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Chargers Mailbag: Why the Bolts Will Make the Playoffs in 2023


Welcome back to the Chargers Mailbag!

We'll be running one of these every week during the regular season, so send in submissions for the Mailbag here on Twitter or by sending me an email.

Off we go…

Will the Chargers make the playoffs in 2023? (Vance via email)

It's the best time of the year.

This will be my eighth season covering the NFL and second with the Chargers.

And every September I'm reminded of a few things:

First, how lucky I am to do what I do. It's demanding job, sure, but one that is fun and rewarding, too.

Second, how excited we all get for the start of the season. Everyone is 0-0 right now, and pretty much every team out there has an internal belief that they can make a run and be playing into February.

Will the Chargers be among the teams that make the dance?

I won't be giving a surefire record prediction. That's not my role around here.

But I will go on the record and say the Bolts will be among the seven AFC playoff teams and will also finish with double-digit wins.

The biggest reason for optimism, of course, is Justin Herbert. He's a franchise quarterback and has embraced his leadership role more than ever this offseason.

And the pairing with Chargers Offensive Coordinator Kellen Moore just might lead to Herbert's best season yet … and put him on the short list of MVP candidates.

Are the Bolts a perfect team? No. But no squad in the NFL is.

The Chargers defense is going to have to play better overall than they did a season ago, but players and coaches would tell you the same thing.

The AFC is a gauntlet this year. And while the Bolts have a tough schedule, especially over the final two months, I think they can ride a hot start to the season to a postseason berth.

If the Chargers can find a way into the playoffs in mid-January, anything can happen.

It's a non-issue to me.

Chargers Head Coach Brandon Staley followed the same preseason script as before by resting the majority of his starters in the trio of exhibition games.

Instead of getting preseason reps, the Bolts top players instead got great work in against the Saints in joint practices and have also been going through numerous game-like situations in practice in recent weeks.

Herbert and Co. didn't play in the preseason last year before earning a Week 1 home win over the Raiders. The Bolts then had a second-half lead on the road in Kansas City before being unable to close the deal.

The Bolts will be just fine in Week 1 on Sunday, too.

Injury questions before the season has even started?? I'm kidding.

It's actually a relevant topic given the fact the Bolts shook up this aspect of their staff this offseason.

A recap for those of you who missed it:

Marco Zucconi is now the Director of Player Health and Performance after previously being an associate athletic trainer. The Chargers also hired Sal Lopez, who was with the Titans, as the Head Athletic Trainer.

It's not a surprise that fans have injuries questions/concerns about the Chargers given how many of those piled up a season ago.

But I can tell you that both Zucconi and Lopez have made great early impressions in their roles. Zucconi is well-known and well-respected around the building since he's a familiar face, but Lopez is also making waves, too.

Time will tell how impactful the changes are once the season gets going. I will say that sometimes injuries are just bad luck, and that the entire athletic training staff does a great job in getting players back on the field as quickly as possible.

But don't take it from me. Here's what running back Joshua Kelley said Monday in the locker room when I asked him about Zucconi and Lopez:

"They've been super transparent. I feel like the communication in terms of what they expect from us has been really transparent. And that's good. I feel like in every relationship you need trust and communication. They've been communicating with us all the time. And they're both good guys. I've been with Marco for four years now and he's a cool dude. Sal is new but he's a great dude."

If you want to read more on Zucconi, check out this feature I wrote on him in February.

These questions were two of many regarding JC Jackson.

And the truth is, we're all just going to have to wait and see come Sunday on how much he plays.

The fact that Jackson was on the field for Day 1 of training camp was remarkable given how serious and rare his knee injury was last year. And while he did have some soreness early on in camp, he was a full go by the time camp ended and the Saints were in town.

For what it's worth, Jackson was at Monday's practice and partaking in all the drills in the part that was open for media viewing.

I think a few things could be true regarding Jackson this season.

The first is that the Bolts are going to need a strong contingent of cornerbacks for the entire season. Jackson and Michael Davis will be relied upon outside when healthy, and Asante Samuel, Jr. and Ja'Sir Taylor are the top options in the slot.

