Far and away, the biggest weakness in Tom Telesco drafts have been his offensive lineman selections. Harboring an elite quarterback with limited lateral mobility and scrambling ability, there was no position of greater importance during the Telesco/Rivers era than that of the five big boys up front. Rivers was well known for elevating the play of any receiver the Chargers tossed on the field... but he was at his worst when he was forced to make blocking assignment calls in lieu of a capable center or when he didn't have a stout interior that allowed him to climb the pocket after his drop-back.
Chris Watt, Max Tuerk (rest in peace), D.J. Fluker, Forrest Lamp, Sam Tevi, Dan Feeney, Scott Quessenberry, Donovan Clark. They all have two things in common : they represent the entire field of offensive lineman drafted by Tom before the 2021 draft, and none of them made it to their second contract. To pour further salt on the wound, only one of them went on to boast at least a season as a starter on another team.... although that journeyman's career is a far cry from meeting an 11th overall pick's expectations.
There is one player I did leave off of that list, as he is the subject of our discussion and we have yet to see if he'll be retained for his second contract. After all, Trey Pipkins was a 3rd round pick we knowingly drafted as a project, so shouldn't we be basking in the claims that he finally came into his own at the end of his third season? Can we appreciate that maybe Tom's plan all along has worked, and we have a serviceable in-house starter at right tackle, with Storm Norton waiting in the wings as our battle-tested swing?
No. No, we can't.
Trey Pipkins Original Scouting Report
I don't want to bring up Trey's scouting report as a means of ridiculing Telesco. I'm of the camp (and we all have our own opinions on this), that drafting is a very difficult job and Tom's "batting average" is on-par with most other GMs... he just handicaps himself by routinely having less at-bats. But hey, he's directly responsible for the amount of trips to the plate he gets so when you factor all variables together, you can certain conclude that Tom's ability to build a complete, balanced, and deep team through the draft has been lackluster.
But diving deep in weeds on Tom's roster building is for another day... a day that actually already passed, which you visit by taking a look at my article on the role of compensatory picks in roster building.
Anyway, we should revisit what was widely acknowledged when Trey was drafted so we can build an idea of his progression since. Let's start with the positives:
- He is described by himself and scouts as "nasty," possession a finisher's mentality.
- He was credited with above-average athleticism, featuring explosion out of his stance and exceptional movement in space
- His football IQ appeared solid, showcasing an ability to read and pick up stunts and adjusting to second-level defenders to make impactful down field blocks.
- Lastly, he seemed to posses a near-prototypical physical profile for the tackle position.
- There was a concern that Trey had dominated against lower-level D-II talent, and hadn't truly been tested yet.
- Although his tape showed a finisher's mindset, his playing strength was the biggest concern amongst teams and became evident during the NFL Combine when he only put up 16 reps on the bench press.
- Trey's technique in nearly all facets needed serious refinement, as he appeared very raw and possessed poor hand placement and timing.
Pipkins as a Charger - Camp Battles
Pipkins has been with the Bolts for three years, essentially giving him three off-seasons of camp battles. Let's look at how he did in each to measure if "iron sharpened iron" or if Pipkins has simply been a dud.
Year 1 (2019) - Just Finding a Place - Scott/Tevi vs Pipkins
The Chargers had a reliable left tackle in Russel Okung, and believed Sam Tevi was capable enough to hold the right tackle position. Such starters afforded them the luxury of picking a "stash-and-develop" prospect like Pipkins... until Okung went down in training camp with a pulmonary embolism and suddenly the team was trotting out Trent Scott as their starter. Ultimately, the team had one of it's worst bouts of the injury bug; a line boasting two Pro-Bowlers and an All-Rookie player was reduced to clumsy rubble, and forced the Chargers to occasionally start a player they had hoped wouldn't see the field in 2019. Trey ended up more-or-less starting 4 games (games with 30+ snaps), and "only" allowed 4 sacks, 6 hits, 5 hurries, and 15 pressures on a 165 passing-snap season. Just to establish a baseline... Slater allowed 4 sacks, 6 hits, 16 hurries, and 26 pressures in 752 passing snaps.
