Offenses throughout the NFL continue to prioritize their passing attacks, both early and often in games. Some credit Chargers head coach Brandon Staley with laying the blueprint on how to combat modern offenses while serving as defensive coordinator for the Rams in 2020. Staley understood the value of passing and began allocating resources towards coverage. In this instance, resources mean numbers on defense.
Nowadays, emphasis on stopping the run is playing with fire as teams increasingly pass at a higher clip on early downs. Staley blended takeaways from time under Vic Fangio with some of his personal beliefs to establish a new, “modern” defense. By playing under a numbers advantage in the secondary, including two deep safeties (“two-high shell”), his defense was adequately prepared for the air attack, encouraging teams to run against a lighter box.
This became a “trap” for offenses because sacrificing box defender(s) for coverage made the entire unit more efficient as a result of limiting big plays and high scores. Along with this, a secondary advantage manufactures pressure by making the quarterback hold onto the football longer.
Since crafting this article, the Chargers signed cornerback J.C. Jackson in free agency and acquired Khalil Mack from the Chicago Bears in a trade last week. Complimenting the pass rusher with Joey Bosa, on top of implementing Jackson into Staley's blueprint.
This only heightens the Chargers' defensive ceiling.
The tenants of this defense appear straightforward (and we all know how dominant the Rams were). However, there's a specific part necessary for it to be effective. That would be run-stopping defensive interiors, players who can control a gap and contain under a deficit in the box. A stable interior was present with the Rams in 2020 but lacked mightily this past season for the Chargers.
According to rbsdm.com/stats, the Rams allowed -0.131 EPA (Expected Points Added) per rushing play, ranking as the NFL's fifth-best rushing defense that year. In 2021, the Chargers allowed 0.003 EPA per rush, the fourth-worst in the NFL. Linval Joseph is thirty-three years old and set to hit free agency alongside Christian Covington and Justin Jones. The other rostered lineman, Jerry Tillery, ranked 97th out of 110 qualified defensive interiors in 2021 (via Pro Football Focus).
Addressing this area is critical because going from a liability under a light box to at least competent allows this defense to function. Exactly how the Chargers leverage their cap space and draft picks to acknowledge that is key, and I would like to share a few insights on how to potentially go about doing so.
One solution is to address this need solely through the draft. If a legit possibility, it becomes critical to assess rookie performance across recent seasons in order to gauge their reliability. I collected PFF defensive stop rates and run defense grades from interiors with at least two hundred run snaps in a season since 2018. Of the twenty-two qualified rookie interiors, eleven had top-half league stop rates and only six (27.3%) placed in the top-half in run-defense grades.
Garnering high-end play from rookies appears to be less dependable than a tossup, and a performance floor among those projected to record a fair snap count is certainly no guarantee either. Given Joseph’s free agency, as well as interiors already rostered, it would be dangerous to rely upon stability and depth at the position being filled exclusively through the draft.
This especially is the case after learning that Chicago will receive the Chargers' 2022 second-round pick as part of the Mack deal. All things considered; it became worthwhile to look at interiors set to hit the open market.
The Chargers took advantage with the recent signings of Sebastian Joseph-Day (Rams) and Austin Johnson (Giants), appearing less likely to pursue another crop of veteran interiors like Calais Campbell, Akeim Hicks, and Linval Joseph, all of whom are age thirty-two or older.
According to PFF contract projections, each one of the veterans could garner an AAV (average annual value) of about $6 million or more from whoever they sign with this offseason. Joseph-Day's contract is for three years and $24 million while Johnson's deal is expected to be for two years and worth up to $14 million.
Either way, the veteran estimates and Joseph-Day contract are considerably higher (short-term) than a first-rounder, as Spotrac projects the 17th overall pick in this year's draft to earn $2,922,689 against the 2022 cap. Is the difference in potential earnings enough to make up for the "variability" of performance from rookie interiors? If so, does it justify the Chargers selecting one with their first-round pick?
One of the big takeaways from this year's NFL Combine was the viability of Georgia defensive tackle Jordan Davis being enough to fill a hole (both literally and figuratively) within Staley’s defense. Davis put on a clinic at Lucas Oil Stadium, garnering a lot of attention on social media with his overall size and testing results. Much of the speculation since has gone from the value of using a first-rounder on the SEC run-stuffer, to the likelihood that he’s even available at pick 17th in April’s NFL Draft.
Arguing against the selection of Davis is not the hill I personally want to die on if he’s available. At the same time, I do believe there's value in signing free agent interiors, veterans that can provide stability and hedge any "risk" from rookie performance. With the Chargers' second-rounder out of the picture, some believe that filling the position with both their first pick and through free agency is an overinvestment of resources because the bulk of their snaps come exclusively on early downs. I would argue that now is the best time to solidify this defensive role.
The Mike Williams, J.C. Jackson, and Sebastian Joseph-Day deals, as well as the trade for Khalil Mack, perfectly illustrate how Los Angeles is taking advantage of quarterback Justin Herbert's rookie contract. The incredible value he provides signals the need to invest at the defensive interior position and doing so will make the new acquisitions on that side of the football worthwhile.
Needless to say, the Chargers have done a good job addressing this need so far this offseason.