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2018 NFL Preview: L.A. might not care, but Chargers are absolutely loaded

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2018 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 1, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

If you want to discount the Los Angeles Chargers as contenders this season because they can’t seem to stay out of their own way, that’s fine. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Chargers have some of the most inexplicable losses in the NFL this season because that happens every season.

But do yourself a favor and look at the roster before counting them out.

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I’m not sure there are many teams with more blue-chip talent. The Chargers have a great quarterback in Philip Rivers, a solid running back in Melvin Gordon and a deep receiving corps. Most teams look for one elite pass rusher, and the Chargers have two: Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. They have one of the deepest secondaries in the NFL as well, especially with first-round pick Derwin James at safety.

I also believe in coach Anthony Lynn. When the Chargers started 0-4 in their typical Chargers way, blowing games they had no business blowing, they could have packed it in. They were dealing with a dumb relocation that left them without a true home-field advantage. Lynn was a rookie coach. And somehow, Lynn kept them focused. And what a turnaround they had.

From Week 5 on, the Chargers’ only losses were a competitive defeat at New England, an overtime setback at Jacksonville (another “only the Chargers” loss after they fumbled in the final two minutes trying to run out the clock) and a loss at Kansas City. For three months, they looked like one of the best teams in football.

“Just because we started 0-4, they didn’t abandon ship,” Lynn said at the NFL scouting combine this past winter. “We had a standard. We had an expectation. And we stuck to it.”

The 0-4 hole was too much to dig out of, and one of these years the Chargers will avoid that. It’s not like the rest of the league doesn’t know what kind of team they have.

“If you look at the Chargers, I think the Chargers really did a nice job with the draft,” Denver Broncos general manager John Elway said, according to the Kansas City Star. “So they’ve got the settled quarterback, even though the Raiders do too. But, you know, I think looking at it, [the Chargers] may be the ones to beat [in the AFC West].”

“That’s scary,” Lynn told SI.com’s Albert Breer. “I don’t know why everybody wants to crown us all of the sudden. I had someone in here say we have the second most talented roster in the league. I mean, really? Why would you think that?

“I know he was being nice, but that’s not even realistic, to say we have the second most talented roster when you look around the league. … We like our team, we really do. But right now, who in the hell doesn’t like their team? Everyone likes their team right now.”

One potential problem with all the hype: The Chargers are the only team in the NFL without a home-field advantage. They moved from San Diego to Los Angeles, L.A. predictably didn’t care at all about them and as a result they are stuck with eight road games and eight neutral-site games. And given how many opposing fans invade their stadium, calling them neutral-site games might be kind.

This season, the Chargers also have the unfair disadvantage of having a “home” game in London against a tough Tennessee Titans team. It was so bad for the Chargers last season that at the end of a “home” game against the Miami Dolphins, Rivers waited for the crowd reaction on a last-second Chargers field goal. He heard a roar, which in a home stadium would generally mean the home team just won. But the roar came mostly from the Dolphins fans there because the Chargers missed to clinch a Miami win.

“I heard the roar before I saw the official’s signal,” Rivers told Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times. “I wasn’t sure which roar it was.”

Nobody else in the NFL deals with anything close to that. If an optimist wants to buy into the Chargers winning double-digit games, they do so knowing the Chargers won’t have one real home game. That’s tough.

Despite that, there’s good reason to like the Chargers. The roster is that talented. The coach proved a lot in his first season. Now the Chargers just have to avoid those stupid Chargers things they always seem to do. If they do that, maybe Los Angeles will start to pay attention.

Defensive end Joey Bosa (99) is one of the stars on a deep Chargers roster. (AP)

When we look back at the 2018 draft, we could view these three early picks as absolute steals: Lamar Jackson with the 32nd pick, Derrius Guice in the second round, and Derwin James at No. 17 overall to the Chargers. James could have gone 10 picks earlier and it wouldn’t have been out of place. He’s a fine playmaking safety and the Chargers hit a home run without even having to trade up. I also like the addition of former Dolphins center Mike Pouncey. The three-time Pro Bowler will help a line that also gets 2017 rookie Forrest Lamp back from an ACL injury. The Chargers didn’t lose much in free agency, though we’ll get to the Hunter Henry injury in a moment. I won’t count that against their offseason grade. The Chargers got better.

GRADE: A-

Among the NFL secondaries, the Chargers aren’t lower than fifth in my rankings. They might be as high as No. 3, behind Jacksonville and Minnesota. Casey Hayward is one of the NFL’s best corners, Trevor Williams emerged at corner after Jason Verrett’s injury and Desmond King had a great rookie season out of the slot. At safety, Jahleel Addae is solid on the strong side and rookie Derwin James has the ability to be defensive rookie of the year. That group should add Verrett back from injury, and he was a Pro Bowler before a bad two-year run of injuries. And don’t forget, quarterbacks will be pressured by Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. Big plays might come in bunches for this secondary.

