Having already navigated our way through potential Chargers off-season cuts, as well as which restricted, unrestricted and exclusive rights free agents the team might keep, it’s finally time to get to the second-most popular part of the off-season to any NFL fan – free agency. Because of the number of holes the team has to fill and the number of available options, we’re going to tackle this in two installments, with my top five offensive and defensive free agents, respectively. And, as the title suggests, we’ll be focusing on offense in this piece.
Actually, let me clarify that by saying I’m focusing on my personal top five realistic offensive free agents. What does that mean? It’s simple, really; it means I compiled my list based on team need, how the player fits into the offense, and whether I think the team can afford a particular player. More to the point, it means you won’t be finding Kevin Zeitler or Alshon Jeffery on this list because the Chargers can’t afford them.
With that out of the way, let’s take a look at my top five (realistic) offensive free agents…
Larry Warford, RG (UFA)
Larry is everything DJ Fluker is not. He’s smart, aggressive, physical, technically sound and athletic. He excels in pass protection and as a run blocker because he maintains excellent balance while playing behind his pads, which makes him exceedingly effective at the second level. He gets bonus points for being alert, always keeping watch for the extra defender, and playing mean. Like I said, he’s the antithesis of DJ Fluker.
The primary blemish in Larry’s armor is the fact that his play suffered a little in 2014 and 2015 due to injuries that forced him to miss some time. That said, his stock should be helped by the fact that he started all 16 games and played at a very high level in 2016. You wouldn’t normally see an offensive lineman of his ilk hit the market, but the Lions have a couple guards they drafted in 2016 they’d like to get an extended look at. All this adds up to Warford’s market value being a tick or two below what it should be.
Projected Market Value: 4 years, $31M, $16M guaranteed
Ronald Leary, OG (UFA)
Are you noticing a theme here? Ron Leary is, without a doubt, one of the best interior linemen in the NFL, as evidenced by the fact that he finished the 2016 season as Pro Football Focus’ 21st-ranked guard with an 81.8 overall grade. He didn’t allow a single sack in 2016 and played a key role in the Cowboys league-leading running game. Ron is known for being both technically sound in pass protection and overpowering in the running game.
What makes Leary’s case so interesting is he was one of the best guards in the league while starting 31/32 games for the Cowboys from 2013-2014 only to lose his job to La’el Collins in 2015. Of course, he continued to play at a high level when Collins got hurt early in 2016. He could and probably should be considered the second-best guard on the market, but the fact that he’s basically been a backup for two years could help drive his price down. I think he’ll probably slot in behind Warford and just a tick ahead of TJ Lang.
Projected Market Value: 4 years, $28M, $15M guaranteed
Chris Thompson, RB (RFA)
This selection is probably more a reflection of the offensive free agent class than anything, but Thompson would fill a need for this offense. The 26-year old third down back is one of the better receivers out of the backfield in the league, having caught 84 passes in 29 games played over the last two seasons. He’s small, slippery, has great hands and would be a logical replacement for Danny Woodhead.
I think you get the best of both worlds with Chris, which is to say you get someone capable of approximating Woodhead’s production without tempting offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt to split carries or snaps, as he would be with Woodhead. It also saves the Chargers from having to use a draft pick on a running back, which is an added bonus.
Projected Market Value: 3 years, $3M, $500K guaranteed
T.J. Lang, RG (UFA)
The 8th ranked guard in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus, Lang is an extremely smooth and intelligent guard who excels in pass protection and plays with a great mean streak. He also didn’t allow a single sack, pressure, QB hit, or hurry throughout the 2016 season. TJ plays with a good base and great pad level rarely gets caught off balance, excels at the second level and frequently helps his fellow lineman in identifying blitzes.
The fact that this year’s free agent class is loaded with young, skilled guards hurts the 29-year old Lang’s stock a little, as does the fact that he’ll spend this off-season recovering from shoulder and foot surgery. That said, his remarkable durability (missed 5 games since 2011) should help offset concerns about his age. I think TJ Lang may wind up slotting in behind Ron Leary as the fourth best guard on the market, but not by much.
Projected Market Value: 3 years, $25M, $10M guaranteed
Trey Burton, TE (RFA)
A former quarterback at Florida, Burton is a young, athletic tight end on the rise. Trey saw time as an in-line tight end in 13 personnel packages, as well as a slot receiver on third down, and finished the 2016 season with 37 receptions for 327 yards and one score. He has the speed to split the seam, the size to be a red-zone threat, and offers the added value of being a key member of the Eagles special teams unit. In other words, he checks all the boxes for a team that desperately needs to upgrade special teams and will begin life without Antonio Gates in 12 months time.
I think this is a smart big picture move for a few reasons. First of all, Burton provides quality short-term depth and production at a position that lacks both behind incumbents Antonio Gates and Hunter Henry. Second, he would immediately upgrade the special teams unit. But most importantly, signing Trey would negate the need to draft another tight end in the immediate future and make it easier for the team to promote Jake McGee as a blocking tight end after Gates retires, which really sets the team up at the position for the foreseeable future. Of course, this all changes if the Eagles place a second-round tender on the restricted free agent.
Projected Market Value: 4 years, $12M, $3M guaranteed
There you have it, ladies and gentlemen, those are my top five (realistic) offensive free agents. I think the Chargers would be wise to spend on interior lineman first and foremost because Anthony Lynn’s offense relies on smart, athletic guards and their current in-house options aren’t capable of getting the job done. I also think Chris Thompson and Trey Burton offer a great deal of value as versatile players who would not only be productive but whose presence on the roster would negate the need to use draft picks on their positions in the immediate future.
And I’m sorry to disappoint, but you’ll have to resort to starting a Madden franchise if you want to see Alshon Jeffery, Kevin Zeitler, or DeSean Jackson in lightning bolts. That’s what I think, now you tell me what you think in the comments section…