Los Angeles Chargers: The most predictable pick at 17

AUBURN, AL - NOVEMBER 25: Da'Ron Payne #94 of the Alabama Crimson Tide reacts after recovering a fumble during the first quarter against the Auburn Tigers at Jordan Hare Stadium on November 25, 2017 in Auburn, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
AUBURN, AL - NOVEMBER 25: Da'Ron Payne #94 of the Alabama Crimson Tide reacts after recovering a fumble during the first quarter against the Auburn Tigers at Jordan Hare Stadium on November 25, 2017 in Auburn, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

Who will the Los Angeles Chargers take with the No. 17 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft? I will give two choices, one being predictable and one being a wild card. Let’s start with the predictable pick.

The Chargers sit in the middle of the pack in this year’s draft.

That means there are going to be several different players mocked to the Bolts. I recently wrote about four prospects I believe general manager Tom Telesco should target. Check them out here.

For this piece, I’m going to go with two players who could be a Charger by the end of the month. The difference: One is so obvious and the other isn’t, which makes it fun. Part 2 will be a separate article. Let’s begin.

I could make a case for Louisville QB Lamar Jackson, a player who the Chargers appear to be very interested in.

But I’m going with Alabama DT Da’Ron Payne (ya’ll thought I forgot about him, didn’t you?). Payne has been mocked to the Chargers so much so that this was an easy decision. Both ESPN draft analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay even have Payne going to the Chargers in their most recent two-round mock drafts.

The Chargers need to upgrade the interior defensive line. A lack of adequate run stuffers up front was a big reason why the Chargers ranked 31st in run defense (131.1 rushing yards per game) in 2017. They also allowed a league-worst 4.9 yards per carry.

Last year’s starters were Corey Liuget and Brandon Mebane. Liuget, who played the 3-tech in Gus Bradley’s 4-3 scheme, is coming off a decent year (was a 2018 Pro Bowl alternate) and is still only 28 years old. However, for a guy who isn’t producing like he once did (1.5 sacks in the last two seasons combined) and split snaps with Darius Philon, Liuget is certainly being overpaid. He will also miss the first four games of the 2018 regular season after violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Meanwhile, Mebane, who played the 1-tech (nose tackle) in Bradley’s defense, struggled before being placed on season-ending injured reserve with a torn biceps. He just turned 33 years old and is in the final year of a three-year, $13.5 million deal he signed in 2016.

As of right now, the 6-foot-1, 300-pound Philon, who finished the 2017 season with a career-high 4.5 sacks in 16 games played, would begin the 2018 season as the team’s starting 3-tech defensive tackle in place of Liuget. That’s not a bad thing, as Philon, 24, developed into a solid player since being selected in the sixth round of the 2015 draft. Plus, he’s the fastest and most athletic one-gap penetrating tackle on the team.

Mebane is currently the starting 1-tech, which makes that position more of a priority. And with Liuget’s current predicament, there’s not much depth on the interior. The Chargers have promising youngster Isaac Rochell, a 2017 seventh-rounder who, despite being undersized as a 4-3 DT (6-foot-3, 280 pounds), showed power and major hustle in limited action late in the season; he may not have the speed requirements to play the 5-tech, but his frame makes him the best best to fill in for Bosa should the latter need a breather. 29-year-old Damion Square (6-foot-2, 293 pounds) is the only other interior lineman on the roster, as Tenny Palepoi was not re-signed.

After reading all of that, it’s clear the Chargers need to get a younger, bigger presence in the middle. A player who is known for being dominant against the run. Getting an athlete would be nice, too.

And the 6-foot-2, 311-pound Payne fits the bill. Just read Payne’s overview by NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein:

“Payne possesses one of the most impressive combinations of strength and athleticism that we’ve seen from an interior lineman. He will be the premier run-stuffer in this draft, but he may have enough in the pass rushing toolbox to project as a better pro than college pass rusher. Payne is a game-ready starter who immediately upgrades a defense’s ability to slow the run. If teams view him as just a run-down player, then his draft value could fall a little, but he could become a Pro Bowl defender early in his career.”

Payne, a two-year starter (not including starting three games as a true freshman), earned second-team All-SEC honors this past season after finishing with 53 total tackles, including one for loss, three pass deflections, one sack and one interception, per College Football Statistics. He really stood out vs. Georgia in the 2018 College Football National Championship game, similar to the way former Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams, who was the Chargers’ first-round selection last year, stood out in the Tigers’ national championship game vs. Alabama in 2017–and I guarantee general manager Tom Telesco took notice. He was so disruptive in the run game, against two great backs in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel nonetheless, and he even made an impact in the pass game.

But was he as consistent during the regular season? While there are arguments against it, Payne did finish 2017 as Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded defender on Alabama’s highly-touted defense. His run-defense grade of 86.1 ranked 13th in the country.

Da'Ron Payne was the highest-graded member of the Crimson Tide in 2017 pic.twitter.com/UF8avHdDSQ

— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) February 19, 2018

Payne also killed it at the NFL Scouting Combine. He was one of NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks’ “winners” after running a 4.95 40-yard dash, bench pressing 27 reps and displaying solid burst and agility in other drills. According to Sporting News Vinnie Iyer, Payne’s 10-yard split time of 1.67 seconds was one-hundredth of a second faster than Chargers’ own Joey Bosa. Remember, Payne is roughly 30 pounds heavier.

While some teams will be concerned with the lack of pass rush (and production in that category) that comes with Payne, I think a good defensive mind like Bradley can get as much out of Payne as he possibly can, which would make this pick much more valuable. Coaching can really make a difference and if Payne is put in the right position, he’ll be a difference-maker. After what we’ve seen on defense in one year with Bradley running things–you know, things like making an undrafted corner like Trevor Williams look like a Pro Bowler–I believe he could turn a player like Payne into a stud. That’s the big sell, in my opinion.

Defensive tackle hasn’t been a huge priority for Telesco since taking over as GM, but Payne is going to be high on Telesco’s board because of his durability, starting experience, dominant performance in the national championship game and the fact that he fills a big need. He would be a Day 1 starter at the 1-tech while also having the versatility to play the 3-tech in sub-packages. He’ll be a force against the run and the space eater the team desperately needs, commanding double teams that will allow Bosa, Melvin Ingram and others to get to the quarterback quicker.

Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea is one of my favorite defenders in the draft, but there’s a good chance he’ll be gone by the time the Chargers pick. I’d prefer Payne’s teammate, linebacker Rashaan Evans, over Payne at 17, too (and there’s a great chance he will be the pick because of the need at LB and his versatility/production). But if it’s Payne’s name that’s being called by the Chargers, I would still be a happy camper.