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What the Chargers can learn from the Chiefs, Part II

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Los Angeles Chargers v Denver Broncos Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

This is the second part of a wordy-piece in which I break down how the Kansas City Chiefs went from 2-14 to the Super Bowl and what the LA Chargers could learn from it. Read Part I first here.

Lessons from Andy Reid, Patrick Mahomes, Brett Veach and the Chiefs:

- If you see your quarterback, get your quarterback.

The truth is that the Chargers are already late on this one. The Chiefs had Smith’s replacement in the wings when he was 32, and while Rivers is better than Smith, he’s also 38. Honestly, Tom Telesco’s done an above-average job with first round picks, so re-drafting those feels a bit hollow and forced, but would you not swap out Mike Williams for Mahomes or Deshaun Watson? It wouldn’t have been crazy! In fact, this 2017 CBS Sports mock draft had the Chargers taking Watson at 7 based on Telesco’s comments at the combine that year:

“We’re very happy with Philip Rivers, and I think he’s got a number of good years left in him,” Telesco said on NFL Network’s Up To The Minute on Thursday. ”We can win with Philip, and we’re happy with him. But since I’ve arrived here, we’ve always done a lot of work on the quarterbacks. You just have to.”

He added: “Even though we have our franchise quarterback, we always have to be looking toward the future. It’s work we’ve done every year. We’ll do work on all the quarterbacks. You never say never. You just never know in this business. You have to be prepared in this business, whether you’re picking at No. 7 or if we trade back, it’s just hard to tell right now. We will scout every position like we don’t have someone there, and we’ll make determinations draft day on what we end up doing. But right now we’re very happy with Philip. He’s the leader of this football team, and we feel like we can win with him.”

Had they selected Watson or Mahomes to pair with new head coach Anthony Lynn, the Chargers could have traded a Pro Bowl version of Rivers following a 9-7 season. Though Rivers would lead them to a 12-4 record in 2018, we know now that Mahomes and Watson are also capable of doing things like that. LA could’ve also had multiple good draft picks in return for Rivers with millions in cap savings.

But all that is now in the past. The lesson Telesco can learn from it is that if the team falls in love with the second-best QB in the draft (assuming that Joe Burrow is firmly locked into Cincinnati’s 2020 plans and beyond), then the concern of giving up future first round picks should take a backseat to the possibility of securing the quarterback position. The Eagles, Rams, and Chiefs have all made the Super Bowl in the last three years with QBs who they traded up for in the draft.

Recently.

If Tua Tagovailoa or Justin Herbert or other seems like “the guy” and he won’t get past pick 3, then maybe it’s not best to hesitate. Philly, LA, and Kansas City weren’t worried about the first round picks they didn’t have when they were headed to the Super Bowl. In fact, first round picks may be — in my opinion — one of the most overrated aspects of the game. Which I understand is a little confusing because I’m saying that a team may need a crucial first rounder, but the Chiefs, Patriots, Steelers, and Seahawks are just a few example teams off the top of my head who constantly move out of the first round. Kansas City has made one first round choice in the last four years: Mahomes. They’ve only picked in the top 50 two other times, selecting Chris Jones and Breeland Speaks.

The Cleveland Browns are a team I can think of that always has multiple.

How’s that going?

- Succession plans

Eric Fisher was there to replace Branden Albert. Mahomes was there to replace Alex Smith. Frank Clark was in the plans when they acquired a second rounder for Dee Ford. The Chiefs had Pro Bowl players at key positions but when they got too expensive or weren’t good enough, new guys were brought in with a chance to succeed in the same environment.

There was no succession plan for Philip Rivers that was put into place before now. No succession plan for free agents like Melvin Gordon and Hunter Henry, though in the case of Gordon, running back can be augmented as we saw with Hunt and post-Kareem Hunt. No left tackle in the wings if you want to replace Russell Okung soon, which you may need to anyway. It can be hard to have good players and good backups/succession plans ... but ...

Kansas City did it. The goal should be to be exceptional, right?

One way to improve on that would be through a series of ...

- Trading picks

If Telesco feels confident in a QB prospect to move up for that’s one scenario, but it should not preclude any GM from the possibility of moving down and adding more picks. In fact while there are examples above of QBs that teams traded up for that have (mostly) worked (to some degree), I think it’s usually smarter to trade down.

In that same 2017 draft, the 49ers traded down from 2 to 3 so the Bears could take not-mahomes-or-watson Mitchell Trubisky, adding two thirds and a fourth; the first third turned into Alvin Kamara for the Saints, while the second third was used to add Fred Warner, one of San Francisco’s absolute best players on the entire roster. Warner succeeded Reuben Foster after his off-field issues ran him out of town.

What if Herbert and Tua are both available at 6? Telesco could just draft one or he could listen to offers from teams that may want a QB — and given the way that the draft order is now, a really good QB prospect could easily fall in this year.

Once you get past the Dolphins and Chargers, what teams desperately need a QB? The teams after them are the Panthers, Cardinals, Jaguars, Browns, Jets, Raiders, Colts, and Bucs. So, assuming that the first of those teams to get a QB will be Indianapolis, why not entertain an offer from Chris Ballard to move down? The Colts could go from 13 to 6 and they also hold Washington’s second round pick because of a draft deal in 2019. In that scenario, LA lands picks 13 and 34 for pick 6, and because there aren’t any QB-needy teams between them, they might get the third-best QB on the board anyway.

