Another Two-Headed Monster? A Deep Look into the Chargers Rushing Offense in 2020

(Photo credit: Steve Cheng, 2019)

Charles Herrmann (@HermsNFL)
The Lateral Chief Editor

2019 breakout stud RB Austin Ekeler being good in 2020 is somewhat of a given, but what if I told you the Chargers backfield has a potential stud hidden at the end of drafts?

Headed into the 2020 NFL season, Joshua Kelley, the RB62 according to FantasyPros consensus rankings in PPR formats represents a late stab worth stabbing running behind Ekeler, currently the RB10. The offensive situation in Los Angeles is in flux right now, but this Chargers rushing attack is poised to be one of the better ones in football.

We will go over how dramatically different this team will look from last year and what it all means, but that RB2 is behind Ekeler is poised to be an awesome value at the end of your draft.

Here's why.


Major changes in offensive personnel: 

Long-time, 14-year starting QB Philip Rivers? Gone to Indianapolis.

Frequent fantasy contributor RB Melvin Gordon? Chillin' with the Broncos.

The losses of two-time Pro Bowler T Russell Okung and G Michael Schofield to the Carolina Panthers are also worth mentioning as a concern related to a lack of continuity on the starting offensive line for the Chargers. The Okung deal did however result in the acquisition of five-time Pro Bowl G Trai Turner in return and the team 
also acquired long-time Packers T Bryan Bulaga in a separate signing, so that should work out just fine. But the aforementioned skill position players in Rivers and Gordon leaving are the ones most relevant to the purposes of this analysis. We can go ahead and start with the breaking down the change in QB situation and why that matters.


Rivers vs Taylor at QB:

Who will be taking over for Rivers in HC Anthony Lynn's Chargers offense? QB Tyrod Taylor, the veteran backup to Rivers in 2019. What do both Lynn and Taylor have in common? A tenure working together in Buffalo in 2015 and 2016, the latter year being a time in which Lynn was the Bills offensive coordinator responsible for the offense propping up Taylor. Given that the two have worked together previously, it is reasonable to assume Lynn will work to transition from Rivers to Taylor and scheme the offense accordingly given their familiarity.

The differences between having Rivers and Taylor under center are both stark and imperative to keep in mind as it pertains to how we project this Los Angeles offense in 2020. For the sake of this exercise, we will look at the 2015-2017 seasons for both Rivers and Taylor given that he only has 3 seasons as a starter in the NFL and 2 of them overlap with Lynn.

During this time, how often did those offenses throw the ball on a per game basis?

Tyrod Taylor (2015-2017; 43 games): 28.8 APG

Philip Rivers (2015-2017; 48 games): 37.8 APG

What was the league average number of pass attempts per game in the 2019 NFL season? Went ahead and did the math using team passing stats from ESPN.com and arrived at this:

2019 NFL League Average Pass Attempts Per Game: 34.9

Supposing Lynn schemes for Taylor in the same way as the starter in Los Angeles as he did when they were together in Buffalo, going from Rivers to Taylor in the sample size provided would result in a -6.1 APG difference from league average in 2019, 
and a -9 APG difference between the two QBs. And as fantasy players know, Taylor enjoys running the ball himself (1,575 rushing yards from 2015-2017 and 36.6 YPG as compared to Rivers' 61 yards and 1.3 YPG in that time frame).

Even Taylor's best season throwing the ball (2015/14 games) resulted in 3,035 yards. What did Rivers throw for last year in 16 games? 4,615 yards, a 1,580 yards difference. Perhaps arbitrary to mention, but the point has been driven home. This change at QB will inevitably lead to fewer targets to go around in the passing offense and fewer check downs to RBs considering the nature of mobile QBs. 


What about if Herbert plays?

Yes, it is understood that the team invested the 6th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft in former Oregon QB Justin Herbert and he can't be fully overlooked. However, the Chargers have a defense built to win now in 2020, and the present COVID-19 pandemic may result in some rookies having a harder time finding their footing in what is an incredibly arduous and most unusual off-season, especially ones responsible for running an entire offense on the field. Rather than handing it over to a newbie signal-caller in a bizarre hell scape of a world, the Chargers might be inclined to stick with someone they are already familiar with for the whole year. 

To be honest, even if Herbert were to take over for Taylor at some point during the 2020 season or outright beats him for the starting job, rookie QBs do not tend to throw at a high volume either. 

After some digging on Pro Football Reference, 13 rookie QBs appeared in at least 10 games (excluding QB Lamar Jackson who only appeared as the traditional QB in 7 games in his 2018 rookie campaign) over the last 5 NFL seasons. In those 183 games, the ball was thrown by these rookies 5861 times: that amounts to 32 APG and 512 total attempts for a full 16 game season. That's about as much as the Pittsburgh Steelers threw last year. 


What will the Chargers offense look like in 2020?

Based on the comparison of the two QBs from before, let's pretend the same number of attempts per game are run from last year but it's Taylor at QB and not Rivers. This is not the most scientific way to project the offense going forward, but hey, pobody said this would be nerfect.

With Taylor under center, the 37.3 APG passing from last year 
would come down by 9, if we are to trust the historical information from before, to 28.3 APG.

