Projecting The Potential Success For The Chargers Offensive Line
Early on Friday morning, ESPN’s Seth Walder published an article projecting the pass blocking win rates (PBR) for every team in the NFL. ESPN introduced this metric before the 2019 season in order to better measure the success and failures of the league’s offensive linemen, historically one of the hardest position groups to judge fairly due to the lack of statistics – they also have a metric for run blocking win rate. The metric attempts to measure the success rate in which offensive linemen sustain their blocks for 2.5 seconds or longer.
The Los Angeles Chargers finished 31st in PBR in 2020, thanks to a myriad of injuries to the right side of the line and underwhelming performances specifically from Forrest Lamp, and Dan Feeney. The Chargers notably overhauled the unit and will have four new starters, and will be hoping for a bounceback season from Bryan Bulaga. With all the new changes, Walder is currently projecting the Los Angeles Chargers to finish 22nd in the PBR metric. (For reference sake, the San Francisco 49ers finished 22nd in PBR last season)
This would be an obviously significant upgrade from their preceding unit, but this got me thinking about other offensive line units that underwent significant overhauls and how much they were able to improve.
Offensive line metrics, like any other statistic, can be extremely fluid from year to year. Take the Dallas Cowboys, for example, who finished 26th in PBR after consistently having one of the best units over the last decade. They dropped so significantly in large part due to injuries to Tyron Smith and La’el Collins. You can also look at the New Orleans who finished 25th in PBR in 2019, made some tweaks to their unit – most notably drafting Cesar Ruiz in the first round of the 2020 Draft – and then finished 5th in PBR in 2020.
Teams’ output can also change simply to positive player development. Such as the Denver Broncos, who finished 28th in PBR in 2019 and then jumped to 21st after Garett Bolles and Dalton Risner took big steps forward in their development.
NFL Coaches and executives generally prefer to keep continuity along their offensive lines, so personnel changes as drastic as the ones the Chargers are undergoing are relatively unprecedented. However, I was able to find a fairly comparable situation in the 2018 and 2019 Houston Texans. Since ESPN’s PBR metric is only going on their third season, I will be using Pro Football Focus as well to compare the two units.
The 2018 Texans offensive line was arguably the worst in the league and finished 31st in PFF’s Pass Blocking Efficiency Rating (PBE). The five linemen who logged the most snaps that year were: tackle Julien Davenport, guard Senio Kelemete, center Nick Martin, guard Zach Fulton, and tackle Kendall Lamm. Davenport allowed 67 total pressures that season, the most of any lineman in the league. Although the team made the playoffs that year, it was blatantly clear they had to drastically improve the offensive line in order to better protect Deshaun Watson.
In the 2019 Draft they selected Tytus Howard in the first round, and Max Scharping in the second round. Following the draft, they then pulled off the blockbuster trade for Laremy Tunsil. They effectively replaced three subpar starters in one offseason – Martin and Fulton were holdovers onto the 2019 unit.
While the Texans massively overpaid in trading for Tunsil, they did accomplish their goal of improving their offensive line. Despite some mild rookie struggles from Howard and some missed games from Tunsil, the unit improved its PBE ranking from 31st all the way up to tied for 12th. In ESPN’s first season of PBR, they finished even higher, landing at eighth.
The parallels between the Texans and Chargers units are obvious, Corey Linsley is the Chargers version of Tunsil: the expensive offseason acquisition. Rashawn Slater is the Chargers version of Howard: the first-round draft pick. The Chargers didn’t draft Matt Feiler, but he’s in that same solid to potentially above average tier of a player as Scharping is.
Similar to that Texans unit, the Chargers offensive line in 2021 will have a wide range of possible outcomes. There are lots of variables that will determine their success. The biggest question mark of the unit is Bulaga, who only started and finished seven games last season. That absolutely cannot happen again. The Chargers can’t count on Trey Pipkins or Storm Norton to start a significant amount of games at this point in their careers. Bulaga has to stay healthy for the majority of the season.
The second most important plot point is Slater’s development. He isn’t considered to be the massive project that Howard was, but we honestly never know what to expect with rookie starters. The Chargers also have a very difficult schedule in terms of opposing pass rushers so it is possible that he struggles out of the gate. However, Slater was arguably the best offensive tackle in his draft class and brings an incredibly high ceiling to the table. The Chargers have also raved about how fast he’s been able to pick up the playbook thus far, which is often a concern for rookies.
Feiler and Oday Aboushi should be big upgrades over the Chargers’ previous situations at guard, the only question is what happens if either of them misses games? I like Brenden Jaimes but who knows if he’s ready to start in year one, and Scott Quessenberry is the only other interior linemen that I trust. The good news is that whoever starts at guard will get to play next to an elite center in Linsley, which should make their lives much easier than if they were playing next to someone like Feeney.
For the record, Linsley not making the top 10 list Jeremy Fowler put together after surveying NFL coaches, executives, and players is incredibly disrespectful. Linsley finished as the best interior offensive lineman in nearly every major category in 2020 and was really the only elite player who didn’t make their respective top 10 list. It was a massive oversight.
Ultimately, the Chargers should have at least three above-average starters along their offensive line this upcoming season. If Bulaga stays relatively healthy and Slater plays even close to his ceiling, the Chargers absolutely have the ability to make a jump similar to what the Texans did and get in the top 12-ish in PBE and/or PBR. I’m not saying that should be expected, but they do have the ability to do so if things go their way a little bit more than they have in the past.