Why the Chargers Should Start D.J. Fluker at Left Tackle

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Why the Chargers Should Start D.J. Fluker at Left Tackle
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Before the season, I suggested that guard might be rookie D.J. Fluker's eventual home in the NFL, even though it made sense to see how he did at right tackle. With six games under his belt, Fluker has proved both that he is occasionally a liability against the pass on the outside but is also plenty good enough to stay there.

Last Sunday when left tackle King Dunlap sustained his second concussion of the season, Fluker was pushed into emergency duty on the left side. Fluker took some lumps, but aside from Dunlap is still probably the best option to protect quarterback Philip Rivers' blind side.

Dunlap missed two games and nearly three weeks of practice with his previous concussion and could conceivably miss a substantial amount of time with the second. The Chargers have the bye week to try to get Dunlap back, but there is no guarantee he'll pass all the tests and get cleared by a doctor before their Week 9 game against the Washington Redskins

According to Annie Heilbrunn of NBC San Diego, Dunlap did sprints on the field on Wednesday, which is a positive step toward his eventual return. Still, you have to wonder if the doctors might be cautious with Dunlap considering how closely together his concussions were sustained. 

On the play that knocked Dunlap from the game, there was very little if any contact with his head. After reviewing every snap Dunlap played against the Jacksonville Jaguars, it's unclear when Dunlap may have been concussed.

Danny Woodhead's short touchdown run is one possibility as the play on which Dunlap was concussed, but it's also possible it happened without what would look like to be a big blow to the head. It's definitely a situation in which the Chargers will want to extra cautious. 

With Dunlap's status completely up in the air, they don't have a lot of options. Swing tackle Mike Harris started three games for the Chargers this year—two at left tackle and one at right tackle—and was placed on injured reserve Oct. 9.

The Chargers signed Mike Remmers as backup, but starting him for a prolonged period at left tackle is asking for trouble. Remmers played four snaps for the departed Dunlap before getting injured. Those four snaps constitute Remmers' only experience in a regular-season NFL game.

Traditionally, the Chargers would want to leave Fluker on the right side, but the NFL has changed and they may no longer have that luxury. Moving him may also not be as bad an idea as many people might assume, considering his obvious limitations in pass protection.

Head coach Mike McCoy declined to say what his starting offensive line would look like without Dunlap, but stressed the best five would be out there.

"D.J. Fluker did a phenomenal job moving over to left tackle," McCoy said via the team's official website, going out of his way to praise him for the job he did switching on the fly. 

The Chargers will have to determine what they want to do at left tackle if Dunlap isn't cleared, and it's not like there is a quality left tackle just sitting out there to be signed. The logical choice is to move Fluker to the left side temporarily, if not longer. 

 

All About Matchups

We have no idea how long Dunlap might be out, but Fluker might be better off on the left side going forward. Coaches will say that the NFL is all about matchups, and for Fluker, the matchups would be more favorable at left tackle for the rest of the season.

If Fluker stays at right tackle, he'll face Von Miller twice, Justin Houston twice and Cameron Wake. Fluker's matchups against Washington and Cincinnati would be roughly equal, but he would get the better of the two edge-rushers against Cincinnati and Oakland.

Matchups
Team Matchup vs. Left Tackle PFF Pass Rush Grade Matchup vs. Right Tackle PFF Pass Rush Grade Nickel Rushers PFF Pass Rush Grade
Redskins Brian Orakpo +7.5 Ryan Kerrigan +8.0 Stephen Bowen -7.8
Broncos Robert Ayers -0.6 Von Miller +3.9 Shaun Phillips +0.1
Dolphins Olivier Vernon -2.0 Cameron Wake +4.3 Derrick Shelby -2.2
Chiefs Tamba Hali +12.9 Justin Houston +11.8 Allen Bailey +0.4
Bengals Michael Johnson +4.1 Carlos Dunlap -5.4 Wallace Gilberry +1.1
Giants Jason Pierre-Paul -4.4 Justin Tuck -1.9 Mathias Kiwanuka -7.0
Raiders Lamarr Houston +3.1 Justin Hunter -4.6 Sio Moore +0.1
Total RDE/ROLB +32.9 LDE/LOLB +78.6* LB/DE -14.8

profootballfocus.com (*Adjusted for Von Miller)

One could argue having Fluker change positions midseason will hamper his development, but the Chargers have already demonstrated they are willing to put him on the left side. Setting Fluker up to have more success should also be a positive step for his development.

