Noncontact injuries happen during the offseason—just not enough to make teams worry about them. Teams can only hope that it doesn’t happen, and when it does, that the player can return or at least isn’t an impact guy.
The San Diego Chargers' loss of outside linebacker Melvin Ingram for the season to a torn ACL hurts, especially when so much was expected out of the second-year pass-rusher and former first-round pick. The injury is significant enough that you could call replacing Ingram’s projected production the new regime’s first major challenge.
General manager Tom Telesco and head coach Mike McCoy had the resources to address roster issues earlier in the offseason, but that’s no longer the case. The money they had to spend in free agency is mostly gone, and the draft is over, which leaves them with veteran free agents to try to fill Ingram’s void.
The Chargers did not have a very good pass rush last season. In many ways, the sack statistics were inflated by an 11-sack outburst in Week 16 against the New York Jets in Greg McElroy’s first career start at quarterback. In reality, the Chargers rarely applied pressure to the quarterback.
Projections of Production
Ingram had just one sack in 2013. That’s not a lot of production from a first-round draft pick. You might say that replacing just one sack shouldn’t be that difficult, but that’s where projections come into play.
The Chargers expected Ingram to replace Shaun Phillips, who had 9.5 sacks last year. Ingram was being counted on to maintain the level of production the Chargers had last year.
Without Ingram, the Chargers don’t really have a reliable edge-rusher. The two best pass-rushers besides Ingram are Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes. They are both 3-4 defensive ends who don’t normally put up big sack numbers.
It’s important to realize that Ingram played just 43.7 percent of the defensive snaps in 2012, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Expanded opportunities usually mean more production, and despite his low sack numbers, Ingram was very productive when he did get a chance to play.
Ingram was Pro Football Focus’ eighth most productive pass-rusher at the 3-4 outside linebacker position, just below Justin Houston and better than players like Ryan Kerrigan and Tamba Hali. Houston and Hali had 10 sacks and Kerrigan had nine, which should give a realistic expectation of what the Chargers were expecting to get from Ingram in 2013.
Finding a Replacement
If the Chargers were expecting a 10-sack performance out of Ingram in 2013, that’s going to be tough to find on the open market at this time of year. Any pass-rusher still on the market is going to have significant flaws. In the case of Dwight Freeney—who visited with the Chargers on Wednesday—it’s his age and scheme fit.
Freeney played outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense last year for the first time, and his production dipped. Freeney spent his entire career putting his hand in the dirt as a 4-3 defensive end, typically lining up wide and selling out to get the quarterback. It worked great for Freeney because he rarely needed to stop the run on a team with Peyton Manning.
For Freeney to make sense in San Diego, the Chargers would have to use him as a situational pass-rusher and allow him to put his hand in the dirt on passing downs. If the financial parameters are right for both sides, a deal might make sense because Freeney is one of only a couple of players on the market with 10-sack potential.
Last season, Freeney had just five sacks in 14 games and was limited by a high-ankle sprain. A healthy Freeney doing what he does best is probably the only complete replacement for Ingram’s pass-rushing abilities.
As it currently stands, Larry English is penciled in as the starting outside linebacker. The former first-round pick had a disappointing rookie season, and since that time, injuries have slowed him down. Last season, English was active for 14 games and had 1.5 sacks.
English has talent, but he’s been disappointing, hurt or unable to crack the lineup for basically his entire career. To expect English to become a starter capable of producing a 10-sack season at this point is lunacy.
The other player on the market who could help the Chargers is veteran John Abraham. The 35-year-old pass-rusher had 10 sacks last year and has fielded little interest in free agency. Abraham also has experience in the 3-4 defense from his time with the New York Jets earlier in his career.
Which player is the best option for the Chargers?
Unlike Freeney, Abraham’s sack production has been good for the past three seasons. Abraham is older than most players, but he was still ProFootballFocus’ fifth-best 4-3 defensive end last season. In addition, only J.J. Watt (15) and Liuget (eight) had more batted passes than Abraham (seven) in 2012.
Just like Freeney, Abraham would be best used as a situational pass-rusher at this point. The Chargers have demonstrated a willingness to use a lot of sub packages and different personnel, so integrating a player like Abraham into the defense should be painless.
A failure to sign Freeney or Abraham could be damaging to the Chargers’ 2013 prospects. Replacement options for Ingram are just not abundant, and the Chargers need to act quickly before there are even fewer quality options available.