Chargers’ title pressure, NFL power rankings, Kyler Murray and more

Chargers’ title pressure, NFL power rankings, Kyler Murray and more

Last year, the Los Angeles Rams survived the preseason hype and won it all. This time, it’s their stadium co-tenants in the Los Angeles Chargers in such a spot.

Time is the theme of the 2022 Los Angeles Chargers.

Either in the sense of this being their time, or time being up on patience for many supporters.

After watching quarterback Justin Herbert break out in 2020 as a rookie with 4,336 yards and 31 touchdown passes, many expected the Chargers to go from a seven-win team to the playoffs.

Yet despite Herbert totaling 5,014 yards and 38 touchdowns, Los Angeles still missed the postseason, finishing with a 9-8 record. The season was particularly maddening considering the late-season swoon which included losses to the COVID-ridden Houston Texans and the Week 18 thriller against the Las Vegas Raiders.

This offseason, general manager Tom Telesco went scorched earth. He traded for edge rusher Khalil Mack and signed the league’s top free agent in corner J.C. Jackson. The Chargers also bolstered their offensive line in the NFL Draft’s first round for a second consecutive year, this time selecting guard Zion Johnson out of Boston College.

All told, Los Angeles has one of the league’s best rosters. It’s a group loaded with young talent and veterans, led by a superstar quarterback who continues to ascend.

Yet for their considerable promise, few franchises have been longer on potential and shorter on results than the Chargers in recent years.

And to that point, there’s a case to be made for glory this season, but also for pain.

The case for glory is easy. As aforementioned, Los Angeles is loaded.

The Chargers have a top-flight quarterback, two excellent receivers in Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, a quality offensive line, and a defense which features edge rusher Joey Bosa, safety Derwin James, corner Asante Samuel Jr., Mack and Jackson.

Few teams can claim top-tier talent similar to that group, which is why the Chargers enter August with 15/1 odds to win the Super Bowl.

However, the case for pain is equally easy to make.

Los Angeles is in an absurd division with the Kansas City Chiefs, much-improved Denver Broncos and high-flying Raiders. Kansas City has hosted the last four AFC title games, while Denver brought in a new head coach-quarterback combo in Nathaniel Hackett and Russell Wilson, respectively.

The Chargers also have stars, but many injury concerns accompanying them. Bosa has missed 14 games in his six-year career. Mack only played seven games in 2021. Since entering the NFL, James has played 36 games and missed 29. Samuel missed five contests as a rookie with multiple concussions.

As for Herbert, the stakes are enormous.

After this season, Herbert becomes eligible for an extension. After seeing the contracts doled out to Kyler Murray and Deshaun Watson, another great campaign could have the former Oregon Ducks star in line for a contract of more than $50 million annually and upwards of $250 million guaranteed.

Yet a down season, either for Herbert or the Chargers, could prove problematic. Los Angeles is traditionally a cash-poor franchise by comparison to other NFL clubs. If owner Dean Spanos has any leverage to squeeze Herbert in negotiations — especially after paying a $650 relocation fee while being embroiled in a nasty family dispute — he could well use it.

In Los Angeles, fans have been waiting for their talented team to finally mature and win all the games it should instead of giving games away in bizarre fashion, something of a Chargers staple. They want to see playoff football and even a deep run, with the team not reaching the conference championship stage since 2007 and only once since 1994.

The quarterback is in place. The head coach is young and intriguing. The roster is stacked.

The Chargers know it’s time to make their move. Now we wait to see if they’re ready to meet the moment, or slide back once more as another season tolls midnight.

Power rankings

Top 10 WRs primed for their first 1,000-yard season

1. Christian Kirk, Jacksonville Jaguars
2. Devonta Smith, Philadelphia Eagles
3. Amon-Ra St. Brown, Detroit Lions
4. Tim Patrick, Denver Broncos
5. Chris Olave, New Orleans Saints
6. Drake London, Atlanta Falcons
7. Mecole Hardman, Kansas City Chiefs
8. Brandon Aiyuk, San Francisco 49ers
9. George Pickens, Pittsburgh Steelers
10. Treylon Burks, Tennessee Titans

Quotable

“I think it’s the best I’ve ever seen him throw it thus far. What are we, three days in? And he’s probably throwing it better than I’ve ever seen him throw it. He’s really worked hard in the offseason and it’s showing. So we’ve just got to build on that. It’s really exciting, and we’re all very excited.”

– Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman on Lamar Jackson’s progress

Jackson has plenty to prove this season, especially as contract talks continues while a self-imposed deadline looms. The Ravens have enjoyed two division titles and three playoff berths in Jackson’s four years at the helm — including his ’19 MVP campaign — but have only one postseason win in that time.

