State of the Franchise: Post-Rivers Chargers at a crossroads

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2020? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Los Angeles Chargers organization, Chargers fans and those who have bought every variation of the Chargers' new uniforms:

The Chargers are going through a lot of change. For the first time in nearly two decades, they will have a new starting quarterback. They're moving into a brand-new venue, SoFi Stadium, that will be the envy of every team in the league (well, maybe not the Raiders, who happen to be moving into their own new home). And, yes, there are those uniforms.

So they've made some moves. Are they going to work out this season? That we can't say right now. But we can say this will be one of the best-dressed teams in the league.

How the Chargers got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2019 season:

The highs:

  • Beating the Colts in overtime in Week 1 on Austin Ekeler's 7-yard touchdown run. Ekeler was huge last year, stepping in for Melvin Gordon during Gordon's early-season holdout.
  • Defeating the Chicago Bears in Week 8 and the Green Bay Packers in Week 9. At this point, it looked like the Bolts were going to make a little bit of a run. (Narrator: They didn't.)
  • Philip Rivers talking trash in powder blue for one last season. I'll never get over what Rivers says after this huge touchdown pass to Ekeler:

The lows:

  • Melvin Gordon's awkward return. In his attempt to get a new deal from the team, Gordon said he would hold out well into the season. In the meantime, the Chargers started 2-2 and were looking OK with Ekeler, who averaged 122.5 scrimmage yards over that stretch -- and then Gordon returned earlier than we thought, promptly altering their offensive chemistry. Gordon was like that person who says they're too tired to go out, sees everyone posting photos from the bar on IG stories, then shows up. And then you're in an awkward position, because your friend Austin is also there, and while he and Melvin don't hate each other, they're better apart, and Austin was only invited anyway because Melvin said he wasn't going out. So the chemistry gets thrown off, and the evening (or season) falls flat.
  • Derwin James suffering a stress fracture in his foot in August. James did come back to play well at the end of the season, but the injury robbed us of a true chance to see how the safety would follow up on a dazzling rookie campaign.
  • Losing six of their last seven games. Los Angeles went from 4-5 in November to the AFC West cellar.

2020 VIPs

Head coach: Anthony Lynn. Lynn won 21 games during his first two seasons, including a 12-win campaign in 2018 in which he was runner-up for Coach of the Year behind the Bears' Matt Nagy. And then he went 5-11 in 2019. But no worries. Those kinds of things happen, especially out here in Hollywood. Take one of my favorite shows, Arrow. It was hot during its first two seasons. And then it kind of sucked in Season 3. Like, it was pretty awful. (Not to fault Stephen Amell, one of my favorite actors and also one of my favorite members of the Bullet Club back in the day.)

The good news for Lynn is, Arrow rebounded and was pretty good for many more years after that, really finishing strong. So we can overlook the Chargers' 2019 season, because I really do believe Lynn is one of the best in the business, a rising star who is going to do big things with this team.

Quarterback: Tyrod Taylor. You know, I like Tyrod Taylor. I feel like he's never gotten a fair shake. So when, with the franchise moving on from Philip Rivers, NBC Sports' Peter King reported that Lynn was "legitimately bullish" on Tyrod, I was kind of here for it. The Chargers resisted the lure of other available veteran quarterbacks, like Tom Brady (not sure if that was ever a real possibility) and Cam Newton. And I got all fired up, like, All right. Yes! Let's go, Tyrod! You'll finally get a chance to prove yourself! But instead of drafting a lineman or a stud receiver to give Tyrod the best opportunity to succeed, or even picking a developmental QB who could one day replace Tyrod down the road, the Chargers, well ... check out the next paragraph.

OTHER quarterback: Justin Herbert. Yep, they used the sixth overall pick on Herbert, a pro-ready quarterback who's drawn comparisons to Carson Wentz. So what is going on here? The Chargers can try to tell me they're huge believers in Tyrod, but their actions say, "Psych, we were just kidding." I mean, they're the person who said, "Oh man, I'm just going to have a salad for lunch." And you say, "Good for them." And then it's 4 p.m., and you see them grabbing a Snickers out of the vending machine.

For Tyrod, this is an all-too familiar scenario. Hue Jackson put a ton of faith in him when Taylor was installed as the Browns' starter in 2018 -- and three games into the season, No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield was given the job. Lynn said Tyrod will have an initial edge because of his veteran status, but he also promised a competition. How long will Tyrod hold off Herbert? And are the Chargers about to become the latest team to not benefit from letting Tyrod take the reins?

