2015 Fantasy Football Outlook: San Diego Chargers
July 2, 2015 | Chet
The San Diego Chargers were able to match their 2013 win total of nine games in 2014. Those nine wins were more of a step back considering they started the season out at 5-1, as they lost three of their final four games and failed to make the postseason. They went just 2-4 in their division, dropping all four games to the Chiefs and Broncos, the teams they’ll need to climb over to get back into the playoffs this upcoming season.
2015 Chargers Schedule
Early season schedule analysis is always more about dipping your toe into the water than diving in, so tread lightly here. That aside, San Diego appears to draw a potentially better run schedule than a passing one. The passing slate looks rocky in spots, especially post bye week, but you always like to see that championship week tilt versus the Raiders on the card.
That potentially solid rushing slate could have a large domino effect on this entire offense because we know head coach Mike McCoy would like to run this offense with a run first approach combined with a mid-range passing attack, similarly as it ran over the back half of 2013. That’s a potentially fragile approach to running an effective offense because when injuries or components fail, it can turn a highly efficient offense into a mediocre one as it did in 2014 when the San Diego rushing game fell apart.
Going All in on Gordon
After a litany of offensive line injures and ineffective play from their backfield last season, San Diego desperately needed to regain a stable running presence as they ranked 30th in rushing (1,367 yards) and 30th in fantasy points per rushing attempt (0.43 points) ahead of just Oakland and Arizona in each category. That said, we’ve already seen that McCoy is willing to lean on a feature back and what that does for his offense as evidence in the final seven games of the 2013 season when Ryan Mathews led the NFL in rushing attempts (22 per game) and was second in rushing yardage (102 yards per game). The Chargers went out and added guard Orlando Franklin and tackle Joe Barksdale who could allow them to move D.J. Fluker inside to right guard.
They also traded up to 15 overall to select running back Melvin Gordon to be the cornerstone of their offense. I broke down Gordon’s game prior to the draft and the landing fit with the Chargers here already, but I love the fit since the Chargers run game combined with their preferred style of game script. My only semi-concern with Gordon’s destination is that San Diego has a glutton of third down backs that are good in that role. That, in conjunction with Gordon’s passing game limitations, means there’s a chance that he could be a volatile option if the Chargers fail in their attempt to control the football and don’t rebound to that late 2013 form. That’s a rather small concern though and shouldn’t to throw a roadblock up for you to seek avoiding Gordon.
His price tag could be reason to exercise caution if he remains a third round investment or a top 12 running back. As more of a risk averse owner with premium draft capital, I tend to shy away from production that has yet to meet the requisite price point. It’s not Gordon’s fault that we don’t know what his true floor and ceiling are, but that unknown is not something I find myself comfortable paying for outside of Best Ball formats when he’s surrounded by options that have shown us where their ceiling and floor lies. We’ve also had quite the mixed bag of performances from first round backs over the past 10 years to throw some more gray on his outlook. Over the past 10 years, how rookie first round runners have performed.
Now, that’s a disparate look at a lot of unique situations and I believe Gordon is in one of the better ones in regards to volume and being attached to a potentially good offense, but the most probable positive outcome for Gordon is that weekly he’s a mid RB2. San Diego ranked eighth in passing points per attempt last season, an area that has shown high correlation to running back success. Everything said, he can return value at his current cost but Gordon will likely be too rich for me in seasonal leagues unless he hits the fourth round and I can make him my third back or second one attached to high end receivers and an alpha back as I like so many of the backs around him.
The backs behind him all have passing game ability, but also lack any rushing acumen to threaten Gordon for a serious carry share. Donald Brown was nightmarish on the field last season averaging 2.6 yards per carry and had just three games with double digit attempts. Rookie Branden Oliver had a couple of nice moments with back-to-back 100 yard games over weeks five and six against the Jets and Raiders, but showed little big play juice as just 29.4 percent of his carries went for five or more yards and just 8.8 percent went for 10 yards or longer. I like Oliver to win the battle for the third back gig and get a handful of carries per week based on his profile, age and college production, but I can’t rule out a coach like McCoy siding with the boring veteran in Brown.
