When you look at the San Diego Chargers, it’s frustrating that they still can’t seem to put it together and given the lack of overall quality in the AFC West the past few seasons, you have to wonder if they’ll look back on these years as missed opportunities. Many people, including PFF founder Neil Hornsby, predicted that Philip Rivers (+23.9) would have a season that would be up there with the best in the league. He finished the season as our fifth-highest graded QB, but was never close to the level of Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees.
So where do the Chargers go from here? They have a lot of the pieces in place to make the playoffs, but then we say that every year. They don’t have a lot of needs, but filling those they do have would turn them into a real contender, in my opinion. Let’s take a look at the biggest question marks on the San Diego roster, and who best to fill the roles.
Primary Need: Outside Linebacker
Despite the success of Antwan Barnes (+17.9), the Chargers are still in the market for an outside linebacker. Barnes had a great season, and earned the extra snaps he saw, but he seems far better suited to a situational role where he can come onto the field purely to rush the passer. Shaun Phillips (+12.0) started the season brightly, but never regained that form after missing four games through injury, just 10 of his 29 total pressures came in the second half of the season.
Adding someone like Dallas’ Anthony Spencer (+10.0) would make a lot of sense. Solid as a pass rusher, he had 50 total pressures in 2011, but where he really excels is against the run. This past season he was our best 3-4 OLB in that regard. Does he have the pass-rushing pedigree of Mario Williams (+10.4) or Cliff Avril (+6.7)? No, but then you’d be taking a gamble with Avril as he hasn’t rushed the passer with his hand off the ground much, and Williams is going to command a hefty contract. Spencer would come in and help the Chargers against the run while adding some decent pass rush. And, in obvious passing situations, you would still have Barnes to rely on in a role in which he has excelled.
Secondary Need: Left Tackle
If the Chargers allow Jared Gaither (+6.8) to leave, and cut Marcus McNeill (-9.7) as expected, they’d be left with restricted free agent Brandyn Dombrowski (-14.2) at left tackle. That would be the same Dombrowski who owns the two worst single-game grades we’ve ever given. Rivers is probably still having flashbacks of that Week 10 encounter against the Oakland Raiders where Dombrowski allowed four sacks, a hit and nine pressures. The good news for the Chargers is that they don’t need to look elsewhere for their starting left tackle.
After being cut after a critical false start for the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 12 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Gaither slotted straight into the starting line-up in San Diego. Without missing a snap in the final five games, he once again showed the form that made him our fourth-highest graded LT in 2009 while a member of the Baltimore Ravens. Gaither has his question marks, there have always been concerns over his work ethic and he missed all of 2010 with a back injury. But the fact is, when motivated and healthy, Jared Gaither is a Top 5 LT in the NFL. His past gives you cause for concern, but it’s also likely to stop him from seeing a major contract offer coming his way. That should allow the Chargers to bring him back into the fold, and Philip Rivers to sleep a little easier at night.
Tertiary Need: Cornerback
Following an impressive 2010 and on the heels of an August finger surgery, Antoine Cason (-2.7) struggled early in the year. His rough run reached the point that he was benched after allowing three touchdowns against the New York Jets in Week 7. However, after regaining his starting job in Week 11, he was back to his 2010 form, allowing just two touchdowns and adding two interceptions and 10 pass breakups from that point on. Opposite Cason, Quentin Jammer (-13.7) struggled for most of the year, giving up 15.9 yards per catch and six touchdowns. The biggest concern for the Chargers however, was in the slot. Dante Hughes (-8.0) gave up a reception once every 9.4 times he was in coverage in the slot, 10th-worst among CBs.
Fortunately for the Chargers, there is a player available who, if 2011 was anything to go by, would help the corner position overall and in the slot. Carlos Rogers (+9.4) surprised an awful lot of people on his way to being our 11th-highest graded CB in 2011–he pulled in twice as many interceptions (six) as he allowed touchdowns (three). And, while Hughes was 10th-worst amongst CBs in our Signature Stat Coverage Yards Per Reception, Rogers was fifth-best, allowing a reception just once out of every 11.9 times he covered in the slot. An ideal fit all round.