In advance of March 14, the start of free agency in the NFL, Pro Football Rumors will detail each team’s three most glaring roster issues. We’ll continue this year’s series with the Los Angeles Chargers, who narrowly missed out on a postseason berth after finishing with a 9-7 record.
Pending Free Agents:
- Jeremiah Attaochu, DE
- Tre Boston, S
- Isaiah Burse, WR (RFA)
- Kellen Clemens, QB
- Asante Cleveland, TE (RFA)
- Jeff Cumberland, TE
- Geremy Davis, WR (RFA)
- Nick Dzubnar, LB (RFA)
- Kaleb Eulls, DE (ERFA)
- Antonio Gates, TE
- Chris McCain, LB (RFA)
- Sean McGrath, TE (RFA)
- Nick Novak, K
- Michael Ola, T
- Branden Oliver, RB
- Tenny Palepoi, DE
- Adrian Phillips, S (RFA)
- Michael Schofield, OL
- Matt Slauson, OL
- Korey Toomer, LB
- Kenny Wiggins, G
- Andre Williams, RB (RFA)
- Tyrell Williams, WR (RFA)
Top 10 Cap Hits for 2018:
- Philip Rivers, QB: $22,000,000
- Russell Okung, T: $15,000,000
- Melvin Ingram, DE: $13,875,000
- Keenan Allen, WR: $9,650,000
- Corey Liuget, DT: $9,500,000
- Jason Verrett, CB: $8,526,000
- Joey Bosa, DE: $7,056,456
- Travis Benjamin, WR: $7,000,000
- Joe Barksdale, T: $5,800,000
- Brandon Mebane, DT: $5,500,000
- Projected cap space (via Over the Cap): $24,105,510
- 17th pick in draft
- Must exercise or decline 2019 fifth-year option for RB Melvin Gordon
1) Address the run defense: In today’s NFL, stopping the pass is far more important than halting the run, and the Chargers boast one of the best secondaries in the league. Fielding perhaps the most elite cornerback trio (Casey Hayward, Trevor Williams, Desmond King) in the NFL, plus two excellent safeties in Jahleel Addae and Tre Boston, Los Angeles ranked third in passing touchdowns allowed, fourth in passer rating allowed, sixth in yards per attempt allowed, and ninth in pass defense DVOA.
But while teams should place more of an emphasis on pass defense, they can’t completely fail to stop opposing rushing attacks, which is essentially what the Chargers did in 2017. Los Angeles finished 29th in rush defense DVOA, 31st in yards allowed, and dead last in yards per attempt allowed. As such, much of the focus of the Chargers’ offseason should be on upgrading their interior defensive line and their linebacking unit.
Mostly due to injuries, Los Angeles used a four-man rotation at inside linebacker a season ago, as Jatavis Brown, Hayes Pullard, Denzel Perryman, and Korey Toomer all saw at least 25% playtime. The Chargers seemingly don’t view Brown as a full-time starter (based on his prior usage), Pullard was stretched as a fill-in last year, and Toomer hasn’t been able to find a place on the field despite his record of production (and is now a free agent). Perryman, then, is the only LA ‘backer who figures to return as a locked-in starter in 2018, meaning the club can certainly search for a complement during free agency or via the draft.
Luckily for the Chargers, the free agent linebacker class is relatively strong, so they should be able to find a solution when the market opens in March. Zach Brown, Tahir Whitehead, and NaVorro Bowman all ranked among Pro Football Focus‘ top 20 linebackers in run grade, but Bowman might be the best fit of the three. Not only is Bowman probably the best all-around linebacker of the group (he was the only member earn a mark greater than 50 in PFF’s coverage grades), but he’s also the oldest of the triumvirate. Given Los Angeles’ salary cap situation, the team may look for a bargain signing, and Bowman’s age could make him a bit cheaper. Brown, for what it’s worth, could be hunting for a top-tier LB contract.
