Analyzing The Chargers Options To Replace Trai Turner
The Los Angeles Chargers made their first notable transaction of the offseason this week, releasing former Pro Bowl guard Trai Turner. The Chargers had high hopes for the former Carolina Panthers star, but ultimately he was never able to get into a groove in Los Angeles after battling several injuries. The trade that sent Russell Okung turned out to be a rare lose-lose for both teams, as Okung also struggled to stay healthy.
Ultimately the Chargers were able to free up $11.5 million by moving on from Turner, with zero dead cap. Cutting a former Pro Bowl offensive lineman might seem counterintuitive for a team that needs offensive line help, but the financial savings made this move a no-brainer. The Chargers will have options in searching out a replacement, and I’ll get into those below.
First Option – The Cream Of The Crop
After playing the 2020 season on the franchise tag for the New England Patriots it appears that veteran guard Joe Thuney will be playing for another team in 2021. With Brandon Scherff receiving another franchise tag from the Washington Football Team, Thuney is really the only top-tier interior offensive lineman on the market. Scherff is one of the best offensive linemen in the league, but he hasn’t played a full season since he was a rookie. Washington will pay him close to $18 million to play on the franchise tag unless they are able to come to a long-term deal.
Scherff’s deal only elevates Thuney’s market that much more. He has been a rock of consistency for the Patriots ever since they drafted him in the third round back in 2016. He has never missed a game in his five years in the NFL. So while he isn’t the same kind of dominating force as Scherff, that ability to be consistently available and play at a borderline elite level will make Thuney a very attractive option for teams in need of offensive line help.
Thuney has played the majority of his snaps at left guard, but he has filled in for David Andrews at center from time to time and has done very well in that position as well. Most importantly it seems like his best ball is still ahead of him. Thuney is only 28 years old and has been getting better and better over the course of the past few years. He has only given up a combined 34 pressures over the last two years(17 each year). In 2019 the only qualified guard (minimum 80% of snaps) that gave up fewer pressures was Marshal Yanda. In 2020 the only qualified guards to give up fewer than 17 pressures were Elgton Jenkins, Justin Pugh, Quenton Nelson, and Lucas Patrick. For reference, Forrest Lamp gave up 38 pressures in 2020 alone. Only two qualified guards gave up more pressures than that last season. In 2019 Dan Feeney allowed 39 pressures in 14 starts at left guard.
To put it bluntly, Thuney would be a MASSIVE upgrade over what the Chargers have had in recent years. He is also going to cost a small fortune, Spotrac lists his current market value at 5 years and nearly $77 million.
Option Two – Above Average Veterans
The market for interior offensive linemen has become saturated with quality interior offensive linemen over the past two weeks. Jon Feliciano, Matt Feiler, and Denzelle Good were already slated to be available this offseason. Feliciano and Good are free agents. Kevin Zeitler and Gabe Jackson were each released by their respective teams this week as well. Each of these five players would be significant upgrades for the Chargers, and they do have established connections to Feliciano, Good, and Jackson who at one point were all in Oakland together playing for, now offensive line coach, then Tight Ends coach, Frank Smith for the Raiders.
Feliciano has been a fan favorite in Buffalo over the past few seasons but seems unlikely to return due to their recent spending on contract extensions for core pieces of their roster. He has been a bit of a swiss army knife for them, making starts at all three spots along the interior over the past two seasons. He missed the first half of this season after having chest surgery in the summer. He struggled a little more as a pass blocker in 2020 than his previous season but his tenacious mentality, particularly as a run blocker, and versatility make him a fit for the Chargers.
Good is more of an unknown than the rest of the players on this list, last season was his first year as a full-time starter. He had been a valuable backup for the Raiders and Colts, but he was able to start all 16 games for the Raiders this past season due to Trent Brown and Richie Incognito’s struggles to stay on the field. He’s made starts at both guard spots, and at right tackle over the years. He struggled early on in the season, allowing 11 pressures in the first four weeks, but after that, he really settled into a nice groove for the Raiders and only allowed 18 pressures in the last twelve games. While he is 30 years old, it does appear that his best ball is still ahead of him and his versatility should make him an attractive target.
Jackson’s release was a bit of a surprise to be honest, even though he carried a dead cap hit of zero. He had been one of the best players on the Raiders ever since they drafted him in 2014. He did struggle with some injuries in 2018 and 2019, but he bounced back rather nicely for them in 2020. He only allowed 26 pressures on 634 pass block reps, and most importantly played in every game. There are some writers for the Raiders that believe some of the injuries have impacted his ability to get back to his once elite form, but he should be able to be an above-average starter for whoever signs him.
