The 2020 NFL season is on and it began with a bang and not a whimper. Did that whimper include the Los Angeles Chargers flunking free agency?
That bang was, of course, the frenzy to capture the services of QB Tom Brady. A frenzy in which it was reported the Los Angeles Chargers took an active part. So, with Brady deciding to take his services to Tampa Bay, did that make the Chargers free agency period a bust?
Los Angles Chargers 2019 Stats
It is no secret that last season was a failure. The Chargers finishing 5-11 and in fourth place in the division was an abysmal disappointment.
Pro Football Focus ranked their offensive line 29th out of 32 in the NFL. The offense ended the season 21st in points per game (21.1), 28th in rushing yards per game (90.8), but sixth in passing yards per game (276.6).
The defense was statistically better, though short of preseason expectations. The defense allowed 21.6 points per game (14th), while giving up 313.1 average yards per game (6th), 200.2 average passing yards per game (5th) and 112.8 average rushing yards per game (18th). So there were some glaring holes on both sides of the ball that needed to be filled.
The Chargers let quarterback Philip Rivers go, which might appear odd as passing was the only offensive stat the Chargers were in the top 10. But a closer glance at Rivers stats for the 2019 season and a noticeable decline is apparent.
Rivers finished the season with a completion percentage of 66. He tossed 23 touchdowns and 20 interceptions. He was sacked 34 times and his QBR was 88.5. This was coming off the 2018 season where his QBR was 105.5 and he passed for 32 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. It could be a statistical anomaly, but anyone who witnessed the game in Mexico against the Kansas City Chiefs would think otherwise. That was, of course, the infamous four-interception game with the fourth interception happening in the end zone with 24 seconds left in the game. Final score Chargers 17- Chiefs 24.
So yeah, maybe it is time for a new quarterback.
The Run Game
The glaring statistic on the offense was finishing 28th in the run game. Melvin Gordon famously sat out wanting a new contract. Gordon returned in a game against the Denver Broncos. He averaged 2.6 yards per carry. He was targeted six times, caught four, and averaged 1.8 yards per reception. He got better (really there was nowhere to go but up), finishing the season averaging 3.8 yards a carry (the 38th best average for a running back for 2019).
The man who carried the weight while Gordon was out, was Austin Ekeler. Before Gordon’s return, Ekeler was averaging 4.0 yards per carry. That average took a precipitous downturn only to buoyed by the game against Jacksonville Jaguars where he averaged 12.6 yards a carry.
Ekeler finished the season averaging 4.2 rushing yards a game. But his overall strength is in his receiving game, where he was targeted 108 times for 92 receptions. Ekeler averaged 10.8 yards per reception with eight receiving touchdowns.
Offensive Free Agency
The Chargers released Rivers and did not bid on the services of Gordon. They did, however, retain the services of tight end, Hunter Henry, via franchise tag and offered Ekeler a four-year deal worth a reported $24.5 million.
But the real powerhouse free agency move were the two men in the trenches they acquired. Their 29th offensive line ranking was accompanied by a 13th in run blocking ranking from FootballOutsiders.com. This middle of the road statistic will show improvement with the acquisitions of offensive guard Trai Turner and tackle Bryan Bulaga.
Bulaga is the main catch here. Although he has been hampered by injuries, his last major injury was in 2017. Last season he started all 16 games. Bulaga finished the season with a pass block win rate of 92% according to ESPN metrics powered by NFL Next Gen Stats. And according to PFF, he was the second-highest graded tackle and the 15th overall best tackle.
So the offensive line is better. The offensive weapons are intact. The question is who is under center? The answer appears to be Tyrod Taylor, not a free agency grab but the next man up behind Rivers.
So does the lack of quarterback acquisition in free agency, fail the Chargers in their free agency grade?
Let’s Move On To Defense
The Chargers were the perennial pick as a number one defensive unit going into the 2019 season. That did not happen. They were good, but not great. In fact, Football Outsiders had them ranked as the 21st defense by DVOA (defense adjusted value over average) with their lowest ranking being against the run (25th).
The free agency period witnessed the release of Brandon Mebane and Thomas Davis. Davis led the Chargers in tackles last season with 112. Mebane’s 2019 season finished with one sack and 27 tackles.
In reply to the losses, they acquired the services of defensive tackle Linval Joseph.
Although durability issues have plagued Joseph’s career, he finished the 2019 season with 44 combined tackles, six quarterback hits, and three sacks. Joseph, if he remains healthy, can fill the interior of the defensive line quite nicely.
The Chargers acquired the services of Chris Harris Jr. For a cornerback, stats are sometimes deceiving, especially when the other team avoids throwing your way. Harris is that type of player. He has been in the league nine years. In that span of time, he has allowed six touchdowns.
According to Pro Football Focus, Harris ranked the third best out of 125 in 2018, the 18th best out of 124 in 2017 and the overall best cornerback out of 125 in 2016. When he has played the slot corner position, he has excelled. Unfortunately, last season he didn’t play slot but on the outside. That resulted in giving up four touchdowns. It is being reported, and out opinion at LAFB Network, that Harris will move back into the slot corner position and Desmond King will move to a safety position. That would be ideal for Harris and the Chargers.
Defensively In Free Agency
The Chargers aptly replaced Mebane and added arguably one of the best slot corners in the game to their roster.
Did The Chargers Flunk Free Agency?
The Chargers gained more than they lost. Rivers was noticeably declining. Ekeler is younger and last season more efficient than Gordon and Henry produced single-season career highs in 2019, finishing the season with 55 catches on 76 targets, 652 yards, and five touchdowns. Bulaga should give Taylor more time to pass or run, while Turner solidifies the offensive line a bit more.
Defensively, Joseph is a step up from Mebane and Harris is an All-Pro cornerback when playing the slot.
The Chargers may have just struck lightning in free agency. Their gains far outweighed what they lost and managed not to overpay for a 42-year old quarterback.
Now can they keep the momentum in the draft?