Even more cost-effective linebackers than Bowman will be available, including Preston Brown (who’s played in 64 consecutive games with the Bills to begin his career) and Paul Posluszny, who could leave Jacksonville after seven seasons thanks to the strength of the Jaguars’ front seven. If the Chargers want to go even further towards the bottom of the barrel, they could target Kevin Minter or Gerald Hodges, each of whom failed to get on the field with the Bengals and Saints, respectively, in 2017. Both have had up-and-down careers, but each is only 27 years old and posted a solid campaign as recently as 2016.
Los Angeles will likely need to dip into free agency to add another defensive lineman, as well. Brandon Mebane has been a high-quality signing since joining the Chargers in 2016, but he’s now entering his age-33 season. Former first-round pick Corey Liuget was relatively effective in limited snaps last year, but Eric D. Williams of ESPN.com recently listed Liuget as a possible release candidate (LA would ave $6.5MM by cutting him).
While veterans such as Haloti Ngata or Kyle Williams could theoretically be effective for the Chargers, I don’t think defensive coordinator Gus Bradley wants his unit to get older this offseason. Therefore, let’s focus on free agents who are age-28 or younger. Dontari Poe will likely be looking for a multi-year pact after inking only a one-year deal with the Falcons last year, so Los Angeles could either pay up for the 6’3″, 350-pounder, or wait to see if his market crashes again. Bennie Logan could also be of interest (although the Redskins look like they’ll target him), while the Panthers don’t appear willing to re-sign Star Lotulelei at his likely asking price. The Eagles’ Beau Allen and the Ravens’ Brent Urban could also be in consideration for the Chargers over the next several weeks.
Adding a youthful defensive tackle in the draft is also on the table, and both Mel Kiper Jr. of ESPN.com and Lance Zierlein of NFL.com recently mocked Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne to the Chargers. One NFL executive told Zierlein that Payne is a “thick and strong” athlete who will likely end up as a better pro than fellow Crimson Tide alum A’Shawn Robinson. In his ESPN.com piece, Williams tossed out Vita Vea (Washington) and Harrison Phillips (Stanford) as options for Los Angeles.
2) Find Philip Rivers‘ successor: The great thing about the Chargers’ roster is that it doesn’t have pressing holes at vital positions. Los Angeles is well-stocked at wide receiver, edge rusher, and cornerback, arguably the most important positions aside from quarterback in the NFL. While the club has needs at linebacker, defensive tackle, interior offensive line, and possibly safety if Tre Boston leaves via free agency, it can find solutions at those positions on the cheap, either in the later stages of free agency or in the middle rounds of the draft.
Given that they don’t necessarily need to land an impact player at a critical position this offseason, the Chargers could instead use their first-round pick on a quarterback. That’s not to imply Rivers is no longer a successful signal-caller. In 2017, Rivers ranked second in Football Outsiders‘ DYAR, fourth in FO’s DVOA, fourth in adjusted net yards per pass attempt, eighth in passer rating, and eighth in PFF’s 2018 Quarterback Annual, which noted Rivers can still hit intermediate passes and evade pressure with regularity.
But not every quarterback can keep up their statistical performance into their late-30s. Tom Brady and his TB12 method is an outlier, as most signal-callers are fading or finished by the time they reach Rivers’ age. Rivers will turn 37 years old during the 2018 campaign: since the merger in 1970, only 50 quarterbacks age-37 or older that have attempted at least 300 passes in a single season. Raise that age threshold to 38 years old, and the number of starting-caliber seasons drops to 29. No matter how well Rivers is currently playing, the odds are that his production will slip in the coming year or two — and it could happen quickly.
The Chargers haven’t generally shown a willingness to invest in a quarterback while Rivers is still under center. Since Rivers entered the league in 2014, Los Angeles has only selected three signal-callers: Charlie Whitehurst, Jonathan Crompton, and Brad Sorensen. Los Angeles did send a conditional seventh-round pick to Buffalo last summer to acquire 25-year-old passer Cardale Jones, but there’s no indication the Chargers consider the former Ohio Stater a legitimate option to replace Rivers.
