QB Philip Rivers
How do you know when a quarterback has made it to the elite level? There are many ways to measure that, but I consider a quarterback elite when he can still produce while key receivers are out of the lineup. That’s what Rivers did last season. Despite having the league’s top tight end Antonio Gates for only ten games, his top wide receiver Vincent Jackson for just five games, and Malcom Floyd for 11 games, Rivers enjoyed a career year throwing to the likes of Legedu Naanee, Buster Davis, Seyi Ajirotutu, and Patrick Crayton. He topped 4,000 yards and 28 touchdowns for the third consecutive season, throwing for 4,710 yards, 30 touchdowns and only 13 interceptions. Imagine what’s in store if the he can get full seasons out of Jackson, Floyd, and Gates. With running back Ryan Mathews showing up out of shape, there certainly isn’t much worry of the Chargers running it more in 2011. All signs are pointing up for Rivers heading into 2011, and that’s saying something considering that he has finished as the fourth-, ninth-, and fifth-ranked fantasy quarterback over the past three seasons. He’s definitely in the top tier of fantasy quarterbacks.
RB Ryan Mathews
After the Chargers moved up in the first round of the 2010 draft to acquire him, it looked as though Mathews had stumbled into an excellent situation for a rookie running back. With LaDainian Tomlinson having been released and with no evident replacement on the roster, Mathews had a clear path to a starting spot on one of the league’s most high-powered offenses. He looked like fantasy gold. But that was then. His rookie season was subpar, marred by a recurring ankle injury and bad luck. In the 12 games Mathews played, he often lost time to Mike Tolbert or Darren Sproles based on game situations. Of course, had he earned more playing time, he would have had more touches. Rookie running backs often struggle, however, so more was expected from Mathews in 2011. Unfortunately, he showed up at training camp out of shape and promptly suffered a toe injury. Even if he does return to full health, Tolbert is all but certain to get the team’s short-yardage and closer work, so that limits Mathews’ upside. In addition, the team added Jordan Todman in the sixth round of the draft in hopes that he could replace the departed Darren Sproles as a pass-receiving threat. On the plus side, Mathews was solid during the final four games of 2010, averaging 16.2 fantasy points per game on 296 rushing yards, 53 receiving yards, and five touchdowns. The guy is talented. The question is whether he can put it together. He is a lower tier RB2 with upside in 2011.
RB Mike Tolbert
Hands up if you saw Tolbert as an RB2 heading into 2010. Yeah, didn’t think so. With rookie hotshot Ryan Mathews expected to replace LaDainian Tomlinson in the starting lineup and with Darren Sproles in line to reprise his role as the team’s third-down back, Tolbert was basically an afterthought—and that’s being polite. No matter, as the 243-pound bowling ball rolled past both Mathews and Sproles on the depth chart in Week 2 and earned more rushing attempts than both players over the course of the season. He was a touchdown machine with 11 scores on his 207 touches to go along with his 735 rushing yards and 216 receiving yards. With the team having invested so heavily in Mathews, he is expected to get first crack at the starting spot in 2011, but make no mistake that the Chargers will quickly turn to Tolbert if Mathews struggles once again. At worst, Tolbert shapes up as the team’s short-yardage back and fourth-quarter closer, likely spelling Mathews every third series or so. That makes him a great flex option for the coming season, and one who just might steal away a starting spot on one of the league’s top offenses.
RB Jordan Todman
With Darren Sproles approaching free agency, the Chargers used a sixth-round pick to acquire a similar player in Todman. Smart move. Sproles bolted from the Chargers, as expected, for the Saints. That leaves Todman with a clear path to a roster spot. What he doesn’t have is a clear path to enough playing time to make him a solid fantasy option in 2011. He’s not worth owning in redraft leagues but is worth taking a flier on in dynasty formats that employ a flex position.
WR Vincent Jackson
After a wasted 2010 season in which a holdout, suspension, and injuries caused him to miss 11 games, Jackson is back in San Diego as the Chargers’ franchise player. That means he should be good for 16 games, barring injury, and there’s a decent chance that Jackson emerges as an upper-tier WR1 in 2011. When both players are healthy, the Chargers offense runs through Jackson and tight end Antonio Gates, who are quarterback Philip Rivers’ preferred options in the passing game. Jackson has been a touchdown machine for the Chargers with 19 scores in his last 36 games, and the team is expecting him to become a more consistent threat in 2011. The fantasy knock on Jackson has been that he doesn’t catch a lot of balls, reaching a career-high of 68 in 2009. Look for that to change this year as he attempts to earn himself the lucrative long-term contract he’s been after for the past few seasons. Add it all up and a breakout season might just be in the cards, with Jackson establishing himself as one of the top receivers in the league.
WR Malcom Floyd
Throughout Vincent Jackson’s 2010 holdout, Floyd was consistently mentioned as a potential breakout candidate. However, a midseason hamstring injury prevented that from happening. With Jackson back and Antonio Gates at full health, Floyd will probably be the third wheel in the team’s passing game in 2011. He is at his best as a deep option, given his size and above-average speed. He has compiled a healthy 18.0 yards per reception over the past three years, but his career-high reception total is just 45, and he has only found the end zone 11 times since 2008. Given Gates’ injury history and Jackson’s DUI history, Floyd could emerge as the go-to guy in the Chargers passing attack. Even if that doesn’t happen, he is definitely worth grabbing in the middle rounds of your redraft leagues.
WR Vincent Brown
On the one hand, Chargers general manager A.J. Smith has a stellar reputation for finding NFL-caliber talent. On the other, it’s awfully hard to get excited about a smallish third-round pick who will line up in the slot and doesn’t possess good speed. Brown is not built to play outside, he’s not fast enough to be dynamic in the slot, and the Chargers aren’t going to give him many targets as long as Antonio Gates and Vincent Jackson are healthy. Brown is a fringe prospect in dynasty leagues, and one who will not be on any of my rosters.
WR Patrick Crayton
Sure, he plays for the Chargers and he’s got the upper hand on rookie Vincent Brown to be the team’s slot receiver, but Crayton has never topped 7.4 points per game (his average from way back in 2007). And if Vincent Jackson or Malcom Floyd go down, it’s unlikely the Chargers would move Crayton outside. No fantasy value here, folks.
TE Antonio Gates
Every year, we read about three or four tight ends that supposedly have the talent to reach the level of production that Gates achieves. And yet, every year the tight end rankings have Gates alone at the top in his own tier. There’s a reason for that. He’s unstoppable. He either beats defenders deep with his speed or he beats them on short and intermediate routes with his quick cuts and by shielding them from the ball. Oh yeah, his quarterback is one of the best in the league, as is the Chargers offense. Last year, Gates was the second-highest-scoring tight end, averaging 13.8 points per game, despite playing in just ten games. The highest-scoring was Jason Witten, who averaged 9.6 points per game. That makes Gates worth paying for. He is apparently healthy now and it’s worth noting that, although he is regularly banged up, he missed just three games over the first seven years of his career prior to 2010.