Of course I say third back because we already know Danny Woodhead will be deployed as the pass catcher from this group. After season ending ankle surgery from an injury suffered in week three, Woodhead is back to full speed this summer. It’s hard to throw real shade on Woodhead in regards to fantasy since he’s literally free right now around RB55 and already has three top 25 finishes on his resume. This is a team that is willing to throw to their backs as Oliver and Brown had 86 targets and 65 catches a year ago and quarterback Phillip Rivers has always shown he’ll take easy completions to his backs. There have been nine seasons from five different backs with 40 or more catches with Rivers since he took over as the starter in 2006.
The issue with pass catching only backs in fantasy is that their bottom line is always better than the sum of parts because they are often tied to game script. When Woodhead was incredible in 2013, he stacked nearly all of his dependable production when they were a pass happy unit. When the Chargers were often dictating the pace of the game, his pass game involvement evaporated. Here are his splits from the front to back half of that season.
|Games||Tgt||Rec||ReYd||ReTD||PPG||Top 24 Wk|
With his touchdown production he was still able to post a respectable point per game total over that stretch, but also had four single digit scoring games. In a weekly scenario when setting your lineup, there’s just not much that can entice me to start a receiving only option that is garnering around four looks per game. There are weeks in which it could be more, but it’s hard to nail that down based on all of the clues pointing to San Diego wanting to play a specific brand of football. In Best Ball formats he’s a great add at his cost, but even at his low cost, he feels like a weekly trap player for seasonal leagues.
Catching Lightning in a Bottle
The Chargers still were able to maintain an effective passing attack last season, but the weekly ambiguity made it a tough situation to latch onto for fantasy. That’s because their lead receiver Keenan Allen took the step backwards that many thought he may over his sophomore season. Allen ended the season missing the final two games with ankle and collarbone injuries, mercifully putting any owners still clinging to life with him out of their misery.
Allen finished 30th in average weekly rank among receivers at WR32.9. He had just four top-24 scoring weeks on the season with eight weeks below WR48. He ended up catching just six more passes in his second season on 16 more targets from his rookie season as he was just the 15th receiver ever to catch 70 or more passes in a season for 800 or fewer yards. With the loss of splash play production coupled with him hitting the touchdown regression so many expected, he was basically used as the Chargers version of Julian Edelman. Despite an increased share of targets, here’s how some his usage fell completely off and the results.
|Year||Tgt %||Yd/Rec||aDOT||25+ Yd Rec||TDR||RZ Tgt||RZ TD||AY/A|
The Chargers ran 39 fewer red zone plays than they did 2013, so we should see a natural uptick in scores for Allen regardless if he doesn’t see his downfield usage bounce back. With Malcom Floyd returning for his final season this year, I don’t know if we see that usage inflate highly again.
Allen still has a large support group writing off 2014 either as a complete anomaly or one that is still making a play on his large target share while attached to a quarterback still playing well. Big targets from an elite quarterback still have Allen sporting a reasonably high WR2 mark in C.D. Carter’s Equity Scores, but his median ceiling also shows how pedestrian his outlook is overall and his floor is even lower. I don’t see myself taking Allen at his asking price when I feel there’s players such as Edelman and Jeremy Maclin later on that I feel are in the same proximity of output and I like players like Andre Johnson and DeSean Jackson just more outright.
I mentioned the 34-year old Floyd is occupying that vertical role in the offense and he’s actually coming off of the best year of his career. In 2014, Floyd garnered a career high 92 targets and tied career marks in yards (856) and touchdowns (six). Over his past three near complete seasons, Floyd has been a top 40 scorer all three times as well. But that’s where I stop feeling good about Floyd for fantasy because he’s in that frustrating group of players that is just good enough to make us acknowledge him, but not good enough for us to roster or use weekly. Even in a career season, Floyd had just two top-24 scoring weeks as he topped 70 receiving yards just four times with just one lone game with five or more receptions. There will be a week or two when Floyd puts up 100 plus yards, but chasing those games will yield more fruitless weeks than positive ones.
Stevie Johnson was also added to the fold and stands to inherit a large part of the 91 targets vacated by the departure of Eddie Royal. Royal also posted 15 touchdowns over the past two years with eight in 2013 and seven last year. 10 of those 15 scores came inside the red zone as well. Johnson has seen a straight drop in production for four years running, but on a per target basis showed some signs of life a season ago.
A move to the best quarterback he’s played with to date paired with a reasonable return of volume could be enough to propel Johnson back onto the fantasy radar, but it’s also possible that his efficiency was a mirage last season due to the low usage. I still like taking Johnson late in Best Ball formats like I’ve mentioned with the majority of this passing game since there will be weeks in which he’s useful, but for seasonal formats, I’d much rather make a play for Rivers and own the entire group.
