NFL Team Preview: Evaluating Chargers' Big 3 and who else is worth attention

·7-min read

We’re previewing every NFL team to get you ready for the 2021 season. Our analysts will tackle pressing fantasy questions and team win totals, in order from the squad with the least amount of fantasy relevancy all the way to the most talented team. Next up, the 21st-ranked Los Angeles Chargers.

Justin Herbert was a revelation in 2020. With him being eighth among our fantasy QB draft rankings, what percentage chance do you give him having a top-five finish in 2021?

Liz: Coming off of a record-breaking season in which he recorded the most total scores (36) and the most 300-yard games (8) in any rookie campaign, Herbert figures to build on his electric first-year finish. Despite opening the season against a fierce WFT defense, the former Duck has a top-five strength of schedule that includes early matchups against the Cowboys, Chiefs, and Raiders. Under the tutelage of Drew Brees' former QBs coach, Joe Lombardi, Herbert’s strong arm and scrambling ability should continue to blossom. An average of 280-plus passing yards per game is entirely within his range of probable outcomes.

Matt: Frankly, I’d feel great about his chances for doing this — we’re talking like 50 percent — if the Chargers had just added one big-time pass-catcher in the offseason. Justin Herbert is that good as a passer. He’s clearly the game’s next elite guy. For pure fantasy purposes, the fact that he has some juice as a rusher with 3.7 attempts per game and five touchdowns in 2020, presents a real path to a ceiling. It comes back to the surrounding cast, where they’re extremely top-heavy but lack many tantalizing talents beyond Keenan Allen, Austin Ekeler and Mike Williams. With the current construction of the roster, he has a five to 10 percent chance. Herbert is appropriately slotted in current ADP.

Dalton: Herbert blew away all expectations as a rookie — and to think, Anthony Lynn may very well have kept him on the bench all season long if not for Tyrod Taylor suffering an accidental punctured lung. Herbert helps in fantasy also with his legs (to go along with a beautiful deep ball), and he should benefit greatly in Year 2 from more play-action and with better coaching. Herbert threw the most touchdowns by a rookie in NFL history last season (15 games) and looks locked in as a perennial top-five type fantasy QB.

At their current spot in our overall rankings, Austin Ekeler should go in the late first/early second, while Keenan Allen looks like a third-round pick. Who would you rather have on your fantasy team this year at those draft slots?

Matt: Purely based on the way the board will fall in drafts, I’d rather take Ekeler at the Round 1 to 2 turn. I truly believe Ekeler has a low-end version of a 2019 Christian McCaffrey-type season in his range of outcomes. Ekeler was a stud fantasy back when Herbert was under center, both before and after he got hurt. He also gets the most high-leverage touches available to a running back with his contributions as a receiver. Back to the board, Ekeler stands out to me as a great option when stacking running backs early, which I think you must do this year. I love Allen and his outlook for 2021 but I’m just as comfortable with the receivers going in Round 4 as I am with the Chargers star.

Dalton: Allen for me. Ekeler is a very good football player, but I worry about his usage to be a truly elite fantasy back. I value him just slightly enough less than ADP to usually lose him. Allen, meanwhile, finished fifth in target share (27%) last season. The Chargers added little to the WR room in the offseason but did upgrade its coaching staff and lost Hunter Henry, so Allen’s arrow is pointing up with a superstar QB throwing to him.

Liz: This feels like a bit of a floor versus ceiling conversation. Allen has been a Consistency King, clearing 100 catches and 1,000 yards in three of his last four outings. While his volume stayed steady with Herbert under center (147 targets, WR5), the quality of those looks shifted, as his average target distance dropped from 10.2 in 2019 to 7.4 in 2020.

Ekeler, on the other hand, comes with durability concerns but a skill set that would allow for optimal output. His elusivity as a rusher (24.1% juke rate) helps keep him efficient (4.6 YPC) while his prowess as a receiver (83.1% catch rate) thrusts him into the upper echelon of fantasy RBs. Plus, if Alvin Kamara (and, no, I’m not comping the two players... just the overlap in their playing styles and potential deployment) is any proof, Joe Lombardi has a solid blueprint for getting the most out of a pass catching back.

ORCHARD PARK, NY - NOVEMBER 29: Austin Ekeler #30 of the Los Angeles Chargers runs the ball during a game against the Buffalo Bills at Bills Stadium on November 29, 2020 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)
Austin Ekeler will come off fantasy draft boards ahead of Keenan Allen, but who would you rather have on your squad this season? (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)

The Chargers drafted some intriguing players at tight end and wide receiver, as well as adding Jared Cook in free agency. Who is your top sleeper on this team, in either season-long or best ball?

Dalton: Mike Williams is my top sleeper on this team, with Donald Parham a deep one. Williams is an injury risk with his willingness to go up for catches, but he’s also got big upside if things break right. The top-10 pick scored 10 touchdowns as a sophomore, and the downfield receiver has a QB in Herbert who was among the league leaders in deep passes during his impressive rookie campaign. Williams has the pedigree, is still just 26 years old and is playing for a new contract.

Liz: Talk about an upgrade at quarterback, JOSH PALMER must be thrilled. The QB play at Tennessee was abysmal but Palmer still put up numbers for the Vols, closing out his four-year career in Knoxville just shy of 100 catches and over 1,500 yards. At 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, the Chargers' third-round selection shines on the outside, using his strong hands and long arms (33”) to high-point and win in contested situations. He’s not fast, and his route-running lacks polish, but with Hunter Henry leaving behind 90-plus looks, Mike Williams regularly hurt, and Jared Cook in the twilight of his career, Palmer figures to see a starting role sooner rather than later.

Matt: Mike Williams shouldn’t be classified as a sleeper but since he’s going outside the top-40 receivers, I’ll list him here. He has a clear path to 100-plus targets since this offense didn’t just fail to add a proven stud pass-catcher, they actually lost a solid starter in Hunter Henry. Williams is a better player than given credit for and wins deep and in scoring areas. He has way more upside and history than players he’s listed around in the wide receiver ranks. Health is a concern but if he doesn’t end up playing 16 games, who cares? You’re sinking a mere late-round pick into a guy with a fabulous weekly ceiling. I will happily draft him on every single team. I’ll also second Dalton on Donald Parham, simply because I’m out on the idea of Jared Cook in 2021.

Los Angeles Chargers projected 2021 fantasy contributors

QB: Justin Herbert

RB: Austin Ekeler / Justin Jackson

WR: Keenan Allen / Mike Williams / Josh Palmer

TE: Jared Cook / Donald Parham

Los Angeles Chargers O/U on 9.5 win total from BetMGM

Dalton: OVER. Given the 18-week schedule, the loss of Anthony Lynn at head coach and Justin Herbert being a baller, I’ll take the over. Tackle Rashawn Slater was a nice get at pick No. 13, and imagine if Derwin James actually stays healthy. It would hurt if Aaron Rodgers were traded into their division, but I’m still going over.

Follow Liz: @LizLoza_FF

Follow Matt: @MattHarmon_BYB

Follow Dalton: @daltondeldon

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