Whole Nine Sports

How the Chargers’ Offseason Affects the Immediate Future

Derwin James
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Alex Katson
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The Los Angeles Chargers are in a period of transition. Not only are they moving into SoFi Stadium with the Rams, but they’ve unveiled new uniforms and started life without longtime face of the franchise Philip Rivers. In other words, my childhood memories of this team are dead. In their place exists a young and exciting defense that will look to prop up a new-look offense.

Here, I’ll break down the Chargers’ offseason: five key free agent moves, the Hunter Henry tag, and the draft. I’ll also take a look at what it all means for 2020 and beyond and my early predictions for the 55 man roster.

Trading for G Trai Turner

Trai Turner
Photo by Bob Donnan, USA TODAY Sports

This was probably the biggest move of the offseason for LA. Giving up Russell Okung leaves a big question mark at left tackle, but having to give up only Okung for Turner is a steal. The 26-year-old is one of the better guards in football, which helps shore up a position group that was begging for help after a disastrous 2019.

Turner helped pave the way for Christian McCaffrey’s 1,387 rushing yards last season, so Bolts fans will be crossing their fingers that he can do the same for Austin Ekeler and/or Justin Jackson and rookie Joshua Kelley. Los Angeles was 28th in rush yards per game in 2019, part of the reason why the offense seemingly never found their stride. Especially if new QB Justin Herbert gets playing time early on, establishing the run should be an emphasis in 2020.

Signing OT Bryan Bulaga

Bryan Bulaga
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Bulaga came relatively cheap, signing a 3 year, $30 million contract with the Bolts. It’s basically a two-year deal with a third-year option, though, as LA can get out in 2022 with just $3.34 million in dead cap. That’s not bad for a quality veteran tackle who has a ton of familiarity with new OL coach James Campen.

The Iowa product has had a few issues staying healthy in recent years, but is one of the better tackles in the league when healthy. Especially with the buzz that LA will be switching to a more zone-blocking focused scheme, Bulaga and Turner on the right side should open consistent holes for RBs to find. Much like the Turner trade, I loved this move and think it’ll do wonders to make the team better in 2020.

Signing DT Linval Joseph

Linval Joseph
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Brandon Mebane’s play fell off a cliff in 2019, resulting in his departure from the team early this offseason. In his stead, Telesco brought in Joseph, another veteran leader and mentor, on a 2 year, $17 million deal after he was released by the Vikings. Joseph is much more than a leader, though. He’s a huge plus as a run defender and a massive upgrade at nose tackle, where LA had a ton of free agents depart and were left with young, unproven players.

Adding Joseph will also hopefully open things up a bit more for young tackles Justin Jones and Jerry Tillery, who have had relatively slow starts to their careers as Chargers. Jones was graded by PFF at a 59.2 in 2019, while Tillery came in at an abysmal 35.5. Now, PFF isn’t the end all, be all, but anyone who watched the Chargers run defense in 2019 will tell you that this tracks. LA was pretty solidly middle of the pack in team rush defense statistics. When your pass defense is 5th in the league by yards allowed, though, the standard will be high.

Signing CB Chris Harris Jr.

Chris Harris Jr.
Photo by Dustin Bradford, Getty Images

Speaking of the pass defense, Telesco stole a division rival to help improve it even more. It’s honestly a bit absurd that the Bolts were 5th in passing yards allowed, considering Derwin James only played 5 games and there wasn’t a solid outside corner option next to Casey Hayward. With a healthy James and the addition of Harris, however, LA has a legitimate argument as one of the best secondaries in the NFL.

Harris and Desmond King will probably split outside and slot duties, depending on formation and opponent. Both of them are more than versatile enough to make that work, in my opinion. That leaves Hayward to shadow a team’s best receiver, with James and Nasir Adderley on the back end to clean up any mistakes. In a division locked in an offensive arms race thanks to Patrick Mahomes, building the secondary this way was a master stroke by Telesco. Hopefully everyone stays healthy and it’s enough.

Signing TE Donald Parham

Donald Parham
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There are probably moves that were more impactful than this one, but I wanted to talk about it because I think Donald Parham is fun. We’ll talk about the Hunter Henry situation in a minute, but essentially: there’s no guarantee Henry is back in 2021. Virgil Green is getting up there and is more of a blocking TE anyway. Parham, however, is young (22), giant (6’8”, 240 lbs), and an immediate upgrade over 2019 TE3 Lance Kendricks.

Parham is an XFL alum, having played for the Dallas Renegades. I happened to watch him play live versus the Seattle Dragons on February 22nd. Parham had 5 catches for 101 yards and 2 TDs, and was instrumental in Dallas beating an admittedly lackluster Dragons team in Seattle. The point of me telling you this is that Parham looked like an NFL player, one of the few in that game. I’m confident he’ll stick around, and perhaps even give LA a nice 1-2 punch at TE with Henry.

