Every draft cycle has players that don’t stand out on the box score or on the advanced statistics. They weren’t big recruits or sport-switching small-school athletes who ooze potential. They just have great film, and everyone who does big-time film digging ends up loving them.
This year, one of those players was wide receiver Josh Palmer, out of Tennessee.
It was widely agreed up in the pre-draft cycle that Palmer’s best ball was ahead of him. Few players developed under the various Tennessee coaching staffs of the last few years, and Palmer falls into that category. He initially committed to the Butch Jones Volunteers and started as a freshman, never relinquishing the job over the next three seasons under former head coach Jeremy Pruitt and quarterback Jarrett Guarantano. By his sophomore year, Palmer had become an explosive downfield threat as the WR3 behind future NFL players in Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings.
But Palmer never became more than that. Even when Callaway and Jennings departed for the league, Palmer failed to see WR1 production, maxing out with his senior season at 65 targets (23% target share), 33 catches, 475 yards, and four touchdowns. There was a lot wrong with Tennessee over Palmer’s time there, and he only deserves some of the blame for that limited workload. But we still can’t ignore it. Palmer’s production came often as a product of his competitiveness, toughness, and ball skills. Many rightfully noted Palmer shined against top competition; Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley remarked that he fell for Palmer as a prospect when watching the film of top SEC defensive backs, who Palmer was performing well against. Staley liked Palmer well enough that the Chargers made him a third-round pick at No. 77 overall. Downfield on vertical jump balls, Palmer wins at an impressive rate, and he has enough veteran savvy to win on such routes with quick releases and hand usage down the red line.
There’s a lot to like about Palmer as an understudy to Mike Williams, the WR2 in Los Angeles who won in similar ways at the college level—albeit with remarkably more production. Williams is entering a contract year for the Chargers, playing this season on a $15 million fifth-year option that likely overpays for his skillset and injury history. Palmer comes in shorter and smaller than Williams, but both are impressive players when pinned up against the sideline and playing through contact on a deep ball.
Many of the Chargers’ recent WR moves seem oriented on vertical threats. Before Palmer’s selection, the Chargers featured Jalen Guyton as their WR3 last season. Guyton, a 2019 undrafted free agent with the Dallas Cowboys who rose through the Chargers’ practice squad, brings 4.4-second 40-yard dash speed in a solid frame at 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds. In 17 of 52 targets (33%), he saw more than 20 air yards, which was a top-10 number in the NFL and just above Williams’ rate—though Williams had substantially more volume. Behind Guyton, the Chargers relied on Tyron Johnson, who brings 4.36-second speed at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, as their WR4. Of his 26 targets, a whopping 11 (42%) came more than 20 yards downfield; that was the second-highest rate in the league.
Williams, Guyton, and Johnson all having top-10 target rates on downfield passes indicate just how vertical the Chargers’ offense wanted to be last season. It fit Justin Herbert’s skillset as a big-armed passer, and it fits their depth chart of speedy and big receivers. Of course, that was an old staff. The Athletic’s Daniel Popper noted how new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi will build out Los Angeles’ unit from the New Orleans Saints’ mold; he’s coached for most of the last decade, but the character of the previously Drew Brees-led New Orleans offense was predicated on accurate quick game throws. That simply can’t fly in Los Angeles, or as Lombardi himself put it: “Justin’s not Drew.” Lombardi has promised flexibility, but that’s a promise often made and rarely kept by NFL coaches. Any emphasis on quick game passing and underneath separation will drive volume to star receiver Keenan Allen, as well as second-year pros K.J. Hill and Joe Reed. Both floundered for playing time last season, as many rookies across the league did. But both also offer the skillsets absent in Palmer, Johnson, and Guyton: quick separation on underneath breaking routes.
The identity of the offense will dictate where the targets fall, and the identity of the offense belongs to Lombardi and Herbert. I think they’ll lean to Herbert’s deep-ball ability, especially with such an elite route runner in Allen already in hand, and focus on rotating through their young vertical threats as they look to cement a potential Williams replacement before his contract expires. It’s worth remembering that beyond any interest, hype, or strong film for Guyton, Johnson, Hill, and Reed, Palmer was the only player added by this coaching staff with this quarterback in mind. And his Round 3 draft capital trumps that of the investment made on any other wide receiver. This is the sort of player that they want to build around.
Palmer is likely to be WR3, and if he’s used in the pros as he was in Tennessee, the verticality of the 2020 Chargers offense should leak into 2021. Maybe the Chargers view him as more of a big slot player who can grow in his releases and want him as a Michael Thomas-like pass-catcher who bullies on slants and curls. Maybe they’re dedicated to re-signing Williams no matter what, and Palmer is just a competitive and underused player they want to invest time in to discover his ceiling. We can look too far into tea leaves at times, but considering the capital the Chargers invested and the roles they’ve prioritized, Palmer seems likely to compete with Guyton for that downfield WR3 role this season. I’m not sure he’ll beat Guyton out, frankly. For all of his successes against the SEC’s best cover men, Palmer still needs to be a contested-catch maven to hang in the NFL early; that’s a role that precious few players hold for steady production. Guyton brings the speed that Palmer lacks, as well as an existing rapport with Herbert. Palmer may be a candidate for greater snaps in Year 2 when Williams departs in free agency, using his size and smart release work to win at the X-receiver position to keep Guyton in off alignments and free to use his speed.
Many camp battles are overestimated, but the scramble for WR3 is an important one in Los Angeles. With Hunter Henry gone, via in free agency, 93 targets are up for grabs, all of which won’t be handled by tight ends Jared Cook and Tre’ McKitty. Whoever emerges out of camp with that crown will have the early opportunity to deliver on that volume, carve out a bigger role, and potentially serve as a beneficiary for a Williams departure in 2022. Not to get too blockbuster drama with it, but the future of the Chargers receiver position is at stake.
Except for Allen. He’s the man, and he’s going to play forever.