QB Philip Rivers
The free agent market over the last two seasons has not been kind to Rivers. Last season, he lost running back Darren Sproles and watched as his diminutive checkdown option went on to enjoy a career season in New Orleans with 1,313 total yards and nine touchdowns. This off-season, Rivers watched as his top wide receiver Vincent Jackson left town for a lucrative long-term contract the Chargers were unwilling to give him. While Robert Meachem will take over for Jackson in the Chargers starting lineup, he is an inconsistent player and both Gates and Malcom Floyd have proven to be injury-prone. On the positive side, Rivers enjoyed arguably the best year of his career in 2010 despite numerous injuries amongst his receiving corps and losing Jackson for most of the season due to a holdout, suspension and injury. However, that comforting fact is offset by his performance in 2011 when he threw a career-high 20 interceptions in what was regarded as the worst year of his career. Rivers is still too good and the Chargers throw it too much for him not to be a starting fantasy quarterback but the odds of him cracking the top 5 in 2012 are unlikely. Consider him a mid-tier to lower-end fantasy starter this season.
QB Charlie Whitehurst
In his two years in Seattle, Whitehurst did little to justify the Seahawks investment in him. And, the team’s decision to forfeit a third round and swap second round picks with San Diego (with the Seahawks moving down) seems to have been a poor one. Simply put, Whitehurst gave up on passing plays too soon, failed to get and stay settled in the pocket and displayed poor accuracy on all but the shortest of passes. His NFL career likely would have been over had the Chargers not decided to attempt to salvage it.
RB Ryan Mathews
After sharing the running back duties with Mike Tolbert last season, Mathews appears ready to take over a workhorse back role with San Diego in 2012. Tolbert signed with Carolina as a free agent and the Chargers will enter the season with the uninspiring trio of Ronnie Brown, Le’Ron McClain and Curtis Brinkley in reserve behind Mathews. That should translate into plenty of touches for the talented Mathews. He enters the season having had a very productive 2011 with 1,545 total yards and six touchdowns despite missing two full games and playing nicked up in several others. Tolbert saw plenty of action last season both as a short yardage runner and the teams’ third down back, pilfering 10 touchdowns. Look for Mathews to assume most of that workload, giving him an opportunity to approach 2,000 total yards and reach double-digit touchdowns for the first time in his career. The only risk with Mathews is his penchant for getting hurt (six missed games over the first two years of his career) but reports out of San Diego indicate that he is in the best shape of his career. He is a legitimate RB1 in 2012 and likely to be amongst the top five fantasy producers at running back.
RB Ronnie Brown
How big of a bust was Brown last year for the Eagles? So big that they tried to trade him to the Lions for Jerome Harrison, who they felt would be a better fit in their offense. While Brown stayed healthy and played in all 16 games, head coach Andy Reid never gave him much of a role on game day with Brown getting more than four rushes in just three games and failing to catch a pass all year. Brown’s fantasy value is as a handcuff to Ryan Mathews and even if he beats out Curtis Brinkley and Le’Ron McClain for that role, it’s doubtful he could even be a marginal fantasy starter in that capacity. More likely, the Chargers would move to a RBBC approach if Mathews were to go down.
WR Robert Meachem
For years, the debates have been whether Meachem was capable of producing solid numbers in a big role and whether he was being held back by having to play in a Saints offense that spread the ball around. The 2007 first round pick never topped the 66 targets he received in 2010 and he has never topped 45 receptions in a single season. Barring injury, he is almost guaranteed of having a career year this season in San Diego, having been signed by the Chargers to take over for the departed Vincent Jackson as their top wide receiver. Possessing outstanding speed and solid size at 6’2” and 210 pounds, there has never been any questions about Meachem’s physical gifts. He will get a healthy dose of targets this season and appears to have landed in the perfect role with the Chargers, who will rely on him to be their main deep target. His first 1,000-yard season is within reach as well as an opportunity to approach double-digit touchdowns. Meachem is a boom/bust pick but the probability of a boom is greater. Consider him a low-end WR2 with major upside in 2012.
