The U.S. Open isn't the only bastion of grit and excellence returning to L.A. this weekend. No, sir—after planting my flag in SoFi Stadium last year for a Rams repeat that imploded spectacularly (and, consequently, called into question my already-questionable grit and excellence), I'm back in the City of Angels to fire you up once more. This time, though, we're bolting up. F6P's offseason overviews of each NFL team roll on today with the 2023 Fantasy Football Los Angeles Chargers Preview.
Was there anything more frustratingly not excellent last year about the Chargers than the tandem of Brandon Staley and Joe Lombardi calling plays for Justin Herbert? We'll get into the deeper statistical analysis of it in a bit here, but Lombardi spent his two years in L.A. absolutely bludgeoning Herbert's average depth of target (aDOT) lower and lower each season. Infuriatingly and inexplicably. Though, it's a mistake he'd made before with another quarterback of Herbert's style and arm talent; more on that later.
Other than Austin Ekeler and, peculiarly, Gerald Everett, the entire offense underperformed around a restrained Justin Herbert last season. There were, of course, the flashes of downfield lightning every week, but mostly in the fourth quarter, or on fourth down—all desperation-level stuff.
What better sentiment with which to segue into the position-by-position portion of this preview than rejoicing that Lombardi is gone? In March, the Chargers hired former-and-famously-respected Cowboys OC Kellen Moore to run their offense.
Other than the Austin Ekeler contract situation—which, as of this writing, seems to have at least resolved itself such that we need not be concerned about his on-field presence—Moore's forthcoming effect on Herbert and this offense is the most significant enigma heading into 2023.
Let's sink our teeth into it.
2023 Fantasy Football Los Angeles Chargers Preview
Become an All-Access Member to get access to our Award-Winning Fantasy Football Rankings, Draft Tools and more.
If you are already a member, sign in.
A good friend of mine drafted Herbert in the fifth round last year and, at the time, couldn't have been happier about it. Earlier this morning, I asked him to describe the season-long experience of running the fourth-year gunslinger from Oregon every week in 2022. He had this to say:
"It was like buying a brand new Lamborghini only to be told I had to drive it around town like a grandmother."
He added: "Herbert was a ship captained by a total dink."
Clearly, if we didn't before, we now share ferocious cynicism of, and disdain for, Brandon Staley and Joe Lombardi. Mixed metaphors and all.
My buddy's soundbyte is poignant in that, too often last year, the Bolts's offense felt nothing short of geriatric. Familiar and perhaps reductive a refrain though it may be, the Chargers's offensive scheme—and the coaching staff designing and executing it—is a legitimate concern re. Herbert's value going forward.
The Lombardi Effect
You all know how much of a Matthew Stafford fan I am. So it should come as no surprise to you that I lived through the Detroit Lions/Joe Lombardi era, the last year of which (2015) saw Stafford throw for an average Depth of Target (aDOT) of 5.9—dead last in the NFL.
Like Stafford, I never believed in Lombardi, and figured all he'd do was clip Herbert's wings. That's what happened. Pro Football Focus broke this down all the way back in November of 2021, at which point Herbert's aDOT ranked 31st out of 44 qualifying quarterbacks over the previous two years under Lombardi. At that point, it was 7.9 yards. By the end of 2022, his aDOT had plummeted to an almost inconceivable 6.9 yards. With all that arm talent!
Lombardi is out—mercifully. And we know the aforementioned Kellen Moore is likely to remediate and revitalize the playbook in a way that could open up the downfield game a bit. Potentially (hopefully) a lot. He paved the way for Dak Prescott to become somewhat of a flamethrower; what can he do with a quarterback who has a .50-caliber barrel for an arm?
What was your favorite Justin Herbert play from last season?
Here's 10 of 'em. ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/vud1hD1N7h
— NFL (@NFL) June 1, 2023
Because there are so many statistical ambiguities re. what Herbert will look like under Kellen Moore, let's evaluate him in terms of his current overall ranking, shall we?
I have Herbert ranked 57 overall. So: just behind Burrow, and right alongside Trevor Lawrence. That's the tier to consider drafting him within. As for who has the highest ceiling, I think it has to be Herbert. I wouldn't begrudge you if you grabbed TLaw or Joey Nicknames over him, but I really do think this needs to be the year Herbert blows by his ADP.
Why? Three simple, situational reasons. 1.) Offensive coordinator upgrade. 2.) The return of his elite left tackle, Rashawn Slater—let us not understate the importance of this. 3.) Upgrades at the wide receiver position. And I don't just mean Quentin Johnston. I think Derius Davis has the ability to stretch the field a bit for him, too.
Ride the lightning; do not whatsoever fade Herbert this year.
Another RB1 Fantasy season loading… pic.twitter.com/xdTcLKePXV
— Austin Ekeler (@AustinEkeler) March 19, 2023
Try to find some body fat percentage in those photos—I challenge you. Goodness.
In my legacy/hometown redraft PPR league, I had the 1.01 pick in 2022. I was waffling between two players: Jonathan Taylor, obviously, (the consensus safe choice), and Austin Ekeler (the guy I had a glow for, who I wanted to root for, with better receiving chops, etc.). What audacity I would exhibited by yanking Ekeler right off the boards! What glory! I, of course, lacked the constitution. And so I cowed out, took Taylor, and kicked rocks the rest of the season.
