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San Diego Chargers Aren't Winning Anything Until They Rebuild the Offensive Line

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San Diego Chargers Aren't Winning Anything Until They Rebuild the Offensive Line
Christopher Hanewinckel-US PRESS

A couple of watershed moments in San Diego Chargers history occurred in 2006.

First, Philip Rivers became the starting quarterback.

Second, the Bolts finished with the best record in franchise history at 14-2.

Third, the Chargers played in the Divisional round of the playoffs, the first time since the 1994 Super Bowl team.

Something that might have gone under the radar is that was the first year Marcus McNeill started at left tackle and the second year Kris Dielman manned the left guard position.

This is not to say all of the success was because of those two offensive linemen, but the Chargers made the playoffs the first four years McNeill and Dielman played together.

During that four-year span, Rivers was sacked 99 times, an average of less than 25 sacks per season. The past three seasons, all without playoffs, Rivers was sacked 117 times, or an average of 39 per season.

It is apparent the offensive line has struggled, culminating with an embarrassing 2012 campaign that saw the Bolts big men ranked in the bottom of most rankings.

Dielman and McNeill did not complete the 2011 season and both retired from football due to injuries at the end of that season. Former general manager AJ Smith can be blamed for not building adequate depth at many positions, including the offensive line.

When McNeill got injured in 2011, the Chargers scrambled to find a replacement. The backups on the roster were not ready to step into the lineup. Jared Gaither was brought in for pennies via free agency toward the end of the 2011 season when McNeill went down and performed well.

Despite a history of injuries and a reputation as a malcontent, Gaither received a four-year, $24.6 million deal in the offseason. That training camp Gaither had nagging injuries that kept him from participating in drills.

When the season started, Gaither was in street clothes with an injury. Hurt and apparently uninterested, Gaither played in four games in 2012.

Again, with the penciled-in starter sidelined, Smith and the Chargers did not have an adequate Plan B. Undrafted free agent Mike Harris was the opening day starter. Harris was clearly overmatched, and the franchise quarterback’s blind side was a weak spot opposing defenses could exploit at will.

Harris, who mostly played right tackle at UCLA and not left, was only part of the problem.  

Rivers did not get good pass protection on his blind side, but his front side was just as vulnerable.

Starting right tackle Jeromey Clary was never a fan favorite in San Diego. His above-average run blocking largely goes unnoticed because his pass blocking is such a glaring weakness. Clary struggled with speed rushers and power rushers equally.

When Dielman retired, the team turned to Tyronne Green, a fourth-round draft selection in 2009. Green was average in his 13 starts at left guard in 2012. Green was better in pass protection than run blocking, but he is not elite at either and also missed four games with a hamstring injury.

The longer Green remains an unrestricted free agent, the more likely it is he re-signs with the Chargers.

The Chargers had 10 different starting linemen in 2012. Only center Nick Hardwick and now-Denver guard Louis Vasquez started all 16 games in 2012.

Again, the front office failed to provide talented depth along the line and it showed. While Rex Hadnot, Reggie Wells and Kevin Haslam were willing, their bodies were just not able to produce at the high level needed in the NFL.

New general manager Tom Telesco stated from Day One his desire to build the team through the draft. His moves in free agency so far have corroborated his initial statements. The players brought in, especially along the offensive line, have extensive playing time and even starting experience, but the new acquisitions are best used as backups.

King Dunlap can play right or left tackle and right or left guard. He has the ability to provide very good production wherever he lines up, but it is hard to trust him for 16 games. He has stretches of great play, followed by instances of mind-numbing mistakes (ask an Eagles fan about his four consecutive plays against the Cowboys.)

Chad Rinehart also has versatility. He can play either guard position as well as center. Rinehart could be a major steal in free agency if he can stay healthy. Rinehart is coming off an ankle injury that placed him on the injured reserve list with Buffalo.

The sixth-year player out of Northern Iowa should be a leader on the line because of his familiarity with O-line coach Joe D’Allesandris’ zone blocking scheme.

D’Allesandris will be tasked with fixing an offensive line that allowed 49 sacks and Football Outsiders ranked as the worst in pass protection in 2012. He has had success with previous clubs. The Bills allowed a league-low 23 sacks in 2011 under the guidance of D’Allesandris.

Besides scheme, D’Allesandris needs to develop younger players. Colin Baxter, Charlie Bryant, Mike Harris, Kevin Hughes, David Molk and Steve Schilling all have fewer than three years of NFL experience.

If they can learn and improve under D’Allesandris’ guidance, the depth issues can be solved. It will be up to D’Allesandris to find out how much Johnnie Troutman can contribute.

