The Chargers have the NFL’s highest-paid player — by average annual value — at quarterback.
Still, how they run the ball in 2023 figures to be a better predictor of their success.
On Friday in a joint practice with the New Orleans Saints, the Chargers’ ground game looked improved.
This was the positive on a day when Justin Herbert and the passing attack struggled to make any bold statements.
Austin Ekeler broke through a big hole on the first play during 11-on-11. Joshua Kelley immediately followed with another solid gain, and the Chargers were literally off and running.
Said coach Brandon Staley afterward, “We’ve certainly formulated the identity that we want to play with.”
Only two teams — Tampa Bay and Houston — rushed for fewer yards last season than the Chargers. They averaged 89.6 yards per game, which was fewer than Josh Jacobs and Derrick Henry.
In their first preseason game, the Chargers amassed 214 rushing yards against the Rams but that was behind mostly reserves along the offensive line and without Ekeler suiting up.
Their performance against the Saints felt more genuine as both teams employed their starters for extended stretches.
Along with the repeated efforts of Ekeler and Kelley, Isaiah Spiller was able to convert on a third-and-one. The Chargers even ran a sweep with wide receiver Mike Williams for positive yardage.
Under new coordinator Kellen Moore, the Chargers are expected to be a more explosive offense and one focused on running between the tackles and with more decisiveness.
Friday marked the second of two joint practices between the teams. The Chargers and Saints are scheduled to play a preseason game at 4 p.m. Sunday at SoFi Stadium.
The NFL, Chargers and Saints were scheduled to discuss the threat of Hurricane Hilary during a conference call Friday afternoon. The storm is approaching Southern California, with rain scheduled to begin late Saturday and continue into Monday.
Because of the situation, there is a possibility the game Sunday could be canceled.
The notable developments Friday also included:
Tough air day
Early in the first 11-on-11 period, Herbert hooked up with Gerald Everett for a decent gain as the veteran tight end made a stellar grab in tight coverage.
The passing offense had few other highlights. Keenan Allen made a catch to convert a fourth down and had another good gainer down the right sideline.
Everett caught a five-yard touchdown to complete a three-play possession that started at the Saints’ 25-yard line.
Otherwise, Herbert was unable to show off the big right arm that netted him a five-year, $262.5-million extension last month. Six of his completions during 11-on-11 went to running backs.
Working on trust
As with several of his offensive teammates, wide receiver Quentin Johnston had a quiet day.
The rookie first-round pick finished with no catches in 11-on-11 as he was targeted once apiece by Herbert and backup Easton Stick.
Staley emphasized that Johnston needs to “keep learning, keep trusting in Justin and earning his trust, which is so paramount.”
Having the trust of Herbert figures to be one of the biggest hurdles still facing Johnston, who also had two drops in the Chargers’ preseason opener. Without that trust, Johnston will have a difficult time finding his place in the offense.
“He’s going to have a role,” Staley said. “He’s going to be an important part of how we play. But how much he plays is going to be determined by how he performs. He’s got to continue to earn his way on the practice field.”
Hopkins kicks back
Veteran Dustin Hopkins did all the kicking, hitting eight of nine field goal tries with a long of 46 yards. His miss sailed wide left from 52 yards.
After missing several practices and the first preseason game because of an undisclosed injury, Hopkins returned to practice this week.
In his absence, Cameron Dicker put together a consistent showing that included a successful 50-yard try against the Rams.
Staley indicated Thursday that there’s still time for the two kickers to battle for the job.
Safeties Alohi Gilman (knee contusion) and Mark Webb Jr. (groin) did not practice. Linebacker and special teams player Nick Niemann (undisclosed) returned in a limited capacity. He didn’t take part in team drills. … Staley indicated that Stick will start Sunday with rookie Max Duggan to follow.