The following is the fifth installment of a nine-part series analyzing every position, from the front office to the defensive backfield. To access previous installments, click here.
Most of the Chargers offensive linemen were meeting each other for the first time in the huddle. If they were children they wouldn't be permitted to speak to one another because they were strangers.
Center Nick Hardwick and right tackle Jeremy Clary managed to stay healthy while the other three-fifths of the line were a revolving door of big-bodied backups.
Kris Dielman and Marcus McNeill were placed on injured reserve for concussion and neck issues respectively. Backup center/guard Scott Mruczkowski also finished the season on injured reserve. Versatile subs Tyrone Greene and Brandyn Dombrowski battled injuries throughout the year and right guard Louis Vasquez missed time as well.
Chargers fans were subjected to the blocking services of players like Colin Baxter, Tony Moll, Stephen Schilling and Jared Gaither. Not even some of these guys’ parents knew they were football players before this season. Needless to say, the offensive line will get a thorough review in the offseason.
Dielman's concussion and subsequent grand mal seizure have led to increased consideration about life after football, and McNeill's chronic neck issues have him worried as well. Hardwick’s decision was more about long-term health and potential uncertainty should the Chargers not make him an offer. It was highly unlikely all three players would retire this offseason, and Hardwick has already announced he’ll be playing in 2012, but with all the injuries the Chargers sustained throughout the year, the offensive line will be an area of concern come draft time.
Hardwick is not retiring but he’s also not under contract. He is facing free agency for the first time in his eight-year career. Realistically, he will probably only play two or three more seasons, and his love for the city of San Diego and the Chargers could allow for a very reasonable team-friendly contract for a player of his stature.
Dielman is not likely to retire but with the legitimate concern of future concussions and frequent nagging injuries to Louis Vasquez, guard is a position that must be solidified through the draft.
McNeill has been productive when healthy but his $10.5 million cap figure for 2012 is only guaranteed if he’s cleared medically by March 15. The Chargers have a lot of holes to fill and limited cap space so McNeill may be a luxury they can’t afford.
Personally, I liked what I saw from Chief's cast-off Jared Gaither who at 6'9" and 340 pounds is more like an industrial appliance than a human being. Despite being let go by the Ravens and Chiefs in his brief NFL career, Gaither is a large man with what appears to be an aggressive temperament—a winning combination for an offensive lineman.
Regardless of what happens with McNeill, the Chargers can’t afford to let a giant gem like Gaither get away even if it means moving either he or McNeill to right tackle and finding a new home for Jeremy Clary.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest the Chargers look for a center, guard and tackle this offseason through free agency and the draft.