Not too long ago the San Diego Chargers had arguably the best pair of 3-4 outside linebackers in the NFL with Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips. In 2006, the pair combined for 28.5 sacks for the 10th ranked defense while leading the Bolts to the top playoff seed in the AFC. Those days are long gone, however, and the Bolts have been looking to replace that kind of production from the position ever since.
That’s not to say they haven’t tried, especially of late. In 2009 they used their first round pick on Northern Illinois‘ stud pass rusher Larry English, but he’s been a bust (when actually healthy), only accumulating 8.5 sacks in his first four seasons. 2012 first round pick Melvin Ingram (South Carolina) was also supposed to come in and inject some pass rushing prowess, but he also has struggled in both getting to the QB and staying healthy, notching just one career sack thus far.
The Chargers have also tried their hand in free agency, signing Jarret Johnson and Dwight Freeney this past offseason. Freeney was looking good before he went down early in the year to a torn quadriceps. Johnson, who has never been known as much of a pass rusher, tallied only three sacks this season before going down indefinitely with a hand injury.
So what’s the deal? Do the Chargers have the ponies of the future already on the roster or are they going to be targeting a pass rushing outside linebacker once again in the 2014 NFL Draft?
Let’s break it down.
Johnson is going to be with the team at least through next season. He’s a great locker room guy, has a ton of experience, is a good leader, knows the defense, is strong against the run and has a modest salary next season ($4 million). But he’s not going to put up a dozen sacks or anything and isn’t getting any younger (he’ll be 33 next season). He’s a short-term guy.
Freeney’s contract runs just one more year, and it’s also at a modest price ($3.5 million and $500k in per-game bonuses), though none of it guaranteed. There’s a very realistic chance he’ll be a roster cut in the offseason. At best, he’s a short-term guy.
English’s contract is up after this season, and he’s as good as gone. If the Chargers decide they’re still intrigued by his athleticism they could elect to re-sign him to a cheap one-year deal laced with incentives. Either way, he’s a short-term guy.
Then we get to Ingram, who will be coming off a torn ACL. He still hasn’t proven he can get to the QB, but he didn’t play terribly last year. He’s still an unknown, and it’s totally up in the air whether he’s a long-term guy or not. At this rate I’d say it’s a longshot.
Tourek Williams and Thomas Keiser have filled in admirably this year for the sea of injured. Keiser has made the strongest case thus far of keeping his job long-term, notching four sacks in only seven games after being cut then re-signed in August. He’s playing for contract money right now as he’ll be a free agent after the season. The Bolts will need to determine between now and then if he’s in their long-term plans.
If the Chargers do decide to look at the draft for answers they’ll have some intriguing options in round one. Anthony Barr (UCLA), Khalil Mack (Buffalo) and Vic Beasley (Clemson) will be likely be off the board by the time SD picks, but Kyle Van Noy (BYU) and Adrian Hubbard (Alabama) should be available. They’re two guys that have a ton of experience in a 3-4 defense and have never had a problem putting pressure on the QB (the two have combined for 26 sacks in ’12 and ’13). Two later round options to keep an eye on are Dee Ford (Auburn) and Devon Kennard (USC).
If I had to predict, I’d say SD keeps Johnson and Ingram, re-signs Keiser on the cheap, dumps everyone else and drafts someone like Van Noy in round one.
Regardless of whether SD decides to focus on drafting an OLB or going with someone they already have they need more pressure from the position moving forward; that much is certain.