Troutman is the fifth-round draft pick last year who was selected despite having a torn pectoral muscle that sidelined him for all of the 2012 season. Some analysts are penciling Troutman in as the 2013 starter, but it is still unknown what he can do.

No matter which players currently on the roster end up starting, the offensive line still needs an upgrade.

The three options for finding a player are look at your own roster, find one in free agency or draft one.

In terms of left tackle, there may be one on the roster.

Maybe.

Dunlap cannot be a long-term answer at left tackle, but if Gaither stays healthy and motivated (two things he has failed to show he can do during his six years in the NFL) he can be the franchise left tackle. The ability is there. He showcased it during the final games of the 2011 season.  But is he motivated?

Bryant McKinnie is still available on the free agency market. The 11-year veteran is coming off a two-year, $7.5 million contract with the Baltimore Ravens. McKinnie said he expects a pay raise if they want him to play a 12th year, which means Telesco probably will not pursue the Pro Bowl player.

The last option is to find a player in the draft.

Possessing the 11th overall selection, San Diego originally looked to be in a great position to nab a top-tier left tackle. Following the college all-star games, scouting combine, college pro days and the first two weeks of free agency, that great position to select a top-tier tackle may be slipping.

At first it was a lock Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher would be the choice.

Now there are rumblings Fisher could be selected No. 1 overall.

Not too long ago, Oklahoma’s Lance Johnson was possibly a second-round selection and would be a reach if San Diego called his name at No. 11.

Now the Chargers may have to trade up to grab him.

Charles Davis of the NFL Network thinks the top three tackles (Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel is generally rated the top left tackle in the draft) could be off the boards by the Eagles at No. 4.

If Davis’ mock becomes reality, the Chargers will have to use a later round pick on left tackle. San Jose State’s David Quessenberry, Tennessee’s Dallas Thomas and Terron Armstead out of Arkansas Pine-Bluff are possibilities in later rounds who could start immediately.

At left guard, the Chargers could re-sign Green. Even if re-signed, San Diego would be wise to look into upgrading the position. Is Rinehart that upgrade?  Is Troutman ready?

On the free-agent market, former Jets guard Brandon Moore is still available. The 11-year veteran will probably be asking for around $4 million per year. It is unknown if San Diego would be willing to pay that much for a player on the wrong side of 30 years old.

In the draft, a guard is looking more and more likely with the No. 11 pick. Alabama’s Chance Warmack , who some consider the best prospect in the entire draft, could be around.

So could Jonathan Cooper out of North Carolina. Cooper looks like the type of player Telesco has been targeting in free agency. Cooper could play guard or center.

Alabama’s Barrett Jones could be available in the second round, when the Chargers are on the clock with the No. 45 pick. Jones played center, guard and tackle for the Crimson Tide.

Hardwick has been entrenched at center for nine years now, but he was close to retiring from the NFL after the 2011 season because of concussions. Even if the former Purdue star finishes his current contract, the Chargers will need a new center in two years.

David Molk lasted until the seventh round of last year’s draft even though he was an All-American and won the Rimington Award as college’s best center. It is unclear if his college success will translate to the pros. As mentioned earlier, Rinehart could play center.

The situation at right guard is similar to left guard. Rinehart might currently hold the edge as the starter, but that depends on Troutman’s development, Moore’s free-agent demands and what happens in the draft.

The Chargers need to move past Clary at right tackle. Dunlap could keep the spot warm until someone else is ready to take over. Harris might be the future at right tackle considering that was his primary position at UCLA. 

In free agency, two right tackles are still available.

Andre Smith from the Bengals might be looking for top money, which means San Diego will not consider him.

Eric Winston, formerly with Kansas City, is still available and even met with Chargers personnel. He is familiar with zone blocking schemes and was thought of as one of the best right tackles in the NFL prior to joining the Chiefs.

The offensive line would really benefit with the addition of Winston. He would provide leadership and stability. But Winston also met with Miami Dolphins officials and is by no means a lock to be a Charger.

Alabama’s DJ Fluker is widely regarded as the best right tackle available in the draft. He will most likely not be around by the time the Chargers select again in the second round, but it would be considered a reach to take Fluker with the No. 11 overall selection.

San Diego could try to trade out of that spot to somewhere in the 20s, but it is no guarantee a team like the Bears, Bengals or Colts would want to trade up.

Oregon’s Kyle Long, Brennan Williams out of North Carolina and Florida’s Xavier Nixon have the potential to play right tackle fairly early in their careers.

The offensive line is a unique position in football. It is a group effort, even though conflicts are won and loss with one-on-one battles. In 2012, the Chargers had too many in the loss category, both in the trenches and on the scoreboard.

If a return to the playoffs is envisioned, an overhaul of the offensive line must be completed.

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