Moving on: Philip Rivers, quarterback. Before we jump to the other VIPs, let's take a second to remember Rivers, for whom I have a lot of appreciation. He got tangled up in a power struggle between the Manning family and then-Chargers general manager A.J. Smith to start his career, and then when he did he get to San Diego, Rivers was caught in a stalemate between Smith and then-coach Marty Schottenheimer, who favored Drew Brees at quarterback. Rivers never complained, and when he finally became the starter in Year 3, he performed admirably, leading the Bolts to a 14-2 record that should have meant a Super Bowl berth (thanks, Marlon McCree). Rivers played in the AFC Championship Game the following year with a torn ACL and meniscus in his right knee. He was a consummate professional during the team's relocation to Los Angeles. Oh, and he was a great quarterback. It feels like a situation where you're not going to realize how much you miss him until he's gone.

Projected 2020 MVP: Joey Bosa, defensive end. You have to feel for Joey Bosa here. He's been one of the best football players on the planet, recording 10-plus sacks in three of his four pro seasons thus far -- and he's been usurped on the national stage by his brother Nick Bosa, who helped lead San Francisco to the Super Bowl as a rookie last season. But make no mistake, Joey is the original and just as important to his team as Nick is to the Niners. I watched in awe as Joey took apart a pretty good Packers offensive line last year, sacking Aaron Rodgers twice and haranguing him on seemingly every dropback. The Chargers are going to end up having some fluidity at the quarterback position, but the one player they are not going to be able to do without is Bosa.

Projected 2020 breakout star: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle. The former first-round pick didn't do much during his rookie season, recording just two sacks and basically sitting behind Justin Jones and Damion Square (Tillery was on the field for less than half of the team's defensive snaps). But this is a new year. He's got the opportunity to make that second-year leap in a defense brimming with studs, including their second first-round pick of 2020 ...

New face to know: Kenneth Murray, linebacker. Lynn called him one of his favorite players in the draft. And he was one of mine, too. I really thought the Chargers could have benefited from taking Isaiah Simmons in the No. 6 hole, but this is probably the next best thing. I liked the decision to move some draft capital to trade up for Murray. Coming off an Oklahoma career in which he averaged 12 tackles for loss each season, Murray now gives the Chargers play-makers on all three levels. One cool little touch I really like here is he is going to wear No. 56, the number worn by my guy Shawne Merriman, who made an immediate impact during his rookie year with the Chargers.

And don't forget: Chris Harris Jr., cornerback. The Chargers already had one of the best cornerbacks in the game in Casey Hayward Jr. Now they've added another stud in Harris. He's entering his age-31 season, but the ex-Bronco and four-time Pro Bowler is still one of the best in the business in my book. This is starting to look like a situation similar to what happened with Richard Sherman, who flourished after jumping from the Seahawks to their NFC West rivals in San Francisco.

About Colin Kaepernick: On Wednesday, Lynn said Kaepernick fits the team's system, and that any team would be "crazy to not have him on your workout list," which seems significant. That said, Lynn also said he hasn't spoken with Kaepernick and is happy with his three quarterbacks (including Taylor, Herbert and Easton Stick). So for now, we'll leave Kap out of the QB equation explained above. But providing the former 49er, who led protests against police brutality and systemic racism but hasn't played since 2016, with a potential path back to the NFL via a workout could be good for everyone involved, especially if Kaepernick were to land a job with the Bolts and contribute both on the field and in the locker room.

The 2020 road map

The competitive urgency index is: HIGH. You're in Los Angeles, which comes with a built-in level of expectations that is unfair to any organization. The only team out here that has ever built enough goodwill to earn permanent benefit of the doubt is the Lakers -- and they have 16 titles. The Chargers have slightly less than that.

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 at Bengals. I love you, Chargers. But I'm really worried for you in Week 1. The Bengals have No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow, and they are certainly going to be fired up, while I can easily see a situation in which the Chargers look past Cincinnati to their home opener against the Chiefs in Week 2. And I know all the Chargers fans reading this just sighed, because they can see it, too.
  • Week 6 vs. Jets. The opening slate includes games with the Chiefs, Buccaneers and Saints. They also have the Bengals, Panthers and Jets. They will be favored in three of those games. If the Chargers are going to avoid falling prey to the problems of the past, they need to win games like this.
  • Week 9 vs. Raiders. The Raiders have enjoyed a "home-field" Los Angeles advantage in this matchup forever. But while long-time Raiders fans are not really up for grabs, the Chargers could boost their standing with unaffiliated locals in this crowded sports market -- like my wife, who is not sure who to root for now that Rivers is gone -- by winning this one. (Although my wife does love the city of Las Vegas, so the Chargers have some work to do.)

