The San Diego Chargers face a very scary situation in the middle of their defensive line. Cam Thomas, in his first year as a starting nose tackle, has been awful. According to Pro Football Focus, Cam ranks 58th out of 68 defensive tackles that have taken at least 25% of their team's defensive snaps this season.
In addition to Thomas' poor performance, Kwame Geathers has shown himself to be anything but a suitable backup by getting dominated every single time he's stepped on the field. His defensive snaps by game are 13, 5, 6, 0, 0, 4, 1. That's not really worthy of a roster spot, and certainly isn't a comfort to those that understand how often starting nose tackles get injured.
To make the whole thing more complicated, Cam Thomas is an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. His rookie contract, which paid him $1.9 million over four years, will run out and Thomas will get a lot more expensive. Tom Telesco will need to make a decision between clearing cap space and trusting Thomas to be the team's future at nose tackle, or starting over and hoping that he doesn't cripple the Chargers of the near future.
The way I see it, Telesco has three choices next offseason. He can...
- Spend a boatload on a free agent (Randy Starks or Jason Hatcher, both of whom are likely to get the franchise tag anyway)
- Use a 1st or 2nd round draft pick on a nose tackle and sign a mid-level veteran for depth/competition
- Sign Cam Thomas and hope that it all works out.
I guess the fourth option is switching the defense from 3-4 to 4-3, but we won't start talking about that while John Pagano is doing his job well
And plans for next offseason don't change the fact that the Chargers are one Cam Thomas injury from being historically bad on defense this year. I know they're already the worst in the league, but Geathers is much worse than Thomas and nose tackle is a key position in this defense.
The good news is that a solution to all of these problems presented itself. The bad news is that Telesco either wasn't aware of the opportunity or passed on it.
The solution I'm speaking of is Isaac Sopoaga. The big Samoan that started at defensive end and nose tackle for the San Francisco 49ers for five seasons. He just turned 32 years old, he's signed to a very reasonable 3-year, $11 million contract, and he was very much available after finding himself to be a bad fit in the Philadelphia Eagles defense. Sopoaga is ranked 46th out of 68 defensive tackles on PFF this season, but was ranked 26th when healthy in the 49ers defense in 2011.
After losing starting nose tackle Vince Wilfork for the season, the New England Patriots were also in a scary place with their nose tackles. Bill Belichick understands how valuable the man in the middle of the defense is, so he traded a 5th round draft pick to the Eagles in exchange for Sopoaga and a 6th round pick. He essentially moved one of his picks down a round and, in exchange, got a quality starting nose tackle that's signed to a reasonable contract.
San Diego could've made that deal easily. This would've saved the Chargers from spending too much on a free agent, spending too much on Cam Thomas, or having to use one of their high draft picks in hopes of getting a player that would be ready to start right away.
Telesco should've seen what happened with Aubrayo Franklin last season. He should've seen the way A.J. Smith grabbed a player that had succeeded in a similar San Francisco defense for under market value due to poor performance in a new defense. He should've noticed how bad the present and future looks at nose tackle, and he should've bought low on Isaac Sopoaga. This, to me, is Tom's first miss as the Chargers' General Manager. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and say that, due to the trading history between the Eagles and Patriots, this deal happened before anyone else was aware Sopaga was available. Still, I hope that this situation doesn't come back to bite the team in the ass in 2013 or 2014.