Chargers’ top positional needs going into offseason: Linebacker

The Los Angeles Chargers are a team on the rise. However, there are a few areas they need to address entering the 2018 offseason. O Linebackers, where art thou?

You guys like facts, right?

According to ESPN’s Eric Williams, the Chargers allowed 142 rushing yards per game without starting middle linebacker Denzel Perryman on the field, compared to the 117 rushing yards per game given up when he was active.

The Bolts also allowed a league-high 994 rushing yards after contact, per Williams.

Another one? The Chargers finished with the worst first-down run defense, giving up 4.79 yards per carry, as noted by ESPN.

The lack of adequate run stoppers at the linebacker position, along with inefficient run-stuffing defensive tackles, caused this to happen. The team’s linebackers also struggled in pass coverage, as the lack of playmakers, as well as change of scheme, likely forced Gus Bradley to use an extra defensive back (Adrian Phillips) and play dime defense (six defensive backs) for majority of the season.

The starters? Perryman is a stud. Unfortunately, the 2015 second-round pick out of Miami has yet to play a full, 16-game season, missing 15 games in three seasons. Outside linebacker Kyle Emanuel was a nice find in the fifth round of 2015 draft, but he’s an average player who lacks coverage and playmaking skills. Ultimately, he’s solid depth and has the ability to set the edge, but he should no longer be viewed as an every-down starter at the SAM (strongside) linebacker position.

Filling in for the injured Perryman was Hayes Pullard, who started a career-high 10 games. Pullard finished as PFF’s 79th-worst linebacker and was the lowest-graded player (37.2 overall) on the Chargers’ defense. Despite poor play, the coaching staff favored Pullard all year long, as he played 45 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. Meanwhile, Korey Toomer, who looked much better and finished with an 80.3 overall grade, per PFF, played just 25 percent of snaps on defense. Toomer, 29, will be an unrestriced free agent and Pullard, a former Jaguar in the final year of his rookie contract, is scheduled to make $705,000 if on the Week 1 roster. The smart move would be to re-sign Toomer to a one-year deal and release Pullard.

As for starting WILL (weakside) linebacker Jatavis Brown, the 2016 fifth-rounder out of Akron took a big step back his sophomore year. This is a guy who finished first on the team in total tackles (79), third in pass deflections (six), third in sacks (3.5) and third in forced fumbles (two) last season. He was PFF’s second-best rookie linebacker. Maybe his regression had to do with the high ankle sprain suffered earlier in the season, or his inability to adapt to Bradley’s 4-3 scheme. Perhaps it had something to do with his supbar play in coverage the first month of the season.

Either way, enter Phillips. In the first six games of the season, Phillips played more than 20 percent of defensive snaps just once (Week 5) and played more than 80 percent of snaps on special teams in four of those six games. In Phillips’ final nine games of the year (inactive Week 17), he played at least 50 percent of snaps on defense every game but one (Week 16, left with injury). He still contributed on special teams during those nine games, but his snaps dropped in that department.

It was the exact opposite for Brown, who started the season (Weeks 1-4) playing nearly every snap on defense but then was on the field for less than 50 percent of time in nine of the 12 remaining games. At one point, Brown played 12 total defensive snaps in a three-week span (Weeks 11-13). This came right after a week where he was PFF’s highest-graded linebacker (coincidentally, this performance happened with Perryman’s return to the lineup..). And after playing two snaps on special teams the first nine games of the season, Brown played 70 snaps the final seven games of the year. However, I’m not giving up hope on the talented Brown just yet.

Where do we go from here?

Dream scenario: Draft Tremaine Edmunds

Virginia Tech LB Tremaine Edmunds is my favorite player in the draft. I’ve been hyping him up to the point where I’m starting to regret it because he’s now entering the realm of “Top 10” status.

Where do I start? Well, he’s a 6-foot-5, 250-pound linebacker who is only 19 years old. He’s a two-year starter (three-year player) who has appeared in every game since becoming a Hokie in 2015. He also comes with solid production, including finishing with 109 total tackles, with 14 for loss, 5.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and two pass deflections this past season, per College Football Statistics. He was one of  five finalists for the Butkus Award for his 2017 performance.

You’d think that he’d bit stiff for his size, but you’re wrong. He’s dominant against the run, fast enough to keep up with running backs and physical and big enough to match up with tight ends. He has that side-to-sideline speed teams crave and could rush the passer in certain situations.

Roquan Smith, another huge favorite of mine who won the 2017 Butkus Award, has incredible instincts, great speed and is a natural fit at the linebacker position, but he’ll likely go before Edmunds. However, Edmunds is an athletic freak with unique size and rarely gets bottled up by blockers when running through traffic. I believe Edmunds has the versatility to play all three linebacker positions but projects as an outside linebacker in Bradley’s 4-3 with Perryman playing the MIKE.

Linebacker is right up there with defensive tackle as the team’s biggest weakness on defense. But unlike the DT class, the LB class is not very deep (still talented). With that said, I hope Edmunds is still on the board when the Chargers pick at No. 17 overall. They say dreams come true, right? For now, we can sit back and watch a Pro Bowler in the making:

Realistic: Sign Anthony Hitchens

When talking about the Cowboys’ defense, everyone brings up DeMarcus Lawrence and Sean Lee. But Anthony Hitchens is a player you should get to know.

Hitchens, who is only 25 years old, has really come on the past two seasons since being drafted in the fourth round of the 2014 draft. Despite missing four games due to injury, which marked the first time he’s ever been inactive, he played his best football in 2017. He was PFF’s 20th-ranked linebacker. His strength was stopping the run; he finished second on the team in combined tackles (84) and ranked No. 2 in run-stop percentage among linebackers with at least 25 percent of snaps on defense, per PFF.

Like Edmunds, Hitchens has the versatility to play all linebacker spots, and he has experience in the 4-3 defense. The 6-foot, 235-pounder manned the middle of the Cowboys’ defense and filled in at weakside linebacker when Lee missed time due to injury. If he signed with the Chargers, I’d start him at the SAM position in place of Emanuel because of his ability to set the edge. He could easily slide over should Perryman get injured, too. Titans’ Avery Williamson, who is also only 25 years old and has been one of the best run defenders the past two seasons, per PFF, is another option, but he might be too rich for the Chargers. Both players could stand to improve in coverage but aren’t complete liabilities. Zach Brown, a guy I’ve been high on dating back to his Titan days, turns 29 years old entering the 2018 season and after signing one-year deals with the Bills and Redskins in 2016 and 2017, respectively, he’ll want a long-term deal; I’d prefer spending money on a younger player.

With the Cowboys going forward with Jaylon Smith, I don’t think they’ll make Hitchens a top priority. The Chargers should jump all over that. If he’s their only “splash” free-agent signing, I’d be absolutely fine with it.

Backup plan: Draft a LB on Day 2 or 3

Bears LB Christian Jones could be a cheaper option in free agency. The 26-year-old unrestricted free agent is very durable, having appeared in all but one game over his four-year career. He started 11 games last year and led the Bears with 90 combined tackles and finished with two sack. The 6-foot-3, 245-pound Jones is an efficient tackler but struggles in coverage and graded poorly by PFF’s standards.

The Chargers want to upgrade the position, not continue to be average. Looking for a linebacker with more promise and potential is the goal, and finding one in the draft could be the best bet in accomplishing that goal. Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch, Iowa’s Josey Jewell, Georgia’s Lorenzo Carter, Virginia’s Micah Kiser, USC’s Uchenna Nwosu and Clemson’s Dorian O’Daniel are a few players to keep an eye on come Day 2-3 of the draft.