Although the Los Angeles Chargers were largely a fantasy disappointment in 2022, we need to go back to the well on such an exciting, pass-heavy offense for 2023 fantasy leagues. What can we expect from the 2023 Chargers, and who should we be targeting and fading in fantasy leagues?
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The 2022 Chargers Passing Game: What Went Wrong?
The Chargers were among the trendiest 2022 teams for fantasy owners. Austin Ekeler certainly proved to be a league-winner, but the rest of their passing offense performed at or below expectation. They were certainly priced according to their hype, but all three of Herbert, Mike Williams, and Keenan Allen either performed far below ADP or got injured.
|Player||2022 ADP||2022 PPG Finish||2023 ADP|
|Justin Herbert||4.06 (QB2)||QB15||5.07 (QB7)|
|Mike Williams||3.07 (WR13)||WR22||4.09 (WR24)|
|Keenan Allen||3.08 (WR14)||WR12||4.01 (WR19)|
Herbert finished second in the NFL in passing attempts and yards, so you’d think last season would look better. So what happened?
For one, Justin Herbert had a flukily small amount of touchdowns in 2022. With a mere 3.6% touchdown rate, he had only 25 passing touchdowns vs. 33.6 expected passing touchdowns. These things are usually not sticky year-to-year, pointing to major positive regression potential in 2023.
That is tough to overcome for fantasy purposes, especially when combined with injuries to Keenan Allen, star tackle Rashawn Slater, and precious little receiving talent behind 2022 disappointment Mike Williams (who also missed time). Slater especially seemed to make a difference for the whole passing offense (using the RotoViz Game Splits app):
This potentially presents us with real post-hype value in our 2023 fantasy drafts as we look at their current prices. Allen, Williams, and Slater are obviously back, and they drafted wide receiver Quentin Johnston in the first round of the draft. But can we expect a comparable passing volume to last year?
Let’s establish that the Chargers can continue to pass at a high rate under new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. There are plenty of potential criticisms of the Chargers’ offense under Joe Lombardi, but their pace and pass rate are not among them (shoutout to RotoViz’s NFL Pace App):
|Team (Years)||Plays/60 Minutes||Pass Percentage||No Huddle Percentage|
|DAL w/ Moore As OC (2019-2022)||67||58%||13%|
|LAC w/ Lombardi As OC (2021-2022)||69||64%||6%|
They passed the ball at an elite rate and were tied for first (with Tampa Bay and Dallas) in plays per 60 minutes over the past two seasons. It’s admittedly tough to be more pass-heavy than the Chargers have been.
But as we can see from the data, Dallas was also incredibly fast-paced under Kellen Moore. Over his span as the Dallas offensive coordinator (2019-2022), Moore’s Cowboys ranked first in the NFL in plays per 60 minutes.
Although Dallas was more balanced in their offensive approach, there are two reasons to believe that Moore will have the Chargers passing at a higher rate than during his tenure with the Cowboys:
- Dallas’ personnel fit with a more run-heavy approach. They had (at times) an elite offensive line, Ezekiel Elliott, Tony Pollard, and injuries to their starting quarterback. The Chargers have never dealt with a Herbert absence, and simply don’t have the stable of running backs Dallas did. None of Joshua Kelley, Larry Rountree, or Isaiah Spiller appear worthy of real offensive roles and Austin Ekeler isn’t a volume rusher. He’s never run for 1,000 yards and his career-high in carries is 206. Playing this year at age 28, there’s no reason to think he’ll now see a huge uptick in carries. The Chargers also just drafted a wide receiver with their first pick.
- Dak Prescott missed 24% of their games under Moore. When starting quarterbacks get injured, teams generally slow down their pace and cut down their pass attempts. Dallas was no exception when Dak missed games over the past four seasons (using RotoViz’s Team Splits app):
There’s also a lot of evidence to suggest that the Chargers will throw deeper far more often under Moore. Some of this is due to how heavily they target Ekeler, but take a peek at the intended air yards per attempt for Herbert compared to Dak Prescott’s over the past four seasons:
|Year||Dak Prescott IAY/PA (Rank)||Justin Herbert IAY/PA (Rank)|
|2020||7.9 (t-17th)||7.4 (25th)|
|2021||7.7 (t-16th)||7.6 (18th)|
|2022||8.2 (10th)||6.4 (t-31st)|
Even if the Chargers aren’t as pass-heavy as last year, more deep shots and greater efficiency can help make up for any negligible lost volume. More potential big plays also establish a higher potential ceiling.
How To Play The 2023 Chargers Receivers
With all of the above in mind, let’s get into which of their receivers we need to be targeting (and avoiding) in our 2023 fantasy drafts:
Target Keenan Allen
Even a cursory look at ADP shows us that wide receivers are going off the board incredibly early this year. Once exciting young receivers Chris Olave, DeVonta Smith, Tee Higgins, and D.K. Metcalf are off the board, things become less enticing at wide receiver.
If you’re looking to take a receiver in the late 3rd round, you’ll likely have to choose between Calvin Ridley, Deebo Samuel, Amari Cooper, and Keenan Allen.