WR Malcom Floyd
Quick – where did Malcom Floyd rank as a fantasy wide receiver in 2011? The perception seems to be that Floyd doesn’t cut it as a fantasy option but he has improved his ranking from 53rd to 35th to 31st over the past three seasons. That’s not bad for a guy who missed five games in 2010 and four games last season. In fact, the 53rd ranking from 2009 is a bit misleading since he had 776 receiving yards but fell down the charts because he caught just one touchdown. Last year, he had the 20th highest FPts/G average at wide receiver and there is no doubting that he has the size (6’5”, 225 pounds) and speed to replace Vincent Jackson. With Jackson finally taking his talents (and drama) to Tampa Bay, the Chargers signed former Saint Robert Meachem to replace him in the starting lineup and the assumption is that Meachem will assume Jackson’s role and a large portion of his production. That makes Floyd a solid buy low option. If you’re not drinking the Kool Aid yet, consider this: over his last eight games last season, Floyd posted four 100-yard games while catching 34 passes for 698 yards and five touchdowns. He’s a WR3 that will likely come off the board after 45 or 50 other players at his position.
WR Vincent Brown
The Chargers 2011 3rd round pick enjoyed a modestly successful rookie season, establishing himself as the front-runner to assume the role of the team’s slot receiver this coming season. Brown had just 19 receptions for the season but made the most of them, totaling 329 yards for an average yards per reception of 17.3 and scoring a pair of touchdowns. More impressive was his work when he was given more playing time. In the three games that Brown had five or more targets, he caught 12 passes for 226 yards and a touchdown (and missed another one on a replay challenge). At 5’11” and 187 pounds, Brown doesn’t possess the size to play outside, he doesn’t possess good speed and the Chargers don’t utilize their slot receiver often. Those factors limit Brown’s upside but he did prove he was a gamer as a rookie, capable of subbing in for the team’s starters when needed. Look for him to battle free agent signee Eddie Royal to earn the slot position but even if he wins the job, Brown is not worth owning in redraft formats and he is a modest prospect in dynasty leagues.
WR Eddie Royal
If there was ever a player whose fortunes were solely tied to that of a head coach and his system, Eddie Royal is that player. Royal was a revelation as a rookie in 2009 playing in Mike Shanahan’s offense, notching 91 receptions for 980 yards and five touchdowns. Shanahan was fired following that year and Royal’s production fell off a cliff. The former second round pick caught 115 passes for 1,127 yards and four touchdowns over the following three seasons and is coming off a 19-reception, 155-yard, one-touchdown campaign. Finally free of his rookie contract, Royal had a chance to rejoin Shanahan in Washington where he would have been the team’s top slot receiver but instead chose to join in San Diego where he will compete with 2011 3rd round pick Vincent Brown. Since coaches generally like their slot receivers to catch more than 38.8% of their targets (Royal’s receptions to targets ratio last season), look for Brown to win that battle. I said it last year and I’ll say it again this year. Don’t go thinking Royal is ready to recreate his rookie magic because it ain’t gonna happen.
TE Antonio Gates
Despite missing three full games and most of another game, Gates still managed to finish 2011 as the 7th ranked fantasy tight end and 4th in average FPts/G with 11.7. While Gates’ fantasy prospects may be dimming somewhat due to his inability to stay healthy, he remains a hugely productive player when healthy. Safeties and linebackers struggle to get around Gates’ large frame, as evidenced by his completion percentage of 74.5% over the past two seasons. That ability also makes him a red zone demon with 74 touchdown receptions in 117 games over the last eight seasons. At 32 years of age, his skill set remains strong although he has lost some of his speed. With nine full games lost to injury over the past two seasons, the issue is clearly whether Gates will remain healthy and how many games he will play. Even if you forecast in a couple of missed games, Gates remains a top five fantasy tight end who could be the third player taken at his position.