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23 Apr 2013

Rebuilding the Chargers Starts With Offensive Line

Guest column by Mike Ridley

Just a few short years ago, the San Diego Chargers were a 13-win team, a perennial playoff contender boasting one of the most talented rosters in the league. Today, they’re a franchise hitting the reset button after (finally) parting ways with six-year head coach Norv Turner and longtime general manager A.J. Smith.

Since 2009, the Chargers have seen their win total steadily decline from 13 to eight. During this time, the team has regressed while the division has improved. They went from competing against the likes of Kyle Orton and JaMarcus Russell to facing off against Peyton Manning and Alex Smith (although Football Outsiders’ Andy Benoit calls the latter "just a guy"). A division that used to be won with anything resembling a .500 record now features one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, a successful head coach in Andy Reid, and, well, the Oakland Raiders. The Chargers are no longer the prohibitive favorite to win a weak division; they’re now a rebuilding project.

The quickest way for the Chargers to rebuild this offseason would be by improving their offensive line, which surrendered 49 sacks last season, fourth-worst in the league. The team also ranked 27th in the league in rushing last year with a paltry 91.3 yards per game. It comes as no surprise that the Chargers decided to either cut or not re-sign six of their offensive linemen from last season, with a seventh, in Jeromey Clary, likely to be cut, as Benoit noted. Those seven linemen were credited with 22 of the 49 sacks allowed last year, per Football Outsiders’ game charting project. The fact that Louis Vasquez, who was not credited with a sack allowed in 2012, was the only one to sign somewhere thus far should surprise no one.

Chargers Linemen by the Numbers, 2012
Offensive Lineman Games Started Sacks Allowed+
L.Vazquez* 16 0
T.Green* 13 1
N.Hardwick 16 2
R.Hadnot* 3 2
R.Wells* 2 2
K.Haslam 3 4
J.Gaither* 4 6
M.Harris 9 9
J.Clary 14 11
*-No longer with team
+-”Coverage sacks” not included in total

Unfortunately for Chargers fans (and Philip Rivers’ health), the players brought in to fill these voids leave much to be desired. San Diego signed King Dunlap and Chad Rinehart to replace Clary and the departed Vazquez. Dunlap has notable flaws and, according to our game charting, was credited with 6.3 sacks allowed last season. He will team up with Mike Harris to provide one of the worst tackle tandems in the league. Rinehart, while serviceable, is a sizeable downgrade from what the Chargers lost in Vazquez.

Even with the lack of talent the Chargers have on their line, they still can see improved statistical play from their front five with better health and continuity. Last year, San Diego was tied for last in the league in Football Outsiders’ Offensive Line Continuity Score, with a score of 22 out of 48. The Chargers used nine different starters on their offensive line and never had the same starters for more than three games in a row. The line, already having a dearth of talent, was further burdened by never being able to become cohesive as a unit. This lack of synergy made a bad line even worse. While offensive line continuity score isn’t a definitive marker for offensive line play (the Jets scored a perfect 48 of 48, yet allowed 47 sacks), teams with a competent quarterback and a higher OLC score tend to have a more efficient offense. (Cut to Jets fans nodding their heads solemnly.)

This is why San Diego's main focus needs to be improved offensive line play. Rivers is still one of the more capable quarterbacks in the league, but because he moves like a Mack truck in Los Angeles traffic, he needs a sturdy line to help keep him upright. As the offensive line continuity score has eroded from 33 to 28 in the last four years, his sack numbers have increased from 25 to 49. This follows a steady decline in both his quarterback rating and ESPN’s Total QBR rating. Rivers’ 40.6 Total QBR for 2012 was easily the worst of his career since ESPN started tracking the stat in 2008 -- it placed him 31st in the league, one spot behind the beleaguered Blaine Gabbert. Let that sink in for a moment. A major reason for this low ranking was his sack EPA (expected points added), which was third-worst in the league. Having a better line will not only help lower his sack EPA, but should also reduce his interception total and lead to a decrease in his league-leading fifteen fumbles as well.

The benefits of improved play upfront would be three-fold for Rivers and the Chargers: improved play by Rivers, fewer turnovers, and more offensive opportunities. Rivers has a tendency to panic when constantly pressured. His mechanics falter and his accuracy drops, leading to more incomplete passes and turnovers. If Rivers could reduce his interceptions and fumbles by half, San Diego would be looking at an additional fifteen offensive opportunities to score some points, or about one per game. For a team that lost five games by seven points or less, that could easily be the difference between 7-9 and 10-6.

In the NFL today, quarterback play is the biggest key to success. Talented rosters are no longer able to overcome the woes of their quarterbacks. Take Reid's Chiefs. The talent level at many of the skill positions is among the league’s best -- Kansas City had six Pro Bowlers -- but flaky quarterback play plagued both their 2012 seasons. The Chargers may not have the overall talent level that they did four years ago, but they still have a roster and quarterback capable of competing for a Wild Card, if not challenge Denver for the AFC West crown. This will only happen if Rivers returns to prior form, and that can only be obtained by improving the offensive line.

