Abysmal. Painful. Overachievers. Frustrating. Laughable. Embarrassing. Confusing. Underachievers. Pathetic. Sieve.
Those were the first 10 words that came to mind when thinking of the Chargers defense over the last few years. The run defense last year regressed to a league worst per DVOA. The pass defense improved from 25th to 22nd(yay go Chargers!) What I see is a handful of good players and a handful of depth players. Defensive end, nose tackle, and both safety positions at this time are being filled by players who shouldn't be starting. The way defensive coordinator John Pagano uses extra defensive backs you could argue that there are 3 safeties since Darrell Stuckey is an after thought at this point.
That leaves the team to fill 4 starting positions this offseason on defense. This is why free agency is very important for a team with this many needs. The common thought is to "add a bunch of depth", when in reality they need starters so the players starting return to their role of actual depth players. I'm very interested to see how general manager Tom Telesco addresses this free agency period because that'll tell us who he has his his eyes on for the draft. Let's take a look at some of the players who I think can come in and help right away.
Shoring up the secondary
Patrick Robinson played very well in his role last year. I thought he played well the year prior but he exceeded my expectations. Bringing him back is a no brainer. During the 1st quarter of the team he was the best cornerback on team. Then Jason Verrett turned the switch on but we'll talk about that guys season another day. For the sake of this piece I'm assuming that Robinson is going to remain a Charger.
As for safeties, there's quite a few good players in the draft but there's just as many in free agency. Eagles safety Walter Thurmond has the range you like as a deep safety and with previous experience as a corner, can drop down in the slot and play corner if need be. He was also a surprisingly good run defender/blitzer considering he's about 190 pounds. Thurmond will come at an affordable price, which is a big deal.
Thurmond isn't quite as physical as current Bengals free agent George Iloka. I was impressed with Iloka's ability to make tackles in the open field.
Sign 1 Boise St safety, draft the other one, & fix your run D & tackling issues. Simple pic.twitter.com/NUFV38KAo8— KP (@The_KP_Show) January 29, 2016
He's no slouch in coverage, either. He can man up on tight ends or play the deep safety role with plenty of range. Iloka is an underrated player. There's no real way to describe him. He's just, good. He won't be cheap, though. Spotrac predicts him to make about $5.6 million annually and with the cap raising I'd expect that to go up a couple million considering he's only 25.
There are a few more names I could speak on, including the Browns Tashaun Gipson. He's going to fetch a pretty penny. From a valuation standpoint, the Cardinals Tony Jefferson is a top 5 safety in this free agent class. He's 24, never missed a game in his career, and is everything you want in a safety. The Bears game is a great example. He split out wide to guard a receiver, he played the single high center field role as a free safety, and walked down in the box as a linebacker.
Realllyyy liked Tony Jefferson as a box safety. Showed a bit of everything. Prob the Best value FA w low RFA tender pic.twitter.com/nlMrJMXoed— KP (@The_KP_Show) March 6, 2016
Jefferson isn't going to wow you with athleticism or blazing speed but he's such an instinctive player. He reacts very well and that makes up for any sort of athleticism he lacks. Not only is he a smart football player but he's a sure tackler. I don't have to sell you on how important that is. The safety tackling last year was atrocious. Jefferson is at his best around the line of scrimmage in underneath coverage or blitzing off the edge and making stops against the run. He is quick enough to beat tight ends to the spot and make plays on the ball in coverage. San Diego was 2nd last in the NFL when it came to stopping tight ends last year per DVOA. Jefferson is a restricted free agent, which means the Cardinals can match any offer sheet he receives on the open market. However, it was a low cost tender($1.71 million) and I would double, more than likely triple that considering what Jefferson brings to the table. My good friend Seth Cox from Revenge of the Birds had this to say about Jefferson.
