Will Disappointing Season Lead to Charger Changes?
January 16, 2020
While much of the early off-season discussion regarding the Los Angeles Chargers has involved quarterback Philip Rivers, there needs to be an equal amount of discussion revolving around the defensive unit of the Chargers, which regressed last season under defensive coordinator Gus Bradley.
In 2019, the Chargers ranked last in the NFL in takeaways at 14. As a comparison, the Pittsburgh Steelers led the NFL in takeaways with 38. The New England Patriots were second with 36. The Chargers ranked 28th in sacks with 30. As a comparison, the Steelers led the NFL in sacks with 54.
The Chargers ranked 29th in the NFL in 3rd down defense, with opponents converting on 45.13% of third downs. As a comparison, the Patriots led the NFL in third down defense, allowing opponents to convert on only 25.6% of third downs.
The 2019 Chargers defense was inconsistent, mixing flashes of brilliance with lapses in execution. Safety Derwin James missed the first 11 games of the season with a stress fracture in his right foot. Other players, such as defensive end Melvin Ingram, missed games as well.
The lack of playmakers on the defensive side of the ball was noticeable, or they are not being put into a position to make plays. Everybody in the NFL knows that the Chargers play a 4-3 defense, that do not like to blitz, that they like to get pressure with their four-man rush and that they play a lot of zone coverage in the secondary.
Unfortunately, the Chargers have not been able to get enough pressure from their four-man rush and they are not making plays on defense. The Los Angeles Rams recently decided not to renew the contract of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Under Phillips, the Rams ran a 3-4 defense that put pressure on opposing quarterbacks and took them to three winning seasons, including a super bowl appearance.
The Rams in 2019 had 50 sacks and 24 takeaways, much better than the 30 sacks and 14 takeaways from the Chargers. Phillips was hired by the Rams in 2017 and Bradley joined the Chargers in 2017 as well. In each season, the Rams have had more takeaways and sacks than the Chargers. Yet Phillips is being let go and apparently Bradley is not.
The purpose of comparing the Chargers to other NFL teams, such as the Rams, is not to suggest that that someone needs to be fired. It is more about illustrating that the Chargers are not keeping up defensively with many other NFL teams. If the Rams felt Phillips was not meeting their defensive standard, then is Bradley meeting the Chargers defensive standard? Should the Chargers consider moving to a 3-4 defense?
No matter what defense the Chargers play next season, the return of a healthy James will help. The Chargers also need to look at their No. 6 pick in the first round and decide if there are any game changers on defense that might be available with that pick. The college player that that might fit that description is Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons.
Simmons is a 6-foot-4, 230-pound linebacker that can be lined up anywhere on the field. For Clemson this past season, Simmons lined up on the defensive line, in the box, at slot cornerback, at outside cornerback and at deep safety. He has been timed in the forty at 4.31. Per Pro Football Focus, Simmons has earned a career coverage grade of 92.5 and has allowed only 6.0 yards per target.
The Chargers will be facing the likes of quarterback Patrick Mahomes twice a season for the next decade. They will need to upgrade the speed and playmaking ability of their defense. They also need to retain their better defensive players. Defensive end Joey Bosa, defensive end Melvin Ingram and cornerback Desmond King are all unrestricted free agents in 2021.
The Chargers have about $56 million available in salary cap space for the 2020 season, but they need much of that money to sign their key free agents. The only key defensive player they really would want to bring back would be safety Adrian Phillips. Most of the money will be spent on the offensive side with unrestricted free agents like quarterback Philip Rivers, tight end Hunter Henry and running back Melvin Gordon. Running back Austin Ekeler is a restricted free agent.
This will make it a challenge to keep their players they want to keep and add additional help in free agency. It is also important to not push too much money off into the latter years, such as 2021. They will need to keep Bosa and that will not be inexpensive.