The Los Angeles Chargers have some work to do in the trenches.
The Chargers have one of the more talented defensive lines in the NFL. More importantly, they have decent depth.
Joey Bosa is the next superstar on defense. Melvin Ingram is his partner-in-crime. Both defensive ends finished with 10-plus sacks a piece in 2017. They are the NFL’s best pass-rushing duo–and they’re both under 30 years old and under contract for several more years.
However, the interior defensive line needs some work. Corey Liuget, Darius Philon, Damion Square and Tenny Palepoi had their moments, especially rushing the passer, and they did their best to take pressure off Bosa and Ingram; but there weren’t any game-changers at the position. You could make the case for Philon, a 2015 sixth-rounder (who I was very high on) who earned the chance to start at the three-technique in Gus Bradley’s 4-3 scheme. A lot of potential with that one.
Even so, all of the defensive tackles listed above struggled against the run, a big reason why the Chargers finished with the second-worst run defense this past season. And the one guy (Brandon Mebane) who was brought in to stop the run failed to do so, too.
First off, let’s take a look at each interior linemen’s snap counts for 2017 (via ProFootballReference.com):
Where do we go from here?
The Chargers signed Mebane to a three-year, $13.5 million contract with $5.5 guaranteed in 2016. The Chargers ranked 27th in rushing defense the year prior and desperately needed a space eater in the middle of their defense. Mebane’s first year with the Bolts ended with injury, but he helped the Chargers finish 10th in rushing defense.
However, Bane took a big step back in 2017, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 119th-ranked interior defensive lineman (43.1 overall grade) after finishing as the 20th-best lineman (81.9 overall grade) in 2016. He led all interior linemen in snaps played for the Chargers, but he looked like a shell of his former run-stuffing self. He turned 33 years old in January.
Even though many fans hated on Liuget, I thought 2017 was a bounce-back year for the former 2011 first-round pick, who made his first Pro Bowl as an alternate (fifth). He moved from a 3-4 defensive end to a 4-3 defensive tackle and despite posting mediocre numbers (21 total tackles, 1.5 sacks, two pass deflections and one forced fumble), he looked a lot more disruptive in his new role.
Liuget became a rotational player and it definitely worked in his–and the team’s–favor. His 415 snaps were the lowest of his seven-year career after finishing with a career-high 812 snaps in 2016. The rise of Philon, as well as missing four games due to injuries, were the main reasons why.
Meanwhile, the 28-year-old Square signed a two-year, $4 million deal with $1,225,000 guaranteed last offseason. He’s scheduled to make $2 million in base salary in 2018. The 27-year-old Palepoi is an unrestricted free agent in 2018. It doesn’t hurt to keep both guys around for one more year.
VERDICT: Release Mebane and restructure Liuget’s contract
As much as Mebane played a huge part in mentoring the younger guys, which should not be taken for granted, the Chargers need to find a better–and younger–player at the one-technique. The team can find Mebane’s replacement in a draft loaded with defensive tackles. Plus, releasing him in the offseason would save the Chargers $4.5 million, and they would only eat $1 million in dead money, per Spotrac.com.
As for Liuget, he’s overpaid. In 2015, he was given a five-year, $51. 25 million contract extension ($30.47,000 in guarantees) based off potential. It’s crazy to think that he was arguably the Chargers’ best defender just 4-5 years ago. Liuget’s making an average of $10.25 million per year, which would be the 10th-highest average among 4-3 defensive tackles, per OverTheCap.com. He’s not worth that money, but he’s not a bad player and is still only 27 years old. Plus, you still need depth at the position. If I were the Chargers, I’d keep him around as long as he takes a pay cut. If not, the Chargers would save $8 million in cash ($3 million in dead money) should they release him, per Spotrac.com.