Chargers should look to free agency for help on the offensive line
February 25, 2021
Coming off a season where both the offense and defense were ranked in the top ten, the Los Angeles Chargers might not seem to need a lot of improvement on either side of the ball. The Chargers were ranked 9th in total offensive yards per game at 382.1 and 10th on defense, allowing 343.4 yards per game. The Green Bay Packers, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Indianapolis Colts were the only other teams ranked in the top ten on both defense and offense. All three were playoff teams. The Chargers were not.
For the Chargers to get back to the playoffs, they need to make improvements along the offensive line and add some help on defense. If there was any doubt about General Manager Tom Telesco's thoughts on the matter of the offensive line, he stated that: "I think there's a lot of improvement that needs to be made in that area." Pro Football Focus also agreed, naming the Chargers offensive line as the worst in the NFL.
Many of the football draft experts are predicting that the Chargers will pick an offensive lineman in the first round and in subsequent rounds as well. But the best strategy for the Chargers might be to fix their offensive line issues in free agency.
NFL free agency officially begins on March 17th at 1:00 PM PST, although from March 15th to 17th is the legal tampering period in which teams can contact and negotiate with the agents of players who are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents. From February 23rd to March 9th, teams can use the franchise tag or transition tag to hold onto one player.
NFL teams can use the franchise tag to lock a player into a one-year deal usually with the hope of negotiating a long-term agreement that is more financially advantageous to the team and the player. Last season, the Chargers put the franchise tag on tight end Hunter Henry, which paid him $10.6 million i in 2020.
Henry is again a free agent but slapping a franchise tag on him would not be the correct decision this season. Because the Chargers used the franchise tag on him in 2020, to use it again on Henry would cost the Chargers $12.7 million or a 20% increase in salary. According to Overthecap.com, the Chargers are $23.8 million under the salary cap. Paying Henry $12.7 million would take up over half of the money currently available.
Because of the pandemic and the loss of revenue in 2020, the NFL salary cap will fall from $198.2 million to a range of $180 million to $185 million. This has put a lot of teams in a difficult place for re-signing free agents or keeping players with higher salaries. It might be in the best interest of the Chargers to let Henry go and acquire a tight end through a trade or free agency or the draft.
The money available now should be used to fix the offensive line in free agency. The Chargers starting left tackle Sam Tevi, starting left guard Forrest Lamp, and starting center Dan Feeney are all free agents. Back-up guards Ryan Groy and Cole Toner are also free agents. At least half of the teams in the NFL are over the salary cap and many will have a difficult time re-signing their own free agents.
For example, the Pittsburgh Steelers are $19 million over the salary cap and will have a difficult time just getting under the cap, let alone signing their own free agents. Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a two-time Pro Bowl selection for the Steelers, will be a free agent. The Chargers just hired his offensive line coach from the past two seasons, Shaun Sarrett, as an assistant offensive line coach. Sarrett may be able to convince Villanueva to play for the Chargers.
Chargers offensive line coach Frank Smith, who also holds the title of run game coordinator, is a recent hire from the Las Vegas Raiders coaching staff. Smith spent the last three seasons as the Raiders tight end coach. A free agent of interest from the Raiders is guard Denzelle Good, who started at left guard for the Raiders and is a free agent. Good is a plug-in-play type of offensive lineman. He started at left guard this season but has also started at right guard and right tackle.
As Raiders head coach Jon Gruden said about Good, "He's been sensational. Denzelle could probably play four of five positions. He might be able to play two at a time if we need him to. But he's been great. Doesn't say a word, low maintenance or no maintenance, a real pro's pro." Smith is familiar with Good and he might be able to convince him to come join the Chargers.
The Raiders have their own salary cap issues, as they are $18.9 million dollars over the salary cap. Good at left guard and Villanueva at left tackle would be an immediate upgrade on the left side of the offensive line. Feeney could return at center. With Bryan Bulaga at right tackle and Trai Turner at right guard, the Chargers would have a very experienced offensive line. Turner, a five-time Pro Bowl selection with the Carolina Panthers, missed seven games this season to injuries and Bulaga missed six games to injuries this past season.
If these guys can stay healthy it would make a big difference in the performance of the offensive line. If they cannot stay healthy, the replenishments added through the draft could step in along with reserves Storm Norton, Trey Pipkins, and Scott Quessenberry. Addressing the offensive line in free agency would give the Chargers options in the draft. They could draft the best player available with the first pick. That could be an edge rusher, a defensive tackle, a cornerback, a tight end, or an offensive lineman.
Putting the franchise tag on Henry is not a great idea and if the rumors are accurate, the Chargers do not think so, either. The rumors out of Philadelphia are that the Chargers are one of several teams interested in Eagles tight end Zach Ertz, who is unhappy with the Eagles and wants a contract extension. The Eagles are another team that is struggling with the salary cap. The Eagles are $43 million over the salary cap and are desperately looking to cut salaries.
Ertz is available and he is worth at least a 4th round pick. Ertz was born and raised in California and played his college football at Stanford. Ertz holds the NFL single season record for receptions by a tight end with 116. He is a three-time Pro Bowler who caught the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl 52. He is 30 years old and has a base salary of $8.25 million for 2021.
The Chargers enter free agency in better shape than most NFL teams and they will have nine draft picks for the NFL draft, which begins Thursday, April 29th. The moves they make in free agency could set-up a successful NFL draft and lead to a successful NFL season. Charger fans will be watching.