The Chargers were one of the biggest surprises in 2013. With new coach Mike McCoy, the team looked rejuvenated and reached the second round of the playoffs.
Now we'll find out if they can do it again.
For Fantasy owners, the bigger question is if San Diego's stars can have repeat performances in 2014. Philip Rivers was a Top 5 Fantasy quarterback in standard leagues. Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead were Top 20 running backs. Keenan Allen was a Top 20 receiver. Even Antonio Gates was a Top 10 tight end, although Ladarius Green appears to have more upside.
The Chargers added Donald Brown this offseason to muck up their backfield, but we'll find out how it shakes out. And Malcom Floyd (neck) should return as the starter opposite Allen. McCoy said he plans to use more two tight-end sets this year to maximize Green's potential, so there's plenty of reason for optimism with this offense.
San Diego opened last season as one of the better passing teams, which helped Rivers get off to a great start. But the Chargers closed the year running the ball at a high level, which was why Mathews finally delivered on his potential.
We'd like to see what San Diego's true identity is, but either way the Chargers have plenty of Fantasy options for owners to rely on this season.
What's next? ... Ryan Mathews
It was great to see Mathews bounce back and play at a high level again after a lost 2012 due to injuries and poor play. He had 285 carries for 1,255 yards and six touchdowns and 26 catches for 189 yards and a touchdown last year, and he finished with double digits in Fantasy points 11 times.
The addition of Brown -- who had a great season with the Colts (102 carries for 547 yards and six touchdowns and 27 catches for 214 yards and two touchdowns) -- makes it troubling for Mathews, along with Woodhead still in the mix. Woodhead had 106 carries for 429 yards and two touchdowns and 76 catches for 605 yards and six touchdowns.
Now, the Chargers are saying all the right things about Mathews. The thought is Brown is an upgrade on Ronnie Brown, who was the No. 3 running back last year. But that's quite an upgrade, and Donald Brown could definitely steal plenty of work from Mathews.
Prior to adding Brown, Mathews was considered a Top 12 running back worth drafting in Round 2. Now he's closer to a Top 20 option who should only be drafted in Round 4.
McCoy said in an interview with CBSSports.com this offseason that the Chargers could use a hot-hand approach with their backfield, which is bad news all around.
"You get in there, you get on a little bit of a roll and you're going to stay in there," McCoy said. "Donald is a perfect fit for our system, and that's why we went after him and got him. He understands what we want to do offensively, not only in the passing game but in the running game and pass protection. ... We'll let Donald come in there and show us what he can do, and we'll try to take advantage of what he does best and go with the flow of the game."
Woodhead is only worth drafting with a mid-round pick in PPR leagues, and he's a late-round flier in standard formats. And Brown is probably best left on waivers or as a handcuff for Mathews in deeper leagues.
We just hope Mathews, who is entering a contract year, doesn't suffer because he proved last season he can be a standout Fantasy option when healthy.
Headed for regression ... Philip Rivers
|Ryan Mathews||311 (285 car., 26 rec.)||36.0%|
|Danny Woodhead||182 (106 car., 76 rec.)||21.1%|
|Antonio Gates||77 rec.||8.9%|
|Keenan Allen||71 rec.||8.2%|
|Ronnie Brown||53 (45 car., 8 rec.)||6.3%|
Rivers finished No. 4 in Fantasy points behind Manning, Brees and Andy Dalton, another surprise quarterback. He passed for 4,478 yards on 70 percent completions with 32 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
It was his best season since 2010, but it was deceiving. Rivers was great early in the year with 20 or more Fantasy points in four of his first five games, but he had just four of those performances in his final 11 outings when the Chargers got run heavy.
And that's where they're headed again this year, running before throwing. The biggest offseason addition on offense was a third running back in Brown instead of a second receiver, even though Floyd is coming off a serious neck injury.
