How the San Diego Chargers Can Retake the AFC West in 2013
What will it take for the San Diego Chargers to win the AFC West?
The Chargers have fallen on hard times. The team that won the AFC West five times in six years (2004, ’06, ’07, ’08, ’09), has failed to make it to the playoffs the past three seasons.
In order to retake the top spot in the AFC West, San Diego needs to have a smart free agency period, draft responsibly, watch divisional rivals, develop young talent and change the offensive and defensive strategy.
Re-Sign Select Free Agents
There are only a few unrestricted free agents new general manager Tom Telesco should worry about signing. Most of the free agents are backups and/or special teams contributors. While special teams players are valuable and can make or break a season (see the 2010 campaign), the Chargers need to improve the starters before retaining backups.
The No. 1 priority needs to be re-signing Louis Vasquez. The guard is an unrestricted free agent and was at times the best offensive lineman for the Chargers. If San Diego has plans on retaking the AFC West crown, the team cannot totally blow up the offensive line. Some veteran needs to return to the team besides center Nick Hardwick, and Vasquez is the best candidate.
The Chargers cannot compete for the AFC West title while starting five new offensive linemen, or even four new linemen. Having Hardwick and Vasquez return allows Telesco to not bother spending money on free agent left guard Tyronne Green and also frees him to release tackles Jared Gaither and Jeromey Clary. While Clary and Gaither are currently under contract, UT San Diego’s Kevin Acee says cutting the two would count against the cap but ultimately would save money:
“While that would involve eating as much as $15 million in dead money against the cap, it would also amount to $11.5 million cash savings.”
Staying on the offensive side of the ball, it would be wise to keep restricted free agent Danario Alexander. Alexander was second among Charger receivers with 37 catches. Malcom Floyd led the team with 56 receptions. The Chargers should not break the bank to retain Alexander’s services, but he was Rivers’ first option for the last half of the season.
The Chargers should also re-sign free agent Antoine Cason but let Quentin Jammer walk. Much like the debate regarding the offensive line, San Diego can compete for the AFC West title with one new starting cornerback but not two new starting corners.
Shaun Phillips and Antwan Barnes are both unrestricted free agents, but it makes sense to only spend money on one.
Phillips is the nine-year pro and led the team in sacks last year (9.5). Barnes is three years younger and can be resigned for less money. When given the opportunity, Barnes has been impressive. He has 18.5 sacks in three years with the Chargers despite only starting five games. Ultimately, neither one will be with the team next season.
Get Two Starters Via Free Agency
In order to retake the AFC West, the Chargers ultimately need to protect quarterback Philip Rivers. The previous offensive line was unable to do that, leading some to question if Rivers is still the QB to count on to take San Diego deep into the playoffs.
Rivers was sacked 49 times last year. Only Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers (51) was sacked more in 2012. The Chargers were tied with the Dallas Cowboys for second-fewest yards-per-rushing attempt (3.6) in the NFL in 2012. San Diego was not good in pass protection or run blocking.
If they hold on to Vasquez and Hardwick as mentioned in the previous slide, the Chargers still need to get at least three starting offensive linemen. Having one rookie start would be fine. Two rookies starting would be dicey. Three would be disastrous.
Using the philosophy of building from the inside out, targeting Buffalo free agent guard Andy Levitre would be ideal. Levitre is getting out of his rookie contract and could be asking for top money, but he is arguably the top free agent available at any position.
A bonus in having Levitre as the starting left guard is he would be reunited with his former Bills offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris.
Some will argue shelling out the lion’s share of money in free agency to your two guards (Vasquez and Levitre) is a waste of cash, but if D’Alessandris brings his zone blocking scheme to the Chargers, the three most important positions in a ZBS are guard, center, and guard.
Of the tackles available via free agency, the player with the best chance of landing in San Diego is Detroit’s Gosder Cherilus.
Cherilus would be an immediate improvement over Clary at right tackle. The former first-round pick out of Boston College would also be inexpensive, and since the Lions have veteran Jeff Backus at one tackle and second-year man Riley Reiff at the other tackle, Cherilus is probably not returning to the Motor City.
Find Three Starters in the Draft
In order to be AFC West champions, the Chargers need to draft well.
San Diego should be aiming to get three starters and three contributors while at Radio City Music Hall come April 25, 26 and 27.
They need a starting left tackle, a starting cornerback and a starting inside linebacker. It would be nice to get another safety, another outside linebacker and another running back.
If the Chargers follow the plan already prescribed, the offensive line is looking pretty solid except for left tackle. With the No. 11 pick in the 2013 draft, San Diego selects…the best available left tackle. If Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher is still on the board, jump all over him.
If he is gone, Oklahoma’s Lane Johnson will be the pick. Some are saying the Chargers should go after the best available player—Alabama guard Chance Warmack—but with Vasquez and Levitre signed, the interior is set. Considering Alabama’s DJ Fluker is a right tackle, there really are no other players who could step into the starting left tackle position right away.
There are actually a couple different cornerbacks who could be drafted after the first round who could start right away.
Washington’s Desmond Trufant possibly might be available in the second round. Oregon State’s Jordan Poyer had a great showing during Senior Bowl week and might be around as late as the third round.
Leon McFadden out of San Diego State is highly-touted and could be around as late as the fourth round. Two sleepers to keep an eye who could be available in sixth and seventh rounds are Louisville’s Adrian Bushell and formerly-with-LSU Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu.
