Solving The Los Angeles Chargers Offensive Line

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Top Shots of 2020: Best of the offense - Ty Nowell

Solving The Chargers Offensive Line

By now we are all well versed in the Los Angeles Chargers offensive line woes. Outside of the 2018 unit headlined by a healthy Mike Pouncey and Russell Okung, the franchise has spent the better part of the last decade with a bottom-feeding unit. I’ve written extensively about their struggles, but today I will be writing about how they can fix it. This article will feature a four-step process as to how I would go about fixing this position group for the Chargers in order to better protect their franchise quarterback. 

Let’s get started.

Step One: Cut Trai Turner

This potential move has been dubbed as counterintuitive by some Chargers fans whenever it has been discussed on social media. Why would the Chargers, who need to solve their offensive line woes, cut a five-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman? 

This logic is understandable, it is totally possible that his struggles from last season were more about his injury(ies) and less about his ability. Turner was one of the best guards in the league from 2015-2018 and deserved his several trips to the Pro Bowl. However, there were rumblings around the league that he seemed to regress in the 2019 season before the Chargers acquired him. The Panthers also passed the ball at an exponentially higher rate in 2019 than they did in 2018, and that was a bad fit for Turner – whose best attribute is his ability in the run game. 

This unfortunately was the result in Los Angeles as well. On paper, the Chargers made a lot of sense due to Anthony Lynn’s obsession with establishing the run. What actually happened is that the Chargers failed to establish an efficient rushing attack which led to them being one of the most pass-happy teams in the league (Justin Herbert had the fourth most passing attempts of any quarterback). This again exposed Turner’s issues as a pass blocker and resulted in him giving up a higher pressure percentage than any previous season in his career, and earned him the lowest grade of any qualified right guard in the league per PFF.

If the priority is to protect Herbert, then it does not make sense to keep this kind of player around. It is totally possible that he bounces back, but the Chargers should not pay him $11 million to find that out. The fact that he has a dead cap hit of zero, makes this decision a no-brainer. 

Step Two: Spend Cap Space On Three Veteran Interior Offensive Linemen

There are those out there that would want the Chargers to chase a big and expensive fish in the offseason to upgrade the offensive line. Alejandro Villanueva, Joe Thuney, Taylor Moton, and Brandon Scherff have all been mentioned. Make no mistake about it, those players would all be huge upgrades from what the Chargers were working with last year. Particularly Thuney, who is unequivocally one of the best and most durable players at his position. 

However, if I were running the team, I would spend money on three free agent interior offensive line acquisitions. Yes, I said three. The Chargers do need more talent up front, Tom Telesco said as much in his end-of-year press conference. But they also need more quality depth pieces and ones that can provide them with versatility. I understand their stubbornness in getting Dan Feeney a full evaluation at center last season, but the easiest solution to losing Turner should have been moving him to right guard and starting Scott Quessenberry at the center spot. Instead, they cycled through six players (including Quessenberry) at the right guard position and they were never able to perform at a high level. 

So while the Chargers could swing big, I think it would be wiser to acquire three veterans from the following group of players: Jon Feliciano – Buffalo, Corey Linsley – Green Bay, Larry Warford, and Nick Easton – New Orleans, Denzelle Good – Las Vegas, Matt Feiler – Pittsburgh, and Germain Ifedi – Chicago.

Through the coaching staff that Brandon Staley has assembled, they have built-in connections with Warford, Easton, Good, and Feiler. As well as the connection to Linsley through Bryan Bulaga

Linsley, Felciano, and Warford are the most well-known players among that group and would be the most expensive signings. Spotrac estimates Linsley’s current market value to merit a three-year, $29 million contract (9.7 per year), and Feliciano’s current market value to merit a four-year, $33 million contract (8.3 per year). Prior to opting out of the 2020 season, it was reported that Warford was seeking a new opportunity around the $7 million per year mark. Still, those numbers are a far cry from the estimations of Thuney and Scherff who will each likely command upwards of $65 million. 

The theme of versatility among most of those players checks out. Feliciano has started games at all three interior spots for the Bills. Easton has started games for the Saints at both guard spots over the last two seasons. Good has started games for the Raiders at both guard spots and started three games at right tackle this past season while Trent Brown dealt with Covid. Feiler has started games at right guard, right tackle, and left guard for the Steelers over the past few years. Finally, Ifedi was primarily a tackle for the Seattle Seahawks but started most of last season for the Bears at right guard. Warford and Linsley have been more defined in their roles, almost exclusively playing at right guard and center, respectively. 

The Chargers would most likely have to choose between two of Linsely, Feliciano, and Warford. In that case, Feliciano would be my first choice due to that versatility. After that, the other names on the list would be quality and cost-effective pick-ups. This is another reason why cutting Turner is a no-brainer because they could take that $11 million and use it to pay for the majority of upgrading two spots along the interior.

Step Three: Re-sign Two Chargers Internal Free Agents

In a more perfect world, Forrest Lamp and/or Dan Feeney would have taken a much-needed step forward in their development in 2020. It certainly seemed like they were both trending towards being reliable interior players up until the bye week. Lamp in particular seemed like he had finally turned that corner that we all hoped he was capable of turning when the Chargers drafted him in the second round. In the Chargers’ first five games, he only gave up six pressures and even earned grades as high as 70, 63, and 62 against the Bengals, Chiefs, and Buccaneers from PFF. Instead, both he and Feeney regressed in a big way after the bye week, which resulted in Feeney giving up the most pressures of any qualified center in the league, and Lamp being third on the list for qualified left guards. 