But it's also worth noting that if Jackson is fully healthy and returns to the form that made him one of the league's best cornerbacks in recent years, the Bolts secondary has a chance to be elite.

Maybe it's because he had an up-and-down Year 1 in powder blue, but Jackson is still among the best players at his positions when he's on his 'A' game.

There's nothing to worry about with Joey Bosa ahead of Week 1.

The biggest storyline with him is that he added about 15 pounds of solid weight this offseason in order to add more punch to his game.

"I just think I'll be a much more effective player and pass rush with my power, and be able to play the run a little more dirty," Bosa said in camp.

Other than that though, Bosa said last week that he feels great and is really focused on savoring the moments around him as another season kicks off.

It's hard to believe this is already Year 8 for him and Bosa knows that the chance for special seasons — which the Bolts could very well make happen — don't come around very often.

Here's a secret for you: I don't know.

There are reasons to believe the Chargers could make the either focal point of their offense Sunday afternoon at SoFi Stadium.

If you watched a training camp practice (or read my 3 Observations), you probably know that Herbert and the offense was airing it out nearly every day.

I'm not talking about 15-yard intermediate routes either. These are 30-plus yard throws down the field that put plenty of stress on the opposing secondary.

Maybe that's the plan we see, especially with Dolphins star cornerback Jalen Ramsey out with an injury.

On the other hand, the Bolts have talked at nauseum this offseason about wanting to improve the run game under Moore. And while most of the starting offense did not play in the preseason, the Chargers cranked out 600-plus rushing yards in three games.

It's enticing to think what that starting offense could do once Austin Ekeler, Rashawn Slater, Corey Linsley and others are on the field.

In a perfect world, the Bolts would likely be balanced in both aspects while getting a win Sunday. But there are also so many unknowns each year in Week 1 that maybe the gameplan has to be altered a bit based on what Miami and coordinator Vic Fangio show on defense.

Yes, the chess matches will in full force for three hours Sunday afternoon. I can't wait.

I wouldn't classify any of the Chargers position groups as "weak" right now.

On paper, this is once again one of the strongest rosters across the league. Credit Chargers General Manager Tom Telesco and the entire Bolts front office for making that happen.

Are there position groups that are more interesting to look at than others though? Sure.

Most of the guys behind Eric Kendricks and Kenneth Murray, Jr. at linebacker have mostly held special teams roles. The same could be said at safety, where the Bolts are hoping JT Woods takes a big step forward in Year 2.

And the tight end room will be called upon to step up in 2023, especially in the run game.

As we saw a year ago, season-ending injuries will certainly take a toll on the shine of your roster as the year rolls on.

But the Bolts now appear to be able to withstand that if something were to happen.

The depth at edge rusher is stronger now than 2022, and that's also true along the offensive and defensive lines and also at cornerback.

As I mentioned above, there are no perfect rosters in the NFL. But the Chargers have the pieces in place to not only make the playoffs in a crowded AFC, but also make a deep run if things come together.

If you missed the news, the Chargers waived fullback Zander Horvath when they claimed linebacker Tanner Muse off waivers.

And although Staley said the Bolts wanted Horvath back to the practice squad, he landed on Pittsburgh's practice squad instead.

So the Chargers currently don't have a fullback on the roster, and it's also worth noting that the Bolts listed their offense in 11 personnel (running back, tight end and three wide receivers) in their unofficial Week 1 depth chart.

Horvath played just 110 offensive snaps a year ago, good for 10 percent of the Chargers total offensive snap total. And that was in a different offensive scheme than the Bolts run now.

Moore has shown he will get creative even without using a traditional fullback. When I was with the Vikings in 2021, Moore put a pair of offensive linemen in the backfield in a game and won with Cooper Rush at quarterback.

Perhaps the Bolts use one of the four extra offensive linemen on the roster in that fullback role when needed. Or maybe they rely on one of the tight ends such as Tre' McKitty.

Either way, the Chargers offense is probably going to be just fine without a fullback on the roster.

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