Offensive linemen Matt Slauson and Kenny Wiggins are unrestricted free agents. Should the Los Angeles Chargers bring them back?
The Chargers’ offensive line was vastly improved in 2017–and that was with three new starting linemen and one starter from 2016 who switched positions.
Los Angeles dished out a ton of money for left tackle Russell Okung last offseason, but it paid, with Okung’s Pro Bowl-caliber play and veteran presence greatly helping turn things around. Matt Slauson replaced free-agent bust Orlando Franklin at left guard after starting at center a year ago. Meanwhile, Spencer Pulley became the full-time center and Kenny Wiggins won the starting right guard job. Right tackle Joseph Barksdale was the only lineman who started (and played) the same position in 2016.
The Chargers were one of the best pass-blocking units in the league, allowing the fewest total sacks (18). They ranked third in Football Outsiders’ pass protection DVOA. Melvin Gordon rushed for over 1,000 yards for the first time in his career, but the run blocking was below average. They averaged 3.81 yards per attempt, 26th-worst in the league. They also ranked 26th in run blocking DVOA, per FO.
Heading into the 2018 offseason, both Slauson and Wiggins are unrestricted free agents. Slauson, who just turned 32 years old, started the first seven games of the season but missed the final nine games after being placed on injured reserve with a torn biceps. Wiggins, 29, played and started a career-high 16 games. Slauson and Wiggins finished as Pro Football Focus’ 49th-ranked and 70th-ranked guards, respectively.
At first glance, it may seem like a bad idea to part ways with two starters, especially given the chemistry and continuity the team has been searching for over the years. But is this the best the Chargers can do?
Slauson is on the wrong side of 30 and coming off injury. Not only that, but he really struggled prior to said injury. It’s unfortunate because the 2009 sixth-rounder was the Chargers’ highest-graded lineman from a year ago, per PFF. Expectations should be tempered for Wiggins, who will turn 30 years old in August, but he’s going to want to get paid. A 2011 undrafted free agent who has spent four of his five seasons with the Chargers, Wiggins surprised us all and did his job as a pass blocker, but the Chargers shouldn’t commit to a long-term deal for a one-year starter and player his age.
Luckily, their replacements are already on the roster, which is why the Bolts shouldn’t go out of their way to re-sign the two. 2017 second-round pick Forrest Lamp and 2017 third-round pick Dan Feeney are much younger and have more way more potential. Lamp missed his entire rookie season after tearing his ACL in training camp, but he was taking majority of the reps at right guard and was the front-runner to the land that starting gig. Feeney spent time at both right guard and center during training camp, but he started the season as a backup before finally replacing the injured Slauson at left guard (nine starts), a position he never played in college. Feeney started off hot but really cooled down towards the end of the season. His experience in Year 1 should help him thrive in Year 2.
But is Lamp set to play right guard, or will he replace Barksdale at right tackle should the latter become a cap casualty? Will Feeney remain at left guard, or will he compete with Spencer Pulley, a 2016 undrafted free agent who started all 16 games in 2017 but graded out as one of the worst centers in the league, per PFF, for the starting center position? Those are two things to think about as we enter free agency and the draft. LG Andrew Norwell is the top guard on the market, but he may not be affordable. The list of free-agent tackles is underwhelming. Signing 26-year-old center Weston Richberg or drafting an interior lineman in the middle rounds could be the team’s best best.
Like Slauson and Wiggins, tackles Michael Schofield (27 years old), Chris Hairston (28 years old), Michael Ola (29 years old) are unrestricted free agents, leaving Okung, Lamp, Feeney, Pulley, Barksdale, Sam Tevi and Donavon Clark as linemen currently under contract for 2018. Schofield filled in for an injured Barksdale (15 games played, five starts). Despite giving up the most pressures (in only 210 plays) among Chargers’ OTs, he’s a decent backup. Plus, he’s young and has the versatility to play tackle and guard, too, so bringing him back on a one-year deal makes sense. Hairston missed the 2017 season due to an illness, while Ola played 2 games and was a non-factor for the Bolts. Both will likely not be retained.