Last season, Philip Rivers ranked second in the NFL in passing yards with 4792. This offseason, the emphasis on offense has primarily been placed on improving a run attack that placed second to last in the league with only 1358 yards. New offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt has stated on numerous occasions that he wishes to get back to a more balanced run-pass attack, but this will not decrease the effectiveness that the Chargers will have through the air. This change in play calling should open more spaces in opposing defenses for Rivers to exploit due to defenses now having to respect the Bolts’ running game. Plus, the offensive line that was decimated by injuries last season should be able to avoid an injury crisis of that magnitude. With a healthy offensive line, a dynamic receiving core, and a new offensive scheme that will benefit Rivers, the Chargers are poised to have an even better passing attack than 2015.
The Chargers offensive line in 2015 began with a lot of optimism and ended with a patchwork rotation of practice squad players. Four of the team’s five starters from week one missed significant time through injury. Only Joe Barksdale, the team’s starting right tackle at the start of the season, was able to escape unscathed. Entering 2016, the line will primarily be the same with the lone exception being the center position. Previous starter Chris Watt has battled injuries and ineffectiveness thus far in his short career, so GM Tom Telesco brought in Matt Slauson via free agency and Max Tuerk by way of the draft.
Slauson is projected to be the team’s starting center in week one, and from all indications he has had a big impact on the Chargers’ offensive line. He is a veteran lineman that has 85 career starts between stints with the New York Jets and the Chicago Bears. The Chargers have been desperate for stability at center since the retirement of Nick Hardwick and Slauson will do that. Tuerk, on the other hand, was the Chargers’ third round draft pick this season out of USC. Tuerk is an athletic offensive lineman that will likely be the starting center at the conclusion of Slauson’s two year deal. In the short term, Tuerk will provide depth along multiple positions on the line (he started at every position on the line at USC) while he adjusts to the NFL game and fully recovers from an ACL tear he sustained last October.
The Chargers now have an experienced veteran starter at each spot on the offensive line. Plus, key depth players such as Chris Hairston, Chris Watt, and Tuerk are available in the event of injury and can be relied upon to perform reasonably well. The team has already battled injuries with starters Orlando Franklin and D.J. Fluker going down with minor injuries in camp, but each has a decent chance of being ready for week one. In the event they are still out, the Chargers have solid depth pieces that can step in and perform at a level close to that of the starters.
Coming off a season in which just about everyone who played offensive lineman for the Chargers ended up being hurt, it is highly unlikely that an injury crisis of that magnitude will repeat itself. That being the case, there is nowhere to go but up for the Chargers’ offensive line. If key pass protectors King Dunlap, Joe Barksdale, and Matt Slauson can stay healthy for a vast majority of the season, Rivers will no longer have to deal with getting hit on almost every drop back. This will allow Rivers the time to wait for his reads to develop rather than constantly having to throw to the safety valve on each play. It is very telling that the Chargers’ top receiver last year was Danny Woodhead. This season, fans should expect Woodhead to be much further down the list of top receivers thanks to an improved offensive line that gives Rivers the opportunity to throw the ball down the field.
This offseason, the Chargers added two more weapons to the receiving core in the form of WR Travis Benjamin and TE Hunter Henry. Benjamin is an upgrade as the Bolts’ deep man from now retired Malcolm Floyd. His straight line speed to stretch the defense will give the Chargers another threat for defenses to scheme for. If Rivers and Benjamin can develop a synergy close to what Floyd and Rivers had, the former Brown is going to have a monster season. Henry will be replacing the now departed LaDarius Green. Green constantly tantalized the Chargers with his dynamic potential, but he never fully reached the heights he was capable of in powder blue. Now in Pittsburgh, Green will no longer having the pressure of being Antonio Gates’ eventual successor–that burden falls on Henry.
The Chargers drafted Henry in the second round of the draft out of Arkansas and he has made an immediate impact on the coaching staff. From almost all reports, Henry still has not dropped a ball in practice and he has been more advanced than expected in his blocking. Gates will still be a huge part of the Chargers’ offense thanks to his excellent rapport with Rivers, but Henry will be a massive contributor that will likely play upwards of half the team’s snaps. Henry is only a rookie but after his camp showings, it is clear that he has the consistency that Green was never able to produce. His excellent hands and intelligent route running should see him develop into a solid weapon for the Chargers that could surpass Green’s career high in receiving yards of 429 as just a rookie.
The return of Ken Whisenhunt as offensive coordinator was a big development this offseason. Previously holding the same position during the 2013 season, Whisenhunt helped the Chargers improve from 31st to fifth in total offense in just one season. Plus, Rivers had arguably the best season of his career coming off two poor seasons in which he threw 15 and 20 interceptions. Last season the Chargers were the most pass heavy offense in the league, but Whisenhunt will ensure that changes. He values a balanced run-pass attack that will be hugely beneficial for the previously one dimensional Chargers.
Rivers showed huge improvements with Whisenhunt the last time around largely because of his intelligent play calling. Whisenhunt has already developed a number of plays in which the Chargers’ best skill players are put in positions to make plays and this is a big difference from the bland play calling of previous OC Frank Reich. Balancing out the Chargers’ offensive play calls between run and pass while attacking defenses through intelligent exploitation of weaknesses are two things the Chargers will now be able to do with Whisenhunt in tow. While the run game will surely see huge improvements, the best way to open up opponents’ pass coverage is through a dynamic running game and this is exactly what Whisenhunt plans to accomplish in San Diego.
There are a number of other reasons why the Chargers will see improvement through the air most notably a full season of health from star wide out Keenan Allen, but the three aforementioned developments are just as promising. Adding Slauson was a huge pickup for the Chargers and can really help stabilize an offensive line that was in desperate need of a consistent presence at center. Henry and Benjamin are two dynamic receivers that have already shown flashes of how dangerous they can be when utilized correctly. And lastly, bringing back Ken Whisenhunt was a fantastic move for the Chargers that should help balance the offense while also bringing a play caller who knows how to attack the finer weaknesses of a defense. The Chargers were one of the best passing teams in the league last season in large part due to Rivers’ excellence, but it is not crazy to think that Charger fans could see another step forward in 2016 from Rivers. Even if Rivers does not increase his yards total from 2015, his efficiency is bound to improve. The offense will need to carry a big burden this season if the Bolts want to return to the playoffs and the moves made this offseason should help accomplish this.