Why O-line play for Chargers is a plus, not a weakness


SAN DIEGO -- In this ESPN Insider pieceInsider, Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders examined what he considered the biggest weakness for every team in the AFC West after the completion of the NFL draft and free agency.

For the San Diego Chargers, Kacsmar believes the offensive line is the soft underbelly of the team. Kacsmar was surprised the Chargers did not draft any offensive linemen after struggling to protect Philip Rivers last season.

Writes Kascmar: "The Chargers have three potential starters who ranked in the bottom 10 at their positions in our snaps per blown block metric last season (rankings based on minimum 400 snaps). D.J. Fluker, a first-rounder in 2013, has had at least 34.5 blown blocks in both of his seasons and actually fared worse in 2014 than he did as a rookie, ranking 36th out of 39 right tackles. Next to him at right guard, Johnnie Troutman ranked 27th out of 34 players at his position. And Chris Watt seems to be the last center standing in San Diego, though the third-round rookie was clearly overwhelmed at times in 2014. He ranked 30th out of 37 centers in snaps per blown block. Watt certainly deserves time to grow and should play better this year."

I believe edge rusher and defensive line are actually bigger needs than offensive line for the Chargers heading into the 2015 season for a couple reasons.

A need filled through free agency: Most draft analysts considered this year's class thin at offensive line. The Chargers obviously agreed with that assessment, choosing instead to address offensive line needs in free agency.

The Chargers signed guards Orlando Franklin and Michael Huey, along with inking tackles Chris Hairston and Joe Barksdale. San Diego also re-signed left tackle King Dunlap and backup center Trevor Robinson. Along with those players, Chargers' brass is high on developmental prospects Jeremiah Sirles and Craig Watts. Add those guys to the mix of returning starters in Fluker, Watt and Troutman, and there are enough players to put together a solid offensive line that can better protect Rivers, along with depth should the inevitable injuries occur.

More balance on offense: The Chargers threw the ball 57 percent of the time last season. San Diego offensive coordinator Frank Reich wants to get back to running the football and having more balance on offense, and that should happen with the addition of rookie Melvin Gordon and the return of Danny Woodhead.

More successful runs means less throwing in obvious passing situations -- when elite pass-rushers on AFC West rival teams such as Justin Houston, Khalil Mack and Von Miller can get after the quarterback without worrying about stopping the run. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Rivers was hit or under duress on 114 dropbacks in 2014, the 12th most in the NFL.

More play action: Successfully running the football should open up defenses to more play-action passes, giving Rivers more time to get comfortable in the pocket and make plays down the field.

Rivers was effective using the play-action pass last season, completing a league-high 82 percent for 495 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. He was sacked just once, posing a 134.6 passer rating on play-action passes. But the Chargers ran play-action passes just 51 times last season. Rivers' attempts in play-action were No. 30 in the NFL among qualifying quarterbacks.

Coach 'em up, Joe: Chargers offensive line coach Joe D'Alessandris is one of the best in the business. Good offensive line play is about talent, but even more important are chemistry and cohesion developed by five guys getting consistent reps over time. That means guys have to stay healthy, get on the same page in terms of their assignments and execute effectively. Having stability at center with Watt another year older should help, but also having someone like D'Alessandris leading this group should lead to more dominant play up front.