Grading The Chargers Free Agency Moves
The first week of free agency in the NFL has come and gone, and like many teams, the Los Angeles Chargers were able to go out and address some major needs. They also had quite a few former players sign elsewhere. In this article, I’ll be grading all of it, and analyzing how each given move will impact their plans going forward.
Chargers sign Michael Davis to an extension
If you had told me at this time last year, that following the 2020 season the Chargers would be giving Davis an extension and releasing Casey Hayward, I would have called you crazy. Unfortunately for Hayward and fortunately for Davis, things change fast in the NFL. All of us knew that Davis had a ton of physical talent. Corners with that kind of length and speed do not grow on trees, but the technique and mental part of his game needed to be refined. Thankfully for him, that has come to fruition.
In his press conference earlier this week, Davis mentioned that things really clicked for him after the game in which he intercepted a pass from Tom Brady and ran it back for a touchdown. From that point on, Davis was clearly the team’s best cornerback, especially while Hayward and Chris Harris Jr. dealt with various injuries. Davis ended up setting career highs in interceptions (3) and passes defended (11) and is clearly trending upwards as a player. He was also seventh among qualified cornerbacks in passer rating when targeted, per Pro Football Focus. It was crucial for the Chargers to retain him, and they did on a three-year deal.
On the flip side, losing a player like Hayward is the worst part of free agency. He has easily been Tom Telesco’s best free-agent signing of his tenure and was truly one of the best players at his position from the moment he signed up until the end of the 2019 season. It’s unfortunate that he was never fully healthy last season but his declining ability and cap numbers made him an obvious cut candidate.
The Chargers will need to be proactive in replacing him, while also keeping in mind that Harris Jr. will be a free agent after the coming season. He will turn 32 in June and is also coming off the first serious injury of his career. The Chargers will need to add a third high-level cornerback to the room; Brandon Staley’s scheme, and frankly the NFL in general, requires it to be so.
They lost out on former Chicago cornerback Kyle Fuller to the Broncos. Former USC Trojan Adoree Jackson was a dream for the Chargers, but just signed a very lucrative contract with the New York Giants.
The last good option in free agency is likely current Pittsburgh Steeler Steven Nelson, whom the Steelers have given permission to seek a trade. He’ll likely end up being released just like Fuller. The Chargers have had some really solid options on the free-agent market, but have not elected to sign anyone to replace Hayward just yet.
In all likelihood, the Chargers will look to add a corner or two via next month’s draft. Since the Broncos won the Fuller sweepstakes, that likely takes them out of the corner conversation with their first-round pick. Meaning that one of the premier corners in this upcoming class is available for the taking with the thirteenth overall pick. San Francisco was able to re-sign Trent Williams, so perhaps they will be looking to take a cornerback to replace Richard Sherman with their first-round pick. Then again Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley is having his second back surgery of the last two years later this week and that development has complicated things. If the Chargers do decide to address the cornerback problem in the first round, it will likely be South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn – assuming Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II is off the board.
Otherwise, if they want to address the position in the second round the odds are that at least one of the following players should be available at pick 47: Florida State’s Asante Samuel Jr., Kentucky’s Kelvin Joseph, Georgia’s Eric Stokes, and Central Florida’s Aaron Robinson. Stanford’s Paulson Adebo is a name to keep an eye on as well. Even if they do land one of the aforementioned rookie corners, they should still look to add a day three pick to the group. Michigan’s Ambry Thomas, Oregon’s Thomas Graham Jr., Oklahoma’s Tre Brown, and California’s Camryn Bynum are players that I like in that range. With nine picks in the draft, I would expect we see them target three secondary additions.
Davis is a fine player, and he could theoretically develop into a true number one cornerback, but he shouldn’t stop the Chargers from trying to upgrade on the opposite side. Hayward’s presence afforded the Chargers the luxury of taking swings on developmental projects, like Davis, but they do not have that luxury any longer. They need to pair Davis with another player with number one potential.