Inversely, unless there is a secret third way to attempt the forward advancement of the ball never before revealed, the -9 APG passing with Tyrod would translate to running the ball 9 more times. The Chargers had 22.9 APG rushing last year looking at team rushing stats from 2019. Tack on the Tyrod +9, boom: 31.9 APG.

Put those numbers over a full 16 games? 452.8 APG passing and 510.4 APG rushing. What does that mean? Not a direct numbers-to-numbers comparison, but the Indianapolis Colts offense with QB Jacoby Brissett last year is a decent comp to what the Chargers could look like next year assuming this imperfect science means anything. Even with Herbert under center as we discussed previously this outlook would be generally similar. 


Now is where we get to the meat of things.


With Gordon vs Without Gordon at RB:

Over his career to this point, Gordon has averaged 15.8 APG rushing and 4.5 targets/G for a total of 20.3 overall touch opportunities/G. 2019 was a bit of an odd season for him due to his contract holdout that caused him to miss 4 games. It took him a bit to get going, but in 12 games in 2019, Gordon averaged 13.5 APG rushing and 4.6 targets/G for a total of 18.1 touch opportunities/G. 

For all intents and purposes, let's say Gordon's vacated per game role is something between what he did last season and his career averages. That's ≈14 rushing attempts and ≈4.5 targets, a total of ≈19 touch opportunities left behind.

That number of total touches is going to have to go elsewhere for obvious reasons, and with Ekeler now projected to be the lead back in Los Angeles, he should improve on the 6.3 APG rushing and 6.9 targets/G in the 12 games he played in with Gordon and be a touch closer to the 14 APG rushing and 6.3 targets/G guy he was in the 4 games without Gordon.

Great news for Ekeler, eh? Absolutely, but do not get in over your head. Ekeler is not just going to magically become CMC. He is going to have to cede some work to the guy behind him given his stature and his penchant of being more of a pass-catching back in the past. That said, let's look at the backfield.


What does the Chargers backfield look like in 2020?

Before we go any further, this needs to be mentioned: I run projections, but I have absolutely zero interest in posting projections. There is not much of a use in getting hung up on some exact numbers that take things into account I cannot quantify. I am not particularly great at math and I am not about to rely on AI to magically figure everything out either. Another thing I cannot do is accurately predict TDs. Regardless, the point here is that my methodology is based around much of the same type of stuff the experts used, I'm not saying projections are bullshit, blah blah blah. I am here to give you a general idea of what I believe is likely to happen rather than predict exactly what will happen. All that said...

We start with the projected 31.9 APG rushing that was so gracefully determined by yours truly. In his 3 years as the starter in Buffalo, Taylor had 6.4 APG keeping the ball himself. Now at age 31, that type of output from him could come down a smidge and maybe he hands the ball off a bit more. In that instance, let's say Taylor runs a time and a half less per game. That 4.9 APG being baked in for Taylor leaves 27 APG/432 carries of the ≈510 team's projected rushing attempts to go to the RBs.

With a bit of math done and help from FantasySP, Chargers backs ran the ball 253 times between 4 players in the 12 games with both Gordon and Ekeler. The carry distribution in that time worked out like this:
Gordon: 64%, Ekeler: 29.6%, Jackson: 4.3%, Watt: 1.56%

I expect the distribution in 2020 to be relatively similar with Ekeler as the undisputed RB1 in this offense. I have his share of the workload at ≈60%, and he's probably going to lose a bit of his passing work but probably not by much. I could see him catching the ball ≈85% as much as he did last year with Taylor as his QB given the projected shift in philosophy. My projections run has Ekeler's 2020 looking like it would be about what RB Leonard Fournette did in 2019. Obviously Fournette and Ekeler are different players, I get that. I'm talking purely total combined yards and receptions. With ≈1,600 total yards and ≈80 receptions, I have Ekeler just inside my top 12 RBs in PPR. Feel good about drafting Ekeler, but do not forget about the RB behind him. Reports from earlier in the off-season indicated that RB Justin Jackson would get the first crack at the RB2 job over former UCLA Bruins RB Joshua Kelley, but Kelley is the younger guy with higher draft capital invested in him, and Jackson has only shown flashes at time when he is not hurt. Because of that, I am projecting Joshua Kelley to win this job personally.

He fits the mold of the between the tackles guy the Chargers are missing with Gordon gone. The famous PlayerProfiler compares Kelley to Sony Michel, who when healthy is a pretty solid football player albeit not a truly remarkable one. Based on the leftover Gordon work Ekeler didn't absorb being put into Kelley's hands as more of the pure runner with ≈40% of the rushing workload and assuming he catches a ball or two here and there, my projections run makes Kelley look like RB Jordan Howard Lite. ≈850 total yards (close to a 80/20 split rushing vs receiving), first stab at the goal-line work and a relatively efficient YPC he displayed at UCLA behind the Chargers improved offensive line. Perhaps a slightly speedier RB Isaiah Crowell is a more apt comparison. I have Kelley just inside my top 36 RBs this year. All things considered, I think we're looking at another two-headed monster.
Conclusion:

Take Joshua Kelley whether you draft Austin Ekeler or not. Justin Jackson will have relevancy if one of the two in front of him gets injured, but I would not draft him. Getting Kelley going as the RB62 does not require paying a very huge price, and the guy could very well be your flex every week potentially.


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