It's worth noting that the Chargers placed Pipkins behind Sam Tevi, a two year vet drafted in the 6th round, and Trent Scott, a player with one year experience and a UDFA, on the depth chart. Even with other inexperienced options abound, none of which were a Day 2 pick or greater, Pipkins was the last resort.
Year 2 (2020) - Battle for Left Tackle - Tevi vs Pipkins
Pipkins had a legitimate chance to earn the starting left tackle spot in 2020 when Okung was shipped to Carolina for Trai Turner. Here, you can see MP's analysis of Pipkins at the time. I'm not including that link to critique anything MP said with the benefit of hindsight; I rather think it's a great reference point that shows what most of us were feeling at the time. Trey had been exposed in his rookie year by solid pass rushers, but (per MP and Tyler Schoon, who are two solid analysts) was seen as a decently effective run blocker.
We know how this ultimately resulted; Tevi beat out Pipkins for the spot, and signed with the Colts the next year to a contract on-par with an average swing-tackle cap hit (2.5mil), with an opportunity to win a starting tackle spot. Tevi tore his ACL, and remains a free-agent today. He's only 7 months removed from the injury, so it's not fair to assume his free agent status is indicative of his playing ability... but it should be noted he didn't earn starter-caliber money on the open market a year after winning the Charger's starting left tackle spot.
At the time - and this says more about how terrible our offensive line was pre-Staley - Tevi was seen as one of our more solid offensive lineman in 2020. However, his PFF score was a lowly 52.9, as he allowed 2 sacks, 9 hits, 22 hurries, and 33 QB pressures... and he was a much more effective pass blocker than run. Pipkins nearly earned starter-volume reps as Bulaga couldn't stay healthy the majority of the season; in 357 snaps, we allowed 5 sacks, 3 hits, 19 hurries, and 27 pressures. His pass blocking efficiency percentage rose from a lowly 93.5 to a still underwhelming 95.1. To help relate this figure to players fresh on our minds, Linsley, Slater, Schofield, Aboushi, and Feiler posted efficiency scores of 99.3, 97.9, 97.7, 98.6, and 97.8 in 2021, respectively. Storm Norton graded out at 94.9... which gives you a great comparison.
Year 3 (2021) - Battle for Right Tackle - Pipkins vs Storm Norton
If you're in my camp on this topic, you fully believe the Chargers knew it was unlikely that Bulaga would start more games than he missed in 2021, and we quietly had a denial-induced right tackle battle happening in camp. Trey Pipkins was once again battling a UDFA in Storm Norton, and once again failed to grab hold of the starting role once Bulaga went down. Storm finished the season with a 60.2 PFF rating... but his pass reps accounted for a 44.7 rating, and although I haven't dug into his tapes, I think his 75.5 run blocking rating might be a tad inflated from his supporting cast.
All in all, Trey's opportunity to showcase what he could do in a low(er) pressure scenario was last season; Bulaga was the penciled-in starter, and Trey had an opportunity to come in and impress by doing a yeoman's job and not allow the right tackle position to be our biggest liability. Instead, he lost to Storm, and let him be the guy we blamed for our woes!
Breaking Down Trey's 2021 Play
Before Trey's two starts, he accumulated 27 snaps spread across 6 games. The frustrating part of his low-snap count were the penalties he accumulated early in the season. In week 2 against the Cowboys, it was a facemask on a field goal attempt. In week 3 against the Chiefs, it was a false start. In those games, he had a total of 13 snaps, and committed two impactful penalties.
At that point, many Charger fans saw his occupation of a roster spot as a net-loss for the team - regardless of cap penalties incurred if he were to be cut.
Trey was given two chances to start later in the season, both times in place of a starter who was placed on the COVID list that week (Storm technically was removed off the list the Saturday before the Denver game, but the team stuck with Pipkins likely because of the in-week game planning Storm missed).
In those starts against the Chiefs and the Broncos, Pipkins earned a grade of 71.0 and 73.3, respectively. Many pundits and fans believed that these games were a turning point for Pipkins; in the tail end of his third season, he had finally boasted quality starter reps that could justify his role as a proficient swing tackle in the NFL, perhaps with the ceiling of an eventual starter.
A closer look at the tape indicates that nearly all of the pre-draft concerns around Pipkins are still true today, and the "positive" performance had much more to do with the low level of competition Pipkins was playing against
Broncos vs Chargers
The Broncos arrived at Week 17 as prepared for the glue factory as they were a regular season game against a team in playoff contention. Teddy "The Bridge" was in concussion protocol along with inside linebacker Kenny Young, and four additional starters were out with COVID, along with their defensive line coach. The Chargers had dealt with a COVID outbreak of their own, but managed to keep their core largely in-tact.
The table was set for Pipkins to feast. On paper, it looks like an above-average start. On film, it was a painfully slow, low-level battle between a handful of players that would be fortunate to maintain journeyman careers in the NFL.
The below video is a quick run-through of a few back to back plays, that essentially represent the baseline of what the majority of the passing reps looked like. Trey Pipkins engaged with Malik Reed for the majority of his snaps, and Reed gave a very uninspired effort... typically trying to beat Trey around the edge. Reed rarely actually attempted a pass rush move, and his 235 pound frame didn't provide much opportunity to test Trey's strength.
You'll also here me call Storm "Storm Pipkins," which wasn't intentional... but might have been a Freudian slip of how I perceive them.
Note: As I mentioned, I'm a novice and still understanding blocking schemes and how offensive lineman would prioritize a mismatch in blocking assignments. Steve details in the comments below that lineman are often taught with prioritizing the inside rusher who has the shortest route to the QB. So if it's a mistake on my part for thinking Pipkins should have done something to slow down the DB's in their blitzing, please forgive me!
An interesting thing to note from both the Broncos and Chiefs game was if a DB blitzed from the edge, Pipkins was going to be blind to it. If you want to beat Pip, all you have to do is send a stunt his way to make him bring his eyes and feet inside, and send a DB right around him. You'll get a guaranteed free hit on a quarterback that is soon to reset the market.
Here's a nauseating clip.
It's always worth looking at plays where you know, I know, he knows, she knows where the ball is going, and how well players execute their assignments. Check out how well Pipkins performs when backed against his own endzone, matched up against a replacement-level player.
Multiple times in the Broncos game, you would see Schofield have a veteran presence of mind and help Pipkins by engaging a player while moving on to his assignment. You see this in action, albeit in a less-impactful example, below as Schofield comes out of his stance with his arms extended towards two different Broncos players, until he arrives at his target. Stephen Anderson has a very difficult assignment and a lot of ground to cover to get to his target, who is lined up directly in front of Pipkins. Despite this, Pipkins moves to his assignment without any attempt to assist his teammate.
There were many plays that ultimately looked like what you'll see below. For a player that graded out as having great explosion and ability to seal off linebackers at the second level, I am repeatedly surprised at how often Trey flat out whiffs in space.
All in all, the Broncos game saw Pipkins primarily matching up with Malik Reed (undrafted free agent in 2019), Dre'Mont Jones (3rd round pick in 2019), and Shamar Stephen (7th round pick in 2014). Their PFF scores for the year were 55.9, 57.8, and 49.5, respectively. This game had shades of Trey Pipkins in college - essentially giving him a opportunity to feast on lower-level competition... yet he failed to truly capitalize by dominating these players.
Chiefs vs Chargers
This game was another injury-riddled contest, where the Chargers were forced to play without their Godsend rookie left tackle Rashawn Slater, and Trey Pipkins was given his first starting opportunity of the season in his stay. This felt like a disaster waiting to happen, with Storm Norton and Trey Pipkins establishing what was likely one of the worst offensive bookends in the league at the time, and the Chiefs having a well-above average defensive front. Luck struck for the Chargers when Chris Jones hit the COVID list halfway through the week, making the pass rush threats of Melvin Ingram and Frank Clark much more palatable. Although Clark appeared to be a shell of his former self, scoring a 54.3 PF score in 2021, Melvin Ingram had actually been enjoying a productive season playing alongside the best interior player of his career in Chris Jones. There was plenty of reason to believe that without Jones to wreck game plans, both of these threats could be managed.