Chargers sign Corey Linsley
This move was one of the biggest no-brainers of the offseason. Everyone and their dog was predicting Linsley to land in Los Angeles to solidify the interior of their offensive line. Linsley was voted to the first-team All-Pro last season and was Pro Football Focus’s highest-graded center. The upgrade over Dan Feeney is clear, but I did think that the Chargers would try to retain him as a depth piece since he has played a lot of games over the last few seasons, and has a great relationship with Justin Herbert.
Ultimately Feeney will be a backup in New York after signing a one-year deal with the Jets. Meanwhile, Scott Quessenberry will likely serve as Linsley’s primary backup in 2021. He filled in at center in 2019 after Mike Pouncey was lost for the season with a neck injury. He played very well that season in spot duty and many fans thought he could possibly challenge for a starting spot in 2020. That did not come to fruition due to the former coaching staff’s perceived lack of faith in him. He is a fine backup but it is worth noting that he will play the 2021 season on the last year of his rookie deal, so it might be worthwhile for the Chargers to draft someone with guard and center flexibility on day three in case the Chargers elect not to bring Quessenberry back after next season.
Wisconsin-Whitewater’s Quinn Meinerz, Illinois’ Kendrick Green, or Notre Dame’s Robert Hainsey would make a lot of sense in the third round because they could challenge the recently signed Oday Aboushi for the starting right guard spot, and have center flexibility.
Chargers sign Jared Cook
The decision involving Hunter Henry was arguably the most important move of the offseason. Telesco said as much when he said that he was “one of the things that we’ve done right” because they had drafted him and developed him into an above-average player. While he is an incredibly well-rounded tight end, he did bring some medical baggage to the table and there were palpable doubts as to how he would fit in the scheme that Staley and Joe Lombardi are going to be running.
We’ll likely never know what the Chargers offered him, but it was clear that they were not going to overpay for him. Now he’ll get to catch passes from Cam Newton instead of Herbert, after saying playing with a good quarterback was a priority for him. The Patriots will be paying Henry and Jonnu Smith each the third-highest yearly average among tight ends, trailing only Travis Kelce and George Kittle. There are 15 tight ends who will carry a higher yearly average than Cook next year, making it at worst, a very shrewd move for the Chargers.
After Henry agreed to terms with the Patriots, The Chargers had options. They were in trade talks with the Philadelphia Eagles for disgruntled tight end Zach Ertz, as were the Buffalo Bills. Kyle Rudolph was also available after being released by the Minnesota Vikings, and the Chargers were interested in him as well. Once they became aware of the Eagles’ asking price for Ertz, they moved on rather quickly and decided to sign Cook.
Cook is not as well-rounded as Henry, in fact, he logged almost half (46%) of his snaps working out of the slot last year for the Saints. He’s also not as big of a name as Ertz and won’t command as much attention as those two. Rudolph is a better blocker but Cook is a better receiver. The biggest benefit of signing Cook is that he does come at a much cheaper cost than the three of those players and has a great relationship with Lombardi from their days together in New Orleans, and offensive line coach Frank Smith who was his position coach in Oakland.
We are probably an outlier here, but Jared Cook is a good signing for the #Chargers.
– Cheap Vet (half of what Henry’s per year cost)
– Knows coaching staff
– 16 TDs over last 2 season
– Pro Bowl season w/ Frank Smith, & Joe Lombardi pic.twitter.com/idtCn50tEs
— LA Football Network (@LAFBNetwork) March 18, 2021
The decision to replace Henry likely came down between Cook and Rudolph. It stands to reason that Cook’s familiarity with the coaching staff and scheme likely gave him the edge.
Cook’s biggest asset will be as a red-zone weapon, an area where the Chargers struggled mightily in 2020. The Chargers needed to add a short-term stopgap option at the position while they try to figure out who the long-term option is. Only Kelce has more touchdowns than Cook over the last three seasons.
