After last season, it's almost difficult to even imagine feeling optimistic about the San Diego Chargers' offensive line. They were just incredibly awful and completely sunk any chances the team might have had to be successful last year. That said, today we turn our attention to the reasons for optimism along the offensive line.
1. Michael Harris will not be asked to start at left tackle
In 2012, the Chargers were forced to start an undrafted free agent rookie at left tackle. Harris played right tackle at UCLA and wasn't highly regarded coming out of school. He was the third string tackle behind both Jared Gaither and Brandyn Dombrowski both of whom were injured for most or all of the season. Harris' weakness as a pass protector forced the coaching staff to provide him with the help that previously would have been provided to Jeromey Clary on the right side. Thus he managed to weaken both sides of the line simultaneously. The team went 7-9 despite this enormous weakness. Knowing that Michael Harris likely won't play any important snaps for the 2013 Chargers is reason for optimism.
2. There are five legitimate starters
Unlike last season, this year's offensive line has real, NFL-quality players slated to start at each spot along the line. The jump in quality from Harris to Max Starks, Jeromey Clary to D.J. Fluker, and Tyronne Green to anyone not named Tyronne Green is simply enormous. While the starting guards aren't yet known, it's because there is an abundance of players capable of starting at offensive guard on the roster. This is quite a change from 2012 when there was one starting caliber guard on the roster. When healthy, the offensive line should be average or possibly better. That's not the most optimistic statement of all time, but I'm personally relieved to know it.
3. There is real depth
Tyronne Green could not make this year's team as a backup if he were still here. Michael Harris may very well not make this year's team as a backup. King Dunlap, Jeromey Clary, David Molk, Chad Rinehart, Colin Baxter, Johnnie Troutman and Rich Ohrnberger are all passable at worst. Some are already proven commodities and others have untapped potential. The line resembles A.J. Smith's stated philosophy of lining guys up three deep and letting them battle it out for snaps. It's too bad Smith had to be fired for that situation to exist along the offensive line.
4. D.J. Fluker looks like a mauler
As I stated after he was drafted, D.J. Fluker makes a lot of sense for the Chargers. The primary reason for that is that he represents a massive, massive upgrade as a run blocker. He's a huge, powerful player that plays with a relentlessness and a mean streak. You can't have enough players like that on your offensive line. He has all of the intangibles you could want in a player, but they're actually coupled with the tangible qualities needed for those to matter. He's playing out of position in the sense that he could plug in at guard right now and be a potential All Pro, but that doesn't mean he can't be an adequate to above average player at right tackle as a rookie and he hasn't hit his ceiling yet. Pro coaching could go a long way.
5. Coach D'Alessandris
"There's none better than Joe D'Alessandris; zero, zilch," said Mark Kelso, a former Buffalo Bills safety. Near as I can tell, Coach D is among the best offensive line coaches in the game. Buffalo, where he coached previously, made a drastic turnaround. They went from being one of the worst lines in the NFL to one of the best in fairly short amount of time. As it happens, the San Diego Chargers were among the worst lines in the NFL and we're all hoping D'Alessandris can repeat the trick he pulled off in Buffalo. His record suggests he can. A fresh take on the o-line isn't the only coaching change that could pay off for that unit, though. The McCoy/Whisenhunt offense will almost certainly feature fewer seven-step drops than the Turner offense did and that will also go a long, long way toward concealing the weaknesses that still exist upfront.
Conclusion (sort of)
After looking at both the positives and negatives for this unit, overall I feel pretty good about the offensive line going into 2013. I should qualify that by explaining that pretty good, for me after 2012, means "close to average." Last year's team would have killed for an average offensive line, and it looks like we'll get to watch one that is very close to that if not much better.