You could say the LA Chargers are entering a make-or-break season, but that’s not quite accurate. It’s actually a make-or-break season for Brandon Staley.
Staley’s called the “defensive genius” by some. However, Staley hasn’t consistently demonstrated that his defensive play calling is good enough to uplift a team. The question arises: is the middling performance from the Staley defense a personnel issue or a coaching issue?
This isn’t a chicken or the egg kind of thing. The answer lies in a “real” upgrade at free safety. And that upgrade could come in the form of Budda Baker. But before we delve into why Baker is a good fit, let’s explore the other available options.
LA Chargers Free Safety Options
At the start of the season, Nasir Adderley was the Chargers’ free safety, alongside Derwin James. Unfortunately, Adderley struggled immensely. He’s always been an instinctive player, but he was mismatched in Staley’s system, which demands a combination of athleticism and tactical know-how. In simple terms, Staley’s known for match coverage, which requires third-level defenders to read plays correctly and make choices between covering a zone or a receiver.
In the second half of last season, Alohi Gilman stepped into the free safety role and performed better than expected. He demonstrated the ability to handle the intricacies of the defense, making notable contributions in critical moments – like his batted pass in the Dolphins game. However, Gilman is still limited athletically. Moreover, his PFF grade for the 2022 season was a disappointing 53.7, so he’s not necessarily bringing much to the table intangibles-wise. Clearly, the Chargers could benefit from an upgrade at the position.
Consequently, the team needs to explore external options for help at free safety. The most obvious choice would be John Johnson III. After all, Johnson previously played under Staley when they were both with the LA Rams. Johnson’s impressive performance under the now-Chargers head coach earned him a lucrative free-agent contract.
However, Johnson may not be the best choice for the Chargers. How significant of an upgrade would he truly provide? Would they be much better off with an aging safety? Personally, I don’t think so. If the Chargers genuinely want to upgrade the position, they should set their sights on Budda Baker.
Budda Baker’s Fit
In a vacuum, it’s undeniable that the Chargers could benefit from a free safety like Baker. Throughout his six-year career, he’s earned All-Pro honors twice and been selected for the Pro Bowl five times. Remarkably, he’s only 27, despite already being on his second contract. The issue here isn’t the money but the salary cap.
The Chargers face significant cap issues, especially with looming big paydays next year due to several restructures (Bosa, Mack, Williams, Allen, etc.). And let’s not forget about Justin Herbert‘s upcoming monster extension. So, why add more salary with Budda? Put simply, the juice is worth the elbow grease and then some.
Budda’s presence would greatly benefit the Staley defense. Whether it’s in palms or match coverage, having another playmaker at the third level alongside Derwin James would be ideal. It would free up Derwin James to embrace his true Joker role. Furthermore, Baker is no slouch when it comes to tackling, which is always a problem for Chargers fans. Additionally, James’ prowess in tight-end coverage mitigates Baker’s biggest flaw.
Also, another side benefit for Staley’s defense that Baker would add is versatility. Last season, Staley started deploying more Cover 1 play calls. It’s unclear if that will continue this year, but it would make sense. Many offenses have now adapted to Vic Fangio/Brandon Staley defenses that have proliferated around the league. Adding more players to the box (like Derwin James) would certainly help mitigate the offensive adjustments. Baker would be just that, seeing as his speed would make him more than capable of handling center field.
Is Budda Worth It?
Of course, there is the matter of compensation. Budda is still under contract with the Cardinals and acquiring him would require the Chargers to part ways with an asset. However, considering that he plays safety, which isn’t the most coveted position in the sport, and he’s in the middle of his second contract, the price will likely be a day-three pick. Moreover, Budda Baker might require a contract extension upon arrival, but that can work in the Chargers’ favor. The team could negotiate a team-friendly restructured contract and Baker would have the motivation to do so, given the Chargers’ competitiveness.
Overall, the Chargers have a very strong roster. So strong, that adding a guy like John Johnson III or betting on a Gilman/Woods rotation seems odd. You threw all that money at the team to build a Super Bowl roster, why stop now? Why not take advantage of a team like the Arizona Cardinals rebuild and take one of their players and try to parlay that into a championship? It might seem a little outlandish, but that’s the sort of thing the team needs to do to get ahead of their division rivals: the Kansas City Chiefs.
Because, as we’ve seen, Staley’s defense hasn’t been good enough to do that up until now. Budda Baker gives them a better chance than whatever else they can scrounge up.