contrast, Herbert was tied for 3rd in deep-ball touchdowns (12) and took deep shots on 113.% of his attempts. For reference, Drew Brees went deep 6.7% of the time, while Taysom Hill was at 7.4% with the Saints last year.
Will this be a situation of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole? For fantasy’s sake, let’s hope not. Especially given Herbert’s QB7 ADP at the moment.
As a collective, there may not have been a running back going at the tail end of the 1st round in drafts that we were more excited about than Austin Ekeler. Without Melvin Gordon, Ekeler was slated to take on a bigger piece of the RB pie. In the 10 games Ekeler played, he averaged 11.6 rushing attempts and 6.5 targets per game. The problem wasn’t the touches. It was the fact he only played in 10 games. His 16.5 PPR points per game ranked 11th among RBs (min. three games).
As mentioned in the opener, Lombardi is sure to bring elements of the Saints offense to the Chargers. Anyone heard of this RB named Alvin Kamara? Yeah, he’s pretty good. Ekeler’s ability as both a runner and a pass-catcher should catch Lombardi’s eye. This will help him compile touches the way Kamara did.
In no way am I saying Ekeler is Kamara 2.0. He certainly doesn’t have the same nose for the end zone. Ekeler averages 0.45 TDs per game, while Kamara averages 0.97 TDs per game. But his 6.65 targets per game the last two years are not far off Kamara’s career total of 6.81. What Ekeler lacks in TDs, he can make up for as a receiver. This gives him a clear path to an RB1 finish. For an RB going at the tail end of the 1st round in drafts this season, that gives us something to be excited about in 2021.
And what if Ekeler succumbs to injury yet again? The usual suspects remain behind him in 2nd-year man Joshua Kelley and 4th-year back Justin Jackson. Jackson sports the more versatile skillset of the two, while Kelley was used mainly in short-yardage situations. At least that was the role setup by former Head Coach Anthony Lynn. But his 3.2 yards per carry (YPC) was hardly flashy. Jackson, on the other hand, equaled Ekeler’s 4.6 YPC and was tied for second on among the RBs with 14 forced missed tackles (14), per PFF.
If none of that impresses you, it’s probably in line with how Los Angeles feels. Which is why they spent a 6th-round pick on Missouri’s Larry Rountree. His 40 rushing TDs in four years in the SEC could give fans some serious Mike Tolbert vibes.
I don’t know what else needs to be said about Keenan Allen. In eight career seasons, Allen has over 100 targets in six of them. For four straight years, he hasn’t seen fewer than 136. In his first year with Herbert, he saw 147 and had his third 100-reception season in his last four years. For as big of an arm as Herbert has, Allen’s yards per reception (YPR) failed to crack 10.0 for the first time in his career.
I’m not one to believe much coachspeak, but Lombardi has come out and said the Saints offense (which we’ll see elements of as I’ve noted now for the 751st time in this write-up) feeds the X receiver. He specifically said that Mike Williams was an X, not Keenan Allen. We can take that belief however we like. Allen’s current ADP of WR10 via FantasyPros could have some risk if we believe it, or it could be a steal if he can bump up his YPR.
It’s hard not to love the way that Mike Williams plays football. He lays it all out on the line, an admirable trait. It’s also a lot of what has capped his potential as a former top-7 draft pick. His ability on 50/50 balls is one of the best in the league. He has finished in the Top 10 in the league three years in a row in the number of contested catches. His career YPR of 16.7 suggests the former coaching staff felt his best asset was just getting downfield and going up to get the football. What if Williams is actually a good route runner and Lombardi helps unlock him as the X receiver in this new offense? His ADP as of this writing is WR54. I’m taking that gamble eight days a week — twice on Sundays.
Williams’ reckless style of play makes the receivers behind him and Allen noteworthy. Jalen Guyton and Tyron Johnson made some nice plays in this offense last year. Both have the ability to get downfield and could be used often as Herbert looks to do what he does best — throw it deep.
Rookie Josh Palmer is an interesting name as well. A 3rd round pick out of Tennessee, Palmer lacked elite college production, with no more than 34 receptions and never topping 500 yards in a season. He scored only seven touchdowns in four years. So what’s there to love? At 6’1″ 210 pounds, he has the size to profile as an outside receiver and has the ability to line up inside and take advantage of smaller corners. The Chargers seem to like him, and with a good camp, could earn some playing time over Guyton and Johnson, two guys with no draft capital. (Both were undrafted free agents.)
With the departure of Hunter Henry to New England, the Chargers had a glaring hole at TE. With Lombardi coming over from New Orleans, it made sense to bring in a face that knows the offense. Jared Cook has been a solid presence at TE for several teams over the last half-decade or so. He should have every opportunity to be that again this year. (Henry was 2nd on this team in targets a year ago.) Cook has four straight years with 60 or more targets. Over his last two years with the Saints, he has scored 16 touchdowns. We talk all the time about how TEs need to score TDs for a shot at a TE1 finish. Cook will have a chance to be a dark horse TE1, given his TE19 ADP.
Behind Cook is former XFL standout Donald Parham. And what makes him stand out? How about the fact he’s 6’8″. Yeah, that’s a big boy. Parham saw some work last year, seeing 20 targets and catching ten of them. Three of those were TDs. The Saints had no issue targeting TEs in the red zone, and I have a feeling Lombardi won’t either. If Herbert is to keep his passing touchdowns around last year’s number (31), I won’t be surprised if Cook, Parham, and even rookie Tre’ McKitty, total 10+ touchdowns in 2021.