Mike Ridley is an FO intern, and the co-host of the Simply Awesome Sports podcast on Oregon Sports News. He's also an author for the Hour of Power Show blog. You can follow him on Twitter @hourofpowershow.

If you have an idea for a guest column that takes a new look at something football-related, send us your idea at info-at-footballoutsiders.com.

Posted by: Guest on 23 Apr 2013

28 comments, Last at 27 Apr 2013, 7:28pm by Scott C (unable to log in)


by speedegg :: Tue, 04/23/2013 - 12:20pm

Totally agree. With Rivers being as mobile as a tree trunk, you'd have thought AJ Smith would've drafted more O-Linemen instead of trading up for a HB.

by Ferguson1015 :: Tue, 04/23/2013 - 12:38pm

HB was needed for Norv's Offense, but I do agree that they needed more depth on the OL. Then again who would have guessed that 2 career ending injuries would hit two Probowl caliber players in the same season, on the same side of the line.

by commissionerleaf :: Tue, 04/23/2013 - 2:21pm

HB is never a position of need. There are always 15 halfbacks on the street who can contribute 90% of what a good halfback contributes. Ronnie Brown is a great case in point. Even better, sign a big-school halfback without the physical tools to be drafted early in the 7th round or so.

I am of the opinion that an NFL team is almost never going to be poorly served taking at least one offensive lineman in the first three rounds. Probably a DL too. The fact that linemen are at least partially fungible (and on the defensive side, more substitutable) makes good injury insurance more valuable than for other positions because a team is more likely to need it.

And if you end up with three tackles you'd like to have on the field, chances are one of them can back up at guard, too. Which means you're insured against injury at four positions, rather than just one.

The Chargers should be taking the best tackle if there is still one of the top 3 available when they pick, and otherwise the best guard in the first round. Chance Warmack would have been a good Norv guard; don't know about their new system.

by speedegg :: Tue, 04/23/2013 - 3:06pm

Disagree with you on that. Norv Turner's offense attacks deep, but is more run-oriented than people think. He's a very base offense kind of guy and usually goes 3-wide when he has to.

His kind of offense needs a foundation back (Trent Richardson, Adrian Peterson, Emmitt Smith, etc). Unfortunately, when the foundation of your offense gets old, goes down with injury, or the O-line can't block, they had problems.

by Scott C :: Wed, 04/24/2013 - 2:09am

Disagree -- it needs a RB that can pass protect, and run. That doesn't mean a first round pick. A 2nd or 3rd round talent or backup will do. Just look at what Norv did with Tolbert (UDFA) + Sproles (4th round). Both those guys are great examples of what AJ Smith and Norv did right at times -- finding value late in the draft, then coaching it up and using it; and what was wrong -- letting go of good value, assuming that you needed more and could replace both with one person (Matthews).

LT-quality all-around RBs (protect, run, catch) that last more than 4 years only comes along once every 10 years in this league. The chargers should have taken a OL instead of Matthews and most of us knew it the moment it happened. A CB might have been fine too. Pick the RB later, and hope for a Turner (3rd round), Tolbert, or Sproles.

by speedegg :: Wed, 04/24/2013 - 1:33pm

Yes that is true, all teams need a RB that can pass protect, run, (and catch). If your team's foundation is built on the pass (Eagles under Andy Reid, Patriots with Brady + Moss and Welker, Saints with Brees and Bush/Sproles) then you can take a complimentary RB and make it work.

Sproles isn't that good in power or Iso-lead runs. Tolbert isn't elusive or agile enough to force defenses to key off him. Not sure if both would be on the field for all 3 downs or could take 25-30 carries a game. Both are two complimentary players for a Norv Turner offense.

For a Norv Turner offense to work, you need a foundation back. That's the foundation of your offense, so he's has to be on the field for all 3 downs. That HB has to be able to run power, counter, break tackles, etc as well as pass protect and catch. Most of the time you'll be in base personnel (2 backs, 1 TE, 2 WRs), so the threat of the run is as important as the deep ball. That kind of offense would need a back like Trent Richardson, Ladainian Tomlinson (in his prime), Adrian Peterson, or Eddie Lacy.