Switching Fluker to left tackle doesn't mean he wouldn't face quality rushers, just ones that will be easier for him to have success against. Fluker would simultaneous be given more responsibility and a slightly easier job.

Fluker would still face a player like Tamba Hali, who is every bit as good as Justin Houston as a pass-rusher if not better. The difference is that Hali isn't the fastest guy and is successful because of his technique. Fluker wouldn't have to hedge to the outside against Hali to stop the speed rush, which would enable him to protect against the inside move.

 

Set Up to Succeed

Fluker has done well this season and ProFootballFocus (subscription required) has given him a grade of plus-3.4 for his six games of work. Fluker's worst game was his debut, and it was mostly due to run-blocking, with the second-worst grade coming last week against the Jaguars while playing left tackle for three quarters. 

That might be an indicator that Fluker should stay at right tackle, but it isn't. When Fluker moved to left tackle, he went from blocking Tyson Aluala to Jason Babin and Andre Branch. Babin and Branch are both considered speed-rushers—the type Fluker has struggled against—while Aluala is more of a run-stuffing end. 

It's not hard to see Fluker's strengths and weaknesses by watching film. Fluker struggles with speed to the outside, and when he attempts to compensate for his lack of foot quickness he gets beat inside.

Here's an example against the Jaguars of Fluker getting beat to the edge.

Fluker can't get to the outside and as a result Rivers is pressured, throws high and takes a hit. This is one of those examples of what you don't want to see, but it's not much worse than what you would see from Dunlap.

When Fluker uses proper technique and speed-rushers can't use a Wide 9 alignment like on the previous play, he's fully capable of being a solid pass-blocker. On the following play, Fluker is able to engage the defender to give Rivers a solid pocket.

It's still a quick-hitting pass play, but Fluker demonstrates the ability to be a solid pass-blocker from the left side against rushers that can't get up to speed and bend the edge. If rusher's can't get around the edge, Fluker has all the tools to swallow up pass-rushers. 

When Fluker goes up against bigger, slower defenders he has proven that he can be a very good pass-blocker. It's this skill that originally led me to believe that he may eventually find a home inside at guard, but right now the Chargers need him at tackle.

Fluker also did a nice job at left tackle recognizing stunts, and he looked just as natural on the left side as the right. Some players struggle flipping sides, but Fluker didn't appear to have issues with the transition like fellow rookie tackle Eric Fisher has in Kansas City going from the left side to the right. 

 

Concluding Thoughts

Dunlap may still be the best option at left tackle because he and Fluker are clearly the two best offensive tackles, but it makes sense to have him play left tackle in his absence. It's definitely a luxury to have a tackle like Fluker who is versatile enough to play both positions when needed.

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Regardless of who is at right tackle when the Chargers play against elite pass-rushers coming of the right edge, they are going to need help from a running back or tight end. If Fluker stays at right tackle and the left tackle also needs help, the Chargers are going to have more pass-protection issues.

San Diego's offense is wonderfully designed to hide their issues on the offensive line, but we've seen over the past two seasons that protection issues can impact Rivers. If the Chargers have to pass because they fall behind against a team with a good pass rush, their weaknesses along the offensive line could be exposed. 

In the spirit of putting the best five offensive lineman on the field, the Chargers coaches believe Fluker has earned himself a start at left tackle in Dunlap's absence. Fluker may still land permanently at right tackle or inside, but if the Chargers need more than a one-week starter at left tackle, they need to seriously consider their rookie first-round pick.

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