As Bolt fans across the nation can attest, the Chargers have some serious issues with the offensive line. Over the past two seasons, former general manager A.J. Smith tried to convince everybody that the key to developing a solid offensive line was maintaining “continuity”. By retaining the players already on the team, rather than pursuing expensive free agents, it was implied that a cohesion would develop and the unit would excel. Coming into the 2012 season, former starters Marcus McNeill at left tackle and Kris Dielman at left guard were both lost from the roster. McNeill was let go after consecutive seasons of struggling through neck injuries and Dielman forced into retirement due to complications from concussions. These losses would prove critical as the Bolts struggled all season attempting to find adequate replacements for the former all-pro players. As the running game failed to produce consistent success and a persistent inability to slow down the pass rush caused Philip Rivers’ passing accuracy to suffer, it became obvious that A.J.’s vision of success through continuity was a pipe dream. Ultimately, the failure of this group cost the Chargers a shot at the playoffs and cost A.J. Smith his job.
As the Chargers move forward under new general manager Tom Telesco and new head coach Mike McCoy, the organization must figure out a way to correct this dysfunctional group- and do so in a hurry. Bringing in Ken Whisenhunt as the new offensive coordinator should help, but to make a motor hum one needs the correct parts. In this edition of the Rebuilding the Bolts series, we will take a closer look at the players and how they fit (or don’t) in the new era of Chargers football being constructed by the new Bolts brass.
The Chargers’ starting center will be entering his 10th season in the fall. His play this past year was arguably the most consistent across the line. In 16 games played, Nick was flagged for holding just twice and called for a false start only once. He allowed three sacks- a number that Hardwick himself would say was way too many. He managed to stay relatively healthy all season long, which for this group is saying something. As an experienced leader at recognizing defensive fronts and adjusting blocking schemes, I fully expect Nick to return next year as the Bolts’ starter at center.
A third round pick in 2009, right guard Louis Vasquez will be a free agent this off-season. His salary of $1.26 million may raise the eyebrows of some observers, especially after the terrible season the offensive line had as a whole. However the reality of Vasquez’s play is that he was not flagged for a penalty all season and allowed only 2.5 sacks over 16 games. He’s a young player who continues to improve and who will, in all likelihood, garner some interest from other teams this spring. His inability to create push and open up running lanes has continued to be an area of concern with many observers. It is this apparent weakness that may cause the Chargers to hesitate at resigning him to a long-term deal. The decision on resigning or outbidding others for Vasquez just may be the toughest one to make for Telesco this off-season.
Like Vasquez, left guard Tyronne Green will become a free agent this off-season. Green’s 2012 salary matched Vasquez’s $1.26 million. Unlike Louis however, Tyronne struggled throughout the season in pass protection- particularly blitz pickups. Though only being credited with allowing 1.5 sacks on the season, much of the defensive pass rush pressure that Philip Rivers was forced to run from came from the left side of the line. Rivers was often under such duress that he would make decisions too quickly. In order to avoid being sacked, Rivers frequently threw the ball into coverage, resulting in interceptions. Green’s run blocking was also sub-par. Rarely did Charger running backs find alleys to run through behind Green. Tyronne had some nice moments too, but they were too few and too far between occurrences. This is a position that will need to be upgraded next season.
Clary joined the Chargers as a 6th round draft pick in 2006. He was, and still is, a classic mauler-type run blocking right tackle. His play throughout his career has been erratic at best. Former head coach Norv Turner loved Clary’s work ethic at practice and his commitment to improving from year to year. Unfortunately, Clary’s hard work just hasn’t paid off. He has averaged nearly 6 penalties a season and has allowed an average of almost 7 sacks per season. His poor play has remained consistent over the 6 seasons he has been a Charger. Now for the kicker…he is due $4 million in 2013 and $4.55 million in 2014. This is a huge issue for Telesco and company to figure out. Clary has been a liability in pass protection and the money they would still owe him makes it difficult to let him walk. There is no denying that improved play at right tackle is needed, but bringing in someone new with Clary’s cap number in play makes that difficult. Thanks for that A.J. and Norv…
There is probably no one on the Chargers roster more maddening than Jared Gaither. After joining the Bolts with 5 games to go in the 2011 season, Gaither played extremely well- solidifying what was an offensive line in disarray. At the conclusion of that season, it became clear that a choice was going to have to be made at left tackle between the often injured Marcus McNeill and this newcomer who finished off the 2011 season on such a positive note. A.J. Smith went with his gut and let McNeill go, signing Gaither to a huge contract though the year 2015. Since that signing, however, Gaither has been sidelined with back issues- only being well enough to play in a few games this past season. It’s hard to hold injuries against a player, but the perception by the San Diego media, as well as Bolts fans, was that Gaither was “milking” the injury- happy to continue collecting fat paychecks all the while. In fact, Gaither only attended three practices over a two-month period of time. Public opinion of Gaither quickly soured. When Jared finally got into a game against the Chiefs on September 30th, he performed well. Unfortunately, just three weeks later his back gave out again.
The big dilemma regarding Gaither is his lack of participation due to “injury” and the amount he’s being paid. He is scheduled to make $4.5 million in 2013, $5 million in 2014 and $6 million in 2015! The Bolts’ starting tackles will cost the team nearly $18 million over the next two seasons for sub par play- or no play at all! This is, in my opinion, the single biggest area of concern that Tom Telesco must figure out if he is to right the ship that A.J. Smith started to sink.
Young players like LT Mike Harris, RG Johnnie Troutman and C David Molk have potential, but they also have issues. Harris, though he played admirably in Gaither’s absence, seemed unable to keep the pass rush off of Philip Rivers week in and week out. Troutman and Molk have injury issues they are working through. Veterans like Rex Hadnot, Kevin Haslam and Reggie Wells gave the team a quality effort, but do not appear to be long-term solutions. Left guard Stephen Schilling seemed to be progressing nicely, but only managed to play in two games this season. As you can see, there are way more question marks than answers within this group of players….
In terms of overall “rebuilding” need, on a scale from 1 to 10 (with 1 being “no need” and 10 being “replace at all costs”), I’d rate the offensive line as a 10! This aspect of our team is a mess. Any football coach worth his salt will tell you that quality offense begins with a quality offensive line. Without one, it doesn’t matter how great your skill position players are, you are going to struggle to execute plays. Whether it is through the draft or free agency, Tom Telesco must find a way to upgrade this shaky unit.