Telesco deserves blame, but has been unlucky when addressing O-line

Nov 13, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (17) is pressured by Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Earl Mitchell (90) as offensive guard Orlando Franklin (74) blocks during the fourth quarter at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 13, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (17) is pressured by Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Earl Mitchell (90) as offensive guard Orlando Franklin (74) blocks during the fourth quarter at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports /

The San Diego Chargers struggled in 2016 because of their offensive line play. Pro Football Focus ranked San Diego’s O-line as one of the worst in the NFL.

According to PFF, the Chargers’ offensive line was the 31st-worst unit in the league, one spot up from its 32nd ranking in 2015. Only the Seattle Seahawks’ offensive line was rated worse this season.

Here’s what PFF’s Sam Monson had to say:

“Spare a thought for Philip Rivers, who has to watch the other two big QBs from the 2004 draft class steering playoff-bound teams and contending for a championship while he deals with one of the worst offensive lines in the game. Center Matt Slauson was the best part of this offensive line, and his play was average, at best. This line couldn’t pass protect, surrendering 238 total QB pressures for the second-lowest pass-blocking efficiency mark in the league, and its run blocking was no better. Of 1,510 rushing yards as a team, 906 of them came after contact, with the line generating an average of just 1.5 yards before contact per carry.”

It goes to show you how well running back Melvin Gordon played this season. It makes you wonder what he could do with just an average offensive line..

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It’s clear the Chargers desperately need to retool the offensive line. It’s been three straight years where the Chargers’ O-line ranked in the bottom 25 (29th in ’14, 32nd in ’15 and 31st in ’16). Center Matt Slauson, a late free-agent acquisition last offseason, was the only bright spot, receiving a 81.2 overall grade from PFF, which ranked him as the 19th-best center. He was also the top run-blocking lineman for the Bolts (76.7 grade, good for 10th-best among all linemen), per PFF. Right guard D.J. Fluker was the team’s top-rated pass-blocker (75.9 grade, good for 50th-best among all linemen), which says a lot.

Many blame general manager Tom Telesco for not addressing the offensive line, but that’s not entirely true. Telesco did make moves, but he’s just been very unlucky.

So what happened?

Left tackle King Dunlap, who signed a two-year deal with the Chargers in 2013, rejuvenated his career after playing like a stud for the Bolts in his first year with the team. 2014 marked the first year he played a full 16-game season. Despite the risk, he was rewarded with a four-year, $28 million contract extension ($13 million guaranteed) in the 2015 offseason. Unfortunately, the 31-year-old has missed 13 games over the last two seasons due to injuries. Even when Dunlap was on the field, he appeared to be too slow and couldn’t handle dominant pass-rushers. Warning: A slow tackle protecting your quarterback’s blindside will lead to death.

Fluker, who was selected No. 11 overall by the Chargers in the 2013 draft, started his career off somewhat strong, grading positively as the team’s right tackle in his rookie year. It wasn’t a coincidence that Philip Rivers and the Chargers made the playoffs in 2013, with a line that allowed the fourth-fewest sacks (30) and ranked 18th overall by PFF. Unfortunately, Fluker struggled at tackle in 2014, and a switch to guard (2015-16) hasn’t been as promising as some people thought could be. The Chargers exercised his fifth-year option before the start of the 2016 season.

As Fluker transitioned to guard in 2015, former Ram Joseph Barksdale was signed on to be Fluker’s replacement at right tackle. Barksdale proved to be the only bright spot on the line last season after signing a one-year deal late in the offseason. He only allowed six sacks and six hits on 685 dropbacks, per PFF. Barksdale, 28, was the team’s top priority in the 2016 offseason and ended up re-signing on a four-year, $22.2 million deal ($10.5 million guaranteed). Well, what was the only bright spot last in 2015 turned out to be another weak spot in 2016. He got burned a lot and was penalized just as much (tied with OLB Melvin Ingram for the most penalties on the team). 

Left guard Orlando Franklin’s backstory might be the worst of them all. Franklin was arguably the top guard on the market in 2015 free agency. He was supposed to be a versatile player who immediately upgraded the line. After missing just one game in his four-year career with the Broncos, Franklin, 29, has been beat up by injuries in two years with the Chargers. He missed six games a year ago, and even though he started every game this season, he was roughed up and played poorly. When a lineman would go down on the field, I’d bet you $1 that the camera panned to Franklin. The five-year, $36.5 million deal ($16.5 million guaranteed) he signed in 2015 makes me want to take Negan’s bat, Lucille, and smash my head in myself.

So like I said, it’s tough to dish out all of the blame on Telesco. Whether it’s injuries, laziness, bad draft picks (see Watt, Chris) or lack of talent, the line needs a change.

And that might start with cutting certain players. According to San Diego Union-Tribune’s Kevin Acee, the Chargers would save a combined $21.57 million in cash in 2017 should they release Dunlap, Franklin and Fluker. San Diego would free up $16.74 million in cap space, per Acee.

Don’t expect Barksdale to go anywhere after signing his deal last offseason, so hopefully he gets back to 2015 form.

With that said, having Slauson, who is under contract for one more year, anchoring the center position is a great start. The Chargers drafted center Max Tuerk in the third round of the 2016 draft, but he clearly wasn’t up to speed after suffering a knee injury in his final year at USC. Perhaps Tuerk plays guard in 2017, or the Chargers could decide to move the versatile Slauson over and put Tuerk at center. The Chargers also have guard Donavon Clark, a 2016 seventh-round pick who looked good before tearing his ACL in preseason and missing the year.

Many fans were screaming for an offensive lineman with the third overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, but you can’t be mad after what Joey Bosa did as a rookie. The Chargers hold the No. 7 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. The general consensus is that a lineman is not worthy of a top-10 selection, but expect the Chargers to select linemen in the second, third or fourth rounds.

Rivers isn’t getting any younger, so if the Chargers want to win they need to make changes up front A.S.A.P..