Football, quite famously, is a game of three phases: offense, defense and special teams.
In 2020, the NFL also will be a game of two priorities:
“The No. 1 priority is safety,” Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said. “The second priority is winning a championship. Luckily, those go hand-in-hand. They’re both going to work together this year.”
The COVID-19 pandemic hangs over the Chargers — along with the rest of the league — as they are prepare for their first full-squad, on-field conditioning workout Monday in Costa Mesa.
As baseball has learned, the coronavirus can derail the simplest of plans, such as an otherwise mundane weekend series in July, never mind the grand aspirations of winning a title.
Coming off a disappointing 5-11 finish, the Chargers already were facing enough obstacles as they begin the transition from long-time quarterback and franchise icon Philip Rivers.
Most notably, Telesco has bolstered the offensive line, beefed up the secondary and officially recognized Austin Ekeler as the team’s featured running back in the form of a four-year contract extension.
In the first round of the draft, Telesco selected a quarterback — Justin Herbert — he believes can eventually become the next Rivers, and a linebacker — Kenneth Murray Jr. — who also could become a Chargers fixture.
Now, Telesco and coach Anthony Lynn just need the season to happen.
One thing the Chargers don’t have to concern themselves with is the contentment of two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Joey Bosa, who just agreed to a five-year, $135-million extension.
On the eve of his latest team finally taking the field as one, six questions Lynn will be monitoring:
How long will Tyrod Taylor be the starting quarterback over Herbert?
This is a potentially complicated question with a predictably easy answer. As long as the Chargers are winning and Taylor is playing well enough, there’s no reason to think Lynn would make a change.
Something to think about, however, is the stumbling way the Chargers have started seasons of late. This franchise hasn’t had a winning record after four games since 2014.
Lynn’s teams the past two years both opened 2-2. The 2018 version then took off and became a playoff qualifier. The 2019 Chargers eventually fell to 2-5 and never recovered.
Over the past decade, only one of 30 quarterbacks taken in the first round of the previous draft didn’t make a start as a rookie, according to research done by The Athletic. That one was Jake Locker of the 2011 Tennessee Titans, who started 3-1 behind veteran Matt Hasselbeck and finished 9-7.
Patrick Mahomes started just once as a rookie — in Kansas City’s meaningless regular-season finale — in 2017. Those playoff-bound Chiefs opened 5-0 with veteran Alex Smith at quarterback.
What’s up with the crowded secondary?
When Telesco signed elite slot corner Chris Harris Jr., a potentially solid secondary rose to the next echelon.
The Chargers also return a healthy Derwin James after the game-changing safety missed most of last season because of a foot injury.
Rayshawn Jenkins established himself as a legitimate starter at free safety in 2019 and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley has suggested his role could expand.
The Chargers return both their starting outside corners in two-time Pro Bowler Casey Hayward and Michael Davis.
All this, plus Bradley has former All-Pro Desmond King and 2019 second-round pick Nasir Adderley to deploy. The Chargers also drafted safety Alohi Gilman in the sixth round in April.
With injuries inevitable and Bradley’s desire to have as many interchangeable parts as possible, the expectation is that the situation will sort itself out.
How long will it take for a rebuilt offensive line to jell?
The Chargers have a new right tackle (Bryan Bulaga) and right guard (Trai Turner) and also will need someone to emerge at left tackle with Russell Okung gone a year after he struggled with health issues.
Center Mike Pouncey is attempting to come back from neck surgery that cost him the final 11 games in 2019.
All this means that the most important unit for the Chargers’ success will have to mesh without preseason games and under NFL guidelines that increased limits on hitting during the week.
The team also has a new offensive line coach in James Campen, who suggested adding veterans such as Bulaga and Turner will ease the transition.
“They are what you want in a lineman,” he said. “They embrace the words ‘rite of passage’ to an offensive line unit because there is a rite of passage. They uphold that.”
Speaking of the O-Line, who’s going to play left tackle?
The top two candidates entering camp are Sam Tevi and Trey Pipkins. Tevi has started 29 games the past two seasons at right tackle, and Pipkins started three games last year as a rookie.
“There’s a lot of good candidates there that have a lot of athletic traits that you want as a left tackle,” Campen said. “That have left tackle feet. That display that mentality. That understand the importance of all the five positions.”
The search could include former second-round pick Forrest Lamp, a guard who has been limited to nine games the past two years because of injuries. Lamp played left tackle in college.
Which rookie will have the most impact this season?
The Chargers would love to see another wide receiver establish himself and Joe Reed, a fifth-round pick out of Virginia, could be that guy.
But Murray appears to be the most likely newcomer who can immediately make a difference. He can play inside and outside and had a career at Oklahoma highlighted by an ability to run sideline-to-sideline.
His presence will make the Chargers faster and more athletic. After the draft, it was easy to envision Murray flying around in 2020 just by listening to the anticipation in Lynn’s voice as he discussed the possibility.
Who will be the team’s unexpected breakout star on “Hard Knocks”?
When asked this question, Lynn didn’t hesitate: Melvin Ingram. The defensive end is the one who came up with the phrase “ASAP,” meaning Any Squad, Any Place during the Chargers’ 12-win season of 2018.
Last June, he arrived at mini-camp and declared, “We’re definitely going to win the Super Bowl.”
Ingram showed up for coronavirus testing last week in an open-air, three-wheeled Polaris Slingshot, shouting along with blaring lyrics from behind a full-face-shielded motorcycle helmet.