It’s clear the San Diego Chargers are trying to take some pressure off quarterback Philip Rivers by improving their running game this offseason. Left guard Orlando Franklin was their most notable signing in free agency, and they moved up two spots to select running back Melvin Gordon in the draft.
What the Chargers haven’t been able to do is address a major weakness at right guard, which has been a problem for many years. They’ve penciled in Johnnie Troutman as the starter, but there isn’t much in the way of quality depth behind him should he play as poorly as he did in 2014.
Unless the Chargers transition right tackle D.J. Fluker from right tackle to right guard, there isn’t much hope of solving the problem at the position in 2015. Moving Fluker to guard certainly isn’t a new idea, but now may be the time to do what is best for him in the long term.
By leaving Fluker at tackle, the Chargers will continue to expose him in pass coverage and waste his natural gifts as a powerful blocker. While there’s not much depth behind Fluker at right tackle, it still makes sense to move him if Troutman doesn’t look drastically improved compared to last year.
The Chargers also know Fluker would be a better guard despite their resistance to moving him so far. It’s probably just a matter of time, but waiting is unfair to Fluker.
“We think he has the ability to probably play a couple different spots. But right now, the plan is to leave him out there (at right tackle),” general manager Tom Telesco said at the NFL combine in February, per ProFootballTalk. “He had some games late in the year where he showed exactly what he can do, and that’s pass protect on the right side.”
Fluker’s length will enable him to have some success in pass protection no matter where he lines up, but it’s unlikely he’ll even be consistent enough to be a top tackle in the league. While Telesco is correct that he “can” pass protect at right tackle, he probably will never be able to do so consistently. That’s why Telesco acknowledged he could play multiple spots and used phrases like “right now” to leave himself wiggle room in the future.
At guard, Fluker would not only be a good pass protector, he’d also be just as good or better in the running game. He’d be in a position that maximizes what he does best and minimizes what he doesn’t—guard is a perfect fit for his talents in the NFL and always has been.
“We know he’s a great run blocker," Telesco said. “He can move people, he’s got great effort getting out to the second level. His enthusiasm in the run game, you can see that on tape and can see that live.”
The Chargers “know” he’s a good run blocker, but they think he “can” pass protect. Maybe the Chargers are hoping for improvement from Fluker, but it sounds like they know his deficiencies and are just waiting for the right time to move him.
The Chargers may want to make the switch, but they simply aren’t confident in their options at right tackle. You can’t blame them for taking a cautious approach and leaving the one proven commodity they have on the right side of the line at the more important position.
Of course, one of the frustrating things about the situation is the Chargers have had opportunities to get a right tackle and have so far failed to do so. Either the Chargers are too risk-averse or have just found other needs to be more pressing.
The thinking to leave Fluker at right tackle until the team can find a suitable replacement is also probably flawed. Fluker isn’t a terrible tackle and it’s usually easier to hide a bad guard, so the Chargers may never prioritize the switch over other needs.
|Fluker Flunking in Pass Protection|
|Year||Pass-Block Grade||Run-Block Grade||Sacks||Hits||Hurries||Penalties|
Over his first two years in the league, Fluker has allowed 14 sacks, 14 hits and 75 hurries, per Pro Football Focus. He’s been one of the worst offensive guards in the league in pass protection over the last two seasons and committed 16 penalties. Those stats alone justify an immediate move.
In contrast, Franklin was actually best in the league in Pro Football Focus’ pass-blocking efficiency metric in 2013, and the Denver Broncos proceeded to move him to guard in 2014 because of his slow feet, which is a problem he shares with Fluker.
The Chargers obviously thought that was a good move, but Franklin wasn’t initially happy about the change. If the Chargers also wait to move Fluker, they could be paving the way for his departure from the team.
That would be a shame, because he can be so good at guard and because the ultimate goal of any team should be to give their draft picks a second contract. Fluker could become one of the best guards in football—he has that kind of ability.
Meanwhile, the offensive line will continue to be a problem in pass protection because Fluker is outside. Second-year player Chris Watt also has much to prove as the starting center, so the Chargers don’t even have two strong flanks to hide Troutman’s deficiencies.
Since Fluker was an 11th overall pick, many NFL people would say he should be playing left tackle, or, at worst, right tackle from a value perspective. Moving him to guard seems to some like admitting a mistake, even if it’s the smart thing to do.
Moving Fluker to guard has the potential to upgrade two offensive line positions. The key is finding a right tackle who can pass protect better than Fluker without sacrificing too much in the run game that isn’t offset by having Fluker at guard instead of tackle.
At this point, there isn’t much out there. Even if the Chargers were thinking about making the switch at some point this offseason, those plans are probably out the window because the only real opportunity to find a suitable right tackle was the 2015 NFL draft.
The Chargers opted for Gordon over one of the top tackle prospects in the first round, then inside linebacker Denzel Perryman over Jake Fisher in the second round, who NFL Network’s Mike Mayock called “the most accomplished zone tackle” in the draft.
The only two remaining free agents who could help the Chargers are Jake Long, who is coming off a second ACL surgery in two years, and Joseph Barksdale. Long’s health is a major question mark, and Barksdale was one of the few tackles to be a less efficient pass-blocker than Fluker in 2014.
|Fluker vs. Availabe Right Tackles|
|Player||Pass-Block Grade||Run-Block Grade||Sacks||Hits||Hurries||Penalties|
|Pro Football Focus|
Still, Barksdale presents an interesting option in that he’d be as good as Fluker at right tackle while allowing Fluker to replace Troutman at guard. Long would likewise be an interesting upgrade once he’s fully healthy, but the Chargers appear to want something solid before they even consider making the change.
While the available evidence suggests the Chargers should move Fluker, it appears as though they will stubbornly keep him at right tackle. When the change does happen, chances are the Chargers will look back and wonder why they didn’t make the change sooner.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics via Pro Football Focus