This could be King Dunlap's final season with the San Diego Chargers, for two pretty important reasons.
- He has had a lot of concussions. I won't both with "official number of concussions" because that won't be accurate. It's been a lot. It's to the point where every concussion is major, and each game missed due to concussion makes fans, the team, and Dunlap himself wonder if he should even both getting back on the field. He may only be 30 years old but he's probably near the end of his rope as a healthy NFL offensive lineman.
- The team saves a bunch of money if they cut him next offseason. Specifically, they'll save about $13 million cash and about $5 million in cap space next offseason (and nearly $9 million in cap space the offseason after that).
To put it bluntly, King Dunlap is going to need to have a huge 2016 season to convince the team that it would make more sense to keep him in 2017 than release him.
The problem is, the chances of him playing an entire season are pretty low. In four years as a regular starter, Dunlap has started more than 12 games only once (in 2014, when he played in all 16 games with the Chargers). That means he regularly misses at least 25% of the season, and last year he missed more than 50% of the season while dealing with more serious concussions.
I hate the idea that the Chargers might be in "wait and see" mode with Dunlap. Even if he plays well this season, the questions about his durability will remain. It makes more sense to come up with a plan now that benefits both Dunlap and the team this season and makes it easier to say goodbye next offseason.
The Chargers signed Dunlap to be their starting Left Tackle, and he's been good in that role, but when he was with the Philadelphia Eagles he played the role of the "Swing Tackle". That is, he essentially backed up both the LT and RT spots, and could fit in as an adequate starter at either spot.
Last season, the Swing Tackle role for the Chargers was handled admirably by Chris Hairston. The same Chris Hairston that is now being pursued by the Pittsburgh Steelers, who need a Swing Tackle but might also have an open competition for their starting Left Tackle spot.
I don't know that I'd be comfortable with Hairston guarding Philip Rivers' blind side for 16 games, and I don't think he'll turn down the chance to be a starter elsewhere, so I think the Chargers might want to use his departure as an opportunity for Dunlap.
The Plan: Throw Money at the Problem
The Chargers should be looking for a starting Left Tackle this offseason, moving Dunlap back down to the Swing Tackle position where he's a bit overpaid but stands less of a chance of getting a concussion. That would give them elite depth along the offensive line in 2016, something they've lacked for years, and a backup plan in case (insert new Left Tackle here) or Joe Barksdale faces an injury early in the season.
Improving one of the worst offensive lines in recent memory in one offseason is difficult, but possible. The Chargers have already taken big steps forward by adding Ken Whisenhunt, Jeff Davidson, and Dave DeGuglielmo to the coaching staff. However, there are still two big question marks along the offensive line:
- Who will play starting Center?
- Who will play Left Tackle (reliably)?
If you're looking to fix a problem quickly, you're probably better off adding through free agency, which means you're also fixing the problem at full-price instead of a potential savings.
Alex Mack, who should have been a big target for the Chargers, has already signed with the Falcons. There's not a lot left in terms of available Centers in free agency, unless you want to overpay for Stefen Wisniewski (which, for the record, I'd be okay with), so the Chargers may be looking to try to find a Center in the first few rounds of the 2016 NFL Draft.
That probably means that the team shouldn't use it's #3 overall draft pick on a Left Tackle, even if Laremy Tunsil is available there. You can't use all of your early draft picks on the offensive line, after all. Or, at least, you shouldn't.
So, with that in mind, wouldn't it make sense for the Chargers to get involved in the Russell Okung sweepstakes? He's a proven LT that, along with Brandon Mebane, can help turn the Chargers into "Seahawks South" with an aggressive mentality.
It would mean the end of the King Dunlap era, at least as a start, in San Diego. However, it would mean that the San Diego offensive line would be more reliable and ready for a big run towards contention in 2016.