2021 NFL Preview: Justin Herbert's great rookie season changes the Chargers' outlook

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Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2021 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 4, the day before the Hall of Fame Game.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

To think, Anthony Lynn and his staff preferred Tyrod Taylor as its starting quarterback over Justin Herbert. 

If not for an embarrassing and terrible medical mishap with Taylor, who knows how long the Los Angeles Chargers would have continued that quarterback mistake. But that's in the past. All that matters is the Chargers figured out they had a quarterback who looks like a future star. 

Once Herbert got to play, he pumped some life in a franchise that had little thanks to the dumbest relocation in modern sports history. Herbert wasn’t a sure thing coming out of Oregon, but he was spectacular once he got the chance to play. Quarterbacks can fall off after a great rookie season, but it seems the Chargers will seamlessly go from Philip Rivers to Herbert and have a few decades of uninterrupted great quarterback play.

This is what every team dreams of when they take a quarterback. Herbert won the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award and set a record for most passing touchdowns by a rookie. Other than a Week 13 clunker in a 45-0 loss to the Patriots, Herbert didn't have any truly bad games. He took chances and often hit big plays. He was reasonably accurate. Being under pressure didn't bother him. Nobody saw it coming, and while it's scary to believe in someone totally outplaying expectations as a rookie, Herbert was great. Herbert's rookie season was such a complete success that it transforms the Chargers' short- and long-term outlook. 

The Chargers can get aggressive the next couple years while Herbert is on his rookie deal. They already have an intriguing talent base, with stars like Joey Bosa, Keenan Allen, Austin Ekeler and Derwin James (if James stays healthy). The Chargers made investments this offseason, especially on the offensive line, and are in a position to sign a couple more impact players the next couple years before Herbert's inevitable huge extension. Of course, we've heard about the Chargers' talent for years and it has never paid off with anything big. They've had just two playoff wins the past 12 seasons and both were in the wild-card round. 

That's where Brandon Staley comes into the picture. Staley was hired to replace Anthony Lynn, who couldn't get the Chargers over the hump. Staley is a risky hire, a 38-year-old who parlayed one great season as Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator into a head-coaching job. Five years ago, Staley was an assistant at John Carroll. The Chargers are swinging big, trying to catch a coaching star on the rise. 

The Chargers have top-end talent on the roster. They have a legitimate quarterback. They hope a new coach will be a success. Will it finally result in success? 

Justin Herbert set an NFL record for passing touchdowns by a rookie. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images)
Justin Herbert set an NFL record for passing touchdowns by a rookie. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images)
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The Chargers made one big move in free agency, signing center Corey Linsley from the Packers for $62.5 million over five years. Linsley was a first-team All-Pro center last season. Given the Chargers' issues on the offensive line the past few years, it was a big signing. So was offensive tackle Matt Feiler (three years, $21 million). Los Angeles invested once more in the offensive line when it took versatile offensive lineman Rashawn Slater in the first round. The Chargers lost some players. Tight end Hunter Henry and safety Rayshawn Jenkins signed big deals elsewhere. Veterans like linebacker Denzel Perryman and cornerback Casey Hayward are gone. The Chargers landed Jared Cook to replace Henry, but that's a downgrade. The Chargers' draft, which included Slater, cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. and receiver Josh Palmer, got good grades. 

Grade: A-

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The Chargers needed to make a coaching change, but it's also not great for Justin Herbert to have to change coordinators after a record-setting rookie season. Joe Lombardi is the new offensive coordinator. He has spent most of his coaching career with the New Orleans Saints, and the Chargers should show more formations and pre-snap looks to defenses. That means more for Herbert to learn. 

“The tough part is memorizing and learning it all,” Herbert said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “That’s where it’s tough because you have to go in there and spend a lot of time watching film, practicing, repping it.”

Herbert seems excited by the challenge, but it will be a challenge. If there's anything that can set back Herbert in his second season, it might be a scheme change. 

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How many bets have been lost hoping for the Chargers to have a big season? The Chargers' win total at BetMGM is 9.5. The odds for them to make the playoffs are +135. They're +600 to win the AFC West, +1600 to win the AFC and +3000 to win the Super Bowl. I'll take every one of them, and the over on 9.5 wins. It would be a shame to miss out if the Chargers ever do have that big season. 

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From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "Keenan Allen might appear to be a rock-solid pick, coming off four straight Pro Bowls and reasonably priced in the third round. But it’s important to reconcile what Allen is, and what Allen is not.