Los Angeles won’t pick in the first round until selection No. 17, meaning USC’s Sam Darnold and UCLA’s Josh Rosen will almost certainly be off the table. The Chargers could theoretically trade up, but that would involve surrendering multiple early-round picks in future drafts, and the sheer amount of clubs with a need at quarterback could make the price extremely steep. More likely, LA will sit at No. 17 and hope a signal-caller falls.
Wyoming’s Josh Allen is one of the most divisive prospects in recent memory, and could hypothetically come off the board as early as No. 1 overall to the Browns or as late as the second round. If he slips to the middle of the first round, Allen would present an interesting choice for the Chargers. As Bucky Brooks of NFL.com detailed last year, Allen has the tools to become a franchise quarterback, but his lack of overall production and his accuracy problems could scare clubs. Heisman winner Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma) may also be available at No. 17, and Todd McShay of ESPN.com sent the Sooner to Los Angeles in his most recent mock draft.
Another quarterback with a Heisman trophy, Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, could be in consideration for the Chargers if the top four passers are gone, as could Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph. In the mid to the late rounds, Mike White (Western Kentucky), Luke Falk (Washington State), and Kyle Lauletta (Richmond) may be on the table. Lauletta, specifically, would likely be a solid fit for Los Angeles’ offense, according to Eric D. Williams of ESPN.com.
3) Fix the special teams unit: The Chargers missed out on the playoffs by one win, and it’s a near certainty the club would have earned a postseason berth had their special teams performed just a bit better. Los Angeles ranked 31st in special teams DVOA a season ago, and was (by far) the worst kicking team in the league. Not only did the Chargers give up 22.2 points of field position through their paltry field goal/extra point attempts, but the club’s first two losses of the season were direct results of poor kicking efforts.
Los Angeles went through four kickers (Younghoe Koo, Travis Coons, Nick Novak, and Nick Rose) in 2017, and given that group’s results, the team needs to find a new kicker for next season. Clubs needn’t spend large to bring in quality kickers, as the Patriots’ Stephen Gostkowski leads the market with a $4.3MM annual salary. The Chargers have several options they could target on the free agent market, and it would be an upset if they don’t come away with one of Ryan Succop, Matt Bryant, Adam Vinatieri, Graham Gano, or Sebastian Janikowski. If it waits until the draft, LA could pick up Auburn’s Daniel Carlson or Florida’s Eddy Pineiro, who are ranked as the top two draftable kickers by Dane Brugler and Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com.
Punter wasn’t as serious a problem as kicker for the Chargers, but they could still manage improvement over Drew Kaser, who ranked ninth in net yards per punt but also contributed to a Los Angeles punting unit that sacrificed 6.1 points of field position, eighth-worst in the league. While there aren’t a ton of free agent punters scheduled to hit the market, the Chargers could attempt to steal Dustin Colquitt from the Chiefs, thus upgrading their own special teams unit and weakening a division rival. The Packers’ Jacob Schum, meanwhile, isn’t likely to garner a restricted free agent tender from Green Bay after spending the entire 2017 campaign injured, but he was excellent from 2015-16 and should come at a minimal price.
Finally, the Chargers must improve the non-specialists on their special teams units (gunners, wings, personal protectors, etc.). It’s difficult to speculate which free agents might be fits for these positions: these roles are typically filled by backup linebackers, safeties, running backs, wide receivers, and others, so not only must these players be viable special-teamers, but they need to fit into LA’s offensive or defensive scheme. I’ll admit I can’t evaluate special teams performance by simply watching film, but Pro Football Focus has ST analysts on staff. Among the 2018 unrestricted free agents whom PFF has listed as a key special teamer over the past two seasons: RBs Benny Cunningham and Cedric Peerman; FB Keith Smith; WR Joe Webb; DL Kerry Wynn; LB Cassius Marsh; and DBs Colt Anderson, Terrence Brooks, Don Carey, Cody Davis, Nate Ebner, Sherrick McManis, Marcus Sherels, and Steven Terrell.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.