The San Diego Chargers had a very busy offseason.
Even ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. took notice after saying the Chargers are the most improved team in the AFC West. Now that the offseason is all but finished, let’s take a look back at the Chargers’ acquisitions as we make a case for the best pickup.
WR Travis Benjamin:
It’s all about Benjamin. General manager Tom Telesco didn’t even have to team up with Ice Cube to get this winning lottery ticket. Wide receiver was an underrated need going into the offseason. The Chargers were banged up at the position a season ago, and Malcom Floyd just retired. Benjamin was signed to a four-year, $24 million deal with $13 million guaranteed (acquired for less money than both Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu).
In Benjamin’s first year as a full-time starter (2015), he finished with 68 catches for 966 yards. He also finished the year strong with four touchdowns in his last three games. He averaged 14.2 yards per catch last season, and 23 of his 68 catches went for 15-plus yards. At 5-foot-10 and 172 pounds, Benjamin’s durability will be in question; but he is a speedster who fits well in the Chargers’ quick-pace scheme where the receiver does damage with the ball in his hands.
Even though Benjamin played all 16 games in back-to-back seasons, he didn’t make an impact in any year up until last season. He has 1,683 career receiving yards and never had more than 18 receptions in a season during 2012-14. It’s bold to say, but Benjamin has a chance to make the same impact Emmanuel Sanders made when he signed with the Broncos in 2014. Sanders left Pittsburgh never eclipsing 1,000 yards, and in two years with Denver, he had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and was selected to his first Pro Bowl (2014). Also, he caught 161 passes over four years with the Steelers; he already has 171 receptions with the Broncos in two. Don’t forget, Benjamin’s an upgrade on special teams, too, where the Chargers finished with a league-worst 4.2 punt-return average last year.
NT Brandon Mebane:
Bane! Nobody knew who he was until he did the belly roll. Mebane signed a three-year, $13.5 million contract. He’s on the wrong side of 30, but the former Seahawk will be a huge presence in stopping the run, and the Chargers desperately need that after ranking No. 26 and No. 27 in rushing defense in 2014 and 2015, respectively.
Meanwhile, Mebane’s Seahawks flourished. Seattle finished with the best rushing defense in the league last season after allowing just 81.5 yards per game (the same YPG in 2014, too). They’ve had a top-10 rushing defense over the last four years. There’s no Pro Bowls to his name, but Mebane has 349 total tackles and 15.5 sacks over a nine-year period with the team. He’s the type of player who makes his teammates around him better.
CB Casey Hayward:
It was curious to see cornerback Patrick Robinson let go, but that was until Telesco reeled in Hayward. A first-team All-Pro in 2012, Hayward is consistent and versatile as they come. He was given above-average coverage grades by Pro Football Focus in each of his four seasons with the Packers and can play in the slot or on the outside. He’ll fit perfectly in defensive coordinator John Pagano’s zone scheme.
The 5-foot-11, former second-round pick is only 26 years old and has nine career picks. Now, he did miss a lot of time in 2013 (hamstring) and was banged up in 2015, both years in which he didn’t record an interception. We’ve seen free-agent corners get paid a lot and flop over the last couple of years (hey Byron Maxwell!), but the Chargers didn’t break the bank after giving Hayward a three-year deal worth $15.3 million including $6.8 million guaranteed.
OL Matt Slauson:
It was a bit of a surprise to see the Chicago Bears cut Slauson. He’s been a 16-game starter in five of his six seasons including last year. He switched back and forth from guard (12 games) to center (four games), and according to PFF, he finished as the 18th-best guard and fifth-best center. Here’s PFF’s summary of Slausen’s 2015 season.
“He allowed two sacks, one hit and nine hurries while he received a run block grade of +9.6. His Pass Blocking Efficiency of 98.4 (one sack, zero hits and seven hurries) at guard was tied for the best with Josh Sitton. His PBE of 98.2 (one sack, one hit, two hurries) at center was good for seventh among centers in the league.”
