The 2017 Los Angeles Chargers boasted one of the most well-rounded teams in the NFL, performing well in most phases of the game. While they routinely lit up the scoreboard while shutting down opposing offenses, there were a couple of gaping holes in their game that kept them from the post-season.
Their infamous struggles in the kicking game were instrumental in keeping this team off the gridiron in January. But it was their run defense that opposing teams exploited weekly. Ranking in the bottom five for every important statistic, the Chargers run defense was simply awful. Turning this weakness into a strength will be right at the top of general manager Tom Telesco’s to-do list this off-season, perhaps second behind finding a decent kicker.
To accomplish this, Telesco will likely look to obtain a big run-stuffer to solidify the middle of the defensive line for the Bolts. Given that the Chargers are looking for a run-stuffer, they will be targeting large defensive-tackles (a nose tackle type) to play the one-technique rather than the three-technique, which is for smaller, quicker defensive tackles. Let’s take a look at what options Telesco has this off-season.
Los Angeles Chargers Off-Season Options at Defensive Tackle
Through the Draft
Vita Vea, Washington.
Landing Vita Vea at the 17th pick would be the best possible situation for the Chargers. It’s also incredibly unlikely to happen, given that his stellar combine performance, highlighted by his 41 reps on the bench-press, likely solidified Vea as a top-15, or even top-10, pick. And Vea would be worth it. He’s got everything required to dominate in the NFL. His size (332 pounds on a 6’5″ frame) and strength (his aforementioned bench press reps) are among the best in the class. In his college tape, Vea routinely displays the ability to win against double-teams, stuff the run, and occasionally rush the passer. It would be ideal to land Vea at 17, but he will likely be long gone.
2. Da’Ron Payne, Alabama.
While he is less physically intimidating than Vea, Payne would still be a great selection with the 17th pick. He consistently disrupted offensive lines and shut down the run game for the Crimson Tide. He will draw double-teams against most offensive lines in the NFL, which would allow Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks. Vea probably provides more upside than Payne, but Payne would still be the best defensive tackle the Chargers have had in years. He’s also the only other defensive tackle who is worth the 17th pick. Unfortunately, he too could be gone by then.
3. Harrison Phillips, Stanford.
The only man who beat Vea at the bench press (42 reps) would be an excellent option in the second-round for the Chargers. Phillips is a little undersized compared to Vea and Payne, and he lacks the same pass-rushing ability that they have. However, he’s incredibly strong and excels against the run. Phillips simply isn’t the full package that Vea or Payne is. However, he will be able to do what the Chargers need. In the second round, filling an immediate need with a high-floor, reliable player is a good move. If the Chargers decide they want to go a different direction in the first round (like a linebacker, or perhaps a quarterback of the future), or if both Vea and Payne are gone, then Phillips would still be a great improvement over the Chargers current interior linemen, at least on early downs.
Those are the three names the Chargers should be targeting if they plan to meet this need in the draft. There are certainly other names to consider, particularly in later rounds, like B.J. Hill out of N.C. State, but those three would be the best fit.
Through Free Agency
Telesco definitely relies heavily on the draft to fill needs, as he should, but he frequently dips into free agency and has struck gold multiple times. His biggest win: signing corner Casey Hayward for cheap, who is currently playing at a top-five level at his position. Offensive tackle Russell Okung and safety Tre Boston, 2017 signings, were also very successful. It isn’t impossible that Telesco will turn to free agency to fill this need.
Star Lotulelei, Carolina Panthers
Should the Panthers let Lotulelei walk, he will get a huge contract in free agency. Teams are always desperate for big men with proven results against the run. The Chargers are definitely one of those most in need of his services. Simply put, Lotulelei is the best nose tackle available in free agency. However, the Chargers have other priorities. They need to extend Casey Hayward, and possibly Tre Boston. If Boston walks, another hole opens up at safety. Signing Lotulelei might take more resources than Telesco would be willing to part with.
Sheldon Richardson, Seattle Seahawks
Richardson is still in negotiations with Seattle, but he would be an intriguing signing by the Chargers. Richardson has been suspended multiple times in the past. Telesco has a record of avoiding players with character concerns. However, it would be hard to pass on Richardson. A year younger than Lotulelei at 27, he boasts Pro Bowl caliber talent. In his single season playing for the Seahawks, he was a huge benefit to their run defense. If Richardson does hit the open market, he will garner a lot of attention. Many teams, likely including the Chargers, may opt to stay away, citing his bad past behavior.
Dontari Poe, Kansas City Chiefs
The Chargers likely have a very accurate estimation of Poe’s abilities after facing him twice a year during his tenure with the Kansas City Chiefs. A monster at 346 pounds, Poe is a proven commodity in the middle of the line. His play has taken a slight dip over the last couple seasons, but he is still talented enough to give the Chargers what they need in a nose tackle.
While any of these three players would drastically improve the Chargers interior line, they are likely out of Telesco’s price range. Telesco may try to find a discount defensive tackle to fill the need. However, he already did that two seasons ago with Brandon Mebane. With Mebane’s talent waning, Telesco should look for a more permanent solution this time.
No matter how talented a team is in the other phases of the game, a weak run defense will always spell disaster. The Chargers have to get this right. The Chiefs ran all over them this last season. And they will do it again in 2018 unless the Chargers can field an interior defensive line capable of shutting them down. They have a good enough draft pick to land Payne, though Vea is likely out of reach. If they come away with Payne, and he plays as advertised, then this team should be the favorite to win the division.