Top Ten Remaining Free Agent Targets For The Chargers
The first week of free agency is wrapping up for the NFL, and the Los Angeles Chargers have been much busier than usual. At this time last year, they hadn’t signed a single free agent. Tom Telesco has put his money where his mouth is and made the offensive line the priority in free agency, as he’s signed Corey Linsley, Matt Feiler, and most recently Oday Aboushi. Linsley and Feiler should start at center and left guard and are clear upgrades over Dan Feeney and Forrest Lamp, respectively. Aboushi is a very solid player and should have a chance to start at right guard depending on what they do in the draft and remaining free agency period. Jared Cook is also a low-risk-high reward stopgap option at tight end in the wake of losing Hunter Henry.
That being said, the Chargers do have around $16 million in remaining cap space – after accounting for the incoming rookie class and in-season budget. This should give them the space to land another marquee free agent (they were in on Kyle Fuller but lost out to the Broncos) and some quality depth pieces. Below is my top ten list of remaining free agent targets for the Chargers. (Team need is accounted for here, so players like T.Y. Hilton will not be ranked.)
Adoree’ Jackson – Cornerback
With all due respect to a player like Richard Sherman, Jackson gets the nod for me at number one due to his scheme versatility. If the Chargers wanted a player like Sherman they could have just kept Casey Hayward, which tells us what kind of corner they are looking for.
The Titans surprised everyone when they released Jackson, who is theoretically still developing. Health has been a bit of an issue for the former USC standout, especially last season when he only played in the Titans’ last four games. However, when he has been on the field he has shown glimpses of being capable of developing into a true number one corner.
The pairing of Jackson and recently re-signed Michael Davis would give the Chargers a hyper-athletic cornerback duo, which is definitely a need in the AFC West. Jackson has visits upcoming with the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles, so it’s possible that he might not be available for much longer, but the Chargers should absolutely be on the phone.
Alejandro Villanueva – Offensive Tackle
This ranking is really about positional value and availability as serviceable left tackles who rarely miss games are hard to come by these days in the NFL. By no means is Villanueva an elite player in this league, but he has shown the ability to be an above-average player in years past. He is thirty-two years of age, which is a bit of a concern athletically but he has only played six NFL seasons due to his service in the Army.
The Chargers should look to address their glaring hole at left tackle with the thirteenth overall pick, however, it would not surprise me if Telesco and company looked to add Villanueva on a short-term deal to give them flexibility in the draft. Pro Football Focus grades him as a middle-tier offensive tackle, but that can be a bit deceiving since he allowed the fourth most pressures of any qualified tackle with a whopping 43. Some would consider him a legitimate upgrade over Sam Tevi, but I have my doubts.
Malcolm Butler – Cornerback
Very quietly, Butler had a fantastic 2020 season for the Titans. He only allowed an NFL passer rating of 83.7 when targeted, which was 10th best among qualified corners – ranking just ahead of Fuller, Marlon Humphrey, and Ronald Darby. (Davis was seventh on the list, in case you were curious.) That’s not the end-all-be-all in evaluating corners but it is significant. Butler also had 11 pass break-ups and five interceptions.
The days of him being a true number one corner might be done with due to his age, but agreeing to a one-year deal for the former Super Bowl hero could make a lot of sense if they were able to pair him with a premium-ish draft selection.
Olivier Vernon – Edge Rusher
Vernon is another player who is coming off a quiet, but effective season. He finished as PFF’s 23rd most efficient pass rusher – finishing ahead of players like Cameron Jordan, Leonard Floyd, and Yannick Ngakoue. (Joey Bosa was first on that list.) On the season he accumulated 51 pressures, good enough for 17th in the league, and nine sacks, which was tied for twelfth most in the league.
Similar to Butler, the concerns surrounding his name have been his age, but he was much more productive than some of the other remaining pass rushers in 2020. The Chargers need to add another pass rusher, or two. At this moment the only edge rushers on the roster are Bosa, Uchenna Nwosu, and Emeke Egbule. Vernon would be a fine complementary pass rusher.
