The previous Chargers regime found out the hard way what happens when you don't extend players in-season. Those players leave via free agency, and your team pays the price. This was the case with a handful of ex-Chargers, including Vincent Jackson, Darren Sproles and Louis Vasquez. Of the three, it was believed that they each would take a "hometown discount" and stay with the Chargers. I understand Vasquez, but not the other two, not after the success and rapport they each developed with then star quarterback Philip Rivers. This is the real world, where money talks, and sometimes you have to fork up that money when you're building something special.
The past extension blunders had me thinking, who should the Chargers extend in 2014? Who is so worthy that they shouldn't even be given a chance to test the market? The obvious answer is Donald Butler, he's molding into a very special linebacker and is on the verge of a breakout year. So, I thought about who might be the second most important player to extend soon.
There are currently twenty players on the roster with contracts that expire at the end of next year, so the Chargers are likely in store for another high turnover year much like the current offseason. Five of those players are going to start in 2013, so that helped narrow it down. I'll throw out some hypotheticals of what Tom Telesco could possibly do this season, and you tell me who the Chargers would be better served to give a contract extension to.
As of today, Thomas is the only Nose Tackle on roster who has ever played a snap for the Chargers. It's him and a pair of undrafted rookies for now. The pressure is huge for Thomas to produce this year, but if he can build off of last season, I see no reason why he can't continue to be a force anchoring the middle of the Chargers' defense.
Thomas' first three years in the league didn't provide him with much opportunity to showcase his skills full-time. He was buried in the depth chart behind veterans Antonio Garay and Aubrayo Franklin, who were very good in their own right. Last year, Thomas made the most if his opportunity. Towards the latter part of the season, Thomas really proved his worth and was as disruptive as anyone along the defensive front, showing that he indeed is the answer to anchoring the Chargers defense for years to come.
Areas For Improvement
- Fighting Double Teams
- Winning at the Point of Attack
- Pass Rushing Moves/Using His Hands
Fighting Double Teams
Let me start off by saying that Cam Thomas isn't awful against the run, he's just not as good as his predecessors. He's still very green at Nose Tackle, and I fully expect him to improve in each of the areas listed above as he gains more and more experience.
When it comes to fighting double teams, there were times in 2012 when Thomas stood straight up and took himself out of the play. As you know, this can't happen. I saw this next example a few times, here he is against Tampa Bay in Week 10, where he gets driven back 2 yards on a double team.
That can be fixed with coaching and more experience, but it still needs to be fixed.
Winning at the Point of Attack
Another issue I noticed was that he needed to win at the point of attack, specifically in the run game. There were times where the offensive lineman got his hands on Cam first, and handled him pretty well.
It's not a quickness issue, because Thomas showed us last year that he can shoot the gaps with relative ease and beat lineman off the ball. For me, I think it's more about effort. This next example against the Jets in Week 11 shows you exactly what I'm talking about.
Nick Mangold is good, but it should never be this easy in the NFL. This effort was a direct result of a 12 yard gain. It was in the 1st quarter, so it's not as if he was tired. There were a handful of low-effort plays I saw when watching Thomas. You can get away with that in college, but not at this level.
Pass Rushing Skills
That example leads perfectly into the next area where Thomas can, and will improve. All too often Thomas won by shooting the gap, or just flat out bull rushing the Guard 4 yards into the backfield. That's good, but eventually you're going to have to use your hands and win with a counter move. This shouldn't be a problem for Thomas to develop, he just needs more real game action.
Danario Alexander proved last year that when healthy, he's fully capable of being one of the top 10 Wide Receivers in the game. Only two other players averaged more yards per catch than Alexander,(one of those being VIncent Jackson) only three more receivers had more touchdowns than he did over the course of the second half. His numbers would have been better had it not been for a few head scratching drops, or Philip Rivers under throwing him on a few deep balls. He can play, we now know that.
Areas of Improvement
- Press Coverage
I thought about adding catching the ball with his hands more, but that's nitpicking, it hasn't affected him yet, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.
The problem I do have when watching Alexander is that he struggles getting off the line of scrimmage. For a guy that is 6'5 200+, this should be a piece of cake, right? Wrong. There were times last season where Rivers couldn't even attempt to throw it to Alexander because he was still caught up in a hand fight, trying to beat press coverage. This is the one thing holding Alexander back from being very good (when healthy) He really seems to get out of sync when the defensive back gets their hands on him, which is unusual for a guy his size.
I know, this has been beaten to death. He's had 5 knee surgeries and hasn't played full season in the NFL yet. This upcoming year could be where he truly cashes in, or could be his final audition as a pro. That's why I'm so intrigued by this: Does a full season mean he's free off his injury history and it's time to sign him to a long term contract? He turns 25 in August, the sky is the limit for a guy with this much talent. He just has to stay healthy and do it for a longer period than 10 games.
Let's say that this year Cam Thomas improves his run dense, not to where he becomes all-world but to where it can be justified that you don't take him off the field other than to catch a breather. Let's say that in 2013, Cam gets about 25 tackles, but anchors the defense well. He has 6 sacks and is noticeably pressuring the quarterback each game. Remember, he's only 26.
Alexander on the other hand continues where he left off last season, for the most part. He finishes with 58 catches, right around the 875 yards, 8 touchdowns, but he misses 3 games due to injury. Would that be good enough for him to get an extension?
Which player should the Chargers extend?
For me, this is a lot tougher than it seems. If you don't have a Nose Tackle, you don't have a 3-4. With no Nose Tackle, there's no Donald Butler. Luckily, Thomas happens to be on the verge of becoming a very good player. I think it's important to build continuity along the defensive line, and extending Thomas would give the Chargers a very young, flexible, and talented front 7 for many years to come.
Alexander is incredibly talented and he's certainly the more sexy pick here, but long term it's too risky to depend on a guy when you know he's always a play away from being done for the year. Yes, that's the case for anyone in the NFL, but it's clear that Alexander has a much greater chance of re-injuring himself than the average player.
I think the Chargers should extend Cam Thomas over Danario Alexander if they had to choose between the two. What say you Charger fans?