There are plenty of inside linebackers ready to start right away who will be available throughout the draft. Penn State’s Michael Mauti, North Carolina’s Kevin Reddick, Oregon’s Kiko Alonso, Alabama’s Nico Johnson and Rutgers’s Steve Beauharnais have all been associated with the Chargers in various mock drafts.
Monitor AFC West Rivals Moves
The Denver Broncos are poised to be just as good as they were in 2012 when they won the AFC West and came within a last-second Hail Mary from beating the Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs. The biggest priorities in Mile High are re-signing left tackle Ryan Clady.
Denver will probably target an inside linebacker in the draft, and there are reports cornerback Champ Bailey will return for another year, eliminating one potential problem. All-in-all, it looks like Denver and Manning are geared for another run at the AFC West title.
Charger management needs to watch what Kansas City does with its free agents. If tackle Branden Albert and wide receiver Dwayne Bowe are re-signed, the team only needs that quarterback to compete. If, however, Albert and/or Bowe are allowed to test the free agent market, KC is in a bit of a rebuilding mode.
Despite finishing with a better record, the Oakland Raiders might have worse overall players than Kansas City. The Silver and Black need to address a lack of talent, a lack of depth, and a lack of identity.
There are questions at quarterback, wide receiver, tight end, defensive line, linebackers, even in special teams (punter Shane Lechler is a free agent and it is no guarantee Oakland will re-sign him).
The first priority for the Raiders is at quarterback. How much faith do they have in Carson Palmer? Is Terrelle Pryor the long-term answer? Is the answer in the draft? Who the quarterback is determines how the offense will run. But it looks like it will take more than a quarterback to fix what is ailing Oakland.
Develop Current Talent
If the Chargers want to reclaim the AFC West title, the team needs to have depth and second-string players pushing for playing time. There are a number of players on the San Diego roster who could blossom into major contributors and possibly starters if they reach their potential.
Offensively, wide receiver Vincent Brown had 14 receptions in 14 games his rookie year and looked promising in the 2012 preseason before a broken ankle sidelined him for the entire year. If Brown can rehab physically and mentally from that injury he could be one of Philip Rivers’ favorite targets.
Tight end Ladarius Green was supposed to be Antonio Gates understudy last year and the rookie out of Louisiana-Lafayette caught everything thrown his way in 2012. Granted, he was only active for four games and was only targeted four times, but he caught all four throws.
If he could grow more as a professional and see the field more, Green could be a major weapon considering how much Rivers uses his tight ends and how many games Gates misses every year.
Edwin Baker was the seventh-round draft pick for San Diego last year and spent most of 2012 on the practice squad. Only after Ryan Mathews broke his clavicle did the former Michigan State bruiser get moved to the active roster. He never saw playing time.
If he could develop into a short-yardage back, or even someone who could spell Mathews from time-to-time, Baker would be contributing. At 5’8” and 200 pounds, Baker could be the bowling ball back the Chargers missed once Mike Tolbert went to the Carolina Panthers.
Defensively, the Chargers had young players really step it up in 2012. Linemen Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes looked great at times. If those two can continue developing, the defense as a whole improves.
What the Chargers need is Cam Thomas to step up his productivity. In 38 career games, the former North Carolina Tar Heel has only 47 total tackles, six sacks and three tackles for loss.
By comparison, Reyes had 16 total tackles, 5.5 sacks and two tackles for loss in his rookie season. Because Aubrayo Franklin and Antonio Garay might have played their last games with the Chargers, San Diego is going to need Thomas to step up his game.
Brandon Taylor, much like Brown, is going to have to overcome an injury. Taylor spent much of his rookie year on the practice team.
In his first start of the year, the former LSU captain registered three total tackles and half of a sack in less than three full quarters against the New York Jets when he tore the ACL in his right knee. The Chargers need another safety to play next to Eric Weddle, and San Diego thought they found the right player in Taylor.
Melvin Ingram showed spots and flashes of production, but overall the first rounder needs to make a leap forward from his rookie to sophomore year. It was a penalty by Ingram that kept the Saints drive alive that eventually ended with the game-winning touchdown back in October. He played well on special teams, but the team needs him to develop into a starting outside linebacker and pass rusher.
More Agressive Play Calling
If the Chargers want to retake the AFC West, they need to go back to what put San Diego in the divisional driver seat to begin with: aggressive play calling.
San Diego was exciting and dangerous when the offense threw the ball deep and the defense blitzed like crazy. That type of play calling was missing the past few seasons with Norv Turner at the helm. Hopefully head coach Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt implement more deep patterns to keep defenders from anticipating shorter routes.
Rivers once had the best deep pass in the NFL. Last season he completed three passes longer than 40 yards. That is the same number of long balls completed by Jacksonville’s Blaine Gabbert, Minnesota’s Christian Ponder and Miami’s Ryan Tannehill.
Obviously it is hard to complete a long pass when a defender is in your face as soon as the ball is snapped, but to have as many deep completions as Ponder is just sad.
There is something to be said, also, about the lack of a deep threat. Once Vincent Jackson was allowed to leave for Tampa Bay, it seemed as if the routes instantly shortened by 10 yards.
John Pagano improved the San Diego defense in his first year as the team’s coordinator, but he seemed a little conservative at times (such as the Monday Night meltdown against the Broncos). But for the Chargers to re-stake their claim as the best in the AFC West, Pagano, Whisenhunt and McCoy all need to take more chances.