He's okay coming downhill. He's not good in coverage, but he's more than adequate everywhere else. Basically, he's a strong safety in a free safeties body who moves like a linebacker. He's good if you have an athletic, rangy safety behind him
Changing your identity up front
The identity on the edge is there. Speed an athleticism. That's a great start. The problem is up the middle there is no push. I can't tell you how many times last year I saw teams just double Corey Liuget and whoever the other interior defender on the field was singled up and couldn't do anything. That goes back to the 10 words of "painful." I don't hate Sean Lissemore like some of the fans. He's a depth player that is a prime example of "less is more." While it would be a dream the Chargers don't need to sign a guy that can come in and get 10 sacks. They need defensive lineman that can "reset" the line of scrimmage. By that I mean instead of getting pushed back 3 yards ala Kendall Reyes you reset the line of scrimmage and are playing in the opponents backfield. They also should look to target guys with better quickness. There are a few guys in free agency that I think can help immediately.
Malik Jackson isn't coming. Get that idea out of your head. He's going to be the most sought after free agent and he's going to paiddddddd.
That's okay. Damon Harrison is another popular name. He's fantastic against the run. I'll be interested to see his contract because he doesn't offer much, if anything, against the pass. He leans on offensive lineman mostly and doesn't even push the pocket. I didn't see any quickness in his game. For what he's expected to get, I'd pass.
Now, for some guys that are realistic. San Francisco's Ian Williams surprised the heck out of me when I watched him.
So, Ian Williams, 93, want. Need, even pic.twitter.com/qA9oVFBBXG— KP (@The_KP_Show) March 5, 2016
I was expecting him to be your typical powerful nose tackle that doesn't do much else. Williams not only was impressive at the point of attack but did a great job of locating the ball carrier and finishing plays. Williams played on the other side of the line of scrimmage constantly whether it was beating the offensive lineman with quickness or power. He'd be my ideal target. He played 661 snaps this last year with the majority of them coming shaded over the center. Williams played 103 snaps at the 3 technique and 2 at the 4 technique(refer to chart below.) Thanks to PFF's Steve Palazzolo for those numbers and the rest of the snap counts you'll see.
This graphic is via Kevin Nogle over at SB Nation's Phinsider
Halotia Ngata is a veteran who is still a very good run defender even if he is a shell of his former self.
Kansas City's Jaye Howard is 27 years old and a versatile defensive lineman. Of his 752 snaps, 352 came shaded over the center, 376 as a 3 technique, 20 as a 4/4i technique, and 12 at 5/6 technique. Spotrac expects him to make over $10 million a year. I'm not so sure he's worth that. He is an ox against the run. He also has the lateral quickness to make plays up and down the line of scrimmage, unlike Harrison. He absolteyly abused Denver this past year.
Try to watch FA's vs AFC West opponents & Jaye Howard(96) ate Denver's OL alive. pic.twitter.com/56OuBaKpNV— KP (@The_KP_Show) January 25, 2016
Though Howard has 5.5 sacks, which is pretty solid for an interior offensive lineman, I just didn't see the kind of pass rush skills you'd expect to pay a guy $10 million a year. For the right price, he should be a target. I did get the sense that his pass rushing ability doesn't match up with his sacks, however.
Speaking of pass rushers, that's exactly what the final defenders brings to the table. The Rams defensive tackle Nick Fairley. He's 28. He was only a part time player on the Rams defensive line last year because they're loaded. He has all the athletic ability in the world. He has a meannnnn bull rush but also has the quickness to make lineman look silly off the snap. The talent that made him a high end pick a few years ago is still there.
Maybe the best value at DT in FA. Talent is there. It's an understatement to say Nick played Fairley well last year pic.twitter.com/IyADpfp1UD— KP (@The_KP_Show) March 7, 2016
If Jefferson is the best value as a Safety, then Fairley is the best value as a defensive tackle. He's as talented if not more than anyone on the front 4 of the Chargers.
The last name to keep an eye on is Akiem Hicks from the Patriots. He might've been the smartest player of this group. He did a really nice job of staying square and not getting washed out on double teams. I really like how he located the ballcarrier, too. He's a quicker defender that would help take pressure off of Liuget.
Sign any two of these players and we can refer to the general manager once again as the coupon god. Williams, Fairley, Jefferson and Thurmond all bring the best value. Who do you want to see the Chargers sign the most?