A huge year from Jackson and a deep run in January would be a game-changer for his national reputation and, if the contract isn’t squared, future negotiations.

Podcast

On vacation! No podcast this week and next, but returning with force on Aug. 16!

Random stat

The 1980 Oakland Raiders were the first team to win four postseason games in their Super Bowl-winning season.

Info learned this week

1. NFLPA, Watson release joint statement

We appear close to an announcement on the Deshaun Watson hearing.

While Disciplinary Officer Sue Robinson hasn’t made her decision public — or perhaps even at all — the NFLPA tipped its hand on Sunday night with a joint statement alongside Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, which you can read in full below:

This suggests the NFLPA might feel a favorable ruling is coming, and the union is essentially telling commissioner Roger Goodell to respect the verdict.

However, let’s be clear about how this works. Goodell, via the Collective Bargaining Agreement, has final say. Robinson can recommend a suspension length, but Goodell can unilaterally decide the ultimate punishment. If he feels Watson’s punishment is too light, he can override Robinson and impose any ban he wants. And while the union can fight it by appealing to federal court, the odds are it winning are close to zero percent.

Soon, we’ll know Watson’s fate … by Robinson or Goodell.

2. Seahawks commit to D.K. Metcalf with familiar extension

John Schneider gets an F for creativity.

The Seattle Seahawks extended star receiver D.K. Metcalf last week on a three-year deal worth $72 million, including $58.2 million guaranteed. Over three seasons in Seattle, the former second-round pick from Ole Miss has notched 216 receptions for 3,170 yards and 29 touchdowns. Without question, he deserved to be paid.

However, the playful dig at Schneider is instructive of an interesting trend in the receiver market. After seeing Tyreek Hill (four years, $120 million) and Davante Adams (five years, $140 million) reset the wideout market in stunning fashion, the pacts for those entering their fourth years on rookie deals have been remarkably similar.

On the opening night of the Draft, A.J. Brown was sent from the Titans to the Eagles and promptly got four years, $100 million and $57.2 million guaranteed. Then, a few weeks ago, Terry McLaurin and the Washington Commanders agreed on a three-year, $68 million deal with $53.4 million guaranteed. Now Metcalf, who checks in a just above both in guarantees, and between them in annual average. All very close in money, and all three years.

Then on Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers signed Deebo Samuel, which leads us to…

3. Oh look … Deebo Samuel’s deal in SF followed the pattern

Samuel and the Niners getting together on Sunday night and ending the All-Pro receiver’s hold-in, with a three-year deal worth up to $73.5 million with $58.1 million guaranteed. Basically, Metcalf’s deal, almost to the cent.

Unlike Metcalf, Samuel began his career as a good player with obvious upside instead of being an immediate star. In his first two years with San Francisco, Samuel missed 10 combined games, limiting his production to 1,193 receiving yards and four touchdowns. In 2021, Samuel played 16 games and exploded, becoming a First-Team All-Pro with 1,770 scrimmage yards and 14 touchdowns, while leading the league with 18.2 yards per reception.

Still, Samuel got paid on the same level as Metcalf, largely because the two are in an identical contract year, with one having more sustained success while the other has reached a higher ceiling.

Bottom line? Metcalf and Samuel got paid, and along with McLaurin and Brown, they’ve set the standard for the next wave of star receivers nearing the end of their rookie deals.

4. Frank Clark gives raw presser, might be worth betting on in ’22

In three seasons with the Chiefs, Frank Clark has reached two Super Bowls, won one, totaled eight playoff sacks and reached three Pro Bowls.

Still, most Kansas City fans would tell you his five-year, $105 million deal signed prior to 2019 was a bad move for the Chiefs. This claim is backed up by the team restructuring his contract this offseason with the likely move of cutting bait after this season to save $19 million in 2023.

However, on Thursday, Clark stepped to the mic at a post-practice presser and talked openly. He spoke about cutting out liquor this offseason and getting rid of his gut. He spoke about a candid conversation between he and head coach Andy Reid after last season, and how Reid expressed his disappointment in Clark’s campaign. He also spoke about needing to grow up, and how his offseason has been dedicated to doing so.

His presser was 12 minutes long, and worth the watch.

With the Chiefs adding edge rusher Carlos Dunlap on a one-year deal last week, and drafting George Karlaftis in the first round of April’s draft, general manager Brett Veach is sending a clear message: snaps will be earned, not given. For Clark, who is essentially in a contract year, he needs to outperform his past two seasons which have produced a combined 10.5 sacks, including 4.5 last year.

If his powerful words were any indication, perhaps he’s a good bet to do so.

