While the Chargers’ defense was rightly lauded for a number of significant improvements and strong performers on that side of the ball, a distinct weakness on the interior of the defensive line stands out as a priority this offseason.
Tom Telesco and the Chargers management team have done a good job bolstering the defense with two world-class pass rushers in Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa and building a solid secondary on the back of Jason Verrett, Casey Hayward and Jahleel Addae, but the interior needs plenty of work.
The 2017 defense was exposed brutally by the opposition run game far too often. Finishing with the second-worst run defense across the NFL, improvement is an absolute must for a team that went so close to finishing in a playoff place.
A run-stuffing defensive tackle should be the target in either free agency or the draft this offseason. The guys that were there in 2017–Brandon Mebane and Corey Liuget–were not good enough to curb running games and allowed the Chargers to be exposed far too often through the middle.
For his worth, Mebane has been a tremendous defensive tackle in the NFL for a long time. The 85th overall pick in the 2017 draft, Mebane has been a great player and put together a strong career as first part of the record-breaking Seattle defense and then as a veteran leader on a young Chargers roster.
Mebane’s only shortcoming now is his age. He will turn 33 years old in a week and his production will continue to decline.
Liuget was drafted 18th overall by the Chargers in 2011. The Illinois product had a career-high seven sacks in 2012 and 57 tackles in 2014 along with his first, and so far only, touchdown, but he has largely not lived up to the high expectations surrounding him.
In June 2015, he signed a five-year contract extension worth $58.5 million ($30 million guaranteed). It is probably fair to say that his production has not matched his price tag since. 2017 saw Liuget contribute with 1.5 sacks, 15 tackles and one forced fumble, well down on expectation despite only playing 12 games.
In terms of cap hit, Liuget himself is due to account for $9.5 million in 2018, according to Spotrac.com. If he were to be cut, however, it would only cost Los Angeles $3 million in dead money, allowing Telesco and the Chargers to free up some extra cash and potentially target better replacements at the position.
For his part, 2018 is the last year of Mebane’s deal with the Chargers and he comes with a $5.5 million cap hit. The team would save all but $1 million of that by cutting him loose.
While I would personally consider cutting both and moving in a different direction at the position, the options in free agency all come with their own set of flaws while the draft possibilities also have drawbacks and concerns.
With this in mind, I could justify keeping Mebane at his cap number for one more season and using his vast experience to help guide new talent in the role.
Mebane offers more consistency than the more expensive Liuget. He also has more to offer in a mentor capacity while cutting Liuget would provide a significant cash injection for any free agency moves Telesco may be considering.
In regard to cap figures, the Chargers sit around the middle of the NFL with a touch over $34 million available to spend in 2018. With concerns at quarterback behind Phillip Rivers, a drastic need for a stable and consistent kicker and offensive line, as well as on the defensive side of the ball, Telesco needs to be wise and spread his resources around well.
Snaring a competent project player at defensive tackle in the draft could prove a cost-effective solution to a serious issue.