By: Dylan Streibig
With five straight division titles and consecutive trips to the Super Bowl, the Kansas City Chiefs are the undisputed kings of the AFC West. They will be tough to knock off their perch as long as Patrick Mahomes is around.
However, they will face their stiffest competition from a division rival in a long time from the 2021 Los Angeles Chargers for two reasons.
They were really close last year.
The Chargers 7-9 campaign last year is a bit misleading. You can throw out their Week 17 win against Kansas City. The Chiefs were resting starters for the playoffs. Even so, Los Angeles was a lot closer to causing major problems for the winners of their divison and the rest of the league than you might think.
Eight of their nine losses in 2020 were by single digits, including a Week 2 overtime loss to Andy Reid’s Chiefs. The Chargers losing close games isn’t a new thing. Anthony Lynn isn’t the first Bolts coach to fall on his sword because of it either.
Close losses are usually a matter of coaching though. So, former Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley becomes head coach of the other team in Los Angeles. If he can clean up little things, like the team averaging over five penalties per game last year ever so slightly, that alone can turn a seven win team into a ten win team. Now, for the other part of the equation.
They solved their biggest issue.
With Justin Herbert wowing as a rookie and throwing 31 touchdown passes in 15 games, the Chargers have a special quarterback in place for the next decade plus. That is the largest piece of the puzzle for any NFL team.
Protecting Herbert was an issue in 2020 though. Los Angeles ranked dead last in the Pro Football Focus end of season offensive line rankings last year. Unlike the Bengals who also must better protect a special talent in Joe Burrow, the Chargers didn’t just bring in veterans on stopgap deals and mid round draft talents that they hope will work out.
General manager Tom Telesco brought in former Packers All-Pro center Corey Linsley on a five year deal that made him the highest paid center in football. Then, Rayshawn Slater fell into Telesco’s lap on night one of the NFL Draft. Slater was arguably the top offensive tackle prospect in the draft. Thanks to these moves, injuries are the only thing that could keep the Chargers offensive line from vast improvement in 2021. The roster also has a diverse group of running backs led by Austin Ekeler who has career averages of over four yards per carry and nine yards per catch.
There are some really nice pieces on defense too. Joey Bosa entered the league prior to the 2016 season and has never had fewer than 5.5 sacks in a season. Adding a talented rookie like Asante Samuel Jr. to a secondary that already has a savvy veteran in four time Pro-Bowler Chris Harris Jr. and a still emerging talent like Derwin James makes for a fine defensive backfield, provided James can stay healthy.
On paper, the Chargers don’t have many. Obviously, any time a rookie head coach like Staley is in the picture, it is a bit of an unknown. Other than that and the need for a third pass catcher to emerge behind the productive but brittle duo of Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, the sky is the limit for the Chargers in 2021. With Denver still having issues at quarterback and the Raiders roster lacking talent beyond a few capable offensive weapons, Los Angeles is the only division rival that can make the mighty Chiefs sweat this year.