Everyone loves to rag on Philip Rivers. Some of his actions make him an easy target, and his lack of ultimate success makes him seem like a choker. Everyone loves to question Melvin Gordon. He was a high draft pick with great pedigree that crashed and burned during his rookie year. People like to mention how Wisconsin running backs don’t work out. Everyone wants to dock Keenan Allen for his injury history. He hasn’t stayed healthy in the NFL after failing to stay healthy in college, and fans just don’t believe in those types of players. Yet, none of these guys are going to determine the floor or ceiling of the 2016 San Diego Chargers. That will instead be determined by the offensive line.
One other thing that everyone knows is the importance of offensive line play in the NFL. These days, that has become so widely accepted as to be a cliché. It’s one of those stereotypes that became a stereotype because it’s ultimately true.
Last year, San Diego’s offensive line was atrocious. Criticize Gordon all you want for a rookie-season failure, he wasn’t great, but he also had essentially no chance. The Chargers’ offensive line ranked 31st in the NFL in run blocking according to Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards.
Lots of this failure stemmed from the San Diego linemen being unable to stay on the field. The team used 11 different players and 24 separate line combinations last year.
But there are reasons to believe an uptick in performance could be in store. On the outside, the Chargers have Joe Barksdale, a good if unspectacular right tackle in this league. He is a reliable piece to this puzzle, as is newly signed center Matt Slauson. Despite not being a career center, Slauson should be an enormous upgrade at the position as he comes over in free agency from the Chicago Bears. He is a smart and tough competitor in the middle. Young D.J. Fluker could also be an upgrade over himself at guard as he finally has some valuable experience at the position. To a lesser extent, the same goes for Orlando Franklin. Franklin scuffled in his first season with the team in 2015, both with injuries and with the system. If the former holds up, the latter may come together.
The final projected starter for the SD offensive line is left tackle King Dunlap. He too suffered through missed time. Thus, injuries can still derail this group, as they can derail anyone in the league. However, San Diego seems to have pieces in place to foreshadow a quality group up front. Depth could also be solid with Chris Hairston, Chris Watt and some other guys having gotten playing time because of the injuries. The Chargers also spent two draft picks in 2016 on o-linemen: a third-rounder on center Max Tuerk and a seventh on Donavon Clark.
What a quality offensive line does for the rest of the team is unable to be quantified. It is of the utmost importance. Rivers is already one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. He was sacked 40 times in 2015. Rivers with time to throw and no defenders draped over him is a championship-caliber passer. Gordon may not have the ceiling scouts thought he would coming out of college, but he also isn’t below replacement-level like he appeared as a rookie. Consistent line play will aid him greatly as well. Each piece’s success around the Chargers offense is predicated on there being time and/or holes created by the line. That will be the difference this season.