No coach would compare Sproles or Tolbert to Peterson or Richardson and there's a reason for that.

by JonC :: Wed, 04/24/2013 - 9:48pm

I agree with speedegg here. Norv's offense was not a good fit for LT because it asked him to pass protect, which he was initially horrible at, and improved somewhat. Often Norv would pull LT on obvious passing third downs, unless they split LT out wide, which was not often. I remember many a game seeing Sproles lined up next to Rivers in the gun with Brandon Manumaleuna on the other side. There were lots of complaints when SD still had Sproles about Norv's unwillingness to put both he and LT in the same packages. Whether it made sense to draft Mathews is another story, but Smith also traded up for Jacob Hester because he thought Hester could be made into Moose Johnston.

by Scott C (unable to log in) (not verified) :: Sat, 04/27/2013 - 7:20pm

You don't get it. You don't have evidence.

Norv's offense worked JUST FINE with Tolbert + Sproles. I'm not comparing either one to Tomlinson, I'm saying that a combination of backs works fine in the Norv offense. It doesn't need a three down back, and it operated just fine with a rotation when Norv didn't have a foundation back.

I have proof, you do not. I have the Chargers, using Sproles, Tolbert, and Matthews in different roles and downs, with a decent offensive line and TE and WR injuries all year long (Gates, VJ missing most of the year), leading the league in yardage and #2 in scoring:

You have words: "For a Norv Turner offense to work, you need a foundation back."
I have evidence. What Norv needs is an offensive line. There are many 5+ step drops in the passing game and a reliance on the run game that requires consistent ability to not be stuffed.

by NeoplatonistBolthead (not verified) :: Tue, 04/23/2013 - 5:07pm

The problem wasn't the team's drafting strategy. It was an inability to find insurance for one position. Had they not had the hubris to go into the regular season with a UDFA rookie left tackle, they might have been a playoff team.

by Ferguson1015 :: Tue, 04/23/2013 - 12:35pm

I disagree with a few points here. First of all, Clary may be a below average OT, but he is much better than Harris. So if Dunlap is replacing anyone, it is him (unless SD drafts a LT in early rounds). Second, you need to take into account both scheme and talent other than QB and OL. Concerning scheme, two things need to be taken into account about Norv Turner's Offense that didn't do the OL any favors. First, Norv requires his QBs to take a lot of five and seven step drops and relies on a lot of deep routes run by receivers. Second, for his scheme to work he needs to have a consistent running game. Because he didn't, it cut down on maybe a third of his plays (anyone wonder why he went to Cleveland with a young, talented RB and elite LT?).

As for talent, SD's secondary and Linebackers need to be upgraded and the Offense could use a lot more speed to work in Whiz's Offense. I still think Rivers can return to elite form, but for now the Offense is going to need to change in order for him to be effective

by Anonymousse (not verified) :: Tue, 04/23/2013 - 1:40pm

"Last year, San Diego was tied for last in the league in Football Outsiders’ Offensive Line Continuity Score, with a score of 22 out of 48. "

This is one of my problems with FO: you keep running with things like "offensive line continuity" when in the original article, it was clearly debunked in the comments.

Good lines stay continuous. Continuous lines don't get good.

by Scott C :: Wed, 04/24/2013 - 2:18am

Continuity itself isn't going to make things better, no.

But fixing the root causes of discontinuity will.
-- better players, fewer injuries

by collapsing pocket (not verified) :: Tue, 04/23/2013 - 2:20pm

Unfortunately for Chargers fans (and Philip Rivers’ health), the players brought in to fill these voids leave much to be desired.

Pity the new management didn't draft anyone in the 2013 draft to fill these gaping roster holes. That was really an oversight which is going to hurt them.

He will team up with Mike Harris to provide one of the worst tackle tandems in the league

Which they already had with Clary and Harris last year, and as bad as Clary was Harris was worse. No way they can continue with Harris as as starter (or even a backup), regardless of what they do with Clary. Clary MIGHT be cut, but at this point he's a safer bet to be in the starting lineup next season than Harris is.

by Scott C :: Wed, 04/24/2013 - 2:21am

That depends on the cap situation. Clary may need to be cut to save money to use elsewhere. I'm sure they would rather keep him than Harris if cap space is not an issue. Whether it is by the time the season starts we'll have to wait and see.

by Scott C :: Wed, 04/24/2013 - 2:24am

Eric Winston would be a big upgrade over Clary, and cost about as much in cap space. I wonder why they are thinking of him as a backup rather than starter vs Clary?


by Scott C (unable to log in) (not verified) :: Sat, 04/27/2013 - 7:26pm

Well, they drafted their new starting RT, the best RT in the draft, and some say in the last few drafts.

