Chargers’ top positional needs going into the offseason: Offensive line
By Matt Pagels
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 that offensive line.
Here is the final part of my four-part series, which already included kicker, defensive tackle and linebacker.
And this is where I tell you how bad the Chargers’ offensive line was. How much better the team could have been if the line did its job. That it’s been a reoccurring problem and will never get fixed. These are statements that have been embedded in my head when it comes to the O-line.
But that wasn’t the case in 2017.
The Chargers had one of the best pass-blocking units. They finished with the lowest sack total in the league with just 18 sacks allowed; they allowed a combined 113 sacks from 2014-16. Quarterback Philip Rivers hasn’t had that much protection since he began his career as a benchwarmer. I’m not kidding, look. The unit ranked third in Football Outsiders’ pass protection DVOA. According to NFL.com’s Matt Harmon, they gave up the fifth-fewest pressures after giving up a pressure on 29.8 percent of their plays (10th-highest rate) in 2016. They may not be worth a top-five ranking, but top 15 is fair and extremely impressive.
But not everything was perfect. Rivers faced the most quick pressures while also throwing for the most yards under pressure among quarterbacks this past season, as noted by Pro Football Focus. It goes to show you how good of a year he really had.
Meanwhile, 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. The Chargers’ running backs were stuffed 24 percent of the time, 26th-worst in the league, too.
The offensive line needs to continue its efficiency in pass blocking while stepping up in the run game. They have a Pro Bowler at left tackle in Russell Okung, and he’ll be in the second year of his four-year, $53 million deal. He’ll turn 31 years old in October, but the Chargers are fine at the position for now. They also have two promising youngsters in 2017 second-round pick Forrest Lamp and 2017 third-round pick Dan Feeney. Lamp missed his entire rookie year with a torn ACL, but he’ll look to claim a starting role at right guard. Feeney spent time at right guard and center during training camp but ultimately started the season off as a backup to Kenny Wiggins before replacing an injured Matt Slauson at left guard for the final nine games of the season. Feeney, who started off hot but cooled down, was named to the Pro Football Writers of America’s All-Rookie team. A recent report suggested that Feeney will be moved to center. Both Wiggins and Slauson are unrestricted free agents, and I believe the Chargers should move on from the aging veterans.
That leaves us with two positions that need upgrades: Left guard and right tackle.
The Chargers have had themselves a mess in the middle ever since Nick Hardwick retired following the 2014 season. After failed attempts by Chris Watt, Trevor Robinson, Max Tuerk and Spencer Pulley (who is the only one on the team but graded out as one of the worst centers last year), the Chargers are now hoping Feeney will reverse the trend of bad luck at the position. But because of alleged switch, they’ll need to find a new left guard.
As for right tackle, Joseph Barksdale didn’t allow a sack this past season, but he’s been an average player who struggles in run blocking. He’s always banged up, too. The Chargers would save $4.7 million in releasing the 30-year-old tackle, who is in the third year of his four-year, $22.2 million contract. Unfortunately, the list of free-agent tackles is underwhelming. Patriots left tackle Nate Solder is the top option, but he’s a left tackle who will want left tackle money. Steelers’ Chris Hubbard and Patriots’ Cameron Fleming are young and have potential, but they were primary backups who earned plenty of starting experience this past season filling in for their injured teammates.
Chargers 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 snaps) 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 and having him compete for the right tackle job makes sense.
Dream scenario: Sign Andrew Norwell.
Norwell is the best offensive lineman on the market, and he happens to play left guard. The Chargers won’t be able to afford the 26-year-old All-Pro lineman, so I’m just going to stop right here..
Realistic: Sign Justin Pugh
Justin Pugh is a very good lineman who’s played on a very bad line. The New York Giants’ first-round pick in 2013, Pugh, 27, started out as a right tackle but moved to guard after his sophomore campaign. He did, however, fill in at tackle this past season due to injuries to his teammates. As a guard, Pugh graded out as one of the best. He’s been known to be a great pass protector, allowing just 39 pressures over the last three seasons combined while playing left guard, per PFF.
But, according to PFF, last year was Pugh’s worst season as a pro, as he finished outside the top-50 tackles. And speaking of injuries, Pugh missed the final eight games of the 2017 season after being placed on injured reserve with a back injury. Actually, Pugh has yet to play a full, 16-game season since his rookie year. It’s a red flag, but GM Tom Telesco could get an above-average, versatile lineman for a decent bargain.
Jack Mewhort, a 2014 second-round pick by the Tennessee Titans, is another option whose situation is similar to that of Pugh’s. He’s 26 years old, moved from right tackle to left guard, plays extremely well at that position, but can’t stay healthy (played only one full season). He’s missed even more time than Pugh. A knee injury cost him 17 games over the past two seasons. While I see Pugh getting a three- or four-year deal, Mewhort might have to settle for a one-year “prove it” deal. Again, they’re the best options (and better than any tackles on the market).
Backup plan: Draft an interior lineman
If the Chargers don’t land Pugh or Mewhort, they can find a Day 1 starter in the draft. This class is deep for interior offensive linemen. Top prospect Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson is going to be long gone by the time the Bolts pick in the first round, and Ohio State’s Billy Price, who is arguably the next best option, still might go in the first despite tearing his pec at the combine. However, players like Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn, UTEP’s Will Hernandez, Iowa’s James Daniels, Arkansas’ Frank Ragnow, Auburn’s Braden Smith, Nevada’s Austin Corbett and Ole Miss’ Rod Taylor could potentially be available on Day 2 or 3 of the draft.
If they go this route, then the Chargers should definitely consider adding Fleming or Hubbard in free agency to compete at right tackle with Tevi and, if re-signed, Schofield. This is barring the release of Barksdale, which isn’t 100 percent definite.
If they end up signing Pugh or Mewhort, then drafting a tackle would likely be the next step. Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey and Texas’ Connor Williams would start right away, but both aren’t getting out of the first round. Do the Chargers really want to use the No. 17 overall pick on one of them. While I wouldn’t be completely disappointed if that happened, I believe defense should be the target in Round 1. On the other hand, trading back for extra picks and taking McGlinchey or Williams isn’t a bad idea.