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Analysis: How far are the San Diego Chargers from being a playoff team?

What does a playoff team look like? What positions do GM's covet and try to make sure are staffed with top talent? What positions are not highly prioritized? And how different do the Chargers look from teams that made the playoffs in 2012?


Since the NFL expanded to 32 teams, 6 teams from each conference earn a playoff spot at the end of the regular season. This is something that the San Diego Chargers have not done since 2009. What has happened to a team that made the playoffs 5 out 6 seasons in the 2004-2009 run has been well chronicled on this site. Discussions on how to fix the problem usually feature a lot of emotion and far too little clinical analysis.

My idea was to look at the formation of the most recent playoff teams and evaluate significant differences between those teams and the 2012 Chargers. The next step is to figure what changes need to be made to get this franchise back into the post-season.

Method of Analysis

I listed the 22 starting positions of an offense and defense and looked at how the team got the player, through the draft (D), in a trade (T), or by signing the player as a free agent (FA). I then investigated which round the player was drafted in (1-7) and assigned those players that were never drafted an 8 to the "draft round" column for each team. This gave me an average of the talent level on each team, based on draft position. An average of 1 would be a team composed exclusively of first round picks and an average of 8 would be a team made from all UDFA’s.

A UDFA that was picked by their current playoff team was listed as D8; they were selected by the team, but not in the draft. A player that signed a contract with another team as an UDFA and was released or otherwise allowed to walk that later signed with the playoff team after being in the league on another team was labeled FA8. All FA’s were assigned their original drafted or undrafted status for the "draft round" figure.

Going across, I could then see which positions had the lowest values (highest draft picks) to give an idea of where the GM’s for the playoff teams put their attention and which positions were more of a "spare parts" proposition. I normalized for the difference between 3-4 and 4-3 defenses by only averaging the players involved that are unique to their positions (Nose Tackles and the linebackers). There were 6 of each type of defense that made the playoffs last year, so any of the arguments based on 3-4 teams not making the playoffs is simply not valid. (This was one of the first revelations; in the modern NFL, a defense can be successful using either base scheme. Even more to the point, both of the teams in the Super Bowl that crowned the Ravens as league champions use a 3-4 defense.)

You can view the entire spreadsheet here

The Results

The overall talent on the 12 playoff teams did not show too wide of a distribution. The team with lowest average was the 49ers, with a 2.95 average. This indicates that the "typical" 49er player is a 3rd round pick or, to put it another way, the 49ers have held on to more of their first and second round picks than other teams.

The team with the highest average was the Washington Redskins, with a 4.71 round starter average. The Redskins were also the outlier on FA composition; 11 of their starters at the end of 2012 were signed by the ‘skins as free agents. The playoff team with the lowest number of FAs as starters were the Green Bay Packers with 2.

What I found interesting was the average draft choices by position. Yes, QB was ranked fairly high, with a 1.92 average draft round for QB, good for 3rd highest. There was more variation in the AFC than the NFC (3 QB’s were less than 1st round picks in the AFC, two in the NFC). The two positions that ranked higher than QB, was ROLB in the 3-4; all 6 of the starting ROLB’s in the playoffs were former 1st round picks for an average of 1. Combining the 4-3 "Sam" linebacker with the ROLB in the 3-4’s gives a 1.25 average, still good for the most highly ranked draft position on the playoff teams.

The second lowest average (signifying the use of higher draft picks) was at Left Tackle, with a 1.42 average. All of the LT’s for the playoff teams were drafted; none were acquired via free agency. The only two teams without a former first rounder trying to block the defense's former first round picks were Green Bay (5th round pick) and Cincinnati (2nd round pick). It is worth noting that the Packers allowed more sacks than any other team in the NFL last year.

Tied with the QB ranking was "CB1" with a 1.92 average ranking. This was also a position that had one of the highest FA numbers; 6 of the starting "CB1" players began their careers with another team before scoring a nice contract with a playoff team. WR1 was next (2.33), followed by DT (in a pure 4-3) at 2.67, and WR2 (tied with FS) at 2.92 rounded out the top 8 positions. The next two were RT at 3 even and TE at 3.17.

There were a few surprises for me:

  • Centers ranked next to last with an average Draft Round of 6.25.
  • There was no difference between a 3-4 NT and a DT2 in a4-3 defense at 4.5 and that draft round was a lot lower than I thought it would be.
  • Mike LB’s in a 4-3 (3.5) were more highly valued than the Will LB’s (5.0) and all of the other 3-4 LB’s. The 3-4 LB’s, a 3-4 defenses "playmakers", were ranked anywhere from 4.5 to 5.17.
  • Left Guards were more highly prized than Right Guards, 3.42 and 4.33 respectively.

So, What About the Bolts?

Comparing the average draft picks by aggregate of the playoff teams, some real discrepancies show up between those teams and the Chargers. Note the Wide Receivers; Malcolm Floyd and Danario Alexander were good pick-ups, but the model indicates that having one, if not two big gun receivers is a common trait among playoff teams.

The deficiency on the left side of the O-line has been well documented. Based on what the blueprint calls for, the sooner the Bolts get a first round pick plugged in at Left Tackle, the better. Right Tackle also needs an upgrade. The ROLB position, currently manned by Jarret Johnson is under allocated and needs to have Melvin Ingram, or another first round pick take over to match the blueprint. It also looks like the previous GM over-allocated draft picks and free agent signings on the Defensive line and ILB positions.

One final note: RB1 showed a high variation among the playoff teams; for every Adrian Peterson, there is an Arian Foster. While the Bolts have a 1st round pick on the team as their RB1, the production from the RB1 position, for whatever reason, has not matched the team’s investment in him by any objective measure. The same statement can be made for at least one of the team’s starting CB’s last season. While playoff teams do have at least one big gun CB, having two 1st round CB’s is not typical of the playoff teams from 2012. Having two is another over allocation, although that has been dealt with by letting the former first round picks walk. It looks like the team will need to get another top shelf CB fairly soon to match the blueprint.