Also, that was the last ever Seattle Dragons home game and I wanted to reminisce. Sue me.

Franchise Tagging TE Hunter Henry

Hunter Henry
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This one seemed pretty likely from the jump. Henry has struggled to stay healthy, playing in 41 of 64 possible games over his first four years in the league. However, in those 41 games, he’s been stellar: 8.9 yards per target and 17 touchdowns. Again, this circles back to new QB Justin Herbert. Having an established checkdown option like Henry will do wonders for the rookie’s confidence, if he ends up seeing the field a ton. (More on that in a second.)

For what it’s worth, Henry seems set on staying in powder blue for the foreseeable future. Daniel Popper of The Athletic reported that Henry and the Chargers were close to an extension before COVID-19 shut the entire country down. That’s a good sign, even if Henry says he’s not sure how close the two sides are now. If and when Zoom meetings and social distancing become mere memories, Henry should be putting pen to paper to remain a Charger.

New Franchise QB: Justin Herbert

Justin Herbert
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I wasn’t shy about criticizing Justin Herbert during the pre-draft process. He seemed to struggle with pressure, played in an incredibly simplistic college offense, and didn’t get much better from 2018 to 2019. Worst of all, he played for Oregon. Now that he’s a Charger, though, he will receive my unconditional love, because switching fandoms every time a team picked a player I didn’t like would result in whiplash.

It’s honestly a great situation for Herbert, who now is under very little pressure to be good right away. Tyrod Taylor is a quality bridge QB who has the faith of the Chargers coaching staff, leading me to believe he’ll be the Week 1 starter. Whether he ends the season in that role is up for debate, but it at least gives Herbert a bit of time to get up to speed. That’s especially valuable in this new world, where there likely won’t be much of an offseason to get live practice reps. Herbert has the physical tools to succeed as an NFL QB, but he needs a bit more seasoning before he’s thrown in the fire. We’ll have to wait and see, but it’s an exciting future.

Trading Up for LB Kenneth Murray

Kenneth Murray
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Now this I can get behind. I love, love, LOVE Kenneth Murray’s game, as well as the trade up to get him at 23rd overall. The rumor is that New Orleans wanted Murray at 24, which is what drove the price up a bit to a 2nd and a 3rd. I’ll take that all day if I’m Tom Telesco, because Murray plays football like he’s chaos incarnate. That’s both good and bad, of course. He flashes around the field as a true sideline-to-sideline stopper, but his coverage needs a bit of work because he’s just so eager to chase whatever runs by him first.

ESPN lists Murray at MLB, but I don’t think that’s where he’ll end up. It’s more likely, in my opinion, that Denzel Perryman slides into that role while Murray plays weakside. There’s a couple reasons for this, at least in 2020. First off, it allows Murray to play in a more see ball, get ball role, without having to call out responsibilities for his fellow defenders. His instincts simply aren’t far enough along to be able to do that.

Second, it makes the most sense for Murray to be on the sideline for the plays on which Gus Bradley uses Derwin James or Rayshawn Jenkins as a de facto LB. That’s passing situations, where Drue Tranquill and James/Jenkins would be in coverage, rather than leaving a weaker link on the field.

Day 3: Joshua Kelley, Joe Reed, Alohi Gilman, & KJ Hill

Joshua Kelley
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I’m going to lump all of these together for the sake of efficiency, but I was a fan of all of these picks. Kelley, in addition to being Dylan Sanders’ best friend, was one of the best pass protectors at RB in this draft. He’ll pair nicely with Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson to hopefully create a true three-headed monster of a committee.

Reed was probably the most puzzling of these four picks, but only because I had KJ Hill so much higher on my personal board. Swap their draft positions, and I’m all for it. The Virginia product will add some much needed juice in the slot and on returns, effectively serving as a Travis Benjamin upgrade. Look for him to open the season as the Bolts’ primary kick returner and slot receiver, where he’ll likely split time with Hill.

Gilman is a fun depth piece in the secondary. He’s another strong safety/linebacker type player who will likely help fill the void left by Adrian Phillips, who’s now in New England. Telesco also loves Notre Dame players, and picking Gilman reunites him with Drue Tranquill and Jerry Tillery. Expect him to contribute on special teams and make some appearances in dime packages.

Hill should not have lasted until the 7th round, which makes this one of my favorite picks. I thought he was one of the better slot receivers in the draft. He’s reminded a lot of people of Keenan Allen lite, in the sense that he wins primarily with route running rather than any sort of exceptional physical trait. There’s a niche for guys like that, though, and Hill is one of my early favorites for biggest late-rounder impact for any team.

Making the Leap: S/LB Rayshawn Jenkins

Rayshawn Jenkins
Photo by Jay Biggerstaff, USA TODAY Sports

I mentioned that Adrian Phillips has moved cross-country to Foxboro, where Bill Belichick continues to hoard special teams contributors like they’re nuclear warheads. That means someone else needs to step into his role as dime linebacker and third safety in 2020. Enter Jenkins, who’s been maligned by fans for a couple of years but has received serious buzz this offseason.

Gus Bradley has mentioned putting more on the 26-year-old’s plate this season, which excites those willing to look past Jenkins’ tackling issues. “Issues” is probably putting it a bit lightly, but a move from safety down to linebacker might mitigate the impact of those missed tackles, if that’s any consolation. In any case, it’s clear the coaching staff has faith in Jenkins, even if the fans may not, which is why I think he’ll at least get a shot to make a big impact in 2020.

Make or Break: OL Forrest Lamp

Forrest Lamp
Photo by Josie Lepe, AP Photo

One of the only things I want in life is for Forrest Lamp to be good. Unfortunately, it just hasn’t come together for the 2017 2nd rounder, who’s endured a torn ACL and broken leg in his first four seasons in the league. Now, his role is unclear, to say the least. Trai Turner’s arrival means that there’s not a starting guard spot up for grabs, because Dan Feeney was quietly very good in 2019.

His name has been mentioned by both Tom Telesco and offensive coordinator Shane Steichen as a possibility at left tackle, however. Lamp played left tackle for the majority of his time at Western Kentucky, so it’s theoretically possible for him to slide back outside. It does raise a few questions, though. Namely, if that’s the case, why didn’t Lamp play any LT last year when Russell Okung was injured?

Ultimately, the left tackle job may be Lamp’s last chance to find a real role on the Chargers, and that’s assuming he’ll actually be given a fair shake at it. Many think the job will fall to Trent Scott or Trey Pipkins, which makes me nauseous to even think about. I want to believe Lamp can do it. If he can’t, he’ll likely be suiting up in another team’s jersey in 2021.

Early Roster Predictions

Derwin James
Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG

QB (3): Tyrod Taylor, Justin Herbert, Easton Stick

RB (3): Austin Ekeler, Justin Jackson, Joshua Kelley

FB (1): Bobby Holly

WR (6): Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Joe Reed, KJ Hill, Andre Patton, Darius Jennings

TE (3): Hunter Henry, Virgil Green, Donald Parham

OL (10): Trey Pipkins, Dan Feeney, Mike Pouncey, Trai Turner, Bryan Bulaga, Scott Quessenberry, Forrest Lamp, Sam Tevi, Trent Scott, Storm Norton

DL (4): Linval Joseph, Justin Jones, Jerry Tillery, Cortez Broughton

EDGE (4): Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, Uchenna Nwosu, Isaac Rochell

LB (7): Denzel Perryman, Kenneth Murray, Drue Tranquill, Kyzir White, Nick Vigil, Emeke Egbule, Malik Jefferson

CB (6): Casey Hayward, Chris Harris Jr., Desmond King, Michael Davis, Brandon Facyson, Kevin McGill

S (5): Derwin James Jr., Nasir Adderley, Rayshawn Jenkins, Alohi Gilman, Roderic Teamer

Specialists (3): Ty Long, Michael Badgley, Cole Mazza

Final Thoughts

Austin Ekeler
Photo by Kelvin Kuo, USA TODAY Sports

Tom Telesco made it very clear via his actions that this is a retool, not a rebuild. Adding veterans like Bryan Bulaga, Linval Joseph, and Chris Harris Jr. aren’t the type of moves you make when you expect your team to be stuck in the doldrums. Offensively, there are naturally a ton of questions. Many of them center around the QB position, where I think Tyrod Taylor can be effective and lead the Bolts to a decent record while Justin Herbert learns behind the scenes. Austin Ekeler heads into his first full season as a feature back and there’s still no confidence in the left tackle position.

Defensively, this is one of the better units in the league. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram should continue to tear up opposing offensive lines, while Joseph’s presence in the interior will hopefully kick either Justin Jones or Jerry Tillery into gear. The linebacking group is both fun and diverse, but the health of Denzel Perryman and Kyzir White will be big in ensuring a good season from the group. The secondary might be the best in the league, assuming Nasir Adderley is who we thought he was coming out of Delaware.

Realistically, the Chargers likely aren’t going to make the playoffs in 2020. Drawing the AFC East the year Tom Brady leaves New England is nice. Having to play the NFC South, however, is brutal, as New Orleans and Tampa Bay look to be legit contenders. On paper, the AFC West has only gotten better since last year. Still, though, there’s a lot to be optimistic about. 2020 may not be the year for LA, but 2021 may be the first time in a while that the “surprise” team label is seriously warranted, assuming the development of the young talent goes swimmingly.