Six Free Agent Defensive Line Targets For The Chargers

Chargers Top Shots 2021: Best of White on White Uniforms
Top Shots 2021: Best of White on White Uniforms. Photo Credit: Ty Nowell | LA Chargers

Six Free Agent Defensive Line Targets For The Chargers

By now you’ve likely heard over and over about the Chargers terrible run defense, and how it needs to be the focus of the offseason in order for the team to reach its full potential next season. Brandon Staley has continued to emphasize that he wants to ensure that the Chargers are known as a “trench team”. Last offseason, the offensive line got a facelift with the additions of Corey Linsley, Rashawn Slater, Matt Feiler, Oday Aboushi, and Brenden Jaimes, and it sounds like the defensive line could be in for the same treatment this offseason. 

In terms of priority internal free agents, the big question mark along the interior defensive line is former third-round pick, Justin Jones. As the season went along it became clear that Jones was the heart and soul of that position group. His energy and disruptive play were key factors in the Chargers improvement against the run in the middle of the season.

It sounded like he wanted to return in his end-of-season press conference but the harsh reality is that he has an extensive injury history and hasn’t really produced at a high level. The energy and leadership are great traits to have but that hasn’t translated into impacting the stat sheet for Jones just yet. Chargers general manager Tom Telesco has generally moved on from those types of players. 

Outside of Jones, Linval Joseph, and Christian Covington are also set to hit free agency but I do not expect them to return this year. Joseph’s best years are officially behind him and Covington was nothing more than a stop-gap option. That being said, let’s talk about some defensive line additions that the Chargers could add in free agency and what those contracts and roles would like. 

Older Veterans

Akiem Hicks – Chicago Bears

This appears to be one of the biggest layups of the offseason, and for good reason. Hicks probably isn’t the dominant force he once was and there are injury concerns, but head coach Brandon Staley and outside linebackers coach Jay Rodgers were both in Chicago with Hicks and there is obviously a lot of scheme familiarity there. Rodgers was even Hicks’ position coach in Chicago, so if anyone knows how to get the best out of him, it’s Rodgers.

Pro Football Focus projects Hicks’ contract value to be in the two-year, $17 million range. That yearly value would put him in a similar range that the Chargers were paying for Joseph over the past two years. Given his injury history, however, I think that number could be a little lower.

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Calais Campbell – Baltimore Ravens

The ageless wonder quietly had a mini-resurgence last year for the Ravens and proved he still has plenty left in the tank. The Chargers don’t really have any connections to Campbell, but they are in a similar situation as the Ravens were when he decided to sign there in that they could be viewed as a team on the rise.

Campbell has spent most of his career as a defensive end in 3-4 type schemes so there is some scheme familiarity there for sure. Campbell has flirted with retirement recently so PFF only projects a one-year, $8 million contract for him.

Sheldon Richardson – Minnesota Vikings

Once considered one of the best interior defensive linemen in the league, Richardson has hit a bit of decline but he’s still an effective player. He wasn’t someone that was big on my radar until the Chargers hired Ryan Ficken to be their special teams coordinator. Ficken had spent the last 15 years with the Minnesota Vikings, where Richardson has spent two of the last four seasons – 2018 and last year.

He totaled 37 pressures, four sacks, 11 quarterback hits, along with six tackles for loss. Certainly not eye-popping numbers until you realize that they’re better than any member of the Chargers front line. Best of all, PFF has him projected to only cost $3 million on a one-year deal, which would allow the Chargers to have the necessary flexibility to sign one of the premier defensive linemen and still fortify their depth.

Young Studs

Sebastian Joseph-Day – Los Angeles Rams

If it’s not Hicks, Joseph-Day is the other layup of the season. Joseph-Day returned in time for the Super Bowl from a pectoral tear that was considered a season-ender which was a remarkable story and recovery process. It ultimately didn’t really have an effect on the game itself, but he still deserves a lot of credit for the recovery.

Up until he got hurt, he was tops in the league in run-stop percentage and totaled 22 run stops in the first seven games of the season. He seemed to be a player on the rise and then he got replaced by Greg Gaines and A’Shawn Robinson who proved to be difference makers themselves.

The Rams seemingly want to run everything back but when you’re signing Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr. to big deals, you have to make sacrifices and Joseph-Day doesn’t exactly seem like a priority re-sign on paper. He should be the number one choice to replace Joseph as the team’s one technique, run-stuffing nose tackle. PFF currently has his value in the three-year, $24 million range.

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B.J. Hill – Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals committed highway robbery when they pried Hill away from the New York Giants. He endeared himself to Bengals fans forever when he intercepted Patrick Mahomes in the AFC Championship Game, so there is a strong chance that he returns to Cincinnati. However, it is blatantly obvious to everybody that they need to invest a large portion of their cap space in the offensive line in order to ensure that Joe Burrow can physically make it through multiple contracts.

PFF values Hill at a three-year, $27 million deal so if the Bengals go all-in on the offensive line it is possible they can’t afford to bring him back. He played in a similar scheme that the Chargers run when he was on the Giants. 

Austin Johnson – New York Giants

The former Titans 2016 second-round pick was the beneficiary of the Giants’ decision to trade the aforementioned Hill, and he rewarded them with a career season. Johnson was somebody I wanted the Chargers to trade for at the deadline last year so I of course had to mention him here.

Johnson is one of the more under-the-radar free-agent defensive linemen this year, not even making the top 200 list compiled by PFF this year. Still, Johnson finished with 34 run stops last season which was tied for fifth-most among all interior defenders. He was also top 15 in run-stop percentage. His playstyle is similar to what the Chargers had in Covington as he can play the nose or roll out as a three-technique.

He signed a $3 million per year deal with the Giants and I would expect him to get something in that same range this year, so like Richardson, he would allow the Chargers to still sign an expensive free agent, as well.

I believe the Chargers will make at least two free agency transactions to fortify this position group, one of which theoretically could be re-signing Jones. Players like D.J. Jones from the 49ers, Folorunso Fatukasi of the Jets, or DaQuan Jones from the Panthers could also be targets but I generally try to limit free agent targets to those with coaching connections or scheme familiarity. Hicks and Joseph-Day check both boxes, while Johnson and Hill check the scheme box although it doesn’t hurt that the Chargers interviewed a few Giants coaches this year, Richardson at least somewhat checks the coaching box, and well, I’ve just always wanted Campbell on the Chargers. 

Let me know what defensive line targets you have for the Chargers in the comments below. Edge rushers will be up next!

Chargers Top 2021 Shots

Chargers Top Shots 2021: Best of White on White Uniforms – Ty Nowell | LA Chargers