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5 Questions Facing the Chargers Ahead of the 2023 Season


Welcome to Week 1.

The Chargers kick off the 2023 season Sunday at home against the Dolphins.

Here are five questions surrounding the Bolts ahead of the 2023 season:

1. Is Justin Herbert an MVP candidate?

We'll start with the face of the franchise.

Herbert's 2022 season — his third in the NFL — can best be described as a grind.

He endured and played through fractured rib cartilage, not to mention an ever-revolving lineup around him due to injuries, with Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Rashawn Slater all missing significant time.

The Bolts run game wasn't a factor and couldn't help take any pressure off him.

Yet he still finished second in the league with 4,739 passing yards and helped lead the Bolts to double-digit wins and the playoffs.

If Herbert (and the rest of the Chargers offense) can stay healthy in 2023, big things could be on the horizon.

According to Pro Football Focus, Herbert's average depth of target was just 7.2 yards in 2022, a stat that ranked 30th among quarterbacks with at least 300 pass attempts.

Put another way, Herbert and the Bolts simply weren't taking many deep shots down the field.

That aspect has been different in recent months under new Chargers Offensive Coordinator Kellen Moore.

Take a look at some of the best shots of Justin Herbert during the 2023 Chargers Training Camp.

Although Herbert needed time this offseason to recover from surgery to his non-throwing shoulder, he flourished in the spring and summer with one deep ball after another to Allen, Williams, Joshua Palmer and first-round pick Quentin Johnston.

"Obviously, Justin has a cannon," Allen said in late May. "When Mike goes deep, he has a new guy named [WR] Quentin Johnston, he can go deep.

"We're probably going to be going deep," Allen added with a laugh.

As Herbert enters Year 4 with a freshly minted contract extension in hand, the quarterback laid out what he's looking for in 2023.

"Just being a better quarterback," the reserved Herbert said. "Continuing to improve and continuing on the mistakes that we made last year, fixing those and getting better.

"I think we have the talent outside to be able to push the ball down the field and get it to those guys," Herbert added. "The NFL is a long season. We're doing everything that we can to stay healthy as long as we can. I'm just excited to get back out there and play football."

If everything clicks for Herbert and Co. on offense, don't be surprised if the quarterback is in the MVP discussion around the holidays.

Go behind-the-scenes as the Bolts gather for their annual team photo at Hoag Performance Center.

2. What does the run defense look like?

We don't need to rehash the inconsistencies of this group in 2022.

The Bolts defense was hit hard by injuries on all three levels, meaning the full defense rarely saw the field together across the 17-game season.

When all was said and done, the Chargers ranked last in the league by allowing 5.4 yards per carry, the byproduct of too many explosive runs given up.

It seems as if every Chargers defender has made stopping the run a focal point ahead of Week 1.

Derwin James, Jr. said as much last week.

"Just everybody understanding what they're doing and going out, playing hard," James said. "We know the elephant in the room that we know we have to fix. We're going to get that fixed."

A healthy unit should mean an improved run defense in 2023. So, too, should the addition of veteran linebacker Eric Kendricks, who has been among the best at his position for the better of the past decade.

The Chargers will be tested early on against Miami and Tennessee, two teams that like to run the ball but offer different styles in doing so.

One key area to watch: the Bolts defense gave up 5.75 yards per run on first-and-10 a season ago.

Chargers Head Coach Brandon Staley is one of the league's best defensive masterminds and can dial up some of the most creative looks on third downs.

But the Bolts have to find a way to get to third down, preferable third-and-6 or longer, so that Staley can work his magic with blitz and coverage schemes.

It will take all 11 players doing their jobs, but the best way to do that is to stop the run, especially on early downs.

3. Can the offensive line be a top-10 unit?

It's easy to forget about the guys in the trenches, especially with so much star power around the rest of the offense.

But by the time the season is done, the Chargers could easily boast one of the league's top offensive lines.

Slater recently offered his take on the potential of the group.

"I think it's incredibly high," Slater said. "The sky is the limit."

Slater's return is a massive boost and is akin to the Bolts signing a big-ticket player in free agency.

The 2021 first-round pick was an All-Pro as a rookie and was on the same track early on in 2022 before a biceps injury ended his season in Week 3.

The Bolts managed to make do without him (and 2022 rookie Jamaree Salyer played well in his spot), but there's certainly no replacing an elite player out on the edge.