So let's skip the song and dance: Ekeler should be the first running back off your board. Don't hem or haw. Don't cross-reference advanced metrics with McCaffrey or Taylor or Barkley. Just take Ekeler.
A brief note: Ekeler's contract negotiations resulted in some incentive-laden addenda, which could benefit his fantasy owners. Players tend to rally around each other during contract disputes, and given how absolutely irreplaceable Ekeler is to the offense's success, I can see a reality, later in the season, in which Herbert deliberately feeds Ekeler so as to get him paid.
Kelley is a great handcuff and showed some ability to be effective in short-yardage situations last year. He's a fine piece of insurance to squirrel away, but likely doesn't have any standalone value.
I was high on Isaiah Spiller's potential leading into last season, but he was a healthy scratch more often than he dressed. I suspect he'd get some usage if Ekeler were to miss time with an injury, but even then, Kelley is probably the better option, right?
KEENAN ALLEN CLUTCH CATCH. THIS GAME ?
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) November 21, 2022
Anyone else get the sense this wide receiver room is getting a little congested?
Maybe I'm irrationally spooked. Herbert spread the ball around a lot last year under Joe Lombardi. He had to go through far too many of his progressions, and often check down to the flat or the shallow hook route late in a play's development. Which is to say: if his 2022 offensive playbook had deliberately designed plays for his top wideouts, it sure felt like a lot of those plays broke down and ended with incompletions or looks at a read further down the route tree.
We know Keenan Allen is a target-vacuum, an elite route-runner, and, just generally, Herbert's binky. We know Mike Williams might be the best contested-catch wideout in the league—certainly top-five, at the very least. So whom of these two will benefit most from the advent of a Kellen Moore playbook?
I'm going with Allen, who I have ranked 40th overall in PPR leagues. He's 31, sure, but we've seen players of his make and model be successful into their mid-thirties. Pro Football Focus had him ranked 12th overall last year in both their overall receiving grade and yards per route run. Look for Kellen Moore to key in on that. I wouldn't be surprised if Allen outpaces my current ranking.
Mike Williams's January 2023 back injury worries me; his back has been a notoriously pesky hitch in his giddy-up for years, and he's garnered a reputation for missing games otherwise. When he's out there, he's fantastic. But there's so much risk baked into his ranking (I have him 75th overall), that the Chargers clearly emphasized targeting receiver help in the draft.
Quentin Johnston is one of the handful of rookie wide receivers that landed in a perfect spot for some relevance year one.
Not to be overly excited about mini camp, but he fits the offense immediately and has room to grow in this offense.
— John Hesterman (@john_hesterman) June 15, 2023
Enter: Quentin Johnston, a 2022 superstar out of TCU. I expect him to immediately slot in as the team's WR3 (even though I like Joshua Palmer), and put on display some of his signature YAC attacks for the Chargers. He'll be a lovely complement to Keenan Allen in the short-to-intermediate route trees. Target him in the 13th-14th rounds of your draft.
Derius Davis, who'll also be returning punts for the Bolts, ran a 4.36 40 at the combine. He's a fun idea, yeah? He'll probably make a big play or three throughout the season. But don't get cute.
Maybe I'm too low on Williams? But I'd rather guys like Kadarius Toney, Calvin Ridley, and perhaps even Brandon Aiyuk over him this year, all of whom I have ranked right around that 75th-overall spot.
Justin Herbert ➡️ Gerald Everett ?
— NFL (@NFL) January 1, 2023
Fool's gold alert?
As Herbert's aDOT plummeted to a career low, Gerald Everett quietly had a productive season for the Chargers. It wasn't gobsmacking or flashy; he finished as the TE13 overall in PPR leagues. Serviceable. However, he ranked eighth-overall among tight ends in total receptions with 55.
So, which do we buy into: the high-end TE2 finish, or the mid-range TE1 reception stat?
I think we split the difference, here. Hedge any wild predictions about his potential to have a Dalton-Schultz-esque season under new OC Kellen Moore. If anything, I don't think Herbert will need to utilize Everett as much in short yardage situations, given the newly-bloated receiver room and Ekeler's cemented role in the passing game.
I've got him ranked as my TE15 going into the year. Herbert does trust him, so Everett might break through into the top-twelve for once in his career. But I'd rather take guys like Cole Kmet and Greg Dulcich over him, if only for their upside.
It's an interesting offense to write about this year, because it feels like so much depends on a single, as-of-yet unanswerable question: What will Kellen Moore bring to this group of ultra-talented, veteran offensive personnel?
Feels, too, a bit like a pressure-cooker year for this team, doesn't it? Staley's seat is reaching molten temperatures. It's a prove-it year, too, for Herbert and the gang. And that doesn't always portend to Fantasy success. But the skill ceiling here is just downright impossible to ignore.
I want, quite desperately, to believe that they're going to take a meteoric leap. So, okay—I invite you to come back to SoFi Stadium with me this season, this time just wearing a lighter and much sexier shade of blue. Let's believe.
Herbert, Ekeler, and Allen are no-brainers. Draft Mike Williams at your own risk, and take your flier on Quentin Johnston.
If you think I'm high on the Chargers, check out my 2023 Fantasy Football Jacksonville Jaguars Preview. Who else feels like—get ready for some more mixed metaphors—riding the lightning and riding some jungle cats to the moon this year?