5. Isaiah McKenzie worth watching for Bills in new role

Josh Allen. Stefon Diggs. Dawson Knox. Gabriel Davis. Those are the big names associated with the Buffalo Bills and their high-powered offense. Maybe we should consider adding Isaiah McKenzie.

McKenzie has never had more than 300 receiving. yards in any of his five seasons in the league, either with Denver or Buffalo. However, with slot receiver Cole Beasley still a free gent and veteran Jamison Crowder as McKenzie’s main competition, the 27-year-old could shine in Buffalo’s system.

Last year, McKenzie starred in Week 16 against the New England Patriots in the de facto AFC East title game. With Beasley out with a positive COVID test, McKenzie caught 11 passes for 125 yards and a touchdown. The rest of the regular season saw McKenzie catch nine balls for 53 yards.

Normally, McKenzie’s performance could be written off. Yet he’s starred early on in Buffalo’s camp and with a dire need for slot help following Beasley’s departure, don’t be quick to dismiss the speedster.

Two cents

The Ryan Jensen injury is crushing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

You may remember I picked the Bucs to reach Super Bowl LVII, and I’m not moving off that stance. However, there’s a strong argument that outside quarterback Tom Brady, no offensive player was more indispensable than Jensen.

Jensen, 31, is an eight-year veteran and a Pro Bowler who earned a three-year, $39 million deal this offseason. On Thursday, Jensen was carted out of practice after suffering a knee injury which will keep him sidelined for months if not the entire season. Without him, Tampa Bay has now reshuffled all three of its interior line positions, with guards Ali Marpet (retirement) and Alex Kappa (free agency) also gone.

Now consider how Jensen’s loss impacts those around him. For all Brady’s greatness, he’s not mobile. Pressure up the gut is the easiest way to slow his rhythm passing attack.

Finally, consider Tampa Bay’s biggest threats. The Rams have Aaron Donald inside. The Chiefs have Chris Jones. The Packers have Kenny Clark.

If Jensen is gone for the year, it makes the Buccaneers’ path to winning it all much tougher.

Inside the league

Massive contract extensions are usually cause for celebration. Somehow, Kyler Murray’s deal with the Arizona Cardinals became a moment for controversy and embarrassment.

At the outset of training camp, the Cardinals and Murray agreed to a five-year, $230.5 million extension with $160 million guaranteed, keeping the quarterback around through the 2028 campaign. However, the independent clause became the national storyline, with Murray required to do four hours of homework outside of meetings.

After the clause became public on Monday, FanSided reached out to league sources in an effort to find someone who had ever seen such language inserted into a contract. I’m still waiting to find a single person who has.

On Thursday, the Cardinals removed the clause and released a comical statement, in part blaming the media for how the clause was perceived.

Let’s be real. The Cardinals don’t believe in Murray’s work ethic and study habits. If they did, none of this would’ve happened. For his part, Murray signed the deal. Either he was aware of the clause and accepted it, or his agent didn’t relay the language and the contract was inked. Regardless, it’s incredibly embarrassing for Murray’s camp, and getting rid of the controversial section doesn’t take it away.

Ultimately, the Cardinals and Murray both look ridiculous. Not the way either party should be feeling after the biggest contract in franchise history.

History lesson

You likely know the Buccaneers didn’t win a game in 1976. You certainly know the ’08 Detroit Lions and ’17 Cleveland Browns followed suit.

But did you know the Dallas Cowboys and Baltimore Colts also had winless campaigns?

As an expansion team in 1960, the Cowboys went 0-11-1 under future Hall of Fame head coach Tom Landry. Dallas managed to tie Landry’s old team, the New York Giants, 31-31, at Yankee Stadium in the season’s penultimate week.

Then there’s the ’82 Colts. This comes with an asterisk, as Baltimore went 0-8-1 in a strike-shortened year. The Colts only managed 113 points, the fewest in the NFL, while allowing the third-most points (236) in the league.

Parting shot

We’re all missing the point about Tua Tagovailoa and the Miami Dolphins.

For Tagovailoa and his team, the offseason storylines have been about the newly-acquired Tyreek Hill, holdover star wideout Jaylen Waddle and whether their quarterback can deliver the deep ball. On Saturday, Tagovailoa aired out a beauty to Hill, sending Dolphins fans in attendance into ecstasy.

In reality, it’s all about whether Tagovailoa can be a driver of the offense, and not a passenger. Whether he can hit the slant route on 3rd and 6. Whether he can throw the deep out to bail the offense out of a holding penalty. Yes, the deep shots are highlights, but football games are won through situational success.

The Dolphins will have a run-first offense with Tagovailoa tasked to make quick reads and accurate throws. Hill and Waddle have elite speed, providing their quarterback more leeway.

Tagovailoa must take advantage of it.

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