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With expectations low, Chargers have high hopes they'll answer big questions at camp

Jeff Miller, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Football

Over the franchise's last 19 games, the Los Angeles Chargers have won five times.

This is a team that has beaten one opponent that finished with a winning record since Dec. 5, 2021, a stretch covering 40 games.

The over/under win total for the 2024 version of Chargers has been set at 8.5, which, in the NFL, is the exact expression of .500 or, stated another way, mediocrity.

Still, the Chargers will enter training camp near the end of July flush with confidence cultivated during the offseason program by, most of all, new head coach Jim Harbaugh.

"There's no doubt in my mind we have the right guys and the right staff," quarterback Justin Herbert said at the conclusion of minicamp. "We just have to go out there and execute. We have that faith we're going to get things right."

This is the time of year when every NFL team believes it has improved and most are convinced the Super Bowl is a realistic possibility.

Then again, at this point in 2023, much of the talk surrounding the Chargers was how Herbert was going to be uncorking bombs all over the place under then-offensive coordinator Kellen Moore.

Instead, following a series of injuries and failed game-winning opportunities, Herbert finished with an average gain of 6.9 yards per pass attempt, the second-lowest mark of his career.

So the talk is nothing more than just that — talk. Winning will be determined by action, and here are five areas that, depending on how the action unfolds in training camp, will shape the Chargers' success this season:

How will receivers fare minus Keenan Allen and Mike Williams?

The Chargers parted ways with Allen and Williams in March because of salary-cap issues, leaving Joshua Palmer and Quentin Johnston atop the depth chart.

They drafted Ladd McConkey in the second round and Brenden Rice and Cornelius Johnson in the seventh. Then they signed veteran DJ Chark in free agency.

McConkey displayed the most potential throughout the offseason program, his precise route running and sudden quickness in tight spaces the sort of qualities that would appeal to any quarterback.

"It's like he's been a four- or five-year vet," Herbert said. "He understands the game. He understands leverage. He's a smart player, and he's very athletic. I'm really looking forward to getting him the ball."

The progress of Johnston, a 2023 first-round pick, will be another focal point. He had an underwhelming rookie season and still hasn't answered the questions about his hands.

Offensive coordinator Greg Roman praised Johnston as "an explosive, smooth athlete" and called 2024 "a big jump year for him."

Can Harbaugh-Roman develop a pounding run game?

Both coaches have been adamant for months about the desire to build a forceful ground attack to balance the offense and help Herbert, the NFL's all-time leader in pass attempts per game.

Running the ball has been a hallmark for Harbaugh and Roman during their various coaching stops, so there's reason to believe they can do it again, especially after the free-agent additions of Gus Edwards and J.K. Dobbins.

Edwards is a bruiser and Dobbins offers explosiveness. After missing the end of the offseason program because of an undisclosed ailment, Edwards is expected to be ready for training camp, according to Harbaugh.

Blending the run and pass will be major summer project for Roman, who said the idea is to "create options for ourselves," options that include being formidable both on the ground and through the air.

"There's a sweet spot," he explained. "We're still figuring out and still learning about how this is going to come together. … We're going to see where everything settles at a certain point."

Will revamped offensive line find chemistry?

The Chargers used their first-round pick in April — No. 5 overall — on 6-foot-8, 322-pound Joe Alt. By the opening of minicamp, Alt was the starting right tackle, with Trey Pipkins III moving inside to guard.

 

Pipkins is 6-foot-6 and, when paired with Alt, gives the Chargers 629 pounds of protection to Herbert's right, all that mass also significant to the success of the running game.

Roman called Pipkins "a real shining star" and said the 2019 third-round pick still possesses unrealized potential.

"He's a big man with really good length and a really good football IQ," Roman said. "And he likes to get medieval, too."

The Chargers will have a new center in Bradley Bozeman, who was signed in free agency to replace the retiring Corey Linsley.

With three positions featuring new starters, the offensive line's development will be something to monitor.

"Not having a weak link is critical," Harbaugh said. "We're trending toward really having a top-to-bottom outstanding offensive line."

How will new men in middle fare?

Starting linebackers Eric Kendricks and Kenneth Murray Jr. are now elsewhere after finishing second and third in tackles for the 2023 Chargers.

Veteran Denzel Perryman, entering his 10th year, returned to the team as a free agent and spent the offseason program as one of the starters.

Next to him most of the time was Daiyan Henley, a 2023 third-round pick who played mostly special teams as a rookie. Henley is known for his athleticism and speed.

"He's doing a great job thus far," linebackers coach NaVorro Bowman said. "He was here, so you get the first shot to own this position. Just don't give it up, man."

The most intriguing option on the depth chart is rookie Junior Colson, who played for Harbaugh and new defensive coordinator Jesse Minter at Michigan. The Chargers drafted Colson in the third round.

His combination of playmaking and knowledge of the defense could mean an increased role as training camp unfolds into the regular season.

Can safety Derwin James Jr. return to dynamic self?

As a rookie, James was named All-Pro as he burst into the NFL with the type of flair that saw him making plays in the backfield on one snap and 30 yards downfield on the next. That was six years ago.

Since, James has continued to shine, earning an extension that made him the league's highest-paid safety and twice being selected to the Pro Bowl. He hardly has disappointed.

But James also at times has seemed to misplace his flair, especially last season, as he struggled along with the rest of the secondary in the often chaotic and mismanaged system of former head coach Brandon Staley.

During one of their first meetings together, Minter said he offered James some notable encouragement.

"As I told him," Minter said to reporters, " 'Let's restake the claim as you being one of the best safeties in football.' "

James expressed his excitement to this fresh start by comparing what he was feeling to Christmas morning.

"We didn't play up to our standard," he said of last season. "We didn't play the way we all know we can play. … We want to go ball. It's time."

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©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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