It has been a while now since the Chargers were last among the seriously competitive AFC teams. They have made the playoffs just once in the last eight years, but 2017 saw them get closer than they have in a while.
Kicker problems and bad luck put them in an 0-4 hole that made them look like one of the worst teams in the NFL, but the team rallied behind a strong year from Philip Rivers, a healthy season from Keenan Allen and a deadly pair of pass rushers in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram.
While their bad start was too much to overcome, they finished the season on a 6-1 streak and as one of the best teams in the league. With the AFC West in flux right now the division is there for the taking, if the Chargers can only improve marginally. To do so they have $27 million in cap space and a full complement of draft picks with which to improve their roster. Where should they look to invest their capital?
I’m not saying they should throw their first round pick at the best prospect, but dropping a million or two in free agency might be a wise idea for a team who missed the playoffs thanks to hitting just 66.7% of their field goals.
Graham Gano and Cody Parkey are both free agents and made over 90% of their field goals last year, and are far more reliable than Roberto Aguayo and Nick Rose who are currently on the roster and can be cut without any dead cap money.
After they get their kicker problem fixed, the main place the Chargers need to improve is at inside linebacker. It has been something of a problem for the Chargers in recent years, and while Denzel Perryman has played well in his three years in the NFL he has missed, on average, five games a year, and there is nothing behind him in the depth chart.
There are plenty of veterans available in free agency, but the Chargers could use more help on the coverage side of the position more so than the run-stopping, and that requires athleticism which is not something on offer from the likes of Derrick Johnson or Brian Cushing.
That all means that they are likely to invest heavily in this position at the draft. Roquan Smith is the leading prospect at the position, but with the kind of speed and coverage ability that teams covet he is unlikely to survive until the Chargers get on the clock. A more reasonable target would be Rashaan Evans who can pretty much do it all from the position and could even be a threat to rush the passer from different spots on the field.
Another way to help their linebacker position, especially against the run, is to improve their interior defensive line. There are several stop-gap solutions in free agency like Tom Johnson and Tony McDaniel who can eat up some snaps in the middle, but if they want a more long-term solution then someone like Vita Vea or Da’Ron Payne is a potential first round pick.
However this defensive tackle group is pretty deep, and the Chargers could hold on until the second round and still end up with a talent like Maurice Hurst or Harrison Phillips and feel very good about the outcome.
While the Chargers will get last year’s first-round pick Forrest Lamp back and seem to have found a left tackle solution in Russell Okung they could still use some more help along the offensive line, especially given the $3.7 million saving they can make by moving on from average right tackle Joe Barksdale.
This is likely to be more of a day two/three focus for the Chargers thought rather than a high end investment. There is plenty of talent deeper in the draft, like Humboldt St. tackle Alex Cappa or TCU’s Joseph Noteboom who could end up as upgrades at right tackle for them.
Another spot where more depth and competition could be useful is in the secondary. While Casey Hayward, Jahleel Addae, and Jason Verrett are a strong trio you can always use more defensive backs in the modern NFL. Add in Verrett’s struggles to stay on the field and finding another starting option both in the middle and on the outside should be in their minds heading into free agency and the draft.
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