Who Will Protect Justin Herbert?
By: Zac Alfers
Entering the 2021 season, the priority for the Los Angeles Chargers must be to protect franchise quarterback Justin Herbert. General Manager Tom Telesco has $23.8 million of cap space (9th most in the NFL) and should invest the majority of that money to fix the offensive line. Last season, the Chargers OL was the worst ranked unit in the NFL, allowing Herbert to be pressured on 27.6% of his drop backs. Regardless of how talented a QB is, he can only do so much when playing behind blockers who can’t block. We all remember what happened to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansa City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV. Fortunately for Herbert and the Chargers, there are plenty of FA and draft prospect options to choose from.
First, let’s take a look at some of the in-house options. Veterans Trai Turner (RG) and Bryan Bulaga (RT) were brought in last season to help solidify the right side of the line. Each suffered multiple injuries over the course of the 2020 season and their play, when they were healthy, was underwhelming. Turner is a prime candidate to get cut following a STEEP decline in his performance. Doing so frees up $11.5 million in cap room, in this case, more money equals less problems. Bulaga will most likely be brought back and at the very least, as an 11-year vet, can coach up the younger players. LT Sam Tevi, LG Forrest Lamp and C Dan Feeney are all free agents and honestly, I think all three return. The organization has shown a deep commitment in these three player’s developments, for better or for worse the Bolts love these guys. I don’t mind bringing these guys back, but I’d feel more comfortable if they were limited to backup roles.
Below, I rank my top five offensive linemen for the Chargers to target this offseason in order to improve in the trenches.
New England Patriots guard Joe Thuney would immediately help expedite the Chargers OL remodel with his ability to play anywhere along the line. This versatility is extremely valuable especially when you consider the number of injuries the Bolts have experienced the past couple of years. Thuney doesn’t have any apparent weaknesses in his game and has established himself as one of the best RGs in the NFL since entering the league in 2016. His biggest strength is his pass blocking and has only allowed three sacks in his last 1,243 pass-blocking snaps. Thuney is as reliable as they come and would be a HUGE offseason signing for the Powder Blue at a position of need.
Another big splash singing the Bolts could make would be to ink Packers center Corey Linsley to a multi-year contract. Linsley is an extremely gifted lineman who was a First Team All-Pro selection as well PFF’s top-ranked center in 2020. He is a very disciplined, high-character guy who can help uplift any locker room. Against the run, Linsley didn’t allow a single tackle for loss while playing in Green Bay and was just as effective in the passing game, posting the third-lowest blown-block rate (0.6%) at his position. Bringing Linsley to L.A. will also reunite him with his former teammate Bulaga.
If the Bolts decide to address the O-line through the draft, Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater provides a multi-talented option for the team to consider. Slater spent most of his career at LT for the Wildcats, but many draft analysts expect him to bump inside at the next level. Despite what position he plays; Slater combines his polished fundamentals with his freakish athleticism and projects to be a wrecking ball in the NFL. At 6-4, 315 pounds, it’s his speed that jumps out the most when looking at his tape. He has the explosiveness to burst into the second level in the run but also has the quick feet to stick with speed rushers on the edge. If by some draft day miracle Slater falls, the Chargers should jump all over him at No. 13 overall.
USC product Alijah Vera-Tucker is another athletic lineman to be considered with the Chargers first-round selection. Like Slater, Vera-Tucker offers tremendous versatility after spending time at RG, LG and LT over the course of his Trojan career. He moves impressively well for a lineman and his elite footwork will make him extremely difficult to beat in pass-protection. Vera-Tucker is a capable run blocker as well and projects to be a great scheme fit for L.A.’s zone-blocking ground game. I think his skillset will be best utilized from the guard position however, AVT does have the size (6-foot-4, 300 pounds) to play tackle in the NFL.
It is prime mock draft season and the player I’ve seen linked the most to the Chargers at No. 13 is Christian Darrisaw. The former Virginia Tech standout is explosive out of his stance and has the length and athleticism to keep edge rushers at bay. In 2020, Darrisaw allowed just six total pressures on 267 snaps in pass-pro. That means 2.2% of his drop backs resulted in a QB pressure, truly elite numbers. He’s no slouch in the ground game either, as Darrisaw uses his massive frame (6-foot-5, 315 pounds) to swallow up defenders and blow them off the ball. Darrisaw is one of those prospects that teams have varying opinions about but I think he’s well worth a first-round pick.
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