The Chargers O-Line is the Most Important Position Group in the NFL in 2019
The 2018 Los Angeles Chargers were really good. They boasted a 12-4 record and sent a league-high seven players to the Pro-Bowl in Orlando, Florida. Both their offense and defense were among the top ten in the league in points-per-game, and their offense was one of four in the league with both the running and passing games in the top ten in yards-per-attempt. So, it's fair to say that a lot went right for the Chargers in 2018, and there's no reason to think that success should not continue (or even accelerate) in 2019. However, with all the positives from last season, there is one dark cloud of uncertainty looming of this season - have the Chargers done enough to improve their offensive line?
According to Pro Football Focus, the Chargers o-line graded out as the 30th ranked unit in the league - just ahead of the Dolphins and Cardinals. For context, of the other eleven playoff teams from last year, only two, the Texans and Seahawks, were outside the top fifteen on this list - with the Texans grading out the worst at 23rd. The average win total of the other nine teams in the bottom ten was six. So, the Chargers were most certainly an outlier when it comes to their ability to overcome one of the worst offensive lines in their pursuit of the playoffs. Based upon the company they keep at the bottom of that list, unless they plain to slight the odds again, it seems unreasonable that they will be able to repeat last year's success without a some improvement from their big men up front.
Now, go back and consider the stats from the first paragraph of this article. The Chargers were able to do all that with the 30th ranked offensive line. What would it look like if they were average? I believe it could blow up the league and cause the Chargers to be the obvious front-runner in the AFC.
So, with that said, let's take a look at some reasons for optimism concerning the o-line as well as some causes for concern.
Why the Chargers Offensive Line Could be Better in 2019
Oftentimes, when an offensive line struggles the way the Chargers did, you can point to a couple of key injuries that contributed to their troubles. This is not the case for the Bolts. If the starting five this season mirrors the starters from last season, they will be returning a unit that played together in all but two games last season (Sam Tevi did not start in week 1 and Russell Okung missed week 5 with injury). So, despite the poor performance last year, there should at least be some familiarity with each other - allowing them to, perhaps, be greater than the sum of their parts.
Some Added Competition
The offensive line did not receive nearly the amount of attention this offseason as I expected it would. The only significant addition was their third-round pick, Trey Pipkins. Pipkins' size and athleticism projects well to the NFL, but his lack of refinement suggests that he may need to be coached up a bit before becoming a contributor. If Pipkins has a strong camp and wins a starting tackle job ahead of schedule, he could prove to be a much-needed upgrade over Sam Tevi. He may also be called upon to take the place of injured Russell Okung should he missed an extended period of time.
Forest Lamp's rookie season ended before it started when he tore his ACL in the 2017 pre-season. After his recovery proved to be a slow one - extending into the 2018 offseason - he found himself behind to start to start the year and was ultimately the odd man out at guard. Now Lamp has a full year of health under his belt and looks to compete for a starting job in 2019. He will be battling it out with Michael Schofield for the starting right guard spot. On paper, you have to like Lamp's chances. Take a look at this tweet from PFF that compares Lamp to all college tackles since 2014.
Young Players have a Chance to Step Up
Russell Okung is the only expected contributor on this unit that is over 30 years old, and, at 31, even he is not considered "old" by today's standards. So, it is fair to expect an increase in performance from each. Whether or not that improvement happens remains to be seen, but these guys are young enough that last year's experience should result in applicable learnings for this season.
Why There is Reason for Concern
More of the Same
After spending the first two picks of the 2019 draft on much-needed defensive improvements, the Chargers' only attempt (in free agency or the draft) at addressing their weakness along the o-line was to draft a developmental tackle in the third round. While Lamp and Pipkins provide some hope at seeing some fresh blood at their respective positions, I'm not sure they represent the type of change necessary to elevate this group. The front office seems to be putting a lot of hope in existing players stepping up their games.
Russell Okung's Potential Injury
It remains to be seen if this is even a thing, but early indicators are troubling. This tweet from Eric Williams of ESPN raises some serious red flags for me:
It may really be that Lynn is completely in the dark on Okung's status, but it often seems as if no news is bad news when an NFL injury is the topic. This is a potential game-changer for the Chargers' season. If Okung misses significant time, it may not be upgrades the Chargers are looking for, but rather ways of making sure they don't slip two spots further on PFF's list.
With all the talent on the Chargers roster, the offensive line is certainly not the most exciting of topics, but I would contend that their quest for mediocrity is the single most important story line for the team's season. If they prove to be a lighter burden for the rest of the team to pull along this year, I would surprised if the Chargers are not representing the AFC in Miami.
I don't believe there is any other unit in the league that needs to improve so little to accomplish so much - making the Chargers o-line the most important, albeit boring, unit to watch in the NFL this season.