Donny Football Hot Takes: #7 – Both Hard Knocks’ Teams Will Finish Last

By Donny Chedrick

For the first time in the show’s history, Hard Knocks is featuring two teams. Both of which reside in Los Angeles and will share a stadium starting this season. SoFi Stadium will be the home of the Rams and Chargers for years to come. But I believe the inaugural season in the new digs will be a tough one for both LA squads. In fact, I believe both will finish in last place in their respective divisions: the AFC and NFC West.

The Chargers:

We will start with the AFC representative in this scenario. It’s not that the Bolts have an excruciating schedule. They actually have the 23rd-most difficult in the league. I don’t love their divisional opponents — the Broncos, Chiefs and Raiders, along with the current makeup of their roster. Comparing the strength of schedule for the other teams in the AFC West, Denver has the 12th toughest, Kansas City is tied for 18th and Las Vegas is 21st. That metric also needs taken with a grain of salt because some teams change drastically over the course of an off-season. Denver is a team becoming a hot pick to qualify for the playoffs with the addition of a seventh team (I have them making it). Vegas isn’t as bad as people expected as Jon Gruden enters year three. And the Chiefs, well, they will own this division until Patrick Mahomes’ arm falls off or he retires, whichever comes first.

The quarterback position would be my first concern when peering at the rest of the division. It’s settled for the others and not for the Chargers. KC has Mahomes for the next decade plus, Denver has Drew Lock, Vegas has Derek Carr — all of which have either already shown what they can do or are on their way to doing so. For LA, it is Tyrod Taylor, for now. This has the feeling of Cleveland 2018 though for Taylor: start the first few games and look OK, then at the first glaring chance, the rookie steps in. The Chargers drafted Justin Herbert out of Oregon with the sixth pick in the draft, following the likes of Joe Burrow at one and Tua Tagovailoa at five. It would be hard to see a raw, pro-style rookie totally taking over the league, but the QB position has become less and less likely of a bust thanks to rule changes and just the way the game has evolved over the last handful of years. I think Herbert will be a solid NFL QB, but in due time. He will be the Chargers’ starter by the end of the season, but after he takes over a sinking ship. A ship that already took a major blow earlier this week.

Finding out perhaps your best defensive player will miss an entire season is a crushing blow no matter how good or bad your team is. Not that the Chargers were Super Bowl contenders, but losing Derwin James for six to eight months will not help any matters in the 2020-21 season. James was an explosive rookie in 2018 and blossomed into an all-pro, but has now been truncated in year two and three. He missed 11 games with a right-foot fracture last season and has been placed on injured reserve for 2020-21. LA still has some names on defense. Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, Casey Hayward and Chris Harris Jr. are some, but losing a true star will hurt, especially facing some fast, exciting offenses in your own division.

Although the Chargers have pieces on offense like Keenan Allen and the emerging Austin Ekeler, the QB is a major concern because it is an ever-growing league when it comes to great quarterback play. On defense, there is enough to survive and even play pretty well, but without a player with the ability of Derwin James, it won’t be a top stopper in 2020.

My AFC West Predictions:

  1. Kansas City*
  2. Denver*
  3. Las Vegas
  4. Los Angeles

The Rams:

Just two seasons removed from an appearance in Super Bowl LIII (53), the Rams find themselves in a tough spot heading into the 2020-21 season. Last year, the NFC team in Los Angeles endured a Super Bowl hangover of sorts, missing the playoffs and watching all three teams in its division get noticeably better. The 49ers and Seahawks played two classic football games as San Francisco earned the number-one seed and made its way to the Super Bowl. Seattle was the five seed and defeated Philadelphia in the Wild Card round before dropping a divisional matchup in Green Bay. The other team in the NFC West has also seen improvement. Arizona saw eventual AP Rookie of the Year, Kyler Murray throw for 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions with 3,722 yards, a 64.4% completion percentage and 87.4 passer rating. Murray also ran for four scores and 544 yards. His total quarterback rating (QBR) at season’s end was 55.7 — better than the likes of Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Rams’ QB, Jared Goff. To top off what Murray did last season, he was rewarded with one of the best wide receivers in the game today, when Houston agreed to trade DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona along with a fourth-round pick in 2020 (Rashard Lawrence) for running back David Johnson, a second round pick in 2020 (Ross Blacklock) and a fourth-round pick in 2021. What already looked like an uphill climb for the Rams got a little bit tougher.

Todd Gurley and the Rams broke up after the 2019 season. The three-time pro bowler, two-time first-team all-pro and 2017 AP Offensive Player of the Year was let go by LA and would sign a one year deal with Atlanta in April, returning to the state he starred as a college running back for the Georgia Bulldogs. That departure left the Rams with question marks at one of the most important positions in their offense. Right now, the team has three young, inexperienced options. Malcom Brown, entering year number six, who has never started more than one game in a season. Darrell Henderson Jr., the second-year pro, who saw time in 13 games last year and finished with 147 yards. Then there is the rookie, Cam Akers, selected 52nd overall out of Florida State. At this point, it doesn’t seem like there is a clear answer on who RB1 is and even when that is announced, the Rams will be one of the many teams who use running back-by- committee.

Another big reason why I see Los Angeles at the bottom of the NFC West is the fact that I’m not sold on Jared Goff as a legitimate superstar. After a disastrous rookie year, Goff bounced back with pro bowl seasons in 2017 and 2018 — two years in which Todd Gurley ran for over 1,000 yards, one of them being the season Gurley won Offensive Player of the Year. Last year wasn’t the same case. Goff saw a career-high in pass attempts (626), but had 16 interceptions to go along with his 22 touchdown passes as Todd Gurley struggled in his final season with the team. With a bonafide number one running back gone, Goff could be missing the security blanket that helped him see his best success in 2017 and 2018. Let’s also not forget some odd decisions made by Sean McVay last season after being considered a messiah two years ago. The game in Pittsburgh comes to mind when backup QB Blake Bortles entered the game on a crucial third down and McVay claimed it was “part of the game plan.” Very strange, and in some cases costly.

This team still has Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, but can the defense carry the now suspect offense to a playoff berth? I’m not even sure it will keep them out of the cellar.

My NFC West Predictions:

  1. Seattle*
  2. San Francisco*
  3. Arizona
  4. Los Angeles

We are seven days away from the kickoff the 2020 season. We’re so close we can taste it. Look forward to more of my Hot Takes countdown as the days move on. Tomorrow’s clue: Defensive Player of the Year.

*indicates playoff team

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