San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has been doing this his whole career. Lose a go-to receiver, develop a similar chemistry with another. His connection with Malcom Floyd deemed Keenan McCardell’s decline easier to bear, and once Vincent Jackson left for Tampa Bay, he created a fantasy football waiver wire sensation out of Danario Alexander in the 2012 season.
Much of Rivers’ greatness can be proven in his career’s consistency despite his fluid receiving corps, making him as dangerous today in his 13th season as he was in his first.
We probably shouldn’t be surprised that San Diego’s passing attack hasn’t experienced a downtick in production after losing Keenan Allen to a torn ACL in Week 1. As devastating as his injury was to the team - his fourth NFL season was primed to be his best after missing half of last year, and he was off to a blistering start against the Kansas City Chiefs - Rivers and the aerial attack just regrouped and came back Week 2 with a dominating performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars. He surpassed 300 yards in both Weeks 3 and 4 and while still tangibly-felt, the void left by Allen isn’t the reason that the Chargers sit at 1-3.
Three full weeks without their star receiver in the fold has been more than enough time for the Chargers to redesign its offensive gameplan and route combinations in order to maximize the talents of its remaining receivers, and the results of that are telling towards how the team will continue to evolve moving forward.
When Allen went down, Travis Benjamin’s job jumped from the No. 2 wide receiver whose main role was to attack defenses over the top to the target that opposing defenses now had to focus more attention on. He exploded for six catches for 115 yards and two touchdowns in that Week 2 drubbing of the Jaguars and had productive games against the Colts and Saints, but his limitations as a No. 1 wide receiver have been clear.Allen - for everything he does well when the ball is the in the air or after the catch - wouldn’t be an elite receiver if it wasn’t for his superb footwork and quickness out of his breaks that allow him to create separation in tight spaces. Nobody on the Chargers - and only a handful of players in the league - are as adept as Allen at creating initial separation at the line of scrimmage to break away for a reception.
And in intermediate and deep routes, Allen’s breaks out of his routes are some of the crispest in the NFL, more than making up for his average speed. Right now, Benjamin can’t make those same breaks. He’s a candidate to beat his man one-on-one down the sideline for a big play on any given play, but outside of the vertical passing game and screen passes, his arsenal is limited.
Still, San Diego remained comfortable with Benjamin’s limitations because of the presence of Tyrell Williams, a player whose size-speed measurable genuinely remind one of Randy Moss as a Viking. The 2015 UDFA has been everyone’s breakout player for the Chargers for this year, and Allen’s injury forced him into more playing time. In the first consistent playing time of his professional career, we can tell that Williams is going to be suiting on Sundays for plenty more years to come.
Where Williams is immediately helping to fill Allen’s shoes is in the intermediate game, where he’s shown consistent ability to get separation after 15-20 yards and has strong hands to corral catches. He’s displayed a strength in the short passing game as well and does have the vertical speed to take teams over the top, but Ken Whisenhunt’s and Philip Rivers’ trust of the young receiver is still developing, as shown by the plays put together for Williams against the Saints last Sunday.
Dontrelle Inman, who entered the season as the fifth receiver on the team, has seen his role grow more than Williams’ has, with Inman finding more opportunity lining up out wide. Williams was thrown into a more utility role, blocking for Inman and Benjamin on screen passes and working to pull the safety down so that Inman had more opportunity to beat his man down the sideline.
He still worked his way into the game for five catches for 40 yards, but it’s clear that Williams’ second year out of Western Oregon isn’t going to see him rounded out into a complete receiver just yet.
The Chargers have a lot of hope for what Williams is going to develop into long-term, and the combination of him and Inman as well as, Benjamin’s increased role is why San Diego’s passing game remains as lethal as ever. But on an individual level, the Chargers can only maintain their offense’s potency if the running game with Melvin Gordon is working and Whisenhunt keeps drawing up passing plays that put each of the receivers in a position to run their strongest routes.
But while his receivers continue to develop into more polished route runners, for the first time in his career, Rivers won’t be able to completely make up for the talent of an absent receiver.