Feiler is in a similar mold to Good, in the sense that he has spent more time as a backup and practice squad player in his career. However, he’s been a very valuable piece for the Steelers over the last three years. He’s someone that has great positional versatility because he can play guard and tackle and his play doesn’t drop off. He was a serviceable option for the Steelers at right tackle in 2019, received an overall grade of 75 from PFF, and only allowed 25 pressures. The Steelers kicked him over to left guard this past season, and he thrived. He missed the last two games of the regular season but in the first 14 games, he only allowed 17 pressures. He is not an elite player by any means but he checks a lot of boxes for the Chargers, especially with his positional flexibility and Bryan Bulaga’s propensity to be injured at this point in his career.
Zeitler was another big surprise cut because he’s been widely considered the best offensive player on the Giants over the last two seasons, and the Giants offensive line was still a bottom-five unit in 2020. If cutting Turner seems counterintuitive for the Chargers, then cutting Zeitler for the Giants is flat-out blasphemous. He was one of the players included in the Odell Beckham Jr. trade and he’s been a rock for Daniel Jones and all the other young players on that offense. He’s had a few borderline elite seasons over the years for each of his three teams and should be looked at as the second-best option on the market behind Thuney.
Option Three – Returning Veterans
Earlier this week, it was announced that veteran guard Kyle Long was making a comeback to football after retiring last year. Larry Warford should also be back on the field after opting out of the 2020 season due to Covid concerns. Both of these players have connections to the Chargers coaching staff, Long was on the Bears with Brandon Staley and outside linebackers coach Jay Rodgers, and Warford was in Detroit and New Orleans with offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi.
Both of these players will carry more risk for teams than the ones mentioned above due to the uncertainty about their health. It was initially reported that Long is “healthy and shredded” but he’s struggled with a lot of injuries over the years and hasn’t been able to finish a full season healthy since 2015. He was once viewed as one of the best offensive linemen in the game and earned three consecutive Pro Bowls from 2013-2015, but the number of injuries weighed on him heavily which led to his initial retirement. He likely won’t cost a lot and could be one of those players that signs a cheap one-year deal just to prove that he can still play at a high level so it could be worth looking into for teams like the Chargers who are desperate for offensive line help.
Warford has mostly been a very reliable and healthy player over the course of his career, but no one really knows what kind of effect opting out has had on all these players, or frankly if they even want to play again. This is one player that we are really just speculating on. It seemed like he wanted to keep playing after the Saints released him last spring, but we don’t have a firm standing on his status for the 2021 season. If he does want to play, the Chargers should absolutely be giving him a call.
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Option Four – The Draft
The Chargers had several opportunities to address the interior of their offensive line in the 2020 Draft and neglected to do so, they cannot afford to make that mistake again this year. Especially not since they will likely be replacing all three starters on the interior. They need to invest in young and talented guards and centers that can either start in 2021 or be long-term solutions for 2022 and beyond.
I think the Chargers will elect to grab a defensive starter in one of the first two rounds of the draft, and they should given the holes in the secondary and the lack of quality pass rush depth. Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater and USC’s Alijah Vera-Tucker each have the flexibility to play guard in the NFL, although my personal preference would be to see them both get the opportunity to play tackle first. However, if the Chargers do get a Kelvin Beachum type of player then Slater and Vera-Tucker could each kick inside for their rookie seasons, which isn’t the worst idea in the world. Those are the two options in the first round, in terms of interior offensive linemen.
There are legitimate options in the second round as well. Alabama’s Landon Dickerson would be the best-case scenario, he has medical risks but he also has top 15 talent, so getting him in the second round is worth a roll of the dice. Oklahoma’s Creed Humphrey would also be a stellar selection, but he just put up elite athletic numbers at his Pro Day. However, it seems likely that both of these players will likely be selected before the Chargers make their second selection at pick #47. More legitimate options there are Ohio State’s Wyatt Davis, Tennessee’s Trey Smith, Notre Dame’s Aaron Banks, and Senior Bowl darling/Wisconsin-Whitewater standout Quinn Meinerz.
If they elect to wait until the third round and beyond they could be looking at Ohio State’s Josh Meyers, Eastern Carolina’s D’Ante Smith (who also has tackle flexibility), Notre Dame’s Robert Hainsey (who took reps at all five positions at the Senior Bowl), Georgia’s Ben Cleveland, Illinois’ Kendrick Green, or Grambling’s David Moore.
Anyone beyond that group would fall in the dart throw/developmental project category, and frankly, the Chargers can’t afford that kind of strategy anymore. They need legitimate impact players. They don’t necessarily have to start in 2021 if they spend on a few free agents, but they do need to be challenging for a starting role by 2022.
You always hate to see a player like Turner not pan out, however, this move was necessary and it gives the Chargers options. And frankly, it should force Tom Telesco to be more aggressive than he ever has in fixing the offensive line, and that is a good thing.