Rivers will definitely still have plenty of good moments, but the inconsistency will hurt you if he's drafted as a No. 1 Fantasy quarterback. The best strategy is to draft him as a No. 2 option with a late-round pick; he's worth pairing with a shaky No. 1 quarterback like Nick Foles, Jay Cutler, Robert Griffin III or Cam Newton.
If one of those quarterbacks don't deliver, you'll have Rivers waiting in the wings. Otherwise he can sit on your bench or be used as trade bait, but just have reasonable expectations for him this season.
New tight end in town ... Ladarius Green
Even though Antonio Gates finished No. 9 in Fantasy points at tight end last season, he was a bust for most owners. He had 77 catches for 872 yards and four touchdowns, which was his lowest total since his rookie season in 2003.
He's getting older and slower at 34, and the Chargers have a replacement option in Green. The younger tight end outplayed Gates down the stretch last year with at least eight Fantasy points in four of his final seven games.
That prompted McCoy to say in an interview with CBSSports.com this offseason that he wished he used Green more earlier in the year.
"What happened with him last year was he made the most of his opportunities," McCoy said. "Early in the year, they were limited. As time went along, and as an offense, you always evolve to what your players do best. Being together for the first time, there were some things we were still learning about our team. It takes time. And Ladarius made the most of his opportunities. When he was in at the right time, he was continuing to make plays. You wish you would have done that a little earlier."
Gates could easily return as a No. 1 Fantasy tight end this year, especially if the touchdown total rises. Remember, he scored at least seven touchdowns from 2004-12. But with Green's presence that could be hard.
We don't recommend drafting either tight end as a No. 1 option in a 10- or 12-team league, but Green is the one to target as a second tight end with a late-round pick if you're looking for upside. Forget about Gates and the name recognition. Let him prove himself first and then add him off waivers before drafting him in most formats.
Good luck to any Fantasy owner who wants to rely on the Chargers in the first two games of the season. There might not be a tougher two-game opening set then at Arizona in Week 1 and vs. Seattle in Week 2. And the Fantasy championship game in Week 16 is at San Francisco. It won't be easy for the Chargers this year if the defenses on the schedule play to form, with Denver upgrading and the NFC West on the docket. San Diego also faces Baltimore, New England, the Jets and Buffalo, which should have above-average defenses as well. And there are also three games on the East Coast with early starts; at Buffalo, Miami and Baltimore.
Training camp battles
Who's the best tight end? It would be shocking to see Green start over Gates this year, but the starter is irrelevant. Gates is still going to get plenty of stats, and he should have more targets than Green. But Green's ability to get downfield and help Rivers should make him more valuable, as he proved to close 2013. We have Green ranked ahead of Gates heading into training camp.
What's the pecking order at running back? Mathews is the No. 1 option without question, but who is the handcuff on Draft Day? If Mathews were to get hurt you'd probably see Brown take over on rushing downs, and Woodhead should remain in his same role as the receiver out of the backfield. We rank them Mathews, Woodhead and Brown in all formats, but only Mathews and Woodhead should be drafted in the majority of leagues.
Is there a No. 2 receiver? Allen should repeat as a Top 20 Fantasy receiver, and he's worth drafting in Round 5 in most formats. But does he have a running mate? Floyd's return is important after he played in just two games in 2013 before sustaining a neck injury. Vincent Brown struggled as a starter last year, and Eddie Royal is just a slot receiver with minimal upside. We don't recommend drafting any of these receivers behind Allen, but Floyd could emerge as a waiver wire option if he rebounds at 100 percent.
Mathews is ranked No. 20 at running back for me heading into training camp, but I'm debating keeping him there ahead of Stevan Ridley, Toby Gerhart and potentially Ray Rice, who could face a suspension. If Rice isn't suspended, which would be a shock, he'll move ahead of Mathews. And I might move Gerhart up there as well. I really hope Mathews does well this season, but the addition of Brown has me concerned. We know Mathews has durability issues, and his workload from 2013 could come back to haunt him. I still expect him to be a starting-caliber Fantasy running back this year, but I won't be surprised if he finishes outside the Top 20 when the season is over.