"Allen certainly isn’t a downfield burner. He averaged a mere 9.9 yards per catch last season, becoming just the second wideout in league history to snag 100-plus passes but not make it to 1,000 yards (Jarvis Landry, 2017). Allen is also a modest touchdown scorer — he spiked eight times last year, tying his career best. He scored an ordinary 18 times in the three previous years.

"Allen steps into his ninth pro campaign, his age-29 campaign. No one is suggesting it’s kick-to-the-curb time, but it’s possible Allen has already given us his best fantasy seasons. There’s nothing wrong with Allen’s floor entering 2021, but I’d prefer a little more upside with the draft capital he’s likely to command."

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Derwin James was a first-team All-Pro as a rookie. Since then, he has missed 27 of 32 games, and has zero sacks, zero interceptions and three tackles for loss. It has been a long time, in NFL terms, since he impacted a game. In 2019, he missed most of the season with a foot injury. Last season it was a torn meniscus in his knee. There should be concern about James' durability and whether the injuries have taken away any of the immense talent he showed as a rookie. If James is healthy, he is a game-changing safety. As a rookie, he looked like he might be the best safety in the NFL for a decade. That outlook is a lot cloudier now. If James returns to his rookie form and stays healthy, it would be huge for the Chargers. 

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Will Austin Ekeler have a huge season? 

When a team hires an offensive coordinator, everyone looks for clues from his former team to figure out what the new offense will look like. Players do too. New Chargers offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi comes from the Saints' staff, and they have a multi-faceted star running back. Chargers running back Austin Ekeler is aware how Lombardi wants to get playmakers in space because he has seen Alvin Kamara do it for years. 

"I think you see that as far as the running back position with Kamara with the Saints," Ekeler told SiriusXM Radio, via NFL.com. "They would give him the ball any way they could, and he was making plays. And it just depends on me, right? As far as, hey, if coach is going to trust me with the ball, my hands are going to make sure I make it work, make him right." 

It's easy to make a comparison between Kamara and Ekeler. Ekeler has a ton of talent. He had 92 catches in 2019, on his way to 1,550 total yards from scrimmage. Ekeler was productive again last season but injuries limited him. Ekeler, in the biggest role he has had as a pro, missed six games. At 5-10, 200 pounds, durability will always be a concern. 

Ekeler and Kamara aren't the same player but they have similar skills. Ekeler could be a monster catching the ball out of the backfield in the new scheme. The only concern is staying healthy. 

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Yes, this part could have been copied and pasted from every Chargers preview I’ve written through the years, but here we go again. This roster still has as much ability as any in the NFL. Justin Herbert immediately changed how we should view the Chargers. The talent around him is obvious. A new coach can’t hurt. Unless we assume Kansas City is going to win the AFC West every year Patrick Mahomes is its quarterback, a team like the Chargers could be a surprise division winner. It’s not even outlandish to think they could find themselves in a Super Bowl in their home stadium. That’s this team’s ceiling.

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I could feel dumb by January for believing in the Chargers yet again. This roster has been good for many years and has not accomplished much, so why would this season be much different? I don’t figure Justin Herbert falls far from a record-setting rookie season, but it’s possible. Even if Herbert is good again, it’s not like Los Angeles made the playoffs with him balling last season. There’s some fatal flaw that has held the Chargers back, and maybe this season it’s just more of the same.

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There should be monthly meetings for people who can’t quit picking the Chargers year after year. Justin Herbert is the real deal. Anthony Lynn wasn’t a good head coach for the Chargers and a change will be a positive for the franchise. A (hopefully) healthy Derwin James might be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate if everything goes right. I can’t pick the Chargers over the Chiefs in the AFC West, but a wild-card spot seems reasonable. Then it will be a team nobody wants to face in the playoffs. Though, I’ve said that before.

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32. Houston Texans
31. Detroit Lions
30. Jacksonville Jaguars
29. New York Jets
28. Cincinnati Bengals
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Carolina Panthers
25. Atlanta Falcons
24. Las Vegas Raiders
23. New York Giants
22. Chicago Bears
21. Denver Broncos
20. Dallas Cowboys
19. Washington Football Team
18. Arizona Cardinals
17. Minnesota Vikings
16. Pittsburgh Steelers
15. New Orleans Saints
14. New England Patriots
13. Miami Dolphins

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