Concerns about his age (30) and athleticism likely caused his release. New assistant offensive line coach Dave DeGuglie coached Slauson in 2012 with the New York Jets, so the chemistry is already there. Even though he’s not the long-term answer for the Chargers (Max Tuerk is the future), he’s a huge upgrade over Chris Watt and Trevor Robinson at center, and he can fill in at guard should Orlando Franklin or D.J. Fluker get injured.
DE Joey Bosa:
Speaking of surprises, Bosa went to the Chargers at No. 3 overall in the 2016 NFL Draft. He has the versatility to play all over the line as well as rush the passer standing up; but for now, he’s expected to play left defensive end in their base 3-4 scheme.
Bosa potentially fixes two issues that the Chargers have been dealing with for quite some time: pass rushing and run stopping. I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s best to put emphasis on this again. The Chargers have 58 total sacks over the last two seasons, which is the second fewest in the league during that span, per ESPN Stats and Information. At Ohio State, Bosa finished as the No. 1 and No. 2 pass rusher in the nation among edge defenders in 2014 and 2015, respectively, per PFF. The Chargers also allowed 28 rushing touchdowns over the last two seasons. Bosa finished No. 1 in the nation among edge defenders against the run in both 2014 and 2015, per PFF.
Telesco loves production, and Bosa finished his college career with 26 sacks and 51 tackles for loss. They haven’t had a Shawne Merriman-like player in a long time, so let’s hope he can make the same impact.
TE Hunter Henry:
Triple H is a wrestling legend. Double H is set to replace an NFL legend. After failing to re-sign Ladarius Green (and develop him for that matter), the Chargers needed to add depth at tight end and find a replacement for Antonio Gates. According to PFF, Henry posted the top receiving grade in the nation among tight ends in 2015. He finished with 51 receptions for 739 yards and three touchdowns and did not drop a single pass all season.
At 6-foot-5, Henry will add much-needed height to a somewhat smaller receiving squad. Don’t think of him as just a backup to Gates given that offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt will likely use two-tight end sets to cause mismatches. Unfortunately, he averaged 4.7 yards after the catch, so don’t expect him to break a bunch of tackles. He is a decent blocker, though. Alex Collins and his 20 rushing touchdowns in 2015 can vouch for that.
LB/S Jatavis Brown:
I chose Brown because he was my favorite pick in the draft–and Telesco’s. The 2015 MAC Defensive Player of the Year is a fast (4.47 40), hard-hitting playmaker. If you don’t believe me, here is evidence. Brown finished with 12 sacks and 20 tackles for loss last season. He also racked up 90-plus tackles in three straight seasons. NFL Network draft analyst said the main difference between Brown and second-rounder Deion Jones was that Brown came from a small school (Akron).
At 5-foot-11 and 227 pounds, Brown could be our own Myles Jack, a linebacker-safety hybrid. He’s a great athlete who can cover (fourth-highest coverage grade among all draft-eligible linebackers last season) and make plays in the backfield. According to PFF, Brown did miss 25 tackles on 192 attempts over the past two seasons, so he must fix that problem if he wants to get on the field (Brown can practice on hometown buddy Benjamin). The potential to move quickly from special teams to the starting strong safety role is real.
OC Ken Whisenhunt:
I’ll keep this one short and to the point. Whisenhunt was a huge reason why the Chargers returned to the playoffs in 2013. He helped Philip Rivers get back to form, and the Chargers finished in the top 15 in both the passing (fourth) and running (13th) game as well as points per game (12th). He might be one of the most underrated additions for the Chargers.
This list didn’t include key re-signings of Gates and tackle Joseph Barksdale. There were also a handful of names I did not list including safeties Dwight Lowery and Dexter McCoil and the rest of the Chargers’ draft class (and undrafted free agents). That said, who do you think was the team’s biggest acquisition?