Ever since Shawne Merriman's career went downhill the Chargers defense has been missing one key ingredient: A consistent pass rush. Shaun Phillips, when healthy, can provide some of that and Antwan Barnes can, in spurts, provide some as well. Both have contracts that expire after next season. The Chargers need to figure out an answer to this problem both for next year and in the long term. One way to answer that may be to bring in a proven pass rusher through free agency. Here is a listing of the top options with a brief scouting report and some pros and cons. Read up and then tell us which one you like.
The surprise #1 overall pick in the 2006 draft. He had double digit sack seasons in 2007 and 2008, and was on pace for another (5 sacks in 5 games) in 2011 before tearing a pectoral muscle. He's an excellent athlete with speed and length. Most of his NFL experience was as a 4-3 DE, but he moved to the 3-4 OLB last year under ex-Chargers DC Wade Phillips. He turns 27 on January 31, which is pretty young for an NFL free agent. Full recovery from the muscle tear should not be a problem. The Texans will consider using the franchise tag on him, but that's a lot of money (and cap space) to commit to him and the team did pretty well down the stretch without him. He won't come cheap, so signing him may cost the Chargers the cap space it would need to keep other players (like Vincent Jackson, Nick Hardwick, Jacob Hester, etc.).
The four year NFL vet picked up his first double digit sack season last year helping the Lions to their first playoff berth since the 90s. He's seen his sack totals increase each year of his career and last year set a career high in forced fumbles. He'll be 26 next season making him, like Mario Williams, a pretty young free agent. He has no experience in the 3-4, but his size and athleticism would indicate that the transition wouldn't be too difficult. As a 4-3 DE, he's a bit undersized and in turn has learned to use leverage against bigger blockers. In the 3-4, his size is similar to other OLBs, but that skill would still come in handy. The Lions will be aggressive in trying to retain him, but a big offer could have him San Diego bound. Again, that complicates the Chargers payroll and could mean cuts elsewhere.
Check out the other 3 options after the jump.
One of the elder statesmen of the 2012 free agent pass rushing class. He'll be 31 when the 2012 season gets under way. He's also one of the most accomplished with 4 double digit sack seasons and 3 seasons where he had 9 1/2. In every year of his career, except in 2010, he had at least 3 forced fumbles. Like Avril he's undersized for a 4-3 DE (he's actually an inch shorter and about 15 lbs lighter), but has made it work. As a 3-4 OLB he'd a tad small, but it shouldn't be a problem for him. One of his strengths is going speed to power where he forces the blocker to back up to account for his speed and then uses strength and leverage to make the final move that gets him to the QB. That sort of pass rushing works great in the 3-4 where you get a running start at a blocker. The Colts are rebuilding and shouldn't provide much, if any, competition trying too re-sign him. That, combined with his age, could make him a cheaper option than Williams and Avril.
The oldest of the pass rushing threats in this year's free agency. He'll be 34 come opening day. He's had 6 double digit sack seasons and 2 where he had 9.5. Early in his career he'd miss a fair number of games due to injury, but since 2007 he's played in at least 15 every year. Like Mathis, he's been a 4-3 DE all his career. He was actually traded from the Jets to the Falcons the year that Mangini took over in New York and switch the defense to a 3-4. He's good at using his acceleration to run around tackles and get to the QB, but if he has to fight off a blocker he loses effectiveness. As he gets older, that speed and acceleration may get away from him and therefore is not a long term answer. The Falcons probably want him back, but that age factor makes any team wary of a long term deal with a fat bonus.
The "bargain" option of the class. He's a former 1st round pick and he played for a number of years in Wade Phillips' defense with the Cowboys. He's 28 years old, so he should have a number of good years left in him. His career high in sacks is 6, which he's done twice and his career high in forced fumbles came last year. His higher tackle totals would tell you that he's been to be more of a complete defender than some of the other players here. He's good in pursuit, he's a good tackler, a little limited in coverage and he's made progress in his pass rushing game. He's most likely look for a team where he can continue to play the position he's familiar with and because the Chargers would fit that bill they wouldn't have to sacrifice too much cap space to get him.