As the Chargers made their picks throughout last year’s NFL draft, my curiosity with the strategy behind their decisions only became more and more cloudy as each player was taken. Prior to the 2023 season, the expectations were high. Very high. Nothing less than winning a playoff game and earning double-digit victories was going to be acceptable. Even with that bar set so high, there were still plenty of places across the roster the Chargers needed to reinforce.
Firstly, a new tight end to help the ground game as a run blocker was near the top of the list. Potentially a new running back to help the anemic production from that group, as well. On the other side, stopping the run was still an issue, so defensive tackle also felt like the a place they could go. Lastly, a new wideout to put some blood into a group with an aging Keenan Allen felt like a certainty.
So how did that draft finish up?
The Chargers, with their pick of every top wideout in the class available except for Jaxon Smith-Njigba, chose to go with the biggest project in Quentin Johnston. Over the likes of Zay Flowers and Jordan Addison. Of the top four wideouts, I don’t think it was all that hard to know which ones could make an impact earlier than others. Johnston was the one with the type of game where the transition was going to be the least smooth.
The selection of Tuli Tuipulotu in the second was a home run at the time, even if fans thought the selection wasn’t as exciting as it could be knowing he would play third fiddle to both Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack.
The third round brought Daiyan Henley, another backup. Another surprise in the fourth brought wideout and return man Derius Davis. Not too flashy but woo boy would he wow the fan base in no time flat.
The picks of offensive guard Jordan McFadden in the fifth, defensive tackle Scott Matlock in the sixth, and quarterback Max Duggan in the seventh were all negligible in my eyes. Better players with a faster path to the field were still on the board but this is what Brandon Staley, Tom Telesco, and their staffs decided was the best for the team.
At the end of the draft, all I saw were backups and zero players aside from Davis who should see much time on the field barring injuries to key players. Yet, that’s actually what happened. The Chargers lost their top three wideouts at different points for varying lengths of time throughout the season. Bosa missed a half dozen games. J.C. Jackson was traded back to the Patriots while the team drafted zero new cornerbacks in case he continued to be a free-agent bust. Three starting offensive linemen in Week One did not play in Week 18.
It was another one of those seasons for the Chargers.
But even with all these injuries that forced rookies into more playing time, the Chargers still fielded one of the least productive rookie classes in the NFL, per ESPN. They were ranked 26th out of 32 teams.
Here’s what analyst Aaron Schatz had to say about the Bolts’ rookies:
“Most of the Chargers’ value from rookies came from one player, second-round edge rusher Tuli Tuipulotu. Tuipulotu started 11 games after Joey Bosa suffered an injury, tallying 53 tackles with 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.”
“First-round rookie wide receiver Quentin Johnston disappointed, unable to make up for injuries to stars Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. Johnston had 38 catches for 431 yards and two touchdowns but is only worth 1 Total Point in the SIS system. He had a low 57% catch rate and ranked 61st out of 81 qualifying receivers in DVOA.”
“Fourth-round receiver/gadget player Derius Davis had 15 catches but only 66 yards. He had more yards (101) on 14 rushing attempts. Third-round linebacker Daiyan Henley played mostly on special teams, but sixth-round defensive tackle Scott Matlock was part of the defensive line rotation all season. Fifth-round guard Jordan McFadden started his first game in Week 17.”
Schatz hits it on the head here. The 2023 rookies were led by Tuli and...that’s it. He’s already established himself as one of the best run defenders at his position and he looks like a long-time player for the powder blue. Johnston could easily be much better a year from now, but that’s a tough sell to fans after what Flowers, Smith-Njigba, and Addison did with their respective teams. A third-rounder on yet another player who saw little to no snaps outside of special teams for the third consecutive season (JT Woods, Tre’ McKitty) is a tough look, as well.
So after Telesco finally got the boot along with Staley, this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Both former Chargers employees drafted their final class as if they were certain they’d be around to develop them. That was so far from the case and it still blows my mind that’s how they approached the draft.
Either way, the next head coach will now have to find a way to make lemonade with a backlog of old fruit, none of which are the needed lemons to complete the recipe.