Little was expected of the 2013 San Diego Chargers. The organization had missed the playoffs in the previous three campaigns, including its first losing season since 2003. It appeared the team whiffed on 2010 first-round pick Ryan Mathews and missed Vincent Jackson more than they believed. Worse, franchise star Philip Rivers looked washed up, throwing for 1,000 fewer yards in 2012 than the previous fall. With Peyton Manning helming his second year in Mile High, along with Andy Reid and Alex Smith instilling hope in Arrowhead, the Chargers seemed to be on the outside of the AFC West title conversation.
Judging by the standings heading into the final four weeks of the 2013 season, that forecast looked to come to fruition. In truth, the Chargers had exhibited some bounce to their step, with offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt reviving the careers of Rivers and Mathews. The Lightning Bolts found their groove at the right time, winning their final four games to earn entrance into the postseason, where they promptly upset the Cincinnati Bengals in the Wild Card Round.
The strong finish has bestowed optimism for better fortunes in 2014, a sentiment that’s not without merit. Whether the Chargers’ offense can excel without Whisenhunt remains to be seen. No matter how San Diego finishes in the standings, the team is loaded with fantasy-friendly players, with contributors found at every position:
BYE Week – 10
Quarterback - Philip Rivers
Rivers went from an undrafted player in most fantasy formats to finishing third in total points at his position thanks to 32 touchdown passes (fourth-best in the NFL) and 4,478 yards (fifth-best). These figures have vaulted Rivers to a preeminent preseason rank as a top-10 fantasy QB in 2014.
However, Rivers’ game logs show that the San Diego field general lost his roto mojo at the end of the year:
It’s not that Rivers played poorly; quite the opposite. The reason his stats took a turn south is the Chargers were winning in these contests, allowing the offense to run the ball in hopes of milking the clock. A dramatic about-face from the first 12 games, where San Diego would often find itself behind, thus the club’s frequent flyer miles.
For our fantasy purposes, the question becomes: what is your projection for this year’s team? If you believe they’re going to be a .500 club, by all means, scoop up Rivers. Think San Diego will challenge for the division crown? Better lay off on the side-arm signal caller.
I think the worry over Whisenhunt’s departure is a bit overblown, but also real. In short, view Rivers as a borderline No. 1 QB in standard leagues...yet you better have a sound alternative on the pine.
Running Backs - Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead
Mathews had a breakout season in his fourth tour of duty, posting 1,255 yards with a sturdy 4.4 yards per carry. This is especially remarkable given his rough start to the season, with Mathews averaging just 47 yards per game in the first five weeks. (For you math scholars, that equates to a 93-yards-per-game figure down the stretch.) Most importantly, the injury-prone Mathews was able to log an entire 16-game schedule for the first time in his career.
It’s hard to envision Mathews’ line getting any better, although more touches around the goal line would help (just six rushing scores last year). He won’t add much in the receiving forum, but view Mathews as a genuine RB2 in 2014.
Woodhead should be on all fantasy radars after his 76-catch season, and is probably a top-25 asset in PPR leagues. With San Diego bringing back the same skill players, look for Woodhead to replicate last year’s haul.
Wide Receivers - Keenan Allen, Malcom Floyd, Eddie Royal
Over the final 13 weeks, few receivers were better in the NFL than Allen (1,016 yards, eight touchdowns). Considering this output came in his rookie season, it’s nothing short of phenomenal. Allen’s speed and build are similar to that of the aforementioned Jackson, and his rapport with Rivers was visibly improving on a weekly basis. I’ve seen Allen as high as a top-10 wideout, and wouldn’t put up an argument if owners want to reach on the receiver.
As for Royal and Floyd…eh. Floyd could serve as a decent WR4 in deeper leagues, and Royal’s PPR and red-zone prowess is worth noting. Nevertheless, at these positions I tend to snag receivers with a high ceiling. It’s a capacity that can’t be said on either at the moment.
Tight End - Ladarius Green, Antonio Gates
Green’s name is flying up the tight end charts, and I’ve seen the 24-year-old enter top-10 lists in early draft rankings. Frankly, I think the fantasy community needs to pump the brakes on Green’s 2014 projection. I don’t doubt his ability to one day become this type of player, yet Gates is still very much in the mix for the Chargers, evidenced in 77 receptions for 872 yards last season.
If Green falls outside of the first ten rounds, he’s worth a roster spot. As for Gates, he’s definitely a good buy-low candidate. The sun is definitely setting on his career, yet there’s still gas left in his tank.
Rookie to Watch – Marion Grice
Mathews and Donald Brown would need to hit the infirmary for Grice to see action. Conversely, factoring in Mathews’ injury past and Brown’s disappointing career in Indy, it’s also not out of the realm of possibility that the Arizona State product sees time.
Grice is a versatile back, and though he lacks speed, he proved elusive in his two years with the Sun Devils. In dynasty leagues, Grice is definitely an under-the-radar name that is worth the investment.
Kicker – Nick Novak
Novak’s 34 field goals were fourth-most in the NFL, and his 91.7 percent conversion rate wasn’t too shabby either, ranking 10th. San Diego’s offense is the perfect blend for a kicker: formidable enough to find pay dirt at a regular rate, but also not entirely efficient, bequeathing its share of three-point tries. Keeping this in mind, make sure Novak is one of the first legs off your fantasy board.
The Chargers finished 23rd in total defense but thrived in the only category that really counts: points allowed (21.8 per game, 11th in the league). First-round pick Jason Verrett adds some much-needed depth to the secondary, and second-round selection Jeremiah Attaochu could see action off the bat. For IDP purposes, look for Melvin Ingram as a late-round steal.
Joel Beall is a writer for FOXSports.com and WhatIfSports.com. He lives with a Golden Tee machine and a jump shot that’s broken. Reach Joel on Twitter @JoelMBeall