Assuming Fluker turns out to be a great RT, and Troutman becomes a decent guard, LT is still an issue but there might be some free agents worth bringing in after cutting Clary to free cap space. The LT merely needs to be average quality to be a huge upgrade.

by SD (not verified) :: Tue, 04/23/2013 - 3:05pm

Clary continually gets beat, Von Miller abuses him. TWO good tackles are key for playing in the AFC West with him and the KC pass rushers. Don't be surprised if they draft O line with their first 3 picks

by NeoplatonistBolthead (not verified) :: Tue, 04/23/2013 - 5:14pm

I'm thinking only 2 such picks. I'm guessing the OL will either be:
A: Johnson, (Troutman or 2nd day pick), Hardwick, Rinehart, (Dunlap or Clary or 2nd day pick), or
B: (Dunlap or 2nd-day pick), Rinehart, Hardwick, (Cooper or Warmack), (Dunlap or Clary or 2nd day pick).

by Scott C (unable to log in) (not verified) :: Sat, 04/27/2013 - 7:28pm

Looks like:

C: Dunlap or other FA, Troutman, Hardwick, Rinehart, Fluker.

by Ferguson1015 :: Tue, 04/23/2013 - 7:56pm

Von Miller abuses a lot of Tackles. Clary actually handles Justin Houston on KC very well. His trouble is with athletic speed rushers. His game is all based on technique and he uses that to try and compensate for his lack of athleticism.

by theslothook :: Tue, 04/23/2013 - 3:34pm

I know the offensive line is terrible and all - but unusually - the line was pretty bad in 2010 and Rivers was still putting up huge numbers. Something drastically changed in 2011 and 2012 that really is bizarre. I really haven't watched the chargers enough to say one way or another, but I suspect the simultaneous decline in antonio gates also had a ripple effect on the rest of the offense. Since Vjax left(and Aj smith's hardball tactics) - the receiving core is really nothing special. I like floyd fine as a number 2(possibly a 3) and don't really know what to make of denario alexander at this point.

by NeoplatonistBolthead (not verified) :: Tue, 04/23/2013 - 5:10pm

In 2010, Rivers had a "Rivers" receiving corps, with guys like Seyi Ajirotutu and (sometimes) Vincent Jackson. He also had a much, much better line than the 2012 version, it just wasn't what it had been from '06-'08, so it seemed "bad" then.

by collapsing pocket (not verified) :: Tue, 04/23/2013 - 6:45pm

There's a difference between mediocre and worst in the league.

2010 line: 38 Sacks allowed, adjusted sack rate 6.8%, ASR 19th in the league.
2012 line: 49 Sacks allowed, adjusted sack rate 8.9%, ASR 32nd in the league.

The 2010 line had Dielman for the whole year and McNeil for about half the year. The 2012 line had neither.

by Ferguson1015 :: Tue, 04/23/2013 - 7:59pm

2010 was not a terrible OL. That was the year LT McNeil and WR Vincent Jackson held out. It was below average while McNeil was holding out and above average when he came back. What 2010 really illustrated was that Rivers doesn't need an elite OL, he just needs at least a below average one.

by Scott C :: Wed, 04/24/2013 - 2:32am

It was also the year that Rivers was throwing to WR's that had been packing groceries the week before. He threw to something like 17 different receivers that year, with most of the good ones injured for most of the year.

Don't forget that Darren Sproles left too.

Rivers needs:

A decent, but not great o-line -- preferably that is at least average at screens and pass blocking.
A mediocre or better running game.
A couple players that are dangerous in multiple formations/looks to set up mismatches (e.g. Sproles, Gates)

by Anonymous55 (not verified) :: Wed, 04/24/2013 - 12:40pm

convinced no offensive wizardry can fix the Chargers. Even Mike McCoy. Depends on how Rivers responds to the system. He's not a reclamation project like Vick was so there remains hope. I think he will fit in well but usual bad turnover and choke habits will creep in like Tony Romo.

by OP Bolt (not verified) :: Wed, 04/24/2013 - 3:04pm

Tackles - 28 of the 37 sacks allowed (75.6% of the sacks). LT (15 of 37 - 40.5%) and RT (13 of 37 - 35%). While you don't need All Pros at these positions (although we got used to that with McNeil), the Chargers absolutely need to reduce the LT sack total. If King Dunlap were to give up 6.3 sacks allowed in 12 starts in 2013, in all honesty that is a good statistical improvement, even if Harris started the other 4 games and gave up 4 sacks allowed. That would drop the LT total by about 33%. With Clary remaining at RT, it is hard to see how the Chargers can get the RT sacks down below the current total. These numbers alone show why improved LT and RT in the draft, or post-draft FA are critical.

Guards - 7 of the 37 sacks allowed (18.9% of the sacks). LG (7 of 37 - 18.9%) and RG (o of 37 - 0%). The problem with assessing improvement is that the starting LG (13 games with only 1 sack) and the starting RG (16 games with zero sacks), have both been released. The replacements (before the draft) do not appear to be improvements (based on their past starting history or lack of starting history). So at this point it is hard to imagine that the sacks allowed from the Guard positions won't be higher than last year, which puts even more pressure on upgrading the tackle positions.

by Annoying Username (not verified) :: Thu, 04/25/2013 - 12:31am

Very good guest column. FO has some really good talent!