Salute Magazine’s Exit Interview series examines the status of each NFL team heading into the offseason, along with their free agents, team needs and more. Click here for the rest of the exit interviews. Up next: the Los Angeles Chargers.
It may be difficult to imagine, but the Chargers could be a darkhorse candidate in the AFC next season if everything goes right for them. The fact that they went 9-7 in Anthony Lynn‘s first season as head coach suggests they’re trending upward.
However, they need to lessen the disconnect they have regarding the run and pass. For the latter, the offense was tops in the league through the air, highlighted by the connection between Philip Rivers and Keenan Allen. On defense, the cornerback trio of Casey Hayward, Trevor Williams and Desmond King were tremendous, boosting the unit to third in the NFL in pass defense.
It was the complete opposite on the ground. The Chargers defense was second-to-last against the run, while the offense was 24th in rushing yards. Lessening the gap in 2018 will make them Amore balanced as a team.
Next season might be the last true opportunity they have to make some noise though. Rivers is 36 years old, so his time in the league is running out. Keeping the corners together past 2019 will be difficult money-wise. Same goes for Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram as an elite pass-rushing duo.
But with the shape the AFC West is in, the Chargers could find themselves at the top of the division. The Oakland Raiders have a new coach, while the Kansas City Chiefs will be essentially going with a rookie quarterback. The Denver Broncos may end up doing the same.
There’s no better time than now for the Chargers to step up. The only thing holding them back is inconsistency. Once they correct the small mistakes, who knows how far they could go?
Current number of draft picks: 7 (#17 in the first round)
Cap space: $32-33 million
Notable free agents
Antonio Gates, TE: What else can be said about Gates? He’s one of the best tight ends of all time, evidenced by his breaking of the all-time touchdown record at the position this season. Still, he’s clearly trending downward, only catching 30 passes for 316 yards and just 3 touchdowns in 2017.
Moreover, having Gates around took time away from Hunter Henry, who’s on the verge of fully ascending to the elite tier of tight ends in the NFL. Gates will turn 38 in June, and after 15 seasons, he only has so much left to give. If he wants to keep going, the Chargers will most likely transition him to a clear #2 role behind Henry.
Matt Slauson, G: Slauson has been a pretty solid guard since entering the league in 2009. He averaged a 77.9 grade from Pro Football Focus during that time. However, he wasn’t as strong in 2017, playing in just seven games before suffering a biceps tear. In that span, he didn’t allow a sack but did let up 12 pressures. His run blocking was especially poor, only getting a 39.9 from PFF.
Slauson will turn 32 in a couple of weeks, and while the Chargers may opt to go with their younger guys at guard, he could still find work as a short-term option for another team. He’s capable of playing center as well, so maybe the Chargers will bring him back in that role.
Tre Boston, S: After three decent seasons with the Carolina Panthers, Boston got surprisingly cut back in May. The Chargers gave him a one-year, prove-it deal, and he responded with his best year as a pro.
He led the team in interceptions with 5, was second in total tackles with 79 and was third in pass breakups with 8. While his run defense could be more consistent, it’s clear that Boston, who will turn 26 before next season, could easily keep growing as a player. With the Chargers getting Jason Verrett back though, they may end up moving King back to safety next to Jahleel Addae, leaving no spot for Boston.
Korey Toomer, LB: With a PFF grade of 80.3 in just 266 snaps, it’s fair to wonder what is keeping Toomer from a full-time role. Given how crowded the Chargers are at linebacker and the way they utilize them, it might be best for him to latch onto another team. He could be a cheap signing with a high ceiling.
Jeremiah Attaochu, DE/OLB: Same goes for Attaochu, though his situation is a bit different. While he had a solid sophomore season in 2015 with 6 sacks, the Chargers moved him to a reserve role once they drafted Bosa. As a result, he played just 59 snaps and had no sacks in 2017. Attaochu has the potential to break out if he heads elsewhere.
T: After years of injury troubles, left tackle Russell Okung was able to play all but one game in 2017 and performed very well as a result. However, given his history, the Chargers could decide to look for an heir apparent soon. Right tackle Joseph Barksdale didn’t play particularly well anyway, and two of the backups, Chris Hairston and Michael Schofield, are free agents.
G/C: The plan was to go with rookies Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney at right guard and center this season, but that didn’t end up happening. Lamp tore his ACL in training camp and missed the rest of the year, while Feeney didn’t get a start until after Slauson got hurt, playing shakily at left guard afterward.
With Slauson and backup Kenny Wiggins going to free agency, the Chargers have some decisions to make on their interior offensive line. Lamp is likely to play at right guard once he’s healthy, but what do they do with Feeney? Will he play at left guard or center? Will they keep Spencer Pulley as a starter if Feeney goes to the former? Is re-signing Slauson an option? Decisions, decisions.
LB: Linebacker could be argued as the only relative weakness for the Chargers on defense. Even then, it’s not in terrible shape. The team went with a steady rotation in lieu of full-time positions, however. Five guys got regular time at the three starting spots, with uneven success. Out of the two who had the most snaps, Jatavis Brown was solid, while Hayes Pullard wasn’t as good.
The other three, Toomer, Denzel Perryman and Kyle Emanuel were somewhere in between. The former is a free agent and could find a better role with another team. While the Chargers could easily stick with the remaining guys on the roster, bringing in a three-down linebacker could work wonders too.
DE: Bosa and Ingram are an excellent one-two punch at defensive end, but with Attaochu likely to leave in free agency, there aren’t many productive reserves currently on the roster.
RB: Melvin Gordon continued to be a solid starter at running back, but the team doesn’t have a lot below him on the depth chart. Branden Oliver is a free agent, leaving Austin Ekeler as the only backup for Gordon.
TE: Veterans Gates and Jeff Cumberland are both free agents, so the Chargers don’t have much in the way of experience behind Henry. A steady #2 tight end works well in the offense they run. If Gates holds off on retirement though, he’ll most likely fill that role.
K: The Chargers had all sorts of problems at kicker this season. They went with Younghoe Koo to begin the season over incumbent Josh Lambo, but Koo flamed out after just four games. Nick Novak returned for seven games before going to injured reserve with a back injury.
The team initially went with Travis Coons as a replacement before deciding to bring in Nick Rose for the final two games. Rose missed three of his nine kicks during that stretch. With Novak heading to free agency, the Chargers are stuck with Rose and future/reserve signee Roberto Aguayo as their kickers, and neither looks like a reliable option for 2018.
Best player/building block
Casey Hayward, CB: Much of the acclaim for cornerback play this season went to the duo of Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye in Jacksonville, or alternatively, the two rookie cornerbacks who broke out, Marshon Lattimore and Tre’Davious White. But it could easily be argued that Hayward was the best in football this year.
PFF agrees with that sentiment, giving him the highest grade (96.4) of any corner in 2017. The raw numbers back this up as well. Hayward had 4 interceptions and 22 pass breakups, the latter leading the team and tied for second in the NFL. The Chargers have him at a very affordable salary for one more season. They should try to extend him ASAP.
Hunter Henry, TE: Henry is another PFF favorite. He was the second highest graded tight end in 2017 at 88, behind only Rob Gronkowski. This despite the fact that Henry essentially split time with Gates, yet he was still able to get 45 catches for 579 yards and 4 touchdowns. Imagine what he’ll be able to do in a full-time role.
NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers