Justin Herbert’s contract extension is cause for celebration, but it also presents a challenge for how the Chargers move forward with a tightened salary cap budget. In honor of Herbert’s six-year extension, below are six process-oriented goals that should significantly improve the Bolts’ on-field results.
1) Ditch the “basketball team” archetype, embrace a “track team” receiver room
Justin Herbert inherited a receiver room built to his predecessor’s strengths. While Philip Rivers wasn’t celebrated for his arm strength, he certainly didn’t shy away from the deep ball and loved throwing to those hard-to-reach places only a 6’5” receiver gets to.
Herbert grew up watching Rivers, but he’s an entirely different quarterback with an entirely different skill set. While he’s not the emotional leader Rivers is (tense intended, Rivers is undeniably lighting a fire under his high-school team in retirement), Justin’s arm leaves nothing to be desired. No part of the field is unreachable; the further he throws, the more accurate he appears.
Keenan Allen’s crisp route running and separation skill paired perfectly with Philip’s accuracy and timing. Mike Williams fit the bill of a souped-up Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd remix. Both receivers would be impact additions to any receiver room, but neither invite Herbert to try and overthrow them or otherwise tap into the full potential of his arm strength.
While the Chargers don’t need throws like the one above to be a weekly highlight, Herbert’s effortless deep ball should be built around. A track-team receiving core that doesn’t tip-off the deep shot, as Jalen Guyton’s presence does, would aid in some of the rushing efficiency issues that plagued the Lombardi years. It would also create additional space for short route concepts, whether it’s Allen or Joshua Palmer dissecting gaps in coverage or Darius Davis carrying speed through a drag route.
The recent additions Quentin Johnston and Davis could very well be a step in the right direction toward this premise. If Johnston is faster on the field than his testing suggests, the pairing of him and Davis would be the exact dynamic playmaking component to get Herbie “Fully Loaded.” However, the Chargers shouldn’t stop there; as last season showed, you can’t have enough depth at the receiver position... especially depth that brings speed and play-making to the field.
2) Identify a “center of the future,” preferably sooner rather than later
The Chargers had trouble replacing Nick Hardwick following his retirement in the 2015 offseason. Mike Pouncey was signed in 2018, and the Bolts vaulted into the playoffs in his first season. After injuries bounced Pouncey to the IR and ultimately out of the league, the Chargers once again failed to secure a solid center, and another postseason appearance, until Linsley came on board in 2021. Two winning seasons and a playoff berth followed.
Centers are the lowest paid position on the offensive line, but there’s an argument for them being the most important. They carry the burden of making adjustments and calls at the line, often identify the MIKE, and ultimately guard the most direct path to the quarterback.
The league seems to be shifting away from idolizing the left tackle position, finally evening the pay gap for right tackles and guards. Centers have merely stayed on-pace with the growth of the salary gap, but with centers like Linsley, Jason Kelce, and Creed Humphrey gaining notoriety for their team’ success, it wouldn’t be a shock to see centers at the top of this growth chart in future years.
Change in top of the market contract value at every position from 2013 to 2023. RT market exploded. QBs number 2. IDL, guard, WR, and safety all more than doubled. LS, RB, and P are the ones with a major lag on cap growth pic.twitter.com/cR6AGv5nPp— Jason_OTC (@Jason_OTC) July 20, 2023
This concept asserted value in signing Corey Linsley to the highest-paying contract for a center, as his $12,500,000 APY was a far cry from top tackles and guards carrying nearly $20 million cap hits. Although Rashawn Slater is a phenom at left tackle, the offense was still able to function and mitigate the loss when rookie Jamaree Salyer took over when he was lost for the season. Conversely, when Will Clapp filled in for an injured Corey Linsley, it spelled disaster almost every appearance. Although his PFF grades weren’t disastrous, his guards’ grades mysteriously fell off a cliff when he stepped on the field.
Below is a prime example of this drop-off, and yes, be warned it’s the play that fractured Herbert’s ribs (you’ll have to follow the link to YouTube to see, as the NFL has blocked external sharing of this video).
Although Chris Jones was lined up over veteran left guard Matt Feiler, Will Clapp essentially left rookie guard Zion Johnson and swing tackle Storm Norton to their own devices by choosing to lock-in on Jones and turn his back to the right side of the line. There is no definitive way to tell if Linsley would have played this differently and thus prevent the Herbert rib injury, but the interior pocket was consistently poor whenever Clapp took over center responsibilities.
This market inefficiency carries into the draft as well. The first center selected in 2022, Tyler Linderbaum, was taken at pick 25. Five tackles and two guards were selected before Linderbaum, but Linderbaum’s PFF grade was comfortably above everyone elses’.
Here are the scores of all first round offensive line picks, in the order they were selected:
- Ikem Ekwonu, T, sixth pick. 1,018 snaps, 65.3 PFF grade
- Evan Neal, T, seventh pick. 738 snaps, 44.0 PFF grade
- Charles Cross, T, ninth pick. 1,088 snaps, 63.7 PFF grade
- Kenyon Green, G, 15th pick. 823 snap, 37.7 PFF grade
- Zion Johnson, G, 17th pick. 1,184 snaps, 64.8 PFF grade
- Trevor Penning, T, 19th pick. 124 snaps, 73.6 PFF grade
- Tyler Smith, T, 24th pick. 1,144 snaps, 71.4 PFF grade
- Tyler Linderbaum, C, 25th pick. 1,092 snaps, 74.7 PFF grade
- Cole Strange, G, 29th pick. 982 snaps, 54.6 PFF grade
Trevor Penning’s grade is impressive, but he needs to play an entire season before his play can be compared to his counterparts. The only season-long performance close to matching Linderbaum’s was Tyler Smith, and the ensuing drop-off is noteworthy, with three players reaching the 60’s, one in the 50’s, and two falling below replacement-level with sub-45 grades.
In 2021, the first center wasn’t drafted until the 37th pick, after five tackles and guards were selected. Landon Dickerson was drafted by the Eagles as insurance to Jason Kelce retiring, and has filled in at guard since, scoring 67.3 PFF scores in each of his first two seasons. Josh Myers and Creed Humphrey were the next two centers off the board, drafted late in the second, and Humphrey has been a revelation at the position, posting grades of 91.4 and 90.0 in his first two seasons. Myers only played 293 snaps in his rookie year, but posted a modest 60.4 score in his first full season.
This market inefficiency is something the Chargers should capitalize on as soon as possible, both for short-term interior depth and as a succession plan at center, similar to what the Eagles are modeling.
3) Expect swing tackles to play meaningful snaps when roster building
Heading into the 2022 season, the Chargers rostered Rashawn Slater, Trey Pipkins, and Storm Norton as their tackles, with Foster Sarell held in reserve on the practice squad. Despite Norton proving to be a liability throughout the 2021 season, Telesco opted to bring him back and made no attempt to upgrade the position. Had Trey Pipkins not demonstrated remarkable improvement in his fourth season, the offensive line could have been a disaster following Slater’s injury.
It’s unclear what Brandon Staley saw in 2023 that he missed in 2022, but Storm Norton fell out of favor by week four, and he instead gave Jamaree Salyer a chance to move from guard to the starting left tackle spot in replacement of an injured Rashawn Slater. The situation only got stranger when Foster Sarell was elevated off the practice squad and took over as swing tackle for the remainder of the season.
Similar to Clapp sightings, if Foster Sarell jogged onto the field, poor results followed. The Chargers went 2-4 in games where Sarell played more than 10 snaps, including late-game offensive collapses suspiciously timed with Sarell replacing Pipkins.
The Chargers had opportunities to acquire a veteran swing tackle late in the offseason, with players like Billy Turner, David Quessenberry and Dennis Kelly signing for very affordable one-year deals. Moving forward, they cannot count on 6th round rookies to save a season. Continuing to bolster depth at positions of high attrition, especially the offensive line, needs to be a priority for a team that must protect the investment they’ve made in their quarterback.
4) Prioritize backfield depth and versatility
If Justin Herbert is the engine driving this offense, Austin Ekeler has been the wheels it rolls on. While the full potential of the passing game has rested on the availability of Allen and Williams, Ekeler’s consistent production and availability will be missed when he’s gone.
The Chargers have failed to create production from an additional back since Melvin Gordon’s departure. When Ekeler inevitably leaves, he doesn’t need to be replaced outright, but finally creating a serviceable committee would do wonders for the offense’s proficiency. Veteran receiving backs are typically undervalued in free agency, and talented downhill thumpers often fall to later rounds of the draft. Take advantage of these two market inefficiencies to replace the production Ekeler once provided, while spreading out the injury risk and dependency on one player.
5) Draft a true TE1, even if it takes a couple swings
For some reason, Tom Telesco’s recent trend has been prioritizing speed at the tight end position, while opting for size and possession traits from his receivers. The cost has been reliable hands and route-running in the center of the field. Justin Herbert’s go-to chain-mover has been Allen, while his check-down option has been Ekeler. Both of these roles should be addressed with a well-rounded tight end, something Herbert has been missing since Hunter Henry’s departure.
Let’s not forget how much fun Herbert had throwing to Mark Andrews in the 2022 Pro Bowl.
Herbert to Andrews, AGAIN— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) February 6, 2022
Great throw by Herbert— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) February 6, 2022
Great catch by Andrews
6) Average at least eight selections per draft from 2024-2029
Hopefully, whatever cap space the Chargers create in their “rebuild/reload” phase next year will be used to keep in-house talent, and most of the acquisitions they make are through the draft. Tom, or whatever general manager potentially replaces him, will need to be thrifty and value-oriented in roster construction as Herbert’s cap number grows.
Manipulating the compensatory pick allotment and trading players with a decent market are two roster-building tools the Chargers would benefit from implementing. Extra players on entry-level contracts will help free up cap space to retain in-house talent, while creating a potential rollover effect as departing talent brings in additional compensatory picks. I detailed this concept in a separate article here.
If the Chargers follow these process-oriented goals, positive results should follow. Defensive adjustments will need to be made as well with a tightening budget, but the team needs to build around it’s greatest (and most expensive) asset to reach its full potential.
Are there any process-oriented goals you’d like to add to list?