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Debate: Raiders or Chargers?

An objective look at two AFC West teams who believe they’ll challenge the Chiefs this season

NFL: DEC 22 Raiders at Chargers Photo by Kevin Reece/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I think that any team in the division could win the AFC West this season. I really do. I certainly have the Kansas City Chiefs weighted as the favorite for obvious reasons, but on paper this division doesn’t have any “duds” to me. In fact that “dud factor” for all three Chiefs challengers could come down to the play of their quarterbacks, both veteran and inexperienced.

But outside the overrated impact of the quarterback position, I want to compare other important factors for teams in terms of success. And then I also want to compare quarterbacks because overrated as it may be, it is still the most important position in the game.

We know that the Chiefs are the favorites. Between the Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders though (saving team four for another day), who goes into the season with the most advantages?

Total Defense

Raiders: 419 points allowed (24th), 5.9 yards per play allowed (26th), 14.8-percent DVOA (31st)

Chargers: 345 points allowed (14th), 5.4 yards per play allowed (13th), 5.4-percent DVOA (21st)

It is fairly undeniable that the 2019 Chargers had a better defense than the 2019 Raiders. It is also commonly accepted that the Chargers will continue to have a better defense and in fact The Athletic believes that LA could have the second-best D in the league this year. Which is the same as saying that the Chargers could have the best defense in the league.

Understandably so.

The defensive line has Joey Bosa, Linval Joseph, and Melvin Ingram for starters, with 2019 first round pick Jerry Tillery hoping to improve upon a disappointing rookie campaign. Other members of that unit include Uchenna Nwosu, Justin Jones, Isaac Rochell, and Damion Square, so the depth is also impressive.

The secondary features Derwin James, Casey Hayward, Chris Harris, and Desmond King, plus Rashawn Jenkins and Nasir Adderley, a second round pick last year. That unit has maybe the NFL’s best safety and best slot corner, with Hayward not long ago being considered a shutdown outside cornerback.

If LA’s issues are in the middle of the defense, they hoped to have fixed that by trading up into the first round (something GM Tom Telesco would’ve never contemplated in past years) for inside linebacker Kenneth Murray, highly regarded for his on-field talent and off-field character.

The Chargers were only 21st in DVOA on defense last season, but consider that:

  • The Patriots jumped from 16th to 1st
  • The 49ers jumped from 23rd to 2nd
  • The Steelers jumped from 13th to 3rd
  • The Bucs jumped from 32nd to 5th!

Immediate turnarounds made up most of the top-five defenses in the NFL last season. Seeing the Chargers rank first in 2020 would not be surprising given the talent they have and the history of great defenses.

Can the Raiders make a Tampa Bay-like jump on that side of the ball and keep pace with LA? They’ve certainly been trying.

Perhaps because he knows that rookies and second-year players rarely contribute to significant degrees and that his defense needed help immediately, general manager Mike Mayock used free agency over the draft to fix the holes at defensive line, linebacker, and secondary. Las Vegas signed defensive tackle Maliek Collins (to pair with former Dallas Cowboys line coach Rod Marinelli, also added in the offseason), linebackers Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski, defensive end Carl Nassib, cornerback Prince Amukamara, and safety Damarious Randall.

But maybe the key to everything will be a semi-rookie, semi-second year player in safety Johnathan Abram, back on the field after missing virtually all of last season.

To compare the Raiders defense in 2020 to the Raiders defense in 2019 is really not that much different than comparing them to, like, the Cleveland Browns, where Karl Joseph plays now, or the Cowboys, where Daryl Worley is now. The head coach is the same, the defensive coordinator is the same, Maxx Crosby is the same, but so many of the key players in Las Vegas will be ones who weren’t starting in Oakland.

The Raiders will probably only look like a top-five defense if Littleton, Collins, Kwiatkoski, Abram, Trayvon Mullen, or some combination of two to four players start to look like stars. Which is possible! But as of now, the Chargers have defensive players who we already know are game-changing, elite, bonafide stars.

Advantage on defense: Chargers

Offensive Line

Chargers: Sam Tevi-Dan Feeney-Mike Pouncey-Trai Turner-Bryan Bulaga

Raiders: Kolton Miller-Richie Incognito-Rodney Hudson-Gabe Jackson-Trent Brown

The Chargers had one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL last season but are hoping for a Raiders defense-like turnaround to that unit based on health, trades, and free agent acquisitions.

LA traded tackle Russell Okung (injured last year) for guard Trai Turner, a former Pro Bowler who probably needed a change of scenery. They signed Bulaga and by all accounts he seems plugged in as their right — not left — tackle. That figures to be a massive upgrade on their roster, same as Turner over any right guard they had. And finally they have Mike Pouncey back at center after the four-time Pro Bowler missed 11 games last year.

All told, the Chargers could go from bottom-five to maybe even top-10 if all goes right for them. But Sam Tevi could be one of the worst pass blocking left tackles in the NFL. Dan Feeney has also had his struggles.

I think the Raiders have a top-three offensive line and at least three potential first team all-pros.

