Chargers’ top positional needs going into the offseason: Defensive tackle

DENVER, CO - SEPTEMBER 11: Running back C.J. Anderson
DENVER, CO - SEPTEMBER 11: Running back C.J. Anderson /

The Los Angeles Chargers are a team on the rise. However, there are a few areas they need to address entering the 2018 offseason. Let’s talk about the biggest weakness on defense.

The Chargers did a lot of things well in 2017. Stopping the run wasn’t one of them.

Los Angeles had the second-worst rushing defense in the NFL, allowing 131.1 rushing yards per game. They also allowed a league-worst 4.9 yards per carry. A 65-year-old Liam Neeson would have had a better chance at taking down a running back than a Chargers defender (you know, because nobody stops Liam Neeson from Liam Neesoning).

A big reason why the Chargers couldn’t stop the run was because they lacked a run-stuffing defensive tackle (starting middle linebacker Denzel Perryman’s nine-game absence didn’t help either). Brandon Mebane was supposed to be that guy, and while he provided veteran leadership, the soon-to-be 33-year-old was a shell of his former space-eating self. He finished as Pro Football Focus’ 119th-ranked interior defensive lineman (43.1 overall grade) a year after being the 20th-best DT (81.9 overall grade). Releasing Mebane in the offseason would save the Chargers $4.5 million in cap space.

Meanwhile, Darius Philon is coming along very nicely. Philon, a 2015 sixth-round pick, is a better pass rusher than run defender, but he had his moments and could push for a starting role in 2018. Bleacher Report put the 24-year-old Philon at No. 28 overall among all defensive tackles for his 2017 play. Corey Liuget, a 2017 Pro Bowl alternate, played much better this past season, but the Chargers should ask the former first-rounder to take a pay cut. Hopefully, he has accepted his new rotational role and restructures his contract, because while this position group is in need of an upgrade, it’ll be tough to overcome losing TWO starters from last year, especially when you’re likely getting rid of the one (Mebane) who led all interior linemen in defensive snaps played.

Speaking of depth, the 28-year-old Damion Square signed a two-year, $4 million deal with $1.2 million guaranteed last offseason and is scheduled to make $2 million in base salary in 2018. The  27-year-old Tenny Palepoi is an unrestricted free agent. It makes sense to keep both guys around for one more year for depth.

That said, the Chargers need to get better up front. How can they fix this problem?

Dream scenario: Sign DaQuan Jones

Dream scenario doesn’t always mean go with the sexiest name. Unrestricted free agents Dontari Poe, Sheldon Richardson and Bennie Logan and restricted free agent David Irving are considered the top defensive tackles on the market. But I’m going with a (slightly) younger guy whose best years are ahead of him: Titans DT DaQuan Jones.

The 26-year-old Jones was Tennessee’s 2014 fourth-round pick. He was placed on season-ending injured reserve after suffering a torn biceps in Week 13 vs. the Houston Texans, but he has quickly developed into one of the Titans’ top defenders. Prior to 2017, Jones played in back-to-back 16-game seasons, including starting every game during that time. He’s an absolute beast in the run game and was a big reason why the Titans finished the 2017 season with the fourth-best rushing defense. Even though he was known for doing the dirty work, Jones finished with 3.5 sacks this past season, which makes him an even more attractive option.

Jones primarily played defensive end in Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 scheme, but when he filled in at nose tackle this past season, he remained disruptive. That said, his size (6-foot-4, 322 pounds) makes him an ideal fit at defensive tackle in Gus Bradley’s 4-3 defense. Mebane, who was a 1-tech tackle, only weighs 311 pounds. Jones could replace Mebane, as well as has the versatility to move around in sub-packages. Playing next to Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram is definitely a good sell, too.

The question is, will the Chargers be able to afford him? He’s coming off injury, but he’s a proven playmaker who’s entering his prime. Will he sign a one-year “prove-it” deal like Poe did a year ago with the Atlanta Falcons? Will Chargers GM Tom Telesco be able to reel him in on a potential three-year “bargain” deal like he did with Casey Hayward two years ago? If not, then Jones might price himself out of Los Angeles.

Realistic: Draft Vita Vea

This goes hand-in-hand with another dream scenario. But if there’s a run on quarterbacks in the 2018 NFL Draft, it’ll push talent down the board.

Meet Washington’s Vita Vea, a 6-foot-4, 344-pound mammoth of a man. The 2017 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, Vea might be the strongest prospect coming out this year, and being that athletic and quick for a man his size is so rare. Drafting run-stopping defensive tackles may not be sexy, but Vea throws (literally) that narrative away. He’s the hero Los Angeles needs. His presence will make Bosa and Ingram that much better (from elite to Golden God status). Will he last all the way to 17? I think he will.

Backup plan: Sign Justin Ellis or Beau Allen and draft a DT on Day 2 or 3

Compared to Jones and Vea, these guys aren’t difference-makers.

Raiders’ Justin Ellis, 27, and Eagles’ Beau Allen, 26, are strictly big-bodied run stuffers, but they are decent at what they do. Both are former 2014 draft picks (Ellis a fourth-rounder and Allen a seventh-rounder) who are similar in size and weigh just around 330 pounds. Both have also been very durable. Allen has played in all but one game since entering the league, and Ellis has missed just four games in four seasons. Ellis, however, has started a combined 41 games, including 14 starts last season; Allen has eight total starts. Despite a ton of less starts, Allen has 87 combined tackles, while Ellis has 112 combined tackles. They’ve combined for 2.5 sacks in four years. The main difference from this past season: One (Allen) was part of one of the best defenses in the league and the other (Ellis) was part of one of the worst defenses in the league. It’s fair to note that Oakland ranked 12th in rushing defense.

The Chargers would likely be able to get Allen at a cheaper rate because even though Eagles DC Jim Schwartz rotated his defensive linemen frequently, Allen was strictly a backup in Philly. However, he’d still be an upgrade over the aging Mebane. On the other hand, it’ll be interesting to see if Ellis, who became a full-time starter this past season after being a rotational player the previous two seasons (after a promising rookie year), looks for a big payday. He was PFF’s 45th-best interior lineman, with a career-high 80.6 overall grade. However, his statistics were nothing to write home about.

If the Chargers get one of these two guys, they should still look to add another defensive tackle on Day 2-3 of the draft. This class is deep with DTs, and Florida’s Taven Bryan, Virginia Tech’s Tim Settle, Florida State’s Derrick Nnadi and Stanford’s Harrison Phillips could be there for the taking.