I expect Antonio Gates to take a step back in terms of overall output this season due to a spike in several efficiency areas such as touchdown and catch rate which compensated for his volume decreasing from 2013 as well as his four game suspension due to the use of PED’s.
Only Greg Olsen (six) had more top-three scoring weeks than Gates’ five last season and only Olsen and Gronk’s eight top-six scoring weeks bested the seven Gates had. Gates also had five weeks outside of the top-16 scorers because when he wasn’t scoring, he was still just seeing roughly six to eight targets per game. His high ceiling stemmed from the four games in which he had multiple touchdown receptions, which was tied for the league lead. Those four games with multiple scores also match the total number of games in which he had multiple scores over the previous four seasons combined.
While his overall touchdown total should be shaved this season, his touchdown potential still remains intact. After a down season for scoring near the end zone in 2013, Gates bounced right back in the red zone to his career marks as one of the best red zone targets in the league.
|Year||RZ Tgt||TD||TD %|
Now that Gates has been suspended for the opening four weeks of the season, his price will drop even further into the double digit rounds. At that point, you could be looking to grab him often in a late round platoon, especially with his touchdown upside. I hate giving away a roster spot, especially for a tight end, but the opportunity cost in doing so that late in drafts is reduced a great deal. Factoring in replacement level production, Gates is still a top-12 option. There’s added risk in that Green plays well and forces himself to garner snaps even with Gates’ return. If I’m already taking a usable tight end like a Jason Witten, though, there’s no need to stash another tight end that is missing a quarter of your season when you’re locking up a roster spot to a weekly option already.
Just because Gates hasn’t set both feet in the grave yet doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still be preparing for it happening. And now that he’s out for the first four weeks, Ladarius Green will be a favorite pickup for many. After playing 370 snaps and seeing 30 targets in 2013, many anticipated at least some level of growth of the physical freak Green. He didn’t waste those opportunities, either. That’s why it was somewhat surprising to see San Diego bury him, with him playing just 296 snaps and seeing 25 targets all season long. A big part of why he was negated was because San Diego abandoned hopes of running effectively at all, opening up the offense to more shotgun and three wide sets instead of utilizing two tight ends. With the attempt to return to more balance this season, Green may find a sprinkling of increased usage even when Gates returns. Now that Gates is out to start the season, it really is a double edged sword for ruining his draft status. Now, he’ll no longer be a late round stash for teams while also being drafted closer to his ceiling potential, possibly not accounting enough for Gates’ return. If you have to take Green anywhere near the draft spot of a Tyler Eifert or Austin Seferian-Jenkins, players who have season long upside attached to bankable snap counts, then it negates a lot of the potential value you would’ve been getting. He’s still not a terrible pick if his pricing gets to that juncture because he still has that large upside and you’ll get four weeks to potentially use him, which is solid for those streaming the position from the beginning. Again, in that scenario, we’re still assuming he’s performing as a starter when we don’t really know where his ceiling lies. I don’t believe I would pair both Green and Gates together unless they were both really late options (round 12 plus) because when building a platoon, you’re looking to loose multiple arrows in hopes of a weekly starter where here you’d still be looking for one weekly starter from the same two spots once Gates returns.
YOLO With the Bolo
In year two in McCoy’s offense, Philip Rivers lost a little bit of that high end efficiency which he had in 2013. Like most things we’ve already covered, that can likely be attributed to the deterioration of the run game around him (hello 2014 Tony Romo).
Even so, Rivers was still more than effective for fantasy as part of a platoon as he threw 31 touchdowns, the first time in his career he’s thrown for 30 scores in back to back seasons. He also had seven games in which he threw three or more touchdowns, which was tied for the third most in the league behind just Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning, who had eight such games. Two of his best performances came when this offense was firing on cylinders against Seattle and Buffalo as well, so of this offense is right, he has potential to be matchup proof.
Rivers had more top-six scoring weeks (six) than Ryan Tannehill (five), Drew Brees and Matt Ryan (four each), players he is constantly priced well behind. That’s because he also brings low floor weeks to the table as he had seven weeks in the bottom half of scoring. That’s alright because Rivers is being priced in a spot in which you can pair him with another usable quarterback to avoid some of those low points. At this stage, we know who Rivers is and what we’re getting, which makes him an ideal late round target for those waiting on the position.