Advantage on offensive line: Raiders

Quarterback

Chargers: Justin Herbert, Tyrod Taylor

Raiders: Derek Carr, Marcus Mariota

I’m going to be very complimentary about the Chargers quarterbacks for a moment and then I’m going to pick Derek Carr because that’s just the reality of 2020 for me.

I think Justin Herbert was the right pick for LA in the draft (sixth overall) and I like him a lot more than Tua Tagovailoa. I prefer Joe Burrow, but then in another sense I’m somehow less wary about Herbert than I am Burrow. Regardless of the top pick though, everything I’ve seen about Justin Herbert as a leader, as a quarterback, as a player who can contribute early, points me in the direction of a QB who I think is the right type of football player to draft for your team.

After watching the first episode of Hard Knocks, it also really started to settle in for me that we will probably see Herbert’s first start in September. Not December and not in 2021.

Tyrod Taylor is fine, but super limited. If the Chargers really do have an elite defense, they might get frustrated early if the offense is holding them back in spite of having Keenan Allen, Hunter Henry, Austin Ekeler, and Mike Williams, plus an improved offensive line. That all sets up for Herbert to start.

At which point he could be an exception that proves the rule but in all likelihood is an interesting player with plenty of struggles, like most rookies.

Carr’s two seasons under Jon Gruden have been remarkably better statistically than any of his previous four. If he doesn’t take the next step up after the Raiders added players like Josh Jacobs, Henry Ruggs, Tyrell Williams, Bryan Edwards, and Nelson Agholor in the last two years, with Darren Waller emerging as a 1,000-yard tight end, they’ll move onto Marcus Mariota.

I don’t think Mariota has been very exciting thus far in his career, but at times he’s been pretty good. So even “Mariota + change of scenery” has a higher ceiling to me than “Taylor + starting with good weapons,” whereas Herbert’s far too unknown for me to project.

There’s room for debate here I suppose, but this is my choice.

Advantage at quarterback: Raiders

Coaching

Chargers: Anthony Lynn, Shane Steicen OC, Gus Bradley DC, Ken Whisenhunt OC

Raiders: Jon Gruden, Greg Olson OC, Paul Guenther DC

I don’t know that I have much to add here, but it is a topic worthy of debate. How can we properly judge Anthony Lynn after only three seasons, two of which have ended in winning records? Perhaps instead you can look at the “fun fact” that 2019 offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, Bradley, and Lynn have combined for eight seasons of at least 11 losses as head coaches.

Bradley never won more than five games in his four years with the Jaguars.

Whisenhunt had two 5-11 seasons with the Cardinals and went 2-14 in his only full season with the Titans. He is replaced by Shane Steichen, a 35-year-old first time coordinator who has been the quarterbacks coach since 2016.

While Jon Gruden is by far the most experienced coach here, Greg Olson and Paul Guenther have only ever been coordinators and Olson has never finished higher than 10th in scoring out of 12 tries with five different teams. In six seasons as a defensive coordinator, Guenther’s never finished in the top-10 in yards allowed and he’s twice finished in the top-10 in points allowed.

Some may prefer a Lynn-led team and believe that even if his coordinators failed as head coaches, they’ve earned solid reputations as play callers. Others may jump at the chance for Gruden, who in a way once helped two teams make the Super Bowl in 2002.

Advantage at coaching: Incomplete

Accouterments

Chargers: 32nd-ranked special teams, Allen, Henry, Ekeler, Williams, Justin Jackson, rookie RB Joshua Kelley, “last place games” against Bengals, Jaguars, new stadium (shared)

Raiders: 25th-ranked special teams, Ruggs, Hunter Renfrow, Lynn Bowden, Jason Witten, Jalen Richard, “third place games” against Browns, Colts, new stadium (not shared)

How about all those accouterments that I didn’t mention yet? How do some other factors account for how these two teams matchup?

Overall, I’d say that the Chargers have superior offensive weapons, if we’re solely basing it on past performance in the NFL. Allen is considered one of the league’s best receivers, Williams was a 1,000-yard receiver last season, Henry was LA’s franchise tag player this offseason and Ekeler nearly had 100 catches and 1,000 yards out of the backfield.

However, Josh Jacobs is the best running back on either team — maybe on any team by the time next season is over — and maybe the most valuable weapon on the Raiders or Chargers period. Ruggs is thought to have that kind of ceiling but nobody will blame him if he isn’t that effective immediately. The combination of Darren Waller and Witten could be better than Henry and any collection of LA tight ends.

I would be okay with saying that the Raiders not only have the advantage at running back, and potentially tight end, but also much better depth at tight end and wide receiver.

Neither team is especially comfortable at kicker or on special teams overall.

Last season, the Raiders swept the Chargers, 26-24 and 24-17. In 2018, it was LA who finished ahead in both games. The Chargers also swept in 2017, but the Raiders swept in 2016. Will either team sweep in 2020? Will they split them down the middle?

Las Vegas appears to have the better offense. Los Angeles appears to have the better defense. When the games begin, appearances will become meaningless.

How close do you see these two AFC West teams today?