Calvin Ridley has played a mere 5 games since his breakout 2020 season and will play this season at 28 years old. It’s rare for a player to nearly miss two seasons of his prime and then return as the same player. He’ll also compete with 2022 breakouts Christian Kirk, Zay Jones, and Evan Engram for targets. He is an easy fade at his current cost.
Deebo Samuel has only one truly elite season under his belt and has major target competition from Christian McCaffrey, George Kittle, and Brandon Aiyuk. The 49ers are also perenially among the most run-heavy teams in the NFL under Kyle Shanahan. There’s also a non-zero chance Trey Lance sees some action at quarterback, which has the potential to strain the target distribution even further.
DeAndre Hopkins might be playing for Tennessee or New England in 2023. These are not the high-upside passing offenses we want to be targeting with our early selections. He’s also 31 years old – not a death knell for players of his caliber, but his declining efficiency last season (7.5 yards per target, over a full yard lower than the past two seasons and second lowest of career) points to the age cliff being in sight.
Keenan Allen, on the other hand, is a player worth targeting in this range. He returned from injury in Week 11 and received the following target numbers in his subsequent games: 8, 7, 14, 14, 9, 14, 6, 11.
Since Mike Williams didn’t play in some of those games, check out how he finished the 2022 season as the Chargers made their playoff push with both him and Mike Williams playing:
Keenan Allen’s age (31) is certainly a red flag, but this is a player who consistently wins in the short-yardage area with excellent route running. He’s been more durable than given credit for since his 2016 ACL tear (only 1.6 missed games per season from 2017-2022), and we know that elite wide receivers (Allen has six career top-12 PPG finishes and 9.2 career targets per game) are the ones that continue to produce into their 30s.
His efficiency renaissance in 2022 tells us he has more gas in the tank:
- 75.2 yards per game (best since 2017)
- 11.4 yards per reception (best since 2019)
- 74.2% catch percentage (best since 2015)
- 8.4 yards per target (best since 2018)
We want elite target earners in high-volume passing offenses. Allen fits that description far better than his peers in his price range.
Fade Mike Williams
Mike Williams was actually slightly more expensive than Allen last season but ended up being far less valuable. Allen had eight top-25 PPR weeks in his final eight games (four top-10 weeks). Mike Williams had four top-10 weeks all season, and only one of them came after Week 8. He also had seven finishes outside the top-34. When Mike Williams wasn’t booming, he was killing your lineup – and the booms were not frequent enough.
This season, Mike Williams is being taken in the mid-4th round, but the other wide receivers around him have a higher ceiling, higher floor, or both.
Christian Watson is his team’s WR1 after a breakout rookie season. We’ve touched on him as a classic sophomore breakout candidate here.
Jerry Jeudy ended last season on an absolute heater, and there’s potential for a post-hype surge with Sean Payton running the show.
Drake London and D.J. Moore (and even Terry McLaurin to an extent) both have passing volume concerns but remain younger, productive players who are nominally their team’s top passing options.
Mike Williams will turn 29 in October and doesn’t have the career production (zero career top-12 PPG finishes) or target-earning pedigree that can see players excel into their late 20s/early 30s. Earning targets is a skill. Per the Stealing Signals tool on RotoViz (among 2022 receivers with 100+ routes):
- Keenan Allen was t-10th at 0.27 targets per route run – tied with players like Justin Jefferson and Stefon Diggs.
- Mike Williams, on the other hand, was t-50th at 0.21 targets per route run – tied with players like Courtland Sutton, Robert Woods, and Tutu Atwell.
Let’s not forget that except for his size and draft capital, he wasn’t an elite prospect. He was not an early declare and was either below average or only slightly above average in the vital metrics of Dominator Rating, Target Share, and Breakout Age (via PlayerProfiler.com):
Target Quentin Johnston
Now Mike Williams has to deal with a younger (and likely better) version of himself in 6’3″, 208lb first-round pick Quentin Johnston:
I highly recommend reading Mike Braude’s 2023 rookie wide receiver analysis for more on Johnston as a prospect. But a few of the highlights include superior percentiles to Williams in Dominator Rating, Target Share, and Breakout Age, being an early-declare, and having very exciting comparable players.
Being drafted as the WR42 at the end of the 7th round, Johnston is arguably the best way to get a piece of this exciting Chargers offense. Last year, Chargers WR3 Josh Palmer (a far inferior prospect with worse draft capital) saw 107 targets, partially due to injuries to Allen and Williams.
We’d assume that Johnston will do more with his opportunities than Palmer considering the talent gap between the two. The best part about drafting Johnston (besides his cost) is that there are multiple avenues to him becoming a difference-maker in 2023:
- Another injury to Allen or Williams (or even Ekeler) would open up a massive target opportunity for Johnston.
- Johnston may already be simply better than Williams and could out-target him earlier than expected. He’s certainly closer to Williams’ playing style than Allen’s.
- Massive positive touchdown regression by Herbert could see far more touchdowns for the wide receiver group and help make up for any potential target competition.
- More aggressive, deep targets under Kellen Moore than under Lombardi.
Do yourself a favor and draft Quentin Johnston in your 2023 fantasy leagues.