Will the Chargers be able to ...

Get that offensive line working together? The Chargers' offensive line ranked near the bottom of the NFL last season, according to Pro Football Focus, and it really seemed to get to poor Philip. I mean, there were times when frustration would boil over, and he would throw these YOLO balls into the air that, predictably, would either fall harmlessly to the ground or into the arms of a defender. So kudos to the Bolts for investing heavily in this unit, going after Bryan Bulaga (one of the best tackles in the game over the past decade) and Trai Turner (a 27-year-old with a bright future ahead of him). But -- and I hate to be the jerk who asks this -- why spend all that money on the O-line, which has been a problem for multiple seasons, after Rivers' last season? Is this the NFL version of a newly single person building up a revenge body? It's wild.

But the thing is, if the Chargers are going to have success this season, it's going to stem from these moves on the offensive line.

Replace Gordon? We love Ekeler, and he's a great runner and football player. But he's also the kind of back who carries the ball around 130-150 times per season; he's never going to be a 250-carry type player. The question is, can Justin Jackson or rookie Joshua Kelley step up to fill the void left by Gordon's departure to Denver?

And for those of you who like fantasy, I also wonder if Ekeler's 92 receptions are going to be repeatable with Tyrod at quarterback. I mean, if Herbert starts the season, you might be golden. But temper your enthusiasm if you're in a PPR league.

Stay out of their own way? When the Chargers lose, it seems like they're always following this same basic formula for self-destruction, like, say, a superhero show that gets stuck in a villain-of-the-week rut. A few years ago, the Chargers' enemy was their own kicker situation; last year, it was their knack for losing games by seven points or less, which they did nine times. I had season tickets during the Drew Brees/LaDainian Tomlinson era, which means I've seen that show before. And, well, I finally had to take it off my DVR. (Now, if you get a Flash/Green Arrow/Supergirl crossover event, I'm in. Otherwise, you know ...)

This is where I think Lynn could come into play as a corrective force for a franchise that has logged 10-plus losses three times in the past five seasons. Yes, to be honest, there were times when things got bumpy for Lynn. But only one of those losing seasons took place on his watch. We've seen glimpses in the past; now it's time to put it all together. He's got the experience, heading into Year 4 with a new home with a new look, to be really good -- and maybe secure a new ending.

One storyline ...

... people are overlooking: How great this defense could really be. I've mentioned it a few times here, but coordinator Gus Bradley's crew could be something. The Chargers already ranked sixth in total defense last season and fifth against the pass. But with a crew this talented, they can reach an even higher ceiling by improving on third-down defense (ranked 29th in 2019) and turnovers (dead last).

... people are overthinking: Paying tight end Hunter Henry to play under the franchise tag. Some thought it was a lot of money ($10.6 million) to cough up for someone with his level of injury risk. Yes, Henry missed all of the 2018 regular season and only played 12 games last year -- but he also put up the best numbers of his career, snagging 55 receptions for 652 yards and five touchdowns. When you put Henry, Keenan Allen and Mike Williams together, the Chargers have one of the best pass-catching groups. Allen himself is coming off the best season of his career, number-wise, as he set career marks with 104 receptions for 1199 yards. He also added six touchdowns.

For 2020 to be a successful season, the Chargers MUST:

Get good quarterback play: That's key. The best-case scenario for the Chargers is that Herbert is a healthy scratch all season. That would mean Tyrod played so well, there was never a need to go to the rookie. And you give Herbert an opportunity to sit and learn.

Get back to the playoffs: This is true no matter who the quarterback is. Not that Lynn's job is in jeopardy or anything like that. But you hear way too many people say things like, "They are too talented to finish with just five wins." Nothing will flip that reputation like playing in the postseason.

In closing

I could see this going one of two ways for the Chargers. Either they have a 49ers-like rebirth, with a team that wasn't as bad as its record indicated putting all the haters in their place with a 13-win year. I mean, the Chargers even have a Bosa and everything. But there's also the very real possibility that Philip Rivers' impact was underestimated. The quarterback position becomes a mess, so they can't just settle on one guy. And they go 3-13. OR I guess there's a third way, where they have a season like the Broncos did in 2019, starting off poorly and finishing close to .500 as their rookie QB begins to find his feet. Look, I'm just not sure what to think ... unless you're talking about those uniforms, which really are something.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank.

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