Center Corey Linsely is perhaps the non-quarterback MVP of the offense and is beloved by teammates for his leadership and dedication.

Trey Pipkins III's stock is on the rise, too, after just one full season as a starter. Pipkins' decision to re-sign with the Bolts as a free agent this past spring helped keep the unit intact going forward.

And all eyes will on the pair of young guards in 2023.

Zion Johnson has switched over to left guard after starting 17 games at right guard as a rookie. Salyer is now at right guard, a display of the position flexibility he showed in college at Georgia.

Add it all up on the Bolts have the makings of being one of the best units in the league.

They, of course, will be tasked with keeping Herbert upright. But the bigger focus will be in the run game.

Moore has added a new flavor in that phase this offseason. And although the starting line didn't play together in the preseason, Johnson made it clear last month that the unit is a big fan of what could be in store on the ground.

"All of us love it, we feel like we're built for the downhill run game," Johnson said. "We've got a lot of big strong guys and we're excited to add that aspect to our offense and really get after it."

The Chargers have a plethora of offensive talent from the top to the bottom of their roster.

But this group could be the X-factor that helps decide if the Bolts offense is an exceptional offense compared to merely a good one.

4. Does the secondary reach its potential?

The Chargers might have been the league's hottest secondary down the stretch in 2022.

With the Bolts sitting at 6-5, they won four of their final six games to reach the playoffs. And Chargers pass coverage was elite in those six games as they lead the NFL with a team coverage grade of 90.3.

The Bolts return many of the same pieces from that squad. The hope is that end-of-the-season performance carries over for a full slate in 2023.

Michael Davis, one of the league's best corners in December and January last year, is back in a starting role. Asante Samuel, Jr. also returns and was one of the top players in camp. Ja'Sir Taylor provided strong depth at outside cornerback and in the slot.

The safety tandem of James and Alohi Gilman are in sync after playing some together in 2022. And look for a bigger role from JT Woods as the Bolts third safety this season.

Presenting the 53-man roster for your 2023 Los Angeles Chargers

That leads us to J.C. Jackson, who might have as much high-end talent as anyone on the defensive side of the ball.

But with Jackson coming back from a serious knee injury, time will tell how he plays in his second season in powder blue.

If Jackson returns to his elite form, the Bolts could boast one of the league's secondaries, with that group's impact affecting the whole defense.

In today's passing league, being able to stifle opposing passing games is perhaps the biggest ingredient to winning. And exceptional coverage skills would give Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa even more time to get to opposing quarterbacks.

And speaking of quarterbacks, the Chargers will face a gauntlet of them in their own conference this year.

There's Patrick Mahomes (twice), plus the likes of Josh Allen, Aaron Rodgers, Lamar Jackson and Tua Tagovailoa.

If the Bolts want to make the playoffs and go on a deep run, their secondary is going to need to stand toe-to-toe with some of the game's best players on the other side of the ball.

5. What's in store on special teams?

For the first time in a long time, Chargers fans could perhaps breathe a little easier when when the special teams units trotted onto the field in 2022.

Chargers Special Teams Coordinator Ryan Ficken's goal to is make that mindset a yearly routine for the organization.

"Last year was last year, that one is done," Ficken said in training camp. "We have to go ahead and work back from Day 1, starting with our technique and fundamentals, just try and get it off the ground again and act as if no one knows anything.

"We know what the expectations are and we know what's in front of us," Ficken later added.

Ficken and special teams assistant coach Chris Gould worked wonders a year ago.

That group's continuity is highlighted by the fact that long snapper Josh Harris, punter JK Scott and kicker Cameron Dicker all return after jelling together over the second half of last season.

Harris provided stability and leadership in all phases while Scott could have been a Pro Bowler with the way he utilized his hangtime over 17 games.

Dicker, meanwhile, hit a pair of game-winners and then won the job in camp by outdueling Dustin Hopkins, who was traded to Cleveland.

Other key special teamers such as Taylor, Deane Leonard, Chris Rumph II, Nick Niemann and Amen Ogbongbemiga are also back for Ficken's group.

Keep an eye on a pair of rookies on special teams this year, too.

Linebacker Daiyan Henley is expected to play on every special teams group and will be a vital part of the unit's success.

And fourth-rounder Derius Davis is in line to be the kickoff and punt returner. Davis flashed in the preseason with a punt return for a score against the Rams, and him bringing an extra jolt on special teams would be a welcome addition.

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