Costa Mesa, CA – This time of year, optimism rules the NFL – training camp opening means new coaches unveil new schemes, players return from injury, and rosters materialize. Every team, every player can achieve their goals, and they’ll talk about them to anyone in the media willing to listen. Local and team-affiliated outlets hear these out, but national media rarely buys in. When they do – as many have for the Chargers this season – it merits interest.
Game of the Week: Thursday Night Preview: Hall of Fame Game
What’s Trending: Steelers’ Roethlisberger and Bryant have much anticipated talk
NFL Reaction: What Raiders’ Vegas relocation means to fans in Oakland
Burdened the past two seasons by a pitiful run of injuries in a hypercompetitive division, they still have a playoff-caliber quarterback in Philip Rivers, a talented roster around him and a compelling new coaching staff. Assuming their injury luck breaks even and an opportunity presents itself in the AFC West, many pundits expect the Chargers to make a leap, earning the heart of Los Angeles in the process.
Keenan Allen, coming into his 5th season in the NFL, represents this identity better than anyone. After spending 23 weeks over the last two seasons on the team’s injured reserve, the wide receiver will have the chance to reassert him position among the league’s best.
A couple weeks ahead of camp, Rivers appeared on NFL Network’s Rich Eisen Show, where he discussed Allen’s injury progression.
“He looks like himself,” Rivers told Eisen. “I really think he looks just as good as before he got hurt.”
Regardless of the Chargers’ depth at the position, those inside the organization know the value of having Allen on the field. Back in April, the team’s official website asked breakout receiver Tyrell Williams about Allen’s return as it would relate to his performance.
“He opens up so much for me,” he said. “Defenses have to account for him, so that will open it for me and really the whole offense. He is such a big part (of what we do). He’ll open things up for all the receivers and the backs, too. I think it will be a big year for all of us.”
So, how did Allen look when camp opened on Sunday? In his own words, rusty. As sometimes happens when players first return from serious injuries, Allen admitted he was playing scared of his own limitations. Standing in for Jason Verrett, currently on the PUP list, cornerback Casey Hayward was tasked with covering Allen for the length of the practice, and told ESPN that he shut Allen down.
On the second day, the script changed. Allen demonstrated why he was regarded as an elite receiver, roundly beating Hayward and the rest of the defense both off the snap and down the field. After day 3, the first day of pads, NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah was asked about Allen’s prospective role in the offense.
“It’s huge, I mean he is a true number-one wide receiver,” Jeremiah said. “Keenan Allen can kind of make the whole thing go. You can line him up inside, outside, doesn’t matter who you want to walk out over him; he’s going to beat him and win for your quarterback. So, getting him for a full sixteen games would be fantastic.”
Allen, who has yet to play a full season, combined for 73 receptions, 788 yards and 4 touchdowns in his last nine games. Given sixteen games, he has more than enough ability to lead the Chargers’ offense to playoff-caliber heights, firmly place himself in the elite receiver conversation, and even make a run for Comeback Player of the Year.
Lofty? Sure. But if Allen and the rest of the Chargers stay healthy, they’re more than just empty training camp goals.
-Andy Hammel is a staff writer for cover32/Chargers and covers the Los Angeles Chargers for cover32.