Donald Parham will see an expanded role in 2021, especially if he continues to develop as a route runner and as a blocker. However, the former XFL star is still very early in his own development and should not stop the Chargers from trying to add another young tight end who has the upside to eventually become that long-term option. If he is able to take a big step forward next year, the Chargers will have one of the tallest and most explosive red zone units in the league. Parham is 6’8, Cook is 6’5 and Mike Williams – who will also see an expanded role with Henry’s departure – is 6’4 and one the best leapers in the league.
The biggest benefit of signing Cook is that it brings flexibility to the organization in the short-term. They will need to figure out who their long-term tight end is at some point. Maybe that’s Parham, maybe it’s the recently re-signed Stephen Anderson, or maybe it’s a draft pick to be named later. Cook offers them the chance to figure it out and not have to rely upon any of those three players to be THE guy until they are ready.
The only concern I have with the current standing of the tight end room is the lack of an above-average blocker. None of the three on the roster are even average in that department, and Cook essentially hasn’t even participated in that role over the course of his career. They will need to add a blocking tight end at some point. Their scheme requires a tight end who can hold his own against defensive ends on the backside of run plays, or in pass protection. They could bring back Virgil Green if he even wants to keep playing. They could look to add another former Green Bay Packer in Marcedes Lewis via free agency.
Notre Dame’s Tommy Tremble is the best blocking tight end in the draft and has enough athleticism to theoretically develop into a more polished pass catcher and challenge Parham for the long-term throne. He should be available when the Chargers are on the board with the 77th overall pick. Mississippi’s Kenny Yeboah or Duke’s Noah Gray are some other well-rounded options that could be had on day three, but they are nowhere near the kind of blockers that Tremble is. I would not be surprised if they made Miami’s Brevin Jordan a priority in the second round. He is a great blocker like Tremble and brings an explosive skill set to the table right now.
Chargers sign Matt Feiler and Oday Aboushi
The Chargers got off to an early start in free agency by signing Linsley and Feiler. Then on Saturday, they agreed to terms with Aboushi, formerly of the Detroit Lions. I am a big fan of these two signings. Feiler was a strong presence at right tackle and left guard for the Pittsburgh Steelers over the last three seasons and odds are that he will see action at right tackle at some point next season. He could also be the Chargers’ long-term answer at that position if they move on from Bryan Bulaga after the 2021 season. Either way, his performance, and positional versatility make him a great signing for the Chargers, especially at his three years and $21 million value.
Aboushi is the stereotypical Telesco cheap value signing. They could have brought back Feeney, Forrest Lamp, or Cole Toner at a similar price tag, but Aboushi showed this past season for the Lions that he can be a legitimate starter in this league. He was drafted out of Virginia in 2013 but for the most part, had been a career backup. He finally got his chance to be a starter last year and played great. He started nine games in 2020 and allowed nine total pressures in those opportunities. He’ll have the chance to start at right guard for the Chargers in 2021 but should one of the potential incoming rookies that I mentioned above beat him out in training camp, then the Chargers will have a very valuable backup in Aboushi – which is something that they have not had for a very long time. Ultimately I do expect Aboushi to be the starter next to Bulaga next season.
Now for the haunting part: really just how much of an upgrade is the trio of Feiler, Linsley, and Aboushi? Well, in 2020 the trio of Lamp, Feeney, and Trai Turner played in a combined 41 games and allowed a whopping 90 total pressures. The trio of Feiler, Linsley, and Aboushi played in a combined 40 games for their respective teams, and only allowed a total of 35 pressures. Someone could say you’re comparing apples to oranges here because of different schemes, supporting casts, or coaches, etc. but the difference in production is enough to blow your mind.
Overall, the Chargers had a very good first week of free agency. Many fans were clamoring for them to make more splashy moves but the Chargers got three legitimate starters on the offensive line, which is the most important priority of the offseason. Then they were able to bring back a key defensive starter who has done nothing but improve as an NFL player. Finally, they were able to replace Henry with a solid stopgap option on a very cheap deal. This upcoming week will be crucial and it will likely give us more intel on where this team is headed in next month’s draft, but they are off to a very good start.