The other player that deserves mention here is Cole Toner. The former Harvard standout spent most of the last three seasons on the Chargers practice squad, but he was finally promoted to the active roster after Ryan Groy was lost for the season, and ended up starting three games for the team. He was the sixth player to take reps at the position and was pretty easily the best of the bunch. He produced the most efficient pressure rating of any right guard and received the highest grade from PFF. His performance absolutely earned him a second contract in my opinion.

Now to be perfectly clear, none of these players should be re-signed and enter training camp as unquestioned starters. None of them performed well enough for that to be the case. The focus of this group is actually having sufficient depth on the roster. Telesco has generally reserved the backup offensive line roles for developmental projects and undrafted free agents (see Trey Pipkins and Trent Scott). That cannot be the case going forward, unless absolutely necessary. Bringing two players back from this trio to provide quality competition upfront should be an acceptable outcome this offseason. 

My preference would be to bring back Toner and Lamp, but I do think the Chargers will bring back Feeney and let Lamp walk. 

Step Four: Double Dip At Offensive Tackle In The Draft

This is the most important step in the process because of positional value. Telesco has drafted one offensive tackle in the first two rounds in his entire tenure as Chargers general manager. That was D.J. Fluker in his first draft, even though many viewed Fluker as a guard coming out of Alabama. The lack of investment of top-tier draft capital in the offensive line, and specifically the tackle position, is the single biggest failure of Telesco’s Chargers tenure. 

Telesco HAS to rectify that failure this year. There is no other alternative. He cannot make the same mistake for Herbert that he did for Philip Rivers.

NFL teams don’t like to pigeonhole themselves into having to draft based on need in the first round, instead, they usually prefer to draft the best talent available. When the Chargers are on the board in April, it is absolutely a possibility that the best talent on the board is not an offensive tackle, and it is a deep group of offensive tackles this year. That does not matter. If Telesco wants to build a true Super Bowl contending team, he has to protect his franchise quarterback and that starts with giving him a franchise left tackle to match. 

The question is which player offers that. Virginia Tech’s Christian Darrisaw has become the player most frequently mocked to them at thirteen. It’s become conventional wisdom at this point, at least it appears that way. USC’s Alijah Vera-Tucker is another common selection in the draft world. Texas’ Samuel Cosmi had some of that same buzz after the season, but it appears that draft analysts have soured on him a bit. Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater would be a no-brainer, but many draft analysts have him pegged as the best offensive linemen in the draft and unlikely to be on the board when the Chargers are picking.

As of writing this, Vera-Tucker would be my preference IF Slater is off the board. A lot of analysts believe he projects best as a guard, but I wholeheartedly believe that he could be a plug-and-play left tackle for whoever drafts him. Slater and Vera-Tucker have been knocked for their lack of length but both have the requisite athletic traits and high-level awareness to make up for that. In Vera-Tucker’s case, he is also an incredibly strong and dominant run blocker. He is a second-level savant as a blocker in the run game, which is a big deal in the Shanahan outside zone-based rushing attacks that the Chargers are likely going to be installing. Either way, his potential for positional versatility would offer the Chargers a high-level insurance policy because he can start at four positions on the line. 

I would be fine with Cosmi or Darrisaw but I am much lower on the former Virginia Tech standout than the consensus seems to be. He’s a dominant run blocker but his lack of urgency as a pass blocker concerns me. Cosmi is arguably the most athletic lineman in the class not named Penei Sewell. However, he likely needs to add 15-ish pounds to his frame in order to survive the physical rigors of the NFL. He was also much more consistent in 2019 than he was in 2020, which could be a result of the coaching drama that was going on at Texas last year – but it is a legitimate concern either way. Vera-Tucker just seems like more of a sure thing, even with the potential that he might be best suited to play guard. 

In this scenario where the Chargers have solidified their interior offensive line via free agency, I believe the Chargers would have to use their second-round pick to select a pass rusher or a cornerback. Which would leave the third round as the next opportunity to add an offensive lineman. The Chargers drafted Pipkins to serve as a developmental tackle, and that frankly has not worked out well so far. They signed Storm Norton last year as a low-risk signing and he played well, but not well enough to warrant the Chargers passing on a high upside replacement. The ultimate goal here is to be proactive in finding a replacement for Bulaga. The Chargers have to keep him on the roster for 2021 because his dead cap hit makes him impossible to cut. They don’t really have a choice but to hope he can find a way to stay healthy. Then they have an out after next season if they need it. 

There are always surprises in the draft but the middle of the offensive tackle group is deep enough to make me feel confident enough that one player from the group of James Hudson – Cincinnati, Walker Little – Stanford, Jackson Carman – Clemson, D’Ante Smith – East Carolina, and Jaylon Moore – Western Michigan will be on the board in the third round. All of these players have really intriguing physical tools but need to develop on the field with proper NFL coaching. Taking a gamble on their upside should be the preferred plan as a developmental tackle over Pipkins or Norton, who are likely better suited off as practice squad players at this point. 

In the best scenario, the Chargers would be able to have a starting unit of Vera-Tucker, Feliciano, Linsley, Good, and Bulaga. With Lamp, Toner, Quessenberry, and Hudson being the four primary backups. Inserting Warford instead of Feliciano, or Linsley would also be a great signing, and perhaps save them a little extra bit of cash. 

The Chargers are in a good spot to upgrade the offensive line this year, they just have to make it THE top priority. 

Screen Shot 2021 02 24 at 8.58.36 AM

Top Shots of 2020: Best of the offense – Ty Nowell