2018 NFL Training Camps: Hard-luck Chargers believe this could finally be their year
Philip Rivers is optimistic about his talented but seemingly jinxed team despite two big offseason injuries
COSTA MESA, Calif. -- Tight end Hunter Henry goes down on the first day of spring OTAs on the very first play -- gone for the season.
Corner Jason Verrett goes down with a torn Achilles tendon early in training camp -- season over.
So ask this question again: Are the Los Angeles Chargers jinxed?
This is a team that has seemingly been a Super Bowl contender for much of the past decade or so, but it has always been something to keep them from getting there.
Usually it's bad luck-type of things. Injuries have played a major role, but so have missed kicks, slow starts and plenty of other things.
When does it end?
In talking with Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, he senses this could be the year. After moving to Los Angeles last year, things have settled down for the Chargers. That move could have played a role in their 0-4 start, but they did rally to win nine of their last 12, although they missed the playoffs.
"Last year, we were dealing with a lot of things," Rivers said. "I don't know the affect the move had on us. Certainly that is not a good excuse, but getting off to a slow start kind of compounded things. We settled in and won nine of our last 12. I don't know if there is a thing as momentum into the next year, but I know that gave us confidence and a belief that we have a little bit of a foundation set. We're not worried about where the team hotel is, where we are going for training camp. We're more comfortable with that, and now we can focus between the lines and get off to a better start."
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The 36-year-old Rivers is heading into his 14th season, and he has yet to appear in a Super Bowl, despite being one of the NFL's best passers. It hasn't always been his fault, with injuries and poor rosters around him playing big roles, but Rivers is well aware that his time to get to a Super Bowl could be slipping away.
"There no doubt I am on the back nine," Rivers said. "I am probably through Amen Corner. There's always been urgency, but I try not to take anything for granted, enjoy these training-camp practices, enjoy the guys. There is no denying we have the roster, the capability to do something special."
This is a passers and pass rushers league. The Chargers have Rivers and they have one of the best pass-rushing duos in the league in Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa, maybe even the best. That isn't enough, but it's a nice start and there is a lot of talent at other spots as well.
Could this be that special year for Rivers, one where the Chargers ease past their perceived jinx?
"We have a chance," Rivers said. "A lot of things can happen, but we have a chance."
Mike Williams could play a big role
One of the key players to watch this preseason will be second-year receiver Mike Williams. If he can play up to his first-round potential, the Chargers will have a nice complement to Keenan Allen, who has been killing it in camp after catching 102 passes last season.
So far, Williams is doing just that.
The Chargers took Williams seventh overall in the 2017 draft, but he had to deal with back and knee injuries that forced him to miss training camp and a lot of much-needed work. He played just 10 games, didn't start until the season finale and ended up with 11 catches for the season.
After a slow early start to this camp, Williams has really come on the past week. He was impressive the day I watched practice and he was the star of the team's scrimmage Saturday night with two touchdown catches.
Part of that can be attributed to Williams knowing what he's doing -- and being in shape. He's also learning how to be a pro when it comes to work in practice and taking care of his body.
"Mike just needs to keep himself healthy and out here," Rivers said "You're talking about a guy who didn't practice until Week 9 or 10 and at that point he didn't get a lot of reps. This training camp is big for him. He's continuing to make plays, but he just needs to be more consistent."
The Chargers led the league in passing last season, so a productive Williams could make the offense that much better.
What about tight end?
With Henry down for the year, the Chargers' starting tight end now is Virgil Green, who signed as a free agent from Denver.
Green is in his eighth season, but his highest catch total with the Broncos was 22 in 2016. He had 14 last season for the Broncos.
That's why the talk of veteran Antonio Gates returning is so hot. Gates, who announced his retirement after last season, is in talks with the Chargers about a possible return.
Rivers said he has talked with Gates about the possibility, but not lately.
"We'll see where it goes," Rivers said. "I keep checking in with him every so often. I feel good with the guys we have here, but if 85 (Gates' number) trotted back out here, it would be exciting to have one more season with him."
The 38-year-old Gates retired after 15 seasons with 927 catches and 114 touchdowns, the most of any tight end in league history. Later in his career, Gates got a little heavy, so there is some thinking he will use the next few weeks to get in shape before joining the Chargers.
- Keep an eye on running back Austin Ekeler being a bigger part of the offense this season. The idea is for him to fill the role Danny Woodhead made so successful a few years back, becoming a big pass-game threat out of the backfield. Ekeler ran for 260 yards and had 27 catches for 279 yards and three touchdowns last season as a rookie. He also had a bit of a fumbling problem, with one late fumble costing the Chargers a potential victory over the Jaguars. On the day I watched practice, Ekeler took a short pass out of the backfield and took it the distance with an impressive display of speed. Melvin Gordon is set as the lead back, but Ekeler's abilities in the passing game should be more prominent this season than a year ago.
- Rookie linebacker Kyzir White, a converted safety, is a player to watch this preseason. He is already pushing for time inside, and he could help a run defense that had some issues last season. White played safety at West Virginia, but at 6-feet-2 and 230 pounds, he has the body to move to linebacker in Gus Bradley's scheme.
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