Melvin Ingram – Edge Rusher
The long-time Charger is facing the first free-agent decision of his career. He’s been an incredible leader and pass rusher for the franchise since he was drafted out of South Carolina. He is clearly not the same player he once was and has really struggled to stay healthy. In theory, he could still provide value to the Chargers as a complementary pass rusher behind Nwosu and Bosa, but it is also possible that he’s looking to ring chase at this point in his career. I believe that the longer he stays on the market, the more the possibility that he returns to the Chargers increases. It is something to monitor going forward.
Tashaun Gipson Sr. – Safety
Gipson has turned into a bit of a journeyman over the last few seasons but he had a bit of a career renaissance this past year in Chicago, who is still running a variation of the Vic Fangio/Brandon Staley scheme despite their departure. He racked up 63 tackles for the Bears and is solid in coverage duties as well. He’s also logged over 1,000 snaps in four of the last five seasons. He has the kind of versatility that is necessary for that kind of defense, essentially splitting his snaps as a box and free safety. With Derwin James slated to play the “STAR” role that will move him around the entire field, the Chargers will need two other capable safeties on the field with him – which is why so many people figured they would bring over John Johnson, but Gipson would be a solid addition behind James and Nasir Adderley.
K’Waun Williams – Cornerback
Slot corner has become a starting position in the NFL, and there haven’t been many better at it over the last few years than Williams. He battled through some injuries last season (who didn’t in San Francisco last season) but he’s only 29 and should have a few more seasons left of high-level football in him. Frankly, I’m surprised he’s still on the market right now. It was rumored that the Jets were going to swipe him up as soon as free agency started.
The Chargers reportedly want to rotate Chris Harris between the outside and in the nickel so adding another slot cornerback in free agency, and an outside corner in the draft could make some sense. Especially since Harris Jr. is a prime cut candidate after this season.
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Rick Wagner – Offensive Tackle
The Chargers have dipped into the Green Bay system with Linsley and Bryan Bulaga. Returning to that pool to get Wagner as a swing tackle could make a lot of sense. The Chargers have spent the last decade void of adequate depth at the sport’s second most important position and it has really come back to bite them.
It’s not his fault he was selected in the third round, but Trey Pipkins has not lived up to that selection and should not be counted on at this point. Wagner has spent the majority of his career as a right tackle but he did play left tackle at points throughout the past few seasons for the Packers. He will be 32 by the time the next season starts, but as a backup that shouldn’t be that much of a concern.
Jadeveon Clowney – Edge Rusher
Death, Taxes, and talking ourselves into Clowney finally popping in the NFL. He is one of the best edge rushers in the league against the run, which is a need for the Chargers, so that could be one benefit of potentially adding him to the rotation of Bosa and Nwosu. He doesn’t get a ton of sacks, but his pressure rate is actually pretty solid. He also wouldn’t be the best pass rusher for the Chargers and wouldn’t be getting double-teamed as often.
Malik Hooker – Safety
Chalk this one up as a potential low-risk-high reward move. Hooker has not been able to stay on the field for the Indianapolis Colts, which led them to draft Julian Blackmon last year. Hooker was the starter at the beginning of the year but after he tore his Achilles, Blackmon took over and never looked back. The former Utah standout was even in the defensive rookie of the year conversation for a larger portion of the year. Hooker’s injury history and Blackmon’s emergence made Hooker expendable, and his market has not exactly been very kind.
The former first-round pick would come at a very cheap cost and the one thing here is that if they are able to keep him healthy, they could be able to theoretically unlock Adderley’s versatility as a potential safety/corner hybrid, and work Hooker in as a deep safety. This of course would be a very different conversation if Hooker is not fully recovered by the time the season starts, but given the timing of the injury, I think there’s a good chance he could be.