Check out any piece of the written word that attempts to describe why the Chargers fell short of expectations in 2019 and you will likely find some version of “the offensive line was was horrendous” or “Rivers had no time to throw or a run game to take the pressure off.”
At the heart of the fan base’s frustration with this past season, you’ll find a steaming hot mess stemming from the lack of consistency and performance by the hog-mollies up front. Half of the season was played without the most veteran of players in Russell Okung and Mike Pouncey while the team’s 2019 third-round pick in Trey Pipkins was selected as a “project” and not expected to contribute much, if at all, during his rookie campaign.
It’s safe to say at this point that general manager Tom Telesco does not have the green thumb when it comes to drafting and developing offensive line talent. Guys like DJ Fluker and Max Tuerk come to mind when you think of some of the top draft picks used by the Chargers on offensive linemen over the years. Neither are with the team and there could be another one or two guys on the roster right now who will find themselves in similar situations down the road.
Nine different offensive linemen collected a start this season and that’s not exactly a key ingredient in the general success of a team. Regardless of Philip Rivers returning for another season or not, the offensive line will have to be addressed either in free agency or during the upcoming NFL Draft.
In this preview/review of the position group, we’ll take a look back their performance in 2019, how the position groups at this very moment, and what we could potentially see from them going forward into the 2020 season.
Death, Taxes, and the Chargers’ offensive line finishing in the bottom half of the NFL.
The highest that the Chargers’ offensive line has ever graded-out in the last ten years was 18th which, when taken into context, is a hair under below-average. For a quarterback of Rivers’ pedigree, that’s not okay. Rivers needs more time than your typical quarterback and that need has grown exponentially now that he’s in the twilight of his career.
The Chargers weren’t lucky enough to start the 2019 season with their expected starting five due to Okung’s pulmonary embolism he suffered in early June. That forced the team to start Trent Scott at left tackle and hope for the best until Okung returned against the Chicago Bears in late October.
Pouncey was only available through the first five weeks of the season before suffering a neck injury that cost him the rest of the season, and maybe even his career.
The rest of the line consisted of below-average performances across the board from Dan Feeney, Michael Schofield, and Sam Tevi. They received PFF grades of 51.2, 63.6, and 59.0, respectively. For context, 70.0+ is considered average.
When Okung returned to the team, it was understandable he would be on the rusty side. Not surprisingly, he finished with one of the least efficient seasons of his career. In six games this past year, Okung was flagged for five penalties, including three holding calls and two false starts.
During Scott’s stint in the lineup, he was flagged for eight penalties in nine starts, half of those being false starts. His 49.3 overall grade from PFF was the lowest among the entire position group.
Tevi was the highest-graded member of the line that started double-digit contests and he is far from a viable option at right tackle. At least, on an average NFL team. He has always been decent in the run game and excelled when pulled out into space but he hasn’t made as many strides in pass protection as we would all like this far into his career.
Schofield, while not being anything outstanding, has been the most consistent performer along the offensive line over the last two years. He has started 32 of the past 32 games and has just two penalties to his name over that time-span. He’s 29-years old and a free agent this year but the Chargers could stand to retain him if they feel like Forrest Lamp can’t stay healthy enough to be a consistent starter going forward.
As far as Feeney goes, he has failed to bounce-back to form from his rookie season when he was named a member of PFWA All-Rookie team back in 2017. After being a two-time All-American at Indiana and playing both right guard and tackle, Feeney hasn’t been the steal he once seemed to be. He has struggled against interior bull-rushers and finesse specialists, alike. Between Feeney and Schofield, I’d say Feeney’s job is the least secure at this point with Lamp returning from a broken ankle next season.
The current Chargers offensive linemen set to be free agents this offseason are Schofield, Scott, and offensive guard Spencer Drango. There have been rumblings of possibly cutting Russell Okung to save cap room for some of the bigger contracts on the horizon and potentially running Pipkins at left tackle. He made some visible strides in his development as a former Division II player out of Sioux Falls and may be passable in 2020. I understand that’s a stretch, but let’s at least get some use out of a third-round pick after so many years of third-round let-downs.
The team’s 2017 second-round pick in Lamp has still failed to play any meaningful time through his first three seasons and that will likely be on the mind’s of the Chargers coaches heading into next season.
If/when Pouncey comes back in 2020, the coaches will also have to figure out how much they value Scott Quessenberry as a potential starter on this line after playing extremely well in place of the veteran for the latter half of the season. When Lamp comes back, and if the team chooses to bring Schofield back, as well, they will have roughly four players to fit into the two guard spots on either side of Pouncey.
Heading into the NFL Draft, the Chargers’ offensive line is truly more up-in-the-air than most of the fan base thinks. There’s a chance that any position gets a new starter by the start of the season. Whether it’s center, right tackle, or one of the guards, there could easily be one, two, and to a much lesser extent, even three new faces along the front five.
Before we all fall in love with one of the top offensive tackle prospects in this year’s draft, the team will have the opportunity to make some big moves once free agency starts in March.
One of the biggest free agents that could opt to work the market is Redskins offensive guard Brandon Scherff. At 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds, Scherff has a rare blend of size, speed, and strength for an interior lineman. He was the recipient of the Outland Trophy (Best Interior Linemen in college football) following his senior season at Iowa and has been named to the last three NFL Pro Bowls following a lackluster rookie season.
Most will point to the right tackle spot as the bigger area of need, but the interior didn’t fare much better following the losses of Mike Pouncey and Forrest Lamp. Dan Feeney obviously regressed and Michael Schofield was just “fine”.
A player of Scherff’s stature should be coveted highly and he fits just about every scheme out there. He will make those around him better which is why my heart isn’t 100% set on snagging a tackle with the sixth-overall pick.
As far as the draft goes, the top tackles the Chargers should be looking at are Georgia’s Andrew Thomas, Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs, and Alabama’s Jedrick Wills. All three are outstanding prospects with their usual pros and cons.
Thomas is a protypical tackle with the length and agility you want in a cornerstone blindside protector. Wirfs is about as physically intimidating as they get with limbs resembling tree trunks combined with a nimbleness not often seen in 320-pound men. Wills, on the other hand, is much more of a technician with his play. Scouts have him anywhere between number one and number three at his position so there’s a shot he’s not even available at six.
As far as the current group goes, the only ones I can see potentially not coming back are Pouncey (neck injury), Scott (not good), and Ryan Groy unless Lynn still loves him from their days in Buffalo together.
If I had my way, the offensive line next year would look a little something like this:
LT - Okung
LG - Forrest Lamp
C - Pouncey
RG - Scherff
RT - Rookie OT (Thomas, Wirfs, Wills, etc.)
Who should the #Chargers draft with the number 6 pick?— PFF LA Chargers (@PFF_Chargers) January 16, 2020
I’m aware that this is EXTREMELY wishful thinking, but after Lynn’s first losing season, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him make some moves out of urgency.
Heading into next season, I would absolutely love to feel confident in saying that this group should be improved and have some sort of a bounce-back year, but that has just never been the case. Until some major renovations are done, I don’t see the Chargers’ offensive line being anything more than a disappointment in 2020.