Sometimes it seems like there’s a curse on the Chargers. Just when it seemed like the roster was ready to do big things, tight end Hunter Henry tore his ACL in a May practice. The Chargers are deep at a lot of positions, but not tight end. They’ll replace a very promising pass catcher in Henry with … well, who knows? The Chargers went from tight end being a strength to a major weakness on one practice play. And even if Antonio Gates returns, he’s not the answer at age 38.

Philip Rivers had a really good 2017 season. He had 4,515 yards, 28 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, the fewest interceptions he has thrown in a season since 2009. His passer rating of 96 was his highest since 2013. There has to be concern about Rivers’ play slipping soon, since he’ll be 37 years old in December. But there are no signs of it yet. The Chargers haven’t done anything meaningful to address the future at the position, so it appears they feel Rivers is nowhere near the end.

Joey Bosa is a fine answer here because he’s the Chargers’ most talented player. But Keenan Allen is more important. When Allen is good, he’s one of the best in the NFL. Over the final seven games last season Allen posted a 58-797-5 line, which is insane. But don’t forget that a year ago, everyone wondered if he could stay healthy. He played nine games in 2015 and 2016 combined. Hunter Henry is done for the season, and 2017 first-round pick Mike Williams needs to prove he can stay healthy after making very little impact last season. The Chargers can’t afford to lose Allen, who has played all 16 games just once in his five NFL seasons. That’s a little scary.

From Yahoo’s Liz Loza: “After being selected in the first round by the Los Angeles Chargers last year, expectations for Mike Williams were high. Unfortunately, injuries kept the Clemson product off the field, resulting in a 11-95-0 stat line to close out his rookie season. Heading into 2018, the 6-foot-4 and 220-pound size/speed prospect has the chance to turn things around.

“With Hunter Henry (who averaged 5.2 targets per game in 2017) lost for the year to an ACL injury, the Chargers are expected to deploy more three-wide sets. Given Williams’ red-zone profile, the team figures to get the second-year wideout involved near the goal line. Currently being drafted in the double-digit rounds of 12-team exercises, Mike Williams is a prime value target. A six-touchdown season is well within his massive reach.”

[Booms/Busts: Fantasy outlook on the Chargers.]

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The Chargers were good in 2017, but their run defense was weak. They allowed 4.9 yards per carry, last in the NFL. Nobody else allowed more than 4.7. If linebacker Denzel Perryman can stay healthy for a full season, that would help. But defensive lineman Corey Liuget’s four-game PED suspension is a problem. The Chargers won’t be great in run defense, but if they can’t improve from 32nd in yards allowed per carry, it could wreck their hopes of a big season.

CAN MELVIN GORDON TAKE ANOTHER STEP?

Gordon was a first-round pick coming out of Wisconsin because of his ability to hit big plays. He broke long runs with ease. He has been an entirely different back in the NFL, more of a grinder than a home-run hitter. And he has been fine, with more than 2,100 rushing yards over the past two seasons with 24 touchdowns from scrimmage. But he hasn’t averaged 4 yards per carry in any of his three NFL seasons. There’s nothing wrong with Gordon’s career to date and the Chargers would be fine if he repeated his 2017. But Los Angeles probably expected more from him after spending a first-round pick. If Gordon doesn’t go to another level this season, it’s probably not going to happen.

Why can’t the Chargers win a Super Bowl? It sounds jarring, but they have everything in place: A good pass defense led by a pair of stud rushers, a Hall-of-Fame level quarterback with great weapons around him and a running game that can salt away wins. While there’s no guarantee the Chargers replicate what they did in the final three-quarters of last season, they looked like one of the best teams in football then. Assuming health for some of their key players and a little better luck with injuries and in close games, the Chargers have the talent to win it all.

Hunter Henry’s injury chipped away at the depth, and we know Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Melvin Gordon have serious injuries in their past. While the Chargers are due some better luck on that front, it’s not guaranteed. Los Angeles (still weird to say) plays in a rough division and as it found last year, the wild-card chase can be a frustrating one. Especially when you don’t get a home game all season. While I believe in the Chargers’ talent, I’ve also seen too many dumb losses from them through the years to be surprised if it happens again.

I wanted to put the Chargers higher, but their track record held me back. So did the thought of nobody in L.A. coming out to root for the Chargers. The Hunter Henry injury isn’t ideal either. But when Anthony Lynn says someone told him the Chargers have the second-best roster in the NFL, that doesn’t seem crazy. This team is stacked at some key positions. They had an elite efficiency last season and horrible luck in close games. They were 1-4 in games decided by a field goal or less and that should be much closer to .500. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I assume the breaks will go their way one of these years. It doesn’t take a crazy story to talk me into the Chargers winning the AFC. They’re that good.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. Indianapolis Colts
30. New York Jets
29. Arizona Cardinals
28. Buffalo Bills
27. Cincinnati Bengals
26. Chicago Bears
25. New York Giants
24. Miami Dolphins
23. Washington Redskins
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Houston Texans
20. Seattle Seahawks
19. Oakland Raiders
18. Denver Broncos
17. San Francisco 49ers
16. Detroit Lions
15. Tennessee Titans
14. Baltimore Ravens
13. Carolina Panthers
12. Dallas Cowboys
11. Kansas City Chiefs
10. Atlanta Falcons

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!