Pipkins scored in the low 70's again, but time and time again he appears to have been buoyed by stellar play around him. The video below shows how an elite QB and great supporting cast can elevate the perception of a tackle's play.
The following video shows the standard pass rush attempt Trey faced. There were hardly any creative rush concepts thrown his way, and Trey often still failed to inspire confidence. Although this pass rush is technically a win, it's another example of a battle I believe is a big loss against a better edge rusher.
Here's another example of Pipkins demonstrating the dominance at the second level his pre-draft scouting reports mentioned.
The below play is probably Trey's best run block of the night, however, it didn't come without my share of concerns. Below you'll see what I liked about the play, but you'll also see something that immediately concerned me, which ended up coming up again later in the game.
A little later into the game, the type of "trip" I was concerned about happened, although Trey was still able to get to his assignment.
Conclusion - What Should Pipkins Role Be?
After watching that less-than-stellar tape, let's revisit Trey's scouting report, and make notes on what we saw. Keep in mind, this was against below-average starters in both games:
He described by himself and scouts as "nasty," possession a finisher's mentality.
I hardly saw any plays where Pipkins was the dominant player towards the end of the snap. Not only did he hardly knock someone around or overpower his opponent, the majority of his wins seem to come at the hands up a quick QB release or help from his teammates.
He was credited with above-average athleticism, featuring explosion out of his stance and exceptional movement in space
Trey does have a great slide-step coming out of his stance. His problem routinely is the lack of power in his upper body to knock edge rushers off balance or gain a "push" in run defense. His movement in space, especially at the second level, appears to be average at best but certainly not a strength he's going to build a starting resume around.
His football IQ appeared solid, showcasing an ability to read and pick up stunts and adjusting to second-level defenders to make impactful down field blocks.
Trey bit too hard on stunts that teams would scheme a blitz around. He doesn't appear exceptional at "looking for work" but rather is going to stay zero's in on his assignment. This wasn't exploited, but I believe would be if he started more consistently and teams game-planned around him.
Although his tape showed a finisher's mindset, his playing strength was the biggest concern amongst teams and became evident during the NFL Combine when he only put up 16 reps on the bench press.
This couldn't be more true. I don't see anything on tape that indicates his playing strength is acceptable to start games against a respectable opponent.
Trey's technique in nearly all facets needed serious refinement, as he appeared very raw and possessed poor hand placement and timing.
His lack of strength is certainly not hedged by above-average technique. Time and time again, he overcommits his body to compensate for his lack of punch and leaves himself unbalanced or out of position for the remainder of the play. His hand technique doesn't assist his lack of functional strength, and he struggles against almost any move that isn't a basic speed rush attempt. I don't believe I saw him successfully counter a single spin attempt.
His Role for 2022
Storm Norton is on a non-guaranteed tender, and cutting Pipkins would free up $965,000 in cap space (effectively saving the team 200kish when considering his replacement on the 53-man roster.
I believe either one of these players is too big of a liability to be relied upon to start games, whether as a projected starter headed into the season, or as the swing tackle. If this team is series about a Superb Owl run, they need to be serious about depth. There are many right tackles in free agency that could be signed very cheaply that would be much better starters, and exceptional swing tackles should we decide to draft a right tackle in the draft.
I do not see value in Trey Pipkins and Storm Norton occupying a roster spot at this point, yet alone two. I would prefer to see a free agent signed, and a player drafted. I would only keep Trey or Storm as our swing if the drafted tackle was drafted late and lost an open battle between Trey, Storm, and the player. I don't believe either Trey or Storm will be valued on the open market at a price that will net the Chargers a compensatory pick, and as such, are better off our roster and replaced by more NFL-capable talent.
Let me know if you believe my take on his tape was overly critical, and if you think his time with Duke Manyweather may correct many of these problems!