One way or another, the 2020 NFL Draft will mark the beginning of a new era for the Los Angeles Chargers.
The franchise entered its first draft after parting ways with longtime starting quarterback Philip Rivers in need of a long-term solution at the position. The Chargers also had holes to fill at various spots across their roster including linebacker, receiver, and offensive line. General manager Tom Telesco and his personnel department addressed nearly all of those areas by the end of Saturday's selections.
Grading picks so soon after a draft offers plenty of challenges. Prospects routinely overachieve or fail to reach expectations, and even the best-laid plans can go up in smoke as quickly as an ACL can tear or a wrist can fracture. Even absent injuries, players with obvious talent can fall into the wrong football situation through no fault of their own. All of these factors and more make day-after grades unlikely to forecast the future.
But assessing the process a team used to acquire their new talent doesn't require three or more years. The grades here weigh that aspect of each draft selection more heavily than any other single consideration.
Round 1, pick No. 6: Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon
Justin Herbert possesses tantalizing physical tools that only materialize in the draft every few years. Those attributes made him the unstoppable wrecking ball running zone-read concepts in the Rose Bowl last January. Paired with an arm that complete difficult passes from a variety of throwing platforms, and it becomes clear why a team like the Chargers would invest a top-10 pick in him.
Herbert's game resembles little of the playing style Philip Rivers displayed over the previous 14 seasons. The rookie operated primarily out of pistol formations during his time at Oregon and admitted he needs to work on his dropbacks from under center, a stark contrast from his predecessor. Herbert must also iron out the wrinkles in his throwing mechanics and learn to make more decisive reads, two issues that resulted in inconsistent play at the college level.
Any team making the transition from a traditional pocket passer like Rivers to a more mobile, spread-influenced signal-caller like Herbert will have to adjust their scheme accordingly. The Chargers made it clear they understand that and don't plan to force Herbert into playing away from his strengths.
"When you're taking a snap and you're dropping, yeah, we want your eyes downfield," head coach Anthony Lynn said Saturday. "Guys sometimes aren't used to that if they're out of shotgun all the time. Especially turning your back on the secondary with the hard run-action fakes. You have to make those reads very simple. We would be maybe not in shotgun, but pistol probably more than we have been in a while. I don't want that to be completely foreign to a quarterback. This young man has been in the shotgun his whole life, so I don't want to get him and put him under center right away every snap. So, if we put him in pistol, we would get the same things done and, at the same time, we could run read-schemes."
That approach should benefit Herbert as he develops his game in the NFL. So too will the opportunity to learn behind Tyrod Taylor, the grizzled veteran and odds-on favorite to start behind center in Week 1. The Chargers will allow Herbert to ascend to the top of the depth chart if he earns it, but they won't force him onto the field prematurely. That plan, along with the talented offensive supporting cast, will give Herbert the best chance to grow into a franchise quarterback.
In terms of the acquisition cost, the No. 6 overall pick represents a massive resource. However, other teams tried hard during the pre-draft process to bait the Chargers into trading up for Herbert. It matters that they saw through the smokescreens, waited patiently, and landed the quarterback they wanted all along.
Round 1, pick No. 23: Kenneth Murray, LB, Oklahoma
The Herbert selection came as little surprise once the Chargers came on the clock. Their decision to trade back into the first round to take Oklahoma linebacker Kenneth Murray felt genuinely stunning in the moment. During Telesco's reign as general manager, he has only traded up in the first round once (2015's move to secure running back Melvin Gordon). The deal to land Murray also marked the first time the team drafted two players in the same first round in 15 years.
Though a shocking transaction, the addition of Murray makes plenty of sense. Few linebackers possess his combination of top-flight athleticism, size, and instincts. Oklahoma trusted him to quarterback the defense from early in his tenure at Norman, and in time he should hold a similar role in Los Angeles.
The Chargers entered the draft with capable linebackers. Veteran Denzel Perryman returns this season on a restructured deal while Drue Tranquill became a regular on defense over the course of his rookie year and should see more work in 2020. The team also added Nick Vigil in free agency.
However, Murray possesses a higher upside than all of them as well as a fairly high floor as a rookie. He can handle his own against the run and should develop into a reliable coverage linebacker at some point early in his career. In a division with Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs offense, that type of defender can tilt the field.
To land Murray, the Chargers had to relinquish both of their Day 2 picks (Nos. 37 and 71 overall). Any assessment of Murray's selection has to consider those costs. Still, the value of Murray in the late first round along with his fit with the defense offsets those concerns to a significant degree.
Round 4, pick No. 112: Joshua Kelley, RB, UCLA
The Chargers will lean more heavily on wide-zone runs in 2020 than they have in the past. With that in mind, the selection of Joshua Kelley makes plenty of sense. Kelley demolished Pac-12 defenses on outside-zone runs during his two seasons at UCLA, making him easy to project into Los Angeles' offense.
Kelley will have to battle for playing time, at least early in his career. Austin Ekeler assumes the mantle of lead back after signing a four-year, $24.5 million deal the same offseason in which Gordon departed in free agency. Meanwhile, the Chargers remain high on Justin Jackson, who performed very well in 2019 before injuries intervened.
Still, Kelley fits the Chargers' plans and didn't cost an early draft pick.
Round 5, pick No. 151: Joe Reed, WR, Virginia
In recent years, the NFL's smartest offensive minds have targeted wideouts with explosive burst and the ability to break tackles and create yards after the catch. Several such weapons went in the early rounds of the 2020 draft, including CeeDee Lamb (No 17 overall), Brandon Aiyuk (No. 25 overall), and Laviska Shenault (No. 42 overall).
Like those players, Joe Reed has the build of a running back (6-foot, 224 pounds) and the ability to generate big plays from all across the formation. Virginia used him as a boundary receiver, on jet motion, lined up in the backfield, and beside the offensive tackles. Reed doesn't play up to his timed speed (4.47 seconds in the 40-yard dash), but he doesn't lack for juice. For a prospect taken outside the top 150, he represents a tremendous value.
Round 6, pick No. 186: Alohi Gilman, DB, Notre Dame
By federal statute, the Chargers cannot assemble a draft class without selecting at least one Notre Dame alumnus. Alohi Gilman became the latest pick to emerge from the South Bend pipeline to Los Angeles, and he offers plenty of value in an area the Chargers need help: special teams. The team let Adrian Phillips, Nick Dzubnar, Derek Watt, and other key special-teams contributors walk this offseason and did not adequately replace them in free agency. Gilman, whom Lynn compared to Phillips Saturday, could step in right away on kickoff and punt coverage while he develops as a safety.
Round 7, pick No. 220: K.J. Hill, WR, Ohio State
Widely expected to come off the board in the middle rounds, Ohio State wideout K.J. Hill lingered until the final moments of the draft. That slide likely stems from the multiple injuries he suffered in college -- at least one of which resulted in surgery -- as well as poor athletic testing during the NFL Scouting Combine. Still, Hill enters the league already developed as a route runner with strong, reliable hands. He has the potential to become a useful receiver in the slot, an area of need for the Chargers. He'll need a strong training camp and preseason to make the roster, but he offers plenty of value for a seventh-round pick.
-- Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. Follow him on Twitter: @by_JBH