Which means that potentially, if the Dolphins don’t draft one, Herbert or Tua could fall to 13. And if not them, there are a couple of other prospects like Jake Fromm and Jordan Love who’ve drawn some first round interest. There’s also no rush to draft a quarterback necessarily and with Indy’s second round pick, in addition to their own at 37, the Chargers could solidify depth and upside at three different positions instead of two.

Including quarterback.

Now, you probably know the problem already ... Tom Telesco doesn’t trade. He especially doesn’t trade draft picks. In the last five years he’s really held onto whatever the Chargers were delivered based on their record. If they want to be more like KC though, they’ll consider making moves and adding depth.

Picks 13 and 37 might also only be the start of a negotiation, as another midround pick or a 2021 day one or day two pick could potentially get mixed in too.

- Trading players

The Chiefs have not been afraid to move assets, even good ones, in return for anything of value. Or of churning the back of the roster with low risk moves that could pay off just in the form of “change of scenery” and scheme fit.

Since taking over as GM in 2013, Telesco has traded away Jeremiah Sirles (for a sixth, which turned into Derek Watt) and Dontrelle Inman (conditional pick that did not convey), while acquiring Cardale Jones for another conditional pick that did not convey. In his THREE trades, he got an interesting QB for nothing and a pick that turned into a full-time, four-season fullback/special teamer.

And yet that sparked no interest in further moves of that ilk. Telesco’s last trade was Inman on October 26, 2017.

Consider that in 2019 alone, deals included Kenyan Drake for a conditional sixth, Michael Bennett for a conditional 7th, Marcus Peters for a fifth and Kenny Young, Jadeveon Clowney for a third and two role players, Carlos Hyde for Martinas Rankin, and Robert Quinn for a sixth. These are just a few deals out of dozens that I’m highlighting because they seemed to work out pretty good. They cost very little.

The Chargers take no shots at deals like this. Not even half-hearted ones and given the rate of players we see go in and out of organizations and the league, what’s the harm in risking a conditional day three pick that is nothing more than a fantasy at this point for a player with some proven NFL tape? Or moving one of your own poor-fit players for a pick that you could then flip or use?

In the last three years alone I’ve seen the Seahawks fleece the Patriots twice, getting Justin Coleman and Jacob Hollister at the cost of a seventh rounder each. If you don’t know where the undervalued players are in the league, you’re well behind the curve.

- Do better on special teams

As noted in Part I, Kansas City has had an elite special teams unit under Andy Reid, while the Chargers have had arguably the worst special teams unit collectively over the last five years with multiple different head coaches. Mike McCoy employed Craig Aukerman as special teams coordinator, while Anthony Lynn has assistant head coach George Stewart and assistant Marquice Williams on that unit. Keith Burns replaced Williams in 2019.

And LA finished 32nd in special teams DVOA.

Stewart’s experience as a special teams coach dates all the way back to the ‘80s with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and I don’t especially like placing too much credit or blame on coordinators in general. But at this point, how could change hurt the worst special teams team in the NFL?

The Chargers had three field goal kickers in 2019 — Chase McLaughlin, Michael Badgley, and Ty Long — with Long also serving as the team’s punter all season. LA was tied with the Cowboys as the 6th-worst punting unit in the league by DVOA, but their worst mark came at kickoff coverage, where they ranked 30th. And the Chargers were more like a “jack of all trades” rather than a “total loser of none” when it comes to what made them so bad on that side of the ball overall.

30th in kickoffs, 26th in field goals and extra points, 28th in kick returns, t27th in punts, 22nd in punt returns.

Among players with at least 10 kickoff returns, Desmond King and Troymaine Pope ranked 33rd and 34th in average return at 20.7 and 20.6 respectively. King averaged only 5.6 yards per punt return despite even having a 68-yard touchdown there.

The Chargers were perfect on extra points, but collectively 26 of 34 on field goal attempts, including 2-of-3 past 50 yards, 6-of-7 from 30-39, but 11-of-17 from 40-49.

How does Los Angeles respond to this? Well, how should any team respond to something they’ve been so terrible at for so long? I don’t know, but they should respond to it.

Final thoughts

How do you emulate what the Chiefs did? Many might just say, “Get Andy Reid” but as you know, the Chargers didn’t do that the last time Reid was available and they aren’t likely going to just find another coach of that caliber. Nor do they need to eradicate the work already put in by Tom Telesco and Anthony Lynn, so long as the people in the front office are willing to acknowledge the differences between successful moves and less successful ones.

Great coaches are hard to find. Emulating great coaches, though easier in theory than practice, is not as difficult of a road to traverse and it’s a much shorter journey.

I’ve never understood why more teams don’t emulate the moves of the New England Patriots rather than simply trying to steal away their coaches and players. If Bill Belichick was done with that player, why do you think that is? If no Belichick coach has been nearly as successful since leaving the organization, why do you think that is?

Because you don’t necessarily need the people, you just need your philosophy.

Acquire more picks, but don’t be afraid to jump at the players you believe you need. And please don’t let that player be a running back.

Be willing to think six moves ahead, including having a succession plan for key players at key positions.

Fix the third unit of the game.

And finally, and this is the most